The Type 31 General Purpose Frigate

SDSR 2015 truncated the Type 26 Global Combat Ship at eight vessels.

We will maintain one of the most capable anti-submarine fleets in the world with the introduction of eight advanced Type 26 Global Combat Ships, which will start to replace our current Type 23 frigates in their anti-submarine role. We will maintain our fleet of 19 frigates and destroyers. We will also launch a concept study and then design and build a new class of lighter, flexible general purpose frigates so that by the 2030s we can further increase the total number of frigates and destroyers. These general purpose frigates are also likely to offer increased export potential. We will buy two further new Offshore Patrol Vessels, increasing the Royal Navy’s ability to defend UK interests at home and abroad.

The General Purpose Frigate may or may be not designated Type 31, it is a short hand guess, nothing more.

Reading between the lines, two thoughts spring to mind about the implications…

Implications

ONE – More OPV’s Please

Type 26 GCS is not yet ready for a manufacturing contract, for either technical or commercial reasons, so, the two Offshore Patrol Vessels are make work projects for BAE, as we all know, we would have to pay them anyway. Another pair of OPV’s are probably the quickest, easiest and cheapest way of maintaining a numbers of trades in work whilst the Type 26 manufacture contract is finalised.

Contracts have not yet been announced, but one would hope they have a lower unit price than the three Batch 2 River Class OPV’s recently ordered at a cost of £348 million. Crude maths it may be, but that is nearly £600m spent on five unwanted vessels directly as a result of being unable to bring Type 26 GCS to manufacture.

The Royal Navy will, therefore, receive five Offshore Patrol Vessels that it arguably does not need or want, as a direct result of the MoD being unable to bring the Type 23 replacement programme to fruition. Plans for the original OPV’s are not yet 100% clear but the SDSR Future Force 2025 graphic indicated ‘up to six OPV’s. Putting two and two together, this would indicate the three Batch 2 Rivers ordered a short time ago, plus the two new indicated in SDSR, plus HMS Clyde. Unless we intend to retire HMS Clyde, or get rid of ships that haven’t yet been built or ordered, the up to six, means six.

Six OPV’s that have a very limited wartime role, taking up nearly double the at-sea billets they do today.  For a manpower sensitive Royal Navy, it is hard to see the upside of this.

But if we try and see the positive case, they will have a range of uses in a range of roles and if they retain comemrcial and skill capacity, perhaps not a wholly poor outcome.

But that isn’t the only implication of the Type 26 GCS ‘issues’.

TWO – A Cheaper Type 26 Please

Type 26 GCS is evidently too expensive to produce beyond the 8 ASW variants, or logically, we would be committing to the full thirteen.

Of course, I say variant, but it isn’t really a variant. The concept for the Type 26 GCS was a single variant, or design, with two different equipment fits, pretty much as the Type 23 Frigate is today. This very sensible idea was to ‘build at quantity’, thus allowing the MoD to maximise commonality, and therefore, achieve some economy of scale for capital and support costs, driving down overall costs across the surface fleet whilst providing a bridge to an eventual Type 45 replacement that would perhaps utilise some of the same propulsion and systems as found on Type 26.

Type 26 GCS was about as sensible, intelligent, flexible, well planned and thoroughly practical as could be, it was, and is, a fantastic concept.

One of the great things about the concept is its flexibility and growth potential

Should ASW technology emerge that makes use of offboard unmanned systems, the mission bay was there to accommodate them. Should the submarine threat increase, just add a Sonar 2087 and associated equipment to the non ASW versions. The ship is designed to look after itself and others, stay deployed in all manner of weather/sea conditions and deliver a potent land attack capability, but whilst not doing that, act in the maritime security, counter-piracy, defence engagement or HADR roles.

Everything about Tye 26 GCS concept makes sense.

Everything, it would seem, except cost.

Unless there is some as yet unreleased reason, the only logical deduction is that a Type 26 GCS, without the ASW equipment, is too expensive to procure in a quantity of 5, i.e. 8 plus 5 to get 13 Frigates, the desired baseline.

So the answer the MoD have arrived at is to start again with a clean sheet of paper in the hope that whatever is left in the budgetary envelope after the eight ASW Type 26 have been purchased, is enough to agree the concept, assess, demonstrate and manufacture five (or at least five) of the new General Purpose Frigates, let’s just call them the Type 31 for now, again, as a short hand for General Purpose Frigate.

And as a handy reminder, Type 26 GCS Assessment Phase was £158 million, and this doesn’t include the costs of the various Future Surface Combatant projects that went before it. The Demonstration phase contract was £859 million that included shore facilities and long lead items for the first three ships, but it also included costs for detailed design work.

Even being conservative, the concept and design phase for Type 26 GCS was in the £200 million area.

We don’t know the numbers, Type 26 Manufacture contract has yet to be awarded and even then it would be difficult to determine an actual build cost from what would be a programme cost.

