It was announced in the House of Commons earlier this week that initially the Type 26 frigate will be armed with just a helicopter and a short-range missile system (plus a medium calibre gun and CIWS, although this wasn’t mentioned). In this article, Tom Sharpe provides a basic analysis of how RN weapons fit compares to similar warships in other navies.
The table below groups ships from various countries down the left. Across the top, it lists the nine major weapon systems that are operational today. Each ship gets a binary ‘yes/no’ against these systems and a total score on the right followed by the country average. For the RN, I looked at current and new-build escorts and how they score. Initial comparisons with US Navy (USN) escorts proved to be classically gloomy so to try and level things out a bit, I included French, Australian, Canadian and Dutch ships as well. Finally, I included the latest Chinese and Russian equivalents. Apologies to the Japanese, Norwegians and anyone else I left off.Weapons-2
1. This is a clunky/binary way of scoring however, any attempt to add task-related weighting would a) be too complicated and b) ensure that an ASW frigate without torpedoes would score even lower.
2. It doesn’t include weapons numbers because again a) it’s too complicated and b) it would make the RN’s score much worse.
3. It’s early to call the full/eventual weapons outfit of both T26 and T31. Figures are based on what we know now.
4. I’ve allocated a ‘Y’ for RN SSMs (harpoon) although many don’t carry it. There is a possibility of a capability gap before I-SSGW is ready and there has been no indication if this system will be fitted to T26/31.
5. I’ve gone with the latest variant of each ship. So an Arleigh-Burke gets a ‘Y’ for ‘helo’, for example.
6. The line between PDMS and SAM can be blurred, and the weapons fit of each ship at any particular time can vary.
7. There will be minor errors in this grid but the overall message remains unchanged.
The average score is 6 (out of 9). The USN leads with an average of 7.25 closely followed by the PLAN, who average seven, and the Dutch De Zeven Provinciën-class frigate, also on seven.
The RN average and the score for the T26 as it currently stands is four; lower than every other ship and every other country.
I understand that the fighting ability of a ship depends on a myriad of interdependencies that make its relationship with the number of weapons non-linear, but it is symbiotic. Fighting is a bloody business and the ability to sustain both defence and attack is critical and to a large extent dependent on mass. To use a boxing analogy, it doesn’t really matter how good your training, equipment, morale or awareness is going into a fight; if you’re half the size of your opponent, you’re going to get thumped.
I can think of a few reasons why this happens.
There isn’t enough money, even following the recent defence budget increase.
The only RN ship I can think of that would make the average score would be the Type 22 Frigate. Every other ship before and since falls short. In the same way that the Russians pack every square inch of their ships with missiles and guns so that they are literally bristling, the RN seems to default the other way. And it’s not always just raw numbers either – system flexibility plays a part. For example, the Type 45 has 48 missile cells that earns them one ‘Yes’ (two if we’re calling the shorter-range missile a point defence weapon). The Arleigh-Burke’s system has double this number and the flexibility to earn it five ‘Ys’ on the score sheet. Activity is ongoing to unlock the Type 45’s ballistic missile defence capability but why wasn’t this in place when the system was commissioned? It’s like getting delivery of a Lamborghini and on handover being told you can only use first gear, “but don’t worry, 2nd to 6th will come in due course. And don’t you dare complain”.
Task group mentality
“That class of ship doesn’t need to have that type of weapon because it will be always operating with that class (or nation) which does”. If any naval historians reading this can either defend or attack this mindset, please do but for me, I can only think of one battlefield where it makes sense and it’s in the treasury. Otherwise, it’s just a (really risky) excuse. But if one does assume that you will always fight in a task group then it’s probably also safe to assume that in a really nasty fight, that task group will be US-led. As this takes shape and jobs are handed out, fighting credibility is everything. RN minehunters in The Gulf embody this every day with their world-leading capabilities putting them in the heart of all planning efforts out there. I had it there briefly with two US task groups because the Type 23’s variable depth sonar/Merlin helicopter combination was better at anti-submarine warfare (ASW) than anything the USN had at the time. It’s rare, but a good feeling. However, turn up with substandard kit and you get relegated to the B-team and asked to vigorously patrol a position a couple of hundred miles away. It’s brutal but understandable.
The procurement process results in cost growth such that capabilities have to be traded out in-programme to regain control of the budget (or put the entire programme at risk). I know that every defence industrial complex in the world suffers from this but is it possible that ours is amongst the worse? (I can hear my army chums nodding at this point). Either way, key capabilities are cut in-programme and the expression ‘fitted for but not with’ rears its ugly head. Or ‘future proofing’, or ‘flexibility’, all of which really mean ‘a large empty space where a weapon system should have been’.
