The Defence Command Paper announced the intention to begin the concept and assessment phase for the Type 45 destroyer replacements. These vessels will be delivered in the late 2030s and named the Type 83. In this speculative article, we consider the context and some of the design options for these vessels.
A ‘Dreadnought moment’
Under current plans, the RN’s six Type 45 destroyers commissioned between 2009-13 will leave service between 2035 and 2038. Designing and funding their replacements presents a very challenging task as the above-water battlespace is becoming increasingly dangerous and complex. A new generation of weapons, notably railguns together with hypersonic and ballistic missiles will increasingly put surface combatants at much greater risk. Any platform that is going to provide credible defence for a task group against these threats will inevitably have to be sophisticated, large and expensive.
“The next decade is likely to see a ‘Dreadnought moment’ in relation to war at sea stimulated by radically novel technologies. Despite its massive superiority, the US will have to continue to invest heavily to maintain its lead while other ambitious navies, notably China and Russia are likely to follow closely. The rest will struggle to remain within touching distance, especially as they doggedly persist with traditional ship programmes well into the future. As a result, the world will be divided into countries that can prevail at sea and those that, frankly, need not bother” Rear Admiral Chris Parry, RN Retd.
The ambition for the Type 83, and funding required, will effectively define just how serious the UK is about retaining a front rank navy that can prevail at sea in a conflict with peer adversaries.
As the concept phase has yet to begin, there is obviously very little known about the objectives for the Type 83 project. There is a significant clue in the name which would suggest a larger vessel with additional capabilities beyond what might have been expected from a ‘Type 46’. HMS Bristol was the sole Type 82 destroyer, she was supposed to be the lead vessel of a 4-ship class specifically designed to protect the CVA01 aircraft carriers which were cancelled in 1966. Bristol had both AAW and ASW weaponry and was a very large destroyer for her time (7,100 tonnes). Bristol survived the axe and was eventually commissioned in 1973, being an important testbed for a number of new technologies.
The triple task
The Type 83 is likely to have 3 core roles. 1) Anti-Air Warfare (AAW) – defence against aircraft, hypersonic and conventional anti-ship missiles. 2) Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) defence for the fleet, and potentially to provide an umbrella over land areas, including the UK mainland. ABM missiles may also have some anti-satellite capability. 3) Land-Attack Cruise Missiles (LACM) to bolster the UK’s current inadequate ability to attack targets ashore at long range.
Assuming the specialist combatant philosophy of the Type 45 is continued, it might be assumed ASW capability will be minimal. The T45s have a Merlin-size hangar and Chinook-capable flight deck but rarely embark more than a single Wildcat. Space and cost could perhaps be saved by minimising aviation capabilities with a small flight deck and light helicopter and UAV hangar.
Chose your weapon
The selection of weapons and sensors is the primary driver of a warship design. For example, the size of Type 45 was partly dictated by the need for a stable platform to allow the Sampson radar to be placed at the top of a very tall mainmast. We will not attempt to define precisely what weapons Type 83 may carry, but broadly there is a choice between European or US primary armament for the AAW and ABM mission. The European option would be to invest in further development and upgrades to the PAAMS (combat system), Sylver VLS and Aster missiles which equip Type 45. Italy and France have already begun work on the Aster 30 Block 1NT which can counter Short – Medium range ballistic missiles of up to 1,500 km range.
Aster is a fine missile but overall the US has a considerable ABM lead in both sensor and missile technology. The US AEGIS system now dominates the Western naval air defence market and is in service in various forms with six navies. Notably, both the Australian and Canadian navies will install AEGIS derivatives in their Hunter and CSC Type 26 frigate variants, giving them significant air defence capability beyond the ASW-focused RN ships.
The RIM-161 Standard 3 (SM-3) missile made by Raytheon in the US has undergone spiral development since 2001 and is now arguably the most capable ABM missile in the world when paired with the latest AEGIS baseline and AN/SPY-1D or AN/SPY-6 radar variants. SM-3 has been adopted by the navies of Japan and South Korea, nations that cannot afford to neglect defence against such threats from North Korea and China. ABM is a very technically demanding and expensive game, besides the enormous investment in sensors and combat systems required, the latest SM-3 Block IIA missile cost about $36 Million each.
The Type 26 frigates will be fitted with the Mk41 VLS which may indicate the RN is already thinking of moving away from the ‘orphaned’ Sylver of the Type 45 and standardising on Mk41. European resources cannot match the continuing programme of iterative improvements to AEGIS and the SM-2 and SM-3 missiles supported by a much larger user base. There is always a strong argument against buying off-the-shelf from the US as it would be damaging to UK industry and the decision could become political as much as capability-driven. Without exception, all the navies that have bought AEGIS from the US have managed to ensure some domestic workshare and technology transfer in the project. AEGIS can be tailored to the individual navy’s requirements and integrated with a variety of sensors.
Although the development of Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) is progressing slowly, it seems likely that by the mid-2030s they will be of sufficient power to be used as effective close-in weapons systems. DEW will always be limited by the curvature of the earth and atmospheric conditions and it’s doubtful they can ever fully replace the missile armament of warships. Type 83 will still need powerful missiles for area air defence, and lots of them but installing considerable excess power generation capacity to support potential DEW and railgun development would also be sensible.
Railguns offer the prospect of firing a solid shell with incredible destructive energy out to at around 100 miles. This technology has not matured as fast as expected but it is only a matter of time before it is fielded operationally by the US and China. A railgun for Type 83 would certainly be a welcome force multiplier that could be used in the land attack and anti-surface role. Lacking any domestic railgun development projects, this would likely entail another expensive off-the-shelf acquisition from the US.
Any land attack capability for Type 83 is likely to be delivered by the Future Cruise & Anti Ship Weapon (FCASW) that is supposed to become available in the early 2030s. It has not yet been decided if this will be carried in a canister or VLS, although compatibility with Mk 41 and Sylver would seem to be desirable to suit both UK and French requirements.
The UK retains considerable expertise in naval radar development although the future of this industry hangs by a thread due to a lack of consistent orders. The Type 45’s Sampson radar is still highly regarded and considered an equal, if not superior to the US equivalents but has not been upgraded since coming into service more than a decade ago. Whether Type 83 will mount a ‘Son of Sampson’ and a rotating or fixed phased array solution remains to be seen but the position, size, weight and number of arrays is a key driver of air defence combatant design.
A cruiser in all but name
There is a school of thought that suggests the Type 83 should adopt the Type 26 frigate hull as the basis for its design. There is some logic to this, the 8,000 tonne Type 26 is comparable in size to the 8,500 tonne Type 45 and commonality of equipment would save cost and allow a more seamless transition for BAE Systems in Glasgow to continue its warship production.
A survey of foreign equivalents shows the Type 83 will need considerably more than 48 VLS cells in order to cope with saturation attacks and to sustain combat operations. Unfortunately, despite being a very large frigate the T26 design lacks the volume to accept 90+ strike length VLS cells and simply stretching the Type 26 hull with a VLS insert is not as simple as it may appear. Much of the expense of Type 26 comes from ASW-related acoustic hygiene measures which while desirable, may be a cost driver the Type 83 can manage without. All of this implies it would be simpler to begin a ‘from scratch’ design with the VLS and radar requirements as the starting point.
In the short-medium term, the Type 45 issues have left the RN caught between two stools. Resolving the propulsion problems has taken far too long and left limited funding and availability for upgrading their combat capability. There is capacity within the ships to fit strike length VLS and buy Aster 30 Block 1NT and/or Tomahawk in order to attain some ABM and/or LACM capabilities. Even if funding were available, as the ships pass beyond the midpoint of their useful lives there is an argument that any such funds might be better invested in developing Type 83 and ensuring its superiority from the outset. If the Type 45 is not significantly upgraded soon this will entail an ever-increasing reliance on the US Navy for credible air defence and to mitigate the ABM gap in particular for more than a decade.
It took 23 years, from 1994 when work started on initial concepts for what eventually became the Type 26 frigate, until the first steel was cut in 2017. It is taking another decade to build the ship and make it fully operational. The Type 83 designers and builders will have to deliver a more complex vessel in about half the time, there are less than 15 years until the first ship is supposed to be ready to replace HMS Daring. Funding will be an issue as ever but by the time Type 83 construction is underway, the period of peak expense for the Dreadnought class SSBNs should have passed and there are no aircraft carriers to build in this shipbuilding cycle. If the UK is to remain a credible maritime power, the designers of Type 83 will have to aim high.