The Royal Navy has just announced that it will be sending a warship to the Aegean to join a NATO task force operating against Turkish people smugglers. Unfortunately, the Royal Navy doesn’t actually have any warships to spare, so the job has fallen to the Royal Fleet Auxiliary landing ship RFA Mounts Bay. This is slightly embarrassing; Mounts Bay is a 16,000 ton floating dock, designed to deliver heavy equipment and logistics support to the follow-on waves of an amphibious landing. Her top speed is 18 knots and she has no real armament; she’s fitted for, but not with, a handful of light automatic weapons. She’s also crewed by civilians; the Royal Fleet Auxiliary is operated by the Ministry of Defence, but its personnel are civil servants commanded by Merchant Navy officers. It’s true that there shouldn’t be much demand for weaponry on this operation, but Mounts Bay is definitely not a warship.
The problem is that the Royal Navy has fewer actual warships under command than at any time since the days of Alfred the Great, and that was in the 10th century. In 1981 there was uproar when the government decided to cut the fleet of destroyers and frigates from 59 to 50; now that number has fallen to just 19. The core of the fleet is six Type 45 destroyers, probably the most advanced air defense ship in the world, backed up by 13 older Type 23 frigates. The frigates were due to be replaced by an equal number of the new Type 26, but that’s now been cut to eight. Five more of a lighter and cheaper Type 31 frigate design will apparently be in service by 2030, but nobody’s even started designing that yet. I am not convinced they will ever appear.
So why has the Type 26 order been slashed? In fact, why has the fleet shrunk so much in the first place? It’s all basically down to cost. A modern warship, even a small one like a frigate, is staggeringly expensive. Weapons, sensors, communications and countermeasures all cost massive sums of money. Holding all the gear means a bigger ship, which pushes costs up even more. Then there’s accommodation. Previous generations of sailors expected a hammock, or maybe a daily eight-hour slot in a small bunk. Today they get their own bedspace in a proper cabin, but that makes ships even bigger and even more expensive. To allow the Navy to continue buying fully capable ships, hull numbers shrink inexorably. Eventually you end up having to send an auxiliary landing ship to do a frigate’s job.
Where the US Navy went wrong with the LCS was in expecting frigate-level capabilities without building in frigate systems. That doesn’t work; if you want a fully equipped surface combatant, you need to spend some serious money. The question is, do you always need a fully-equipped surface combatant? The answer is no.
What if the Royal Navy had, as well as its shrinking pool of destroyers and frigates, a couple of dozen 1,500 ton limited capability warships? They wouldn’t need to be expensive; just a sturdy ocean-capable hull built for moderate speed – 22 knots or so – with generous fuel and provision storage to give them a long range. Bolt on a couple of 1950s surplus Bofors guns and half a dozen machineguns, so they can blast pirates or smugglers. Add a pedestal mount for Starstreak High Velocity Missiles, to give some air defense, and a pad for an ASW helicopter. A pair of off the shelf search radars would do for sensors, because there’s no advanced fire control system to keep fed with data.
A ship like that – call it a corvette or sloop – wouldn’t be expensive. You could, conservatively, build four of them for the cost of a single frigate. But in peacetime they could do almost any of the jobs a frigate might be tasked for, at much lower cost. Anti-piracy, drug interdiction or sorting out people smugglers are all well within its capabilities. Leave deck space for a couple of ISO containers and you could add mission modules if necessary. You’d also open up a whole new line of command slots to give more officers vital experience, and command of a sloop would probably become the career step before command of a larger ship. That would likely improve the quality of frigate and destroyer captains, too.
A sloop would also have uses in a conventional war; it could provide close-in ASW protection to ports, insert Special Forces or provide a presence in low-priority areas, freeing up more capable ships for use elsewhere. Sometimes all you need is a hull and a radio. Where the LCS went wrong was in being neither one thing nor the other – too weak to be a frigate, too expensive to be truly affordable in large numbers. As the Royal Navy is finding out today, sometimes having spare combat hulls is a lot more important than having every ship fully capable of high intensity warfare.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.