The United Kingdom is struggling to inject life in the shrinking Royal Navy and keep its shipyards active through its National Shipbuilding Strategy. For example, the island nation now has a single operational aircraft carrier—but, so far, no British F-35 stealth fighters to fly from it—and may retire all three of its amphibious landing ships.
The new carrier Queen Elizabeth—along with all kinds of other vessels—requires escort ships to ride point and protect them from enemy warplanes, missiles and submarines. That’s where smaller frigate-type ships come in handy.
However, the Royal Navy’s thirteen Type 23 frigates will begin retiring at a rate of one per year between 2023 and 2035. The Ministry of Defense has developed a sophisticated replacement, the Type 26 City-class frigate with a state-of-the-art towed sonar array for hunting submarines. But at a billion pounds a frigate, the MoD couldn’t stretch its budget to replace all thirteen Type 23s, so only eight Type 26s are on order.
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Now the plan is to replace the other five Type 23s with a cheaper Type 31e General Purpose Frigate starting in 2023, at a cost of no more than £250 million ($330 million) per unit. The specifications call for a vessel with a range of 4,500 to six thousand miles capable of escorting a convoy at a speed of sixteen knots, mounting flexible sensors and an open-architecture combat system allowing weapons to be tailored to mission type, and carrying a small crew of eighty to one hundred personnel, plus up to forty mission-specific crew. Furthermore, it is hoped the cheap and cheerful Type 31e will find success in the export market.
Basically, the Type 31e would be a lower-capability ship intended to take on missions in relatively low-risk environments. This is not unreasonable as it seems, as navies are frequently called upon to chase pirates and smugglers, perform “presence” missions, deliver emergency supplies, provide peacetime escort and so forth. Fielding low-cost corvettes and frigates to do those jobs can save the combat ships bristling with firepower for the places they’re really needed. But if the Type 31 ends up lacking basic capabilities to be a “credible” combat ship in a wartime situation, then it may not offer great value.
Indeed, defense experts seem universally skeptical that a useful frigate can be built for $330 million dollars. Consider the words of retired First Sea Lord George Zambellas in an interview withDefense and Aerospace Report:
“I would be very surprised if they are able to create a properly capable and credible platform for 250 million pounds. I hope they do, because a lot of people will buy it. But if it sinks, that’s not a place to be—either politically, or morally.”
Indeed, the ship is to be built “commercial ship-building standards . . . reinforced in places” rather than full military standards, to save on costs—but at a risk to lower survivability in event of a collision or missile strike.
Zambellas also notes that “small, for me, is not good,” as larger ships afford more flexibility for upgrades, allowing a longer service life.
The Type 31e’s obvious comparison is to the U.S. Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship, an attempt to build a cheap corvette-sized vessel to handle low-intensity missions that didn’t require a frigate or destroyer. The LCS was supposed to cost only $250 million a piece and would come with interchangeable modules to perform different missions, such as antisubmarine warfare, minesweeping and surface combat against swarming motorboat attacks. However, the little ships bulked out in both price (doubled!) and size (that of a small frigate, but without commensurate armament); the modular-component concept had to be abandoned; and the speedy little ships still lack long-range missiles to fight ships of equivalent displacement.
Of course, the Type 31e and LCS are by no means identical concepts. The Pentagon sought to introduce several new technologies on the LCS including greater crew automation, high-speed propulsion and stealth hulls. By comparison, the Type 31e is intended to use affordable off-the-shelf technology.
Furthermore, the LCS was optimized to serve in littoral operations, not as an escort or general-purpose frigate. On the other hand, the Freedom-class LCS already bulks nearly as much as a frigate at 3,900 tons—and the U.S. Navy is now planning to upgrade later LCSs to light frigates.
The Ministry of Defense originally considered producing downgraded Type 26 frigates, but this was still considered too pricey. Foreign-built frigates, which would likely have offered decent cost savings, were also excluded to keep the domestic shipbuilding industry going. This has left the Royal Navy to consider a variety of domestic offers that are mostly stretched-out corvettes.
BAE Systems withdrew from the competition in October 2017, ostensibly because shipbuilding capacity was maxed out on other projects, though a company official also grumbled that they didn’t want to be caught up in a “race to the bottom.” Prior to that, the company had led every major Royal Navy project in the last three decades—though breaking that trend may be seen as a plus by the MoD.
Nonetheless, BAE instead partnered up with shipbuilder Cammel Laird, which is now proposing a Leander-class frigate (formerly Cutlass-class) evolved from BAE’s Khareef-class corvette serving in the Omani Navy. The Khareef is a relatively beefy corvette, displacing 2,900 tons and armed with long-range Exocet antiship missiles.
Manufacturers Birkenhead and BMT also announced they had teamed together in November, though its unclear where that leaves their formerly competing Venator 110 and Arrowhead 120 proposals, both of which displace four thousand tons and measure 117 and 120 meters in length, respectively. The Arrowhead is a stretched-out Samuel Beckett–class patrol vessel with space for a five-inch gun, eight antiship missiles, a sixteen-cell Vertical Launch System for antiaircraft missiles, and a flight deck that can accommodate a V-22 Osperey tilt-rotor aircraft. Real-time “equipment health monitoring systems” were to reduce lifetime costs.
According to the BMT brochure, the Venator 110 would have a crew of eighty-five to 106, a range of six thousand miles, and maximum speed of twenty-eight knots. The design emphasizes modular command-and-control systems and armament packages, which at the highest (and most expensive) end could include up to a 127-millimeter gun, an eight-cell Mark 41 vertical-launch system and batteries of Sea Ceptor antiaircraft missiles.
The partnerships claim the best aspects of both vessels will now be on offer.
Finally, Steller Systems has a clean-sheet proposal for a “Project Spartan” vessel, with modular weapon nodes capable of accepting autocannons, point-defense SAMs or a Mark 41 VLS; a large flight deck and garage space in the stern, which could accommodate additional drones; and ship architecture emphasizing survivability.
All of the proposals appear less capable than the Type 23 frigates they are replacing, which had a range of 7,600 miles and were armed with 4.5-inch deck guns, quad Harpoon antiship missile launchers, antisubmarine torpedoes, and multiple layers of point air-defense missiles and close-defense weapons.
Of course, new ships—even cheap ones—could still benefit from improved computer and sensor technology. However, most of the Type 31e proposals lack strong antisubmarine-warfare capabilities—usually an important job for an “escort”—beyond those offered by their onboard helicopters. And although the proposed ships offer optional long-range antiship missiles, which are an essential surface-warfare capability against peer adversaries, they are merely seen as optional by the MoD, and may not make the cut.
The Ministry of Defense is expected to announce in 2018 which design it will procure so that the new vessels can begin entering service in 2023. If it manages to find a design with credible capabilities at the very low price point it has staked out—or even one moderately higher, to accommodate additional sensors or weapons—then that will indeed be an achievement.
As the U.S. Navy is facing something of a frigate gap, due to the troubles facing the LCS—there is even talk of putting retired Oliver Perry Hazard–class frigates back into service—British ship manufacturers have expressed hopes that the Type 31e frigate could be exported to the United States. But after the Pentagon’s frustrating experience with the Littoral Combat Ship, it may remain wary of budget warships of intentionally limited capability.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.
Image: The littoral combat ship USS Freedom conducting sea trials off the coast of Southern California. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy