The Type 26 frigate mission bay. Part 2 – configuration and contents
In the previous article we considered the design and development of the Type 26 frigate mission bay. Here we take a more speculative look at how this flexible space could be used.
Given the timeframe, there has understandably been minimal official comment about what may be carried within the mission bay. In addition to the stated intention to embark various Maritime Autonomous Systems (MAS), the baseline specification does mention two possible configurations; either 4 x 12 meter “Maritime Interdiction Boats” and the 9.5m Sea Boat (carried in a separate bay) or up to 10 x 20 ft ISO containers and two 9.5m boats (ie. one in the mission bay, one in the boat bay).
RN mine warfare and hydrographic vessels have been deploying UUVs for some time but introducing operational MAS into combat vessels is still an aspiration. The RN is clearly making some effort to exploit MAS with the Unmanned Warrior exercises, the creation of 700X Naval Air Squadron and the work of the Maritime Autonomous Systems Trials and Training (MASTT) Unit. But for all the development work that has been done, there is not a great deal show for it on the frontline. Budget limitations and institutional inertia appear to have held the RN back from embracing MAS with the same speed they are being developed in the commercial world or by many potential adversaries. (More on this in a future article.) It is possible there are a few systems in service that are classified and undeclared. The smaller size and lower cost of unmanned systems, particularly UUVs, make it far easier to conceal their presence than many conventional assets.
The first mission-bay equipped Type 31e should be at sea in 2023 and the first Type 26 by 2027. There is still time to evaluate and purchase a suite of MAS to properly equip them and systems continue to evolve rapidly. The configurations and the equipment discussed below are far from an exhaustive or definitive, rather a starting point for discussion. Included are some items already in service with the RN as well as other potential purchases. To fit the space and the lifting capacity of the MBHS, items must be no more than about 13m in length and less than 15 tonnes.
Manned small boats deployed from the frigate could have three main roles – patrol and policing, transport of personnel ashore and light logistic support. At the more warlike end of the spectrum, Royal Marine ORCs or hovercraft could be used to support amphibious operations or mount small raids. For patrol work in coastal or riverine environments, there are several manufacturers who offer small boats that have been upgraded to military standards with weapons mounts and ballistic protection. Of particular note are Irish company, Safehaven Marine who recently built HMS Magpie for the RN. They build small craft with exceptional sea keeping qualities and are rumoured to be building replacement patrol boats for the Gibraltar Squadron. There are also several UK companies with potential products such as CTruk, BAE Systems Halmatic and Holyhead Marine. The smaller of the SEA class workboats being procured for RN could be used for survey, diving support and general logistic duties. All of the examples below would fit in the mission bay and could be handled fully loaded by the MBHS.
There has been a little progress with the procurement of USV for the RN, the ARCIMS minehunting system was accepted by RN MASTT for evaluation in 2018. Thales UK also established a centre of excellence at Turnchapel Wharf in Plymouth last year for the development of MAS. It is unlikely the Type 26 will be deployed solely in the mine countermeasures role, a job better done by other cheaper vessels. Off-board systems would, however, give the frigate its own emergency or small-scale MCMV capability for when there are no dedicated mine warfare vessels available.
For use in force protection and surveillance, The Protector USV (or an equivalent) would be a very attractive prospect for the RN and for deployment by the Type 26. A fleet of these deployed around from the frigate could offer defence for a task group against suicide craft or boat swarms.
UUVs have proven valuable in survey and mine warfare but their deployment in combat roles is still at an early stage. The US is leading the way with its XLUUV and LDUUV programmes but they are still some way from being useful ASW assets or able to launch weapons of their own. For the Type 26 designed primarily for anti-submarine warfare, realising the full potential of UUV in hunting and even destroying submarines should be a priority for the future. For the Type 31e frigates that will have very limited ASW capability, off-board systems could help offset this deficiency. The challenge of transmitting data underwater has been an obstacle in developing UUVs potential but the science of underwater wireless communication is now rapidly advancing.
“You use UUVs for work that is dull, dangerous, dirty and dodgy.” (Rr Adm Chris Parry). UUVs have the potential for many other missions that could formerly only be done at considerable risk by naval or special forces divers. Minelaying and covert underwater surveillance of ports and ships in harbour are obvious examples.
Scan Eagle is the only UAV to be used (briefly) on operations by the RN. Fixed wing UAVs generally have longer endurance but the unwieldy launch and recovery system would suggest that rotary-wing UAVs would be a better solution for smaller warships. The RN is well used to operating helicopters from small decks and there are several mid-size RUAV options available. In the surveillance role, these aircraft provide very useful capability at a fraction of the cost per hour of deploying a manned helicopter. They can be sent into much higher risk areas and typically have almost 3 times the endurance of the Wildcat. The ability to maintain persistent watch over waters well beyond the horizon would be very useful in the maritime security duties the RN undertakes on a daily basis right now. It is difficult to understand why RUAVs have not been embraced more quickly. The desire to maintain the design capability and workforce in Yeovil is probably the reason the Leonardo ‘develop from scratch’ RWUAS is preferred by the MoD over simple off-the-shelf purchases of Fire Scout, V-200, S-100 or similar.
The humble ISO shipping container is the cornerstone of global trade. A standard size and shape that can be used to transport goods but can also be adapted to convey all kinds of industrial, logistic and military equipment. The Type 26 Mission bay is designed to hold up to ten 20 ft containers. There are also half-size (Bicon) and one-third size (Tricon) containers that can be lashed together to form a standard 20ft container.
In support of disaster relief or small military operations, containerised logistics could be delivered from the frigate. This concept has been around for some time, speaking in 2012, Rear Admiral Alex Burton said: “A Type 26 mission load of containerised cargo including field hospitals, modular accommodation, or disaster-relief stores can be flown out to wherever the ship is, embarked within 24 hours and then be off and undertaking that task”. The frigate is not the best way to deliver bulk food stores (better to use a much larger capacity auxiliary or merchant ship) but its 10 containers could hold a small field hospital, water purification plant, workshops, electrical generators or other specialist equipment.
The RN has stated that containerised accommodation could be used for troops or to house captured personnel. Up to 8 people could sleep in a container ‘mess’, although not in great comfort and HVAC would need to be supplied from the ship. Personnel living in the mission bay would be reliant on the ship for recreation space, catering, laundry, toilets and showers, although there are even containerised options for these available. With limited space in the mission bay, the placement of containers intended to be accessed at sea would need careful consideration. It may be more important to have good access than pack the bay to its maximum capacity.
A surprising amount can be fitted into the space available in these new vessels. In the next few years, there is work to be done to develop the concept of operations and procure appropriate equipment. The Forces Minister recently reiterated that the “Type 31e Frigates will be tailored toward maritime security & defence engagement, including Fleet Ready Escort, South Atlantic, Caribbean, Gulf, & NATO… to free up Type 45s and Type 26s to support nuclear deterrent & carrier strike group”. But it is important to stress that warships are inherently flexible and the Type 31e may find itself escorting the aircraft carriers and the Type 26 used to conduct disaster relief operations. Ideally, items intended for the mission bay for both types of frigate should be interchangeable with compatible, handling arrangement, cradles, securing methods etc. The Type 26 mission bay will be undoubtedly used in other configurations and with equipment not covered here and the journey has just begun to exploit this new capability.