Saturday, 24 November 2018

Is the Frigate a dying breed?

You know, when I sat down to write this article I though it would be much easier than this. I'm definitely of the persuasion that the Pareto principle applies to writing, assuming you take a very liberal view of what the Pareto principle actually is, in that I seem to spend 80% of my time writing (and rewriting) just 20% of any article, while the remaining 80% of the piece takes just 20% of the time. 

It shouldn't be this hard really, especially as I've spent probably 9 or more years endlessly mulling this subject over in my head. And of course now one must be prepared for the fact (for one is in posh mode) that one might be coming across to the reader as lacking confidence in ones convictions, which is not ideal given the bold claim that one intends to make. Indeed now I'm definitely just rambling, so I might as well get to the point.

The frigate is dead.

There, I said it. This is the conclusion I have come to having spent nearly a decade debating with people - and listening to others debate - the merits of whether the Royal Navy should build a cheaper class of frigate to compliment the upcoming Type 26 class frigates. I've listened to just about every conceivable angle that people can come up with both for and against, I've moved positions (a little at any rate) a number of times as I was swayed by persuasive arguments from different quarters, but ultimately I've decided that - frustratingly - we've all been completely wrong this entire time.

What's blinded us has been language. Fear not though regular readers, I'm not about to go on yet another rant about the power of language and its effect on our perceptions, for that sentence I've just typed will do the trick nicely. See my contention is this; the reason we can't agree on a concept for a cheap frigate to supplement the Type 26 is because it isn't a frigate at all, because frigates died around the end of the second world war, having already died prior to that and been resurrected for the aforementioned conflict. 

Confused? So am I, and I'm the one writing this. So let's wind the clock back a bit and try to gain some clarity.

Around the late 1700s/early 1800s the term "frigate" was generally settled to mean a ship with a single main gun deck, that carried between 30-40 guns overall and was not used in the line of battle. Frigates were predominantly used at the time for independent tasks such as commerce raiding or protection, scouting for larger fleets, communications, and maintaining close blockades. In fleet actions they could be used to relay signals and to protect the "flanks" (such as they were) of a fleet from enemy harassment. 

One of the main advantages of a frigate for those independent tasks in particular was their ability to carry vast supplies of food and fresh water, combined with their relatively small crews compared to ships of the line. Frigates were fast, fast enough to run away from anything they couldn't handle in a straight up fight, while being sufficiently powerful to deal with an array of smaller vessels that they might encounter while on far flung stations. 

And then steam power happened.

With steam power came the need to carry copious amounts of coal, as well as copious amounts of food. By the late 1800s the term frigate had basically disappeared, replaced by the word cruiser, which better described the nature of the new breed of vessels that now became the mainstay for independent taskings. This also kicked off a delightful chain of names going up through protected cruiser and armoured cruiser to ultimately end with the (soon to be much maligned) battle cruiser.

By the time of the first world war a new name had also entered the lexicon, that of the Destroyer, which was shorthand for torpedo boat destroyer. Unsurprisingly, torpedo boat destroyers were designed to destroy torpedo boats. Due to their small size and high speed, it wasn't long before the torpedo boat destroyers became torpedo carriers in their own right, dropping the first two names in the process just as dedicated torpedo boats mainly disappeared (before reappearing later) and simply becoming destroyers. 

The term frigate wouldn't resurface until the next "great" war, in 1939. Here is where things get interesting and where I think the frigate finally died for all practical purposes. The term was conjured up from the dead by the Royal Navy to classify ships that fell somewhere between a corvette and a destroyer. At this point it's useful to get a rough grip on just what was meant by these terms.

Corvettes, sloops and Frigates were ultimately quite interchangeable in their characteristics, generally coming in at around 300 feet in length, with a beam (width) averaging about 38 feet. Typically they were lightly armed by the standards of the era, with not a huge amount in the way of gun power. Vessels like this were made primarily for one purpose, and that was to escort merchant convoys back and forth to their destinations. The main threat then was German submarines and so frigates and the like were more concerned with depth charges than bag charges, though the deck guns proved useful for dealing with surfaced subs. 

Given their role there was no real need for the very high speeds associated with fleet vessels, as both merchantmen and surfaced subs were a little on the slow side. Therefore range, reliability and low cost were more important, so most frigates and sloops ended up with reciprocating steam engines instead of turbines, as these were generally cheaper, didn't draw on production bottlenecks and were more familiar to the crews who typically had a merchant marine background.

