Surface Forces: A Bloody Huge Frigate

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July 17, 2017: After two decades of planning and several years of political debate (mainly over the high costs), Britain finally approved the construction of the first three of their new Type 26 frigates. Each of these new 8,000 ton ships will cost $1.6 billion. The original (2010) cost per ship estimate was about a third of half that ($550 million). While not as large or as much of a technical breakthrough as HMS Dreadnought (20,000 tons) the Type 26 frigates cost a lot more than the Dreadnought (which cost about $70 million in current dollars). The frigates have a lot more tech (and firepower) than the first modern battleship, a claim to fame Dreadnought earned by being first. But even then tech moved forward quickly and Dreadnought was retired in 1919 and broken up for scrap. The Type 26 frigates are expected to last a lot longer, in part to justify the cost.

That explains some of the delays and, until 2015, reluctance to have much public discussion of the high costs of the Type 26. Metal fabrication of the first Type 26 ship, which officially marks the actual start of construction, begins before the end of July at a shipyard in Scotland. The original plan to build 13 ships has been reduced to eight and that might shrink even further. Plans to have the first ship in service by 2021 have been extended to the “mid-2020s”.

The Type 26 ships are 150 meters (492 feet) long and have a top speed of 50 kilometers an hour. Range is 13,000 kilometers (at 28 kilometers an hour) before refueling and resupply is necessary. The crew of 118 also operates a large number of electronic and weapons systems including 72 VLS cells, 48 with anti-aircraft missiles and the other 24 with anti-ship or anti-submarine missiles or cruise missiles for land targets. There will be several tubes for anti-submarine torpedoes. There will be one 127mm (5 inch) gun, two 30mm autocannon and two 20mm Phalanx cannon anti-missile systems. There will be two 7.62mm six barrel rotating machine-guns and four medium (7.62mm) machine-guns mounted where needed. One or two helicopters can be carried, each of which can carry four anti-ship missiles or two anti-submarine torpedoes. If one helicopter is carried it is possible to carry two or more smaller UAVs.

There are accommodations for 60 more people (troops, commandos, other specialists or civilians or more sailors) than the crew. Electronics include the usual air search and targeting radar, sonar and fire control systems for a ship of this size. Note that a ship of this displacement would be called a destroyer in the United States (and in Europe a few decades ago) but the less menacing designation “frigate” is now preferred in Europe. Britain still has a warship named Dreadnought, in this case the first of a new class of SSBNs (nuclear ballistic missile sub). The Type 26 frigates will be named after counties in Britain.

The Type 26 replaces 13 smaller Type 23 frigates that first entered service in the early 1990s. These 4,900 ton ships were armed with eight Harpoon anti-ship missiles, a 114mm (4.5-inch) MK 8 main gun, 30mm close range guns, several types of 7.62mm machine-guns, four torpedo tubes (and 24 anti-submarine torpedoes), and the Sea Wolf anti-aircraft missile system. There was also one helicopter. Adjusting for inflation the Type 23s cost about $320 million each. These ships entered service between 1991 and 2002 and had smaller crews (185) than were normal for a ship that size. What made this work was a new system that provided additional maintenance personnel when the ship returned to port, to get the work done that the smaller crew could not handle at sea. But between when this plan was approved and when the ships entered service the navy budget suffered unexpected cuts and the special maintenance program was one of the items that disappeared. The understaffed crews were ordered to do the best they could, but the Type 23s always suffered from maintenance and crew morale problems. Because of this the Type 26 had more automation and accommodations for more sailors as well as a better thought out program for regular maintenance at sea.

 

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