But we do know that the intent is that the MoD and Royal Navy think they can design and bring into service at least General Purpose Frigates at a lower cost than five vanilla Type 26 GCS.

On face value, that seems to be a big ask, but let’s stay positive.

Being Positive

I like to think that this is a cunning move to get industry to sharpen its pencil, it seems so far away there is ample time and a few SDSR’s for changes of mind.

Am hoping the General Purpose Frigate will still be a Type 26 GCS, just with a cheaper price tag attached.

Unlikely I know.

The inability of the MoD and industry to bring Type 26 GCS to fruition has cost time and very real money, but it may well have opened an opportunity.

I don’t buy into the export theme and think we should just stop kidding ourselves but a new frigate does allow us to keep industry design skills fresh and could allow some bold and innovative thinking to come to the fore. As one of our commenters said, in times past, the Royal Navy introduced a class of ships that had every other navy scratching their heads whilst they looked at their old-fashioned fleet.

Could the General Purpose (or Light) Frigate be just that?

I remain unconvinced by the corvette, Black Swan, OPV+ arguments.

Not that these types of ship are rubbish of course, but in a hull constrained Royal Navy, there is no room for ships that can’t fight, our Falkland Islands experience taught us that. There are good arguments for cheaper and more numerous vessels for the less demanding tasks, but not at the expense of fighting ships. When I wrote about A Ship That is not a Frigate, the title was intentional, auxiliary or cheap and numerous vessels are fine, but, as the title suggested, they are not frigates and shouldn’t be thought of as such.

Details remain sparse on the new ‘General Purpose Frigate’ but early indications are that it is intended to be a fighting vessel of about 5,000 tonnes.

Cast your mind back to the Future Surface Combatant project and it is not a million miles away from the C2 Stabilisation Combatant, the C1 being the now Type 26.

Come to think of it, the very idea of 8 Type 26 and 5 GP Frigates, has a great deal of similarity to the FSC concept, around in circles we go.

Before anyone gets into weapons and propulsion, or what VLS and radar it will have, I would like to see a discussion about what it is for.

What is the General Purpose Frigate for?

Once we know, the rest should follow.

However, the proper question is actually much broader than even that, the actual question should be…

What is the General Purpose Frigate for, in the context of a future Royal Navy based around a QE Class Carrier task force, operating in an unpredictable world, looking at a Type 45 replacement, and some 15 or so years from now?

This is a fiendishly difficult question because we must look far into the future and try and make some best guesses.

I may be looking at this very simplistically but it strikes me there are many missions and requirements that have to take place across a spectrum of intensity.

The Royal Navy seems to be going in a general direction that is described by two objectives;

ONE; be able to operate in a multinational (or national) task group with the QE carrier at the centre, in a risk environment that varies from none to the worse imaginable. Supersonic anti-ship missiles, low noise diesel-electric submarines, swarms of small attack craft and fighter-bombers need a multi-layer defence capability, many onion skins. For this, the favourite word of Admiral Zambellas rings absolutely true, credibility.

TWO; be able to operate in singleton deployment or detached from the task group; providing support to land forces, engaging in reassurance missions, special forces, training, choke point escort, all manner of maritime security tasks and even an occasional mine countermeasures mission as the technology matures.

Whether operating singly or as part of a gang, requirements drive design, form, as always, follows function.

All escorts types are flexible; Type 45 can just as equally carry out a maritime security task as it can provide area air defence, but there are limits, with only six available, the limitation is obvious. Certain design features may lend themselves more to one task than the other, the Type 26 GCS mission bay and Chinook (as opposed to Merlin) capable flight deck, for example, adds relatively little to the primary mission of hunting down and killing enemy submarines.

But these add value in other areas so we include them in the design, the problem being of course, adding flexibility adds volume, which despite the oft-heard adage about cheap steel and free air, adds cost.

So, are we looking at the Type 26 ASW and General Purpose Frigate the wrong way around?

Are We Looking at this Backwards?

Type 26 GCS is a hugely flexible ship that seems well suited to either task ONE or TWO, but the features that make it so capable of operating in a detached mode, attacking land targets, providing support for special forces, MCM and HADR rack up the costs/weights/volumes. If there are only eight available, and those eight are going to be specialists in ASW, protecting a QE Class task group, what exactly does that massive flight deck and mission bay bring to the party?

Do we have the right design features in the wrong ship?

We have spent a lot of money on the hull, low noise equipment and space provision to make Type 26 an efficient submarine hunter, but have we then saddled it with a load of features that are more suited to a ship operating detached or in a singleton deployment?

If the General Purpose Frigate is a modern Type 23, why are we not considering a towed sonar for it, why do we assume that a light(ish) frigate without a large mission bay and flight deck is flexible enough for the myriad of tasks we expect frigates to do?

