Key point: Britain needs more ships and it needs them fast. Here are the details on what might be their latest addition.
The U.K. defense ministry has tapped a builder for the Royal Navy’s latest class of frigate.
This first appeared in September 2019 and is being reposted due to reader interest.
The ministry on Sept. 12, 2019 announced that U.K. engineering firm Babcock will receive a $1.5-billion contract to build five Type 31 frigates.
Babcock beat out several competitors including BAE Systems, which in 2016 won a contract to build eight new Type 26 frigates.
Together, the eight Type 26s and five Type 31s eventually will replace the fleet’s 13 Type 23 frigates, which entered service beginning in the late 1980s.
Babcock’s Type 31 design displaces 5,700 tons of water and is 460 feet long. The Type 26 is bigger at 7,000 tons of displacement and 490 feet in length.
Babcock based its design on the Iver Huitfeldt-class frigate that’s in service with the Danish navy. Using an existing design should help to drive the cost of the Type 31s to around $300 million apiece, compared to $1 billion apiece for the Type 26s.
The defense ministry requires that the Type 31 “operate globally with sustained forward presence” with “the speed for interdiction of commercial vessels and maintaining station with adversary warships in U.K. waters.”
According to U.K. Defense Journal, that translates into a top speed of 28 knots and an endurance of 9,000 miles at 12 knots.
The Type 31 will boast a five-inch-diameter main gun plus 40-millimeter guns for close-in defense. The type will come with mission bays for small boats, drones and boarding parties. The frigate’s flight deck and hangar can accommodate a single Merlin helicopter or two Wildcats.
Additional equipment could include an eight-canister launcher for anti-ship missiles, a 32-cell vertical launch system for air-defense, land-attack and anti-submarine missiles, additional close defenses such as the Phalanx gun and a towed sonar array.
It’s unclear how many of the weapons and sensors the frigates will feature when they first begin entering service in 2024. “Babcock says that the ability to fit the existing systems and equipment from the parent design, the Iver Huitfeldt-class frigate, is retained to provide flexibility in the capability supplied at build and through the life of the platform,” U.K. Defense Journal explained.
The Type 31 complements the Type 26, the first of which should enter service in the early 2020s. With the Type 26, the Royal Navy could get a bigger and more balanced warship with a wider array of weaponry and sensors, U.K. Defense Journal explained.
From the piece:
It’s no secret that the Type 26 is designed with modularity and flexibility in mind to enhance versatility across a wide range of operations ranging from counter piracy and disaster-relief operations to high-intensity combat.
The final BAE design had a large amidships mission bay instead of the stern well deck featured in previous designs. … This versatility of roles is enabled by the mission bay, capable of supporting multiple helicopters, [unmanned underwater vehicles], boats, mission loads and disaster-relief stores.
BAE says that a launcher can be provided for fixed-wing UAV operations and it’s well known that the flight deck will be capable of landing a Chinook helicopter for transport of embarked forces.
The frigate’s weapons loadout in theory is impressive. In addition to the standard five-inch gun, it includes 48 vertical launch cells for Sea Ceptor surface-to-air missiles with a 15-mile range. There also are 24 Mk. 41 vertical launch cells for larger missile types, including the Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile and various heavy anti-ship missiles.
“The next generation of anti-ship missile is a huge deal, as this would ensure that these vessels would be one of the most versatile British warships in decades,” according to U.K. Defense Journal.
More from the piece:
The next generation of anti-ship missile bit is especially important as Royal Navy ships will lose anti-ship missile capability in 2020 when the Harpoon missile is withdrawn with a replacement not due until “around 2030.”
While the Royal Navy will still have an anti-ship capability via the submarine fleet and embarked helicopters, this will still be a significant capability gap and even then, no Royal Navy helicopters will have anti-ship missile capabilities until 2020.
But it’s not at all clear that London intends fully to fund the Type 26’s weapons. “No firm commitment has been made for any of the weapon types able to be fired by the Mk. 41, but with the first vessel not entering sea trials for quite a few years, the time hasn’t yet come to order anything,” U.K. Defense Journal noted.
The U.K. government has a habit of buying ships while neglecting their weapons. The United Kingdom paid billions of dollars for a force of six Type 45 destroyers, but never fully funded the vessels’ weapons suite.
Likewise, the Royal Navy is getting two 70,000-ton-displacement aircraft carriers, each of which can embark up to 36 F-35 fighters. But the Royal Air Force plans to buy only 48 F-35s for ship-board use.
“The key factor that will determine the true capability of these [Type 26] ships is really quite simple, the funding put in place to arm it properly,” U.K. Defense Journal explained. “Without proper funding, the vessels will not be fitted out to their maximum potential with the wide range of weapons they’re designed for and as such are likely to see the vast sums of money already spent on their design and build, spent in vain.”
The new frigates from both classes will join the fleet at a critical time for U.K. sea power. The Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary are beginning the process of reorganizing their forces, which include the two new carriers, six destroyers, 13 frigates, seven attack submarines, several amphibious assault ships and dozens of other vessels.
For years, British ships have tended to deploy singly or in small numbers. Soon they will begin deploying in greater concentration as part of carrier strike groups.
David Axe serves as Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels War Fix, War Is Boring and Machete Squad. This first appeared in September 2019 and is being reposted due to reader interest.