As it stands, uncertainty over the Future Cruise/Anti-Ship Weapon (FCASW) and its delivery timelines mean that for a long time the Mark 41 Cells in the ships will be empty (or filled with loo roll if the late days of the RN Exocet launchers are a guide). Similarly, the torpedo tubes are visibly there but, unlike the Canadians and Australians, we have yet to commit to buying the weapon that goes in them. Put all these in and the score rises to a very respectable seven, but when?
I’m not sure which of these is dominant, and there will be others, but the net result is a weapons score that is below average. This is an uncomfortable fact.
At this point, it’s normal for people in Whitehall to say how unhelpful this all is because “Defence isn’t a vote winner”, or that the Integrated Review was about “moving away from legacy platforms” (dreadful term) and “towards the grey zone” (whatever that is). If this is the case, someone should tell everyone else in list of nations above. The financiers then chip in to remind us how much worse it could have been and that half-drowning is actually a good result. I understand all of this but also have the luxury of not needing to worry about it. What I do worry about is that we are building a bespoke ASW frigate without having committed to buying its own ASW weapon.
Anyone who says ship-borne ASW weapons ranges are too small and that the submarine would have got you by then has spent too long studying textbooks, or in a lab, and not long enough operating in the fog of ASW. Of the non-RN ships in the table, 15 out of 18 have Torpedo Launch Sytems of some sort. That’s a pretty compelling indicator. Similarly, why will the T26 (and T31) be the only ships on the table without a surface-to-surface missile? Why have no RN ships ever have a land attack capability when 55% of the others do?
The way forward
If this all sounds a bit gloomy then it should be taken in context with some of the positive elements coming out of Navy HQ right now. Escort hull numbers are set to increase – this is remarkable for anyone who served since, well, 1945. Recruitment and retention, the bedrock of an effective fighting force, are buoyant. The Carrier Strike Group has ticked off everything that has been asked of it (for a few years now) and is set to deploy to the Indo-Pacific later this month. This is an extraordinary achievement and should make everyone rightly proud. The effect it will generate should not be underestimated.
The UK also builds excellent warships. The Type 23 has far exceeded what it was designed for both in terms of capability and longevity. The Type 45, well publicised and occasionally exaggerated propulsion issues aside, is an excellent ship packed full of first-of-class sensors and systems. The Type 26, I have no doubt, will be the same. It already looks amazing and if operated in conjunction with the Merlin and P8 Poseidon will offer unrivalled ASW detection capabilities. I gather we also make quite good submarines although I long since stopped trusting what submariners tell me. Banter aside, this makes the systemic failure to arm our ships properly even more frustrating. How often does one hear the refrain, “imagine what an RN crew could do in a USN ship”?
What will it take to reverse the mindset that allows the under-gunning of our ships? If the Type 26 predictions are correct, then the promised uplift of hull numbers and general RN buoyancy hasn’t done it this time around. So the next point-of-aim is the Type 83 destroyer. The ‘8’ designator suggests that these ships will be big enough to have been called cruisers in years gone by. The USN’s Ticonderoga cruiser, commissioned in 1983, has 122 missile cells, phalanx, torpedo tubes, harpoon and two guns. Will the 83 be similarly bristling with weapons plus new tech or will they be full of empty spaces that should have had weapons in them? Somebody needs to persuade those with their hands on the purse strings that for Global Britain to work the RN needs to support it with a spread of low, mid and high-end capabilities and that the latter comes with a significant but non-negotiable price-tag. Between the Type 26 and the Type 83 we are only talking about 14 ships. Let’s call that a round £20 bn. You could double that and still compete with the test and trace app.
Compromise though; cut corners, fit ‘for but not with’ and your credibility and, more importantly, your survivability diminishes. Maybe it’s already too late for the Type 26 but for the Type 83, let’s go for it and finally dethrone the mighty Arleigh-Burke. Because if we don’t, there is a danger that we will build another brilliant but flawed, billion-pound ship that is outgunned by a 15-year-old Russian corvette.
Commander Tom Sharpe, OBE RN (Retd) spent 27 years in the Royal Navy, 20 of which were at sea. He commanded four different warships; Northern Ireland patrol vessel, Fishery Protection, a Type 23 Frigate and the Ice Patrol Vessel, HMS Endurance.