A Thought

A dangerous thing I know, and what would I know, seriously :)

But from a land-lubbers perspective would we better reverse our thinking?

So here is a hairbrained idea;

ONE

Truncate the Type 26 GCS at five hulls and reverse plans to fit them with the Sonar 2087.

Type 26 GCS then becomes our general purpose flexible design that can operate in a task group or alone, capable of a wide range of tasks by virtue of the flexibility afforded to it from the very large flight deck, mission bay, oversized accommodations and weapons/comms fit. We might argue that the extensive low noise hull/machinery  is wasted but is it, should we want to turn them into towed array carriers they could be, and is a quiet ship ever a bad ship?

TWO

Design and bring into service eight ‘light frigates’, specialising in task group ASW escort and not much else. Instead of adding more and more feature to make them flexible multi-role vessels, reduce the feature count to drive down cost and provide at least some possibility of them being purchased in sufficient quantity to provide protection to our very valuable and expensive carrier force.

Am not a ship designer but if we look back through the history books there are plenty of concepts to get the ball rolling, concepts that actually formed part of industry and Royal Navy thinking for exactly such a vessel.

What main features would it need?

One could almost take all the main systems from Type 26; Artisan, Sea Ceptor, combat management system and countermeasures.

In a small enough hull, would it need a gas turbine, could a diesel only propulsion system provide enough power for high-speed sprinting, are battery and other energy storage systems mature enough?

No need for a mission bay, just enough room for a couple of seaboats. No need for Chinook capable flight deck but if the hangar was capable of accommodating two Merlin HM2’s, in a task group we could remove the need for merlins to be carried on the carrier, freeing up space for more F-35B’s or transport helicopters. A large hangar also provides growth potential for future unmanned ASW concepts.

No need for a Mk41, unless we are serious about Mk41 launched torpedo weapons, and then we might consider using one of the newer standard length or easier to integrate ExLS designs. At any rate, certainly no need for a ‘strike length’ VLS

No need for embarked crew accommodation, or at least not to the same degree as type 26 GCS.

How about the medium calibre gun, I might be guilty of heresy but how about dispensing with it altogether? Everything above is about driving down size and weight and removing features that add cost, why not think the same way about the main gun? Instead, fit a couple of 30mm Seahawk SIGMA mounts with 30mm automatic cannons and Martlet missiles for defence against swarming vessels.

Does it need as much endurance, in a task group there will likely be an RFA in support?

Making something small by reducing the feature count also makes it more politically acceptable but in reducing the ‘optional extras’ we protect the important parts that are focussed, laser like, on its primary mission protecting high-value assets like a carrier task group.

Type 26 is flexible and general purpose, as I said above, form follows function.

If we want a low-cost but flexible frigate, as per SDSR, then it seems the height of insanity to expect a different result from the same thinking that went into Type 26.

Instead, we should return to the simplicity of task focussed design, a design that is right-sized and featured for its main task and to hell with everything else.

I don’t know if such a vessel is possible, or what it would look like, but when writing about the Type 26 history one of the vessels proposals from VT jumped out as being interesting, the Cerberus.

This was obviously from the trimaran craze at the time and although the simple fact that nothing like this entered service should tell us something about the suitability of such a design but it is the kind of simple task optimised design I was talking about.

Don’t get too fixated on the above, am not for one second suggesting it is ‘the one’, but it is the kind of disruptive thinking I like, small but with a large hangar for two Merlin HM.2’s. Whether such a design is desirable or could be produced in the regulatory and habitability requirements environment of today is not the point.

My point is, for a ship whose main job is to stop the carriers being sunk by submarines, submarines by the way, that are getting deadlier and harder to find, it needs to focus on that job and not worry about being multi-purpose or flexible because being multi-purpose and flexible AS WELL AS doing ASW results in Type 26 i.e. unaffordable in quantity.

We need to go on a ‘nice to have’ safari and humanely cull anyone that mentions a mission bay.

Why we think that the new ships will be flexible AND cheap is beyond me, seems to fly in the face of our experience with Type 26.

If we can get them cheap enough then who knows, thirteen might become fifteen or eighteen, and wouldn’t that be something?

As for the ‘make work’ OPV’s, I would gift them through DFiD to those fragile states the SDSR mentioned.

We have very little need of them and they are a drag on scarce manpower.

So to summarise

History tells us you cannot have a ship that covers a vast spectrum of tasks and be cheap (see Type 26 for evidence) but that doesn’t mean flexible and multi-purpose are bad. But it does mean not everything has to be so, there are good arguments for both multi-purpose and single role.

So why not have both?

FIVE Type 26 GCS/Cruisers that can go anywhere and do anything joined by EIGHT specialised ASW Frigates whose main job in life is to protect our very large investment in F-35’s, and not much else.

How about it….

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