Buying the Type 26 Frigate Might Make Sense

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The BAE Type 26 frigate appears to be the most popular frigate design in the West. In February, the Canadian government finalized its decision to buy a version to replace its current fleet of Halifax- and Tribal-class ships. The Royal Australian Navy signed an AUS$35 billion contract ($26 billion) for development and construction of nine Type 26 ships last June to replace its current ANZAC class. Combined, the two Commonwealth navies and the Royal Navy have ordered 32. The Franco-Italian FREMM has done well also, with 20 on order and a potential order for another 8. The U.S. Navy is considering FREMM for the 20-ship FFG(X) future frigate program, but not the Type 26, because a program requirement is ships under consideration must already be in service.

Recalling the past export success of British ships such as the Type 12/Leander design, BAE sees other export customers considering the Type 26 as well. Chile historically has favored British designs, and its aging frigate force is due for replacement soon. Brazil is another possibility. There also has been speculation that the Royal Navy may reverse its decision to buy five less-capable Type 31 frigates in favor of more Type 26s. The export success of the frigate raises the question of whether the U.S. Navy’s decision should be revisited. 

The Type 26 is large; at nearly 7,000 tons, it is about twice the size of the frigates it will replace in the Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy. In past decades, the Royal Navy usually preferred the smallest ships it could buy on the theory that smaller ships were less expensive. Unfortunately, small ships also have less capacity for modernization or modification, which limits effective lifetimes. 

This preference for small went hand-in-hand with a bias toward cutting off difficult development programs in favor of promising new ones—“concurrent” rather than “spiral” development. The U.S. Navy generally has favored spiral development for its missiles and torpedoes, building incrementally on what has gone before and therefore is well understood. This sort of development works best when its products are fielded by fairly large ships, which offer physical space for gradual improvements.

The U.S. Leahy-class guided-missile cruisers, for example, served from the early 1960s to the mid-1990s and were repeatedly modernized throughout their lives. (The Belknap class was a slightly larger design based on the Leahy class that also served for decades.) Although the complete Aegis system was not able to be retrofitted even into these comparatively large ships, parts of the system were incorporated when the New Threat Upgrade was installed.

In looking at a new ship it is essential to keep in mind not only initial and operating costs but also the price to keep it reasonably effective throughout its career. The big U.S. ships initially were not that much more effective than their British counterparts—the County-class and Sheffield-class destroyers—because their missile systems were not very reliable and ranges were similar. But by the end of the Cold War, the difference was dramatic, as spiral development of the ships and the air-defense systems reduced risk for new missile and ship types.

The Type 26 suggests that British thinking has become more like the classic U.S. view. (Ironically, changes to U.S. naval procurement since the early 1980s may have brought the U.S. Navy closer to the older British approach.) A ship’s weapon systems now account for much of its cost. Air-defense systems are particularly expensive. Squeezing those systems into smaller hulls saves very little money, and they may even be more expensive to maintain and operate.

BAE—not the Royal Navy—designed the Type 26, and the ship’s size may reflect a perception that the more flexible the ship, the better its export prospects. Thus, each of the three buyers has been able to select a different combat system within much the same overall configuration. The Royal Navy version is armed with 48 Sea Ceptor point-defense missiles (smaller and lighter than Raytheon’s Evolved Seasparrow Missile [ESSM], but with about half the ESSM’s 27-nautical mile range). The Royal Navy’s version also has 16 strike-length Mk 41 vertical launching system (VLS) cells that can accommodate Tomahawk missiles, the MBDA Missile De Croisière Naval, and Raytheon Standard Missiles with boosters, such as the active-radar SM-3. The Mk 41 system also can accommodate the new U.S. naval strike missile.

The Australian version will have a 48-cell Mk 41 VLS; 16 cells will hold quad-packed ESSMs. For Canada, the flexible design means there will be two versions, one to replace the three Tribal-class antiair warfare ships, the other 12 to replace the antisubmarine warfare (ASW) Halifax class. It also will make it possible for the Royal Canadian Navy to alter this mix to reflect any changes in the maritime domain. The only weapon all three versions definitely will have in common is the 5-inch/62-caliber gun, which BAE makes.

The Type 26 exemplifies the current meaning of “frigate.” It is a general-purpose surface combatant with a point- or limited area-air-defense system. Just how limited depends both on its radar and the targets it is facing. ESSM probably can match the performance of older area-air-defense systems against relatively slow targets. Supersonic attackers are more challenging because effective range shrinks. ESSM has a reported speed of Mach 4+ (2,600 knots at sea level) and a range of at least 27 nautical miles. An inbound missile traveling at Mach 2 (1,300 knots) would be in range of ESSM for less than a minute before striking the ship. A ship linked to a fleet’s cooperative engagement system would improve ESSM’s utility as an effective over-the-horizon weapon, but reaction times would remain short.

The design should possess considerable ASW capability, thanks to a large bow housing for sonar, a towed array, plus hangar and flight deck capacity for a helicopter as large as an AgustaWestland Merlin. The British version of the Type 26 employs the Thales Underwater Systems Type 2087 active and passive towed-array sonar, which incorporates a low-frequency pinger to extend detection range against quiet submarines.

Many navies currently operate smaller specialized ASW frigates with limited or nonexistent organic air defense. The Type 26 program implicitly raises the question of whether those smaller ships remain viable. Many countries—and even a few subnational groups—possess capable antiship missiles, and littoral operations usually bring ships within range. 

In effect, the difference in size (and cost) of a Type 26 compared to a more narrowly ASW frigate may be the minimum price of admission to any littoral area—and not only the littorals. Submarines increasingly are armed with antiship missiles that can be launched while submerged. Iran, among other small navies, claims to have such a capability. As an escort, a frigate often will have to protect other ships from the submarine air-attack threat. Very-short-range, point-defense weapons such as the Raytheon SeaRAM and Phalanx close-in weapon system may protect the frigate, but they will be of little use to anything else in a convoy. 

The Type 26 and ships like it represent the high end of a future high-low mix. Candidates for the low end include the proposed British Type 31 frigate (yet to be chosen from among three competitors) and the French Frégate de Défense et d’Intervention (FDI), with its tumblehome, wave-piercing bow. But the low-end ships have minimal air defense, and their survivability in a high-end fight appears poor without upgraded antiair systems. That raises the question of whether navies will wind up paying for upgrades that raise the cost of low-end ships to near that of the high-end ones, because so much of the cost is in these systems rather than the hulls.

Dr. Friedman is the author of The Naval Institute Guide to World Naval Weapon Systems, available from the Naval Institute Press.

This article appeared originally at U.S. Naval Institute's Proceedings.

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