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Royal Navy starts work on new, pointless frigates

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Comment The Royal Navy has decided to spend £127m to answer the question: "What should the next generation of frigates be like?" This is disappointing, as the real question is "do we actually need any more frigates?" and the answer is very likely "No, or not in their present form, anyway."

Officially the navy, commissioning BAE Systems to start looking into the new ships' design, says it isn't looking for frigates but for a "Type 26 Combat Ship". But the Type 26 will replace Type 22 and 23 frigates, and indeed nobody is really pretending it is anything else.

Today's Type 23 frigate. Credit: Royal Navy

This is a frigate.

"You simply cannot have an effective Navy without capable frigates, and the Type 26 combat ship will form the future backbone of the Royal Navy's surface combatant force, alongside the new Type 45 destroyers," said the First Sea Lord last week, announcing the deal.

So yes, the Type 26 will be a frigate. That is to say, it will be a surface warship which isn't equipped with a high-powered fleet air defence system like the Type 45 destroyers. (Or rather, as the Type 45s will be at some time in the future when their buggy PAAMS/Sea-Viper missiles are actually ready for installation. The first two 45s are in naval service already, but almost entirely unarmed.)

A frigate carries only close-quarter air defences, intended to offer some minimal hope of survival should enemy air strikes get through the fleet's fighter screen and destroyer-mounted missile shield. It cannot, then, offer useful protection to other ships against air attack.

Rather, its main job - if it can really be said to have one - is hunting submarines. However, this is actually done almost entirely by the frigate's helicopter*. Anti-submarine helicopters can be (and often are) operated at sea in larger numbers and much more cheaply aboard fleet-auxiliary vessels, so it's hard to see why you would bother buying expensive frigates for this purpose.

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