Destroyers by comparison typically came in at around a 35ft beam, but 350-360ft length, and were turbine powered, allowing them to achieve top speeds closer to 40 knots, almost twice as fast as most sloops and frigates. Given their role supporting main fleets, Destroyers tended to be more geared towards anti-aircraft operations and normally sported multiple gun mountings of higher calibres.

Around this time your typical cruiser by comparison would come in with a beam around 60ft and length of 555ft. In the fleet role cruisers mainly became anti-aircraft platforms. Some later war American cruisers sported some truly ridiculous amounts of anti-aircraft firepower as they slotted neatly into the role of protecting aircraft carriers from Kamikaze attacks. 

I present this information mainly just so we can get an overall feel of what was happening at the time. And so I can now make a somewhat fatuous comparison to some modern day vessels. Starting with the Type 23.

The Type 23, basically the archetype of a modern frigate, plops into the water with a 52ft beam and an overall length of 436ft. You can see where I'm headed with this can't you? The Type 45 clocks in at a 69ft beam, 500ft overall length. The Type 26, assuming no major changes are made before it arrives, will have a 68ft beam and a length of 492ft.

Basically what I'm getting at is that neither the Type 23 nor the Type 26 are frigates, and the Type 45 is not a Destroyer. They're all basically cruisers. This is why we have such a problem when people try to reach back into the past for ideas, such as looking at raw hull numbers in the past escort fleet or trying to design a modern day Black Swan class. 

The Black Swans could barely make 20 knots and were quite specialised to the task of hunting world war two era submarines. If you wanted to recreate them in 21st century form you could, probably quite easily. For example a pair of turbines off an Apache helicopter would give you more than enough shaft horsepower to make it happen, albeit you would need to marinise them. Would such a ship actually be of any use though?

Well, that depends on what we want to use our ships for. If you want something that will pootle around at low speeds and not be much use to anyone, then by all means build a new Black Swan class. If you want something that can shoulder the burden from the Type 26 then you basically need to build a similar class of ship, so you're back into cruiser territory again.

And the more I think about it, the more I see this as a contributing factor in the gradual decline of hull numbers in navies across the world, because nobody is really in the frigate/destroyer game anymore, everyone is basically in the cruiser game now. There are many reasons why ships cost more now and size is a part of that.

It's at this point I'm sure someone will chip in with the classic "steel is cheap and air is free" comment. Which is true. Except that steel doesn't fabricate itself and neither steel nor the air it contains can push itself through the water. Bigger ships cost more for a reason. The fact that we only build what are essentially cruiser sized vessels thus has a dragging effect on budgets.

Where the classic frigate/destroyer design could make a revival is if you wanted something that was a little more fixed, either operating out of a foreign base or just for patrolling UK waters and the near seas (GIUK gap, Norwegian Sea etc). Something that didn't need the exceptional range which is one of the cornerstones of the cruiser design.

Here you could maybe get away with that sort of 35ft beam (breathe in), 350ft length esque ship. You'd be hard pushed to fit a helicopter on it, as the wheel to wheel width of a Merlin is nearly 15ft on its own. Better fit an overhanging helipad I think. And even if you can tow say a sonar array, without a helicopter you're going to have a much harder time investigating and prosecuting any targets that it throws up.

Or, you know, you could just build something more along the lines of the Type 23, as many of us advocated for at the time when the Type 26 was being planned. That way you end up with a decent sized ship that can hunt subs and do general purpose work as well, without needing the potential to carry more Tomahawk missiles than some now retired US battleships. At some point someone has to sit down and go "ok, maybe we're letting these designs run away from us a little", otherwise at this rate we'll have soon stopped building cruisers and started building battleships. 

To put the final sharpening on this point, look at the numbers for the Type 23 and compare them to the WW2 frigates/destroyers. Now look at the Type 23 and compare its numbers to the Type 45/26. The Type 23 design basically is now what we might class as a smaller, cheaper, general purpose ship. Where once people speculated about Black Swan corvettes, we're now at a stage where future generations of admirals will long for a squadron of nimble "little" low cost '23s. Somewhere along the line things have gone seriously awry.

As for the planned Type 31 general purpose frigate, it smacks of desperation. There's a distinct whiff of needing to build something quickly, but the BAE yard on the Clyde is busy so let's just build any old shite that can be assembled elsewhere and pump that out into service, cost and legitimate requirements be damned.

If there is one saving grace in all of this it's that though the frigate might be dead, it's resurrection - phoenix like from the ashes - has also already happened. It's name is Merlin. 

I'm glad I got all that off my chest finally. Though reading it back I'm struck by the thought of "Really? That shit took nine years?"

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