Would Britain Build Its Very Own Littoral Combat Vessel?
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.