A Command Paper released to the British Parliament last week detailed ambitious plans to downsize and reorganize the British Army and Royal Air Force—but also off-handedly revealed long-term preparations to develop a next-generation warship called the Type 83 destroyer.
Minister of State for Defense Procurement Jeremy Quin answered an MP’s inquiry by stating:
The Type 83 will replace our Type 45 destroyers when they go out of service in the late 2030s. We anticipate the concept phase for Type 83 to begin in the next few years with the assessment phase following.
This piece looks at the clues available on this still obscure vessel.
The Anti-Air Type 26?
Currently, the Royal Navy’s two biggest shipbuilding projects are eight highly sophisticated Type 26 anti-submarine frigates being built in Glasgow by BAE Systems, and five cheaper Type 31e general-purpose frigates intended to take on secondary missions.
But as construction winds down on the frigates by the end of the 2020s, there will be an opening to begin construction of the successors to the Navy’s six Type 45 air defense destroyers before their planned retirement in 2035-2038.
The Type 45 displaces 9,400 tons standard and is built around the Sea Viper system combining the SAMPSON AESA radar with a range of 250 miles with 48 Aster 15 and 30 medium- and long-range surface-to-air missiles packed into Sylver vertical launch cells.
Back in 2019 former, Scottish Labour MP Paul Sweeney—also a former BAE employee—told the UK Defense Journal “…consideration is already being given to the development of an Anti-Air Warfare variant of the Type 26 as an eventual replacement for Type 45—known currently as T4X.”
Using the Type 26 hull would save on design costs and facilitate a smooth technical and industrial transition from building Type 26s to Type 83s. However, it might be necessary to enlarge the Type 26’s hull to better balance a high-mounted radar for air defense and accommodate more powerful propulsion systems.
But, the decision on whether to build off an existing hull design or adopt a clean-sheet one likely hasn’t been finalized.
Legacy of the Type 82
While the Ministry of Defense has offered no details about the Type 83, the name itself is suggestive. The Type 45 destroyer’s predecessor was the Type 42, so its successor was expected to be the Type 46 or something similar.
Instead, the Type 83 designation deliberately refers to a unique Type 82 destroyer built by the United Kingdom during the Cold War.
In the 1960s, London was considering building four next-generation CVA-01 aircraft carriers to replace its World War II-era flat-tops. It was decided these carriers should come with powerful escort ships with then state-of-the-art Sea Dart anti-aircraft missiles for protection. The eight planned Type 82 guided missile destroyers would have a secondary capability to serve as roving light cruisers.
However, in 1966 CVA-01 was cancelled. The smaller (3,900 ton) Sea Dart-armed Type 42 destroyer was instead chosen to serve as the Royal Navy’s air defense destroyer for the remainder of the twentieth-century.
Still, a lone 7,054-ton Type 82 destroyer was laid down in 1967. Commissioned HMS Bristol in 1973, she packed forty-eight Sea Dart anti-aircraft missiles, twenty-eight Ikara anti-submarine missiles, a Mark 10 Limbo anti-submarine mortar system, and a 4.5” Mk 8 gun turret. A bridge between different eras of naval engineering, she incorporated an ADAWS-2 computerized fire control system to coordinate missiles with sensors, but was also the Royal Navy’s last warship designed with steam propulsion.
The Bristol served first as a testing ship, then in operational roles, weathering several boiler explosions in stride as her diesel engines proved capable of picking up the slack. She served as a flagship and carrier escort during the Falkland Islands War before being withdrawn from service in 1991. She then spent nearly three decades as a static training ship in Portsmouth before being decommissioned in October 2020.
The Type 83 designation suggestively invokes the Type 82’s original concept as a larger warship intended to escort British carriers. That fits with London’s recently stated intent to focus more on the Pacific, with periodic long-range deployments of the Royal Navy’s two Queen Elizabeth-class carriers with F-35B stealth jump jets on deck as the centerpiece of that effort.
However, the Type 82’s legacy suggests the Type 83 may have secondary capabilities, such as anti-submarine warfare, drone operations and land-attack missiles.
What to expect in a next-generation Royal Navy destroyer?
Definitive concept work on the Type 83 remains a few years away, but there are several key features likely under consideration.
One is capacity for directed energy weapons such as lasers that can disable incoming drones and missiles at negligible cost per shot—potentially vital for defeating future swarming attacks. Such weapons, however, have high electrical power requirements, and thus will require greater power generation and revised cabling.
A future destroyer will likely have facilities to deploy its own unmanned aerial and/or submarines drones at a minimum for maritime surveillance if not also anti-submarine warfare and sea mine countermeasures.
Most importantly there is the matter of the Type 83’s sensors and missile armament, which could end up being an evolution of the present Sea Viper system or a new system entirely.
Either way, the Royal Navy may not only want more missile cells—the latest U.S. and Chinese destroyers have twice as many as the Type 45—but possibly deeper or wider ones which can accommodate larger land-attack cruise missiles or longer-range anti-ballistic missile (ABM) interceptors.
Arguably, ABM capability is a necessity for today’s air-defense warships due to the proliferation of anti-ship ballistic missiles like China’s DF-21D and DF-26B, which can attack warships from 1,000 miles away or further.
Currently, the Type 45 can carry Aster 30 missiles in its five-meter-deep Sylver A50 cells to intercept short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. The A50 reportedly will remain compatible with forthcoming Aster 30 Block 2 ABM missiles that can tackle intermediate-range ballistic missiles across a wide area.
However, using the seven-meter-deep Sylver A70 system could allow the Type 83 to fit already-developed U.S. missiles, notably the SM-3 Block II and SM-6, which has a secondary surface attack capability.
The A70 also can accommodate SCALP/Storm Shadow land-attack cruise missiles, which the United Kingdom currently only mounts on aircraft. Integrating Storm Shadow or Tomahawk missile would give the Type 83 land-attack capability, which the Royal Navy intends to bring back on its surface ships.
The Type 83’s vertical cells may also accommodate anti-ship missiles, allowing the Royal Navy to flexibly adjust the mix of anti-air and anti-ship weapons to the mission rather than relying on external Harpoon anti-ship launchers. That’s because the United Kingdom and France are developing Sylver-compatible hypersonic Future Cruise/Anti-Ship Weapon to enter service 2030s. The sea-skimming missile would be able to split its warheads to strike up to three ships over 180 miles away.
All in all, a large new destroyer could facilitate many potential configurations of weapons and sensors. That said, additional capabilities also add to cost, complexity and weight, and risk diluting the destroyer’s availability for its primary missions of protecting carrier strike groups.
The Royal Navy will have to decide how it will strike the balance between packing in more capabilities to maximize versatility versus designing the destroyer for a specific mission to keep costs and weight under control.
Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including the The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com and War is Boring. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter.