A Ship that is Not a Frigate – Part 1 (Introduction)

Rolls Royce patrol vessel

I think it is a myth that frigates and destroyers are flexible and to be honest, I don’t want them to be.

We often hear the fact that the Type 26 will be able to carry out ASW one day and disaster relief another, it seems disaster relief being the ‘capability de jour’ when discussing things. These secondary roles often find their way to top of the justification list and we try and shoehorn an increasing number of capabilities into a design that is fundamentally unsuited, just to demonstrate value for money.

Instead, we should be thinking of Type 45 and Type 26 as combat vessels; designed to fight, survive and defeat an enemy that is a peer.  Using them for maritime policing roles like anti-piracy in the Indian Ocean or disaster relief in the West Indies is patently an overuse and we have to get away from this.

Fighting ships need to be fighting ships.

When I last looked at this I suggested the Royal Navy should clearly delineate the roles for its surface vessels; moving away from expensive ships that try and do everything to expensive ships that do a few things very very well.

This will inevitably result in a smaller number of these high-end vessels but this also creates the fiscal space for more appropriate solutions to the kind of operations that characterise the majority of tasks the Royal Navy actually carries out.

It also allows the combat ships to concentrate their crew training on combat activities in complex, overlapping and realistic scenarios as a collective. This leads to a twin-track approach, Type 26 and Type 45 can go off on their own development path and left alone to be combat ships, their crews can concentrate on warlike training and doctrinal development can continue without the distraction of having billion-pound ships engaged in anti-piracy operations or hunting down drug smugglers.

In our discussion on energy and maritime security what came through, apart from how important this is, was the fact that it’s not really about high-end capabilities but the simple fact of being there with reasonable equipment in reasonable numbers.

What of this ‘not a frigate’ ship?

Instead of designing to a set of capability requirements, we should create a class of vessels that are bounded by cost, set a maximum and design down to that. Now that might seem tremendously naive, especially if we let the manufacturers initially know what the target figure is but there are methods of achieving value for money; external naval architects, value engineering and external benchmarking for example (more later)

Recognising that the operational use will be in lower threat environments we can also make conscious and informed decisions about self-defence and resilience capabilities, just because it flies the Naval Ensign does not mean it has to be built like a battleship.

Another key design driver should be flexibility, growth potential and a clear separation of the payload and the transport frame, embracing aspects of modularity where it makes sense to do so.

Innovation involves risk, which usually means there are many reasons why it can’t be done. This is a fair enough state of mind, taking risks with high-value assets when you simply have to get it right is naturally pretty difficult to justify. Look at the various design studies for CVF or the predecessor to Type 26 for example and all manner of unusual concepts and designs appear but what ultimately makes it off the artist’s screen is a highly conventional, low-risk design.

It is interesting to see a contrast with other navies though, the US LCS and DDG-1000 programmes might not be the best final solution but they have or are proving various technologies; trimaran or tumblehome hull forms, water jet propulsion and modular payloads for example. It is easy to dismiss this with the fact that the USN has a much bigger wallet but smaller navies have also had the willpower to try something different, the STANFLEX modular system as defined by the Royal Danish Navy has enormous potential and yet their budget is minuscule in comparison with the RN, again, there is a counter, STANFLEX has yet to be fully proven and the Danes have fewer commitments. The German MEKO concept of build modularity has been going since the late seventies and is now almost the norm for warship construction, what was once innovative is now mundane.

An environment where innovation can thrive is therefore something we should create, breathing space for experimentation.

In the next 4 posts I am going to examine;

  • Roles and Requirements
  • Design Discussion
  • Modules and Payloads
  • Operational Concepts

To summarise, this is a proposal for a Royal Navy class of vessels that are more suited to both the ‘bread and butter’ maritime security roles and a prevailing financial reality.

Discussions like this often take place in a strategic vacuum and that can make any results a bit hollow but I wanted to float the idea of creating a ‘naval workboat’

Comments on the Part 5 post so they are all in one place

PART 1 – Introduction

PART 2 – Roles and Requirements

PART 3 – Design Discussion

PART 4 – Modules and Payloads

PART 5 – Operational Concepts

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