As you've probably guessed I've been pressed for time lately, popping in at Think Defence now and again but otherwise detained from writing. Well today I've got a few minutes to spare so I'm going to touch on something that seems quite a popular idea, but I'm not so sure about, that being the idea of smaller ships for the Navy.
Which got me thinking (a rarity I know) about ships and their sizes. This was prompted once more by a post the other day on Think Defence that included pictures of a Type 23 frigate alongside HMS Belfast on the Thames. The size comparison is quite enlightening given that the two ships were roughly equal in height and length, especially considering one was a "Cruiser" in its era and the other is now considered a "Frigate".
Without dipping into the complete history of naval warfare and terminology, typically a "frigate" of Nelsons era would have been a smaller vessel considered unsuitable to fight in the main battle line against an enemy fleet and instead would have served as a fast ship for communications, reconnaissance and escorting/attacking merchant vessels.
In an era where most ships were fundamentally operated in the same way (sail power, muzzle loading cannons, flag communications) the frigate also offered a cheap way in peacetime to keep important skills fresh for the most valuable officers, without the expense of constantly operating the larger ships of the line (and their crews of several hundred men).
By the time of World War Two the term "Frigate" was barely in use though a number of classes of warship soon popped up bearing the title, mainly small vessels, lightly armed, that were used as convoy escorts and anti-submarine vessels (which was almost one and the same thing), hence why many modern ships that lean towards anti-submarine operations are classified as being frigates.
It's a similar story with the term "destroyer". Originally "Torpedo Boat Destroyers" were constructed from around the turn of the 20th century onwards, predominantly for the task of - surprise, surprise - destroying torpedo boats, or at the very least keeping them away from the main fleet. These ships were fast, armed with multiple small calibre main guns (small relative to cruisers and battleships) and eventually they largely took on the role of the very ships they were designed to hunt, being an ideally suited platform for firing off torpedoes.
During World War Two however it became clear that aircraft were more of a danger to large fleets than torpedo boats. Subsequently the destroyer became a prime close air defence platform, quick enough to reposition itself in response to air attacks and bristling with small calibre anti-aircraft guns. Hence why most modern ships designed for air defence are classified as destroyers.
The question is though, could we rekindle the old days and old ways, as a source of low(er) cost shipping?
Keep in mind that Frigates and Destroyers of yesteryear were often much shorter than their modern counterparts, both in height and length. Helicopters didn't exist back then, so the aft end of these ships were often home to a pair of gun turrets, whereas now they play host to a hangar and flight deck. As a result ships of that era tend to look a little more sparse on top and potentially represent savings in construction. But do they really?
There's a couple of problems I have with this idea.
The first is what these sort of ships will be used for. My understanding now of Royal Navy tasking is that counter piracy operations off places like Somalia is not a primary mission, but something that the RN contributes to as it passes through the area. So far from sending £500 million destroyers to chase knackered old fishing boats, really these destroyers are just helping out with multi-national operations as part of their wider deployment to the middle eastern region.
That would kind of scupper the idea of a vessel specifically designed for counter piracy work as that task doesn't really exist, not as a standing deployment. But - I hear you say - what about the other roles that a kind of oldy worldy destroyer/frigate type ship could handle? Could we not build something to carry the burden of RN deployments world wide like the frigates of old, while keeping some of our Type 23/45 "ships of the line" tied up alongside, with their crews gaining experience on the active vessels that remain?
Erm, well I don't really see it working out like that economically. As I mentioned earlier things were very different in the age of sail. The number of merchant seamen available for recruitment was very high and their skills were easily transferable as all ships of all sizes were operated in a broadly similar manner. Clearly a first rate ship like HMS Victory handled very differently from a much smaller sixth rate, but the basic principles and basic skills required were broadly the same. There was no complex set of computer based or mechanical systems that varied greatly from class to class.
And frankly, I doubt a new take on the old concept of the lightly armed vessel would actually save that much money. The problem is that in the modern era a significant chunk of the cost of a new ship is consumed by things other than the steel the ship is made from. The radars, the combat systems, the high speed propulsion systems, all of these gobble a big chunk of the overall budget.
The only way to get around this is to accept a significantly reduced capability. A slower ship for example, designed to cruise along merrily on diesel power but without the ability to ramp up quickly to a sprint, or even to be able to sprint at all. It's going to mean limited radar capability, which makes the ship almost useless in an area where an air threat exists or air supervision is required. And It means no sonar capability of any note, which means practically no anti-submarine capability either.
Essentially what you're left with then is a piece of floating metal with a few guns, which in the modern world doesn't count for a huge amount. Otherwise the cost is such that - when taking account of crews as well - the exchange ratio of a minor vessel to a "proper" modern frigate wouldn't appear to justify the expense.