What’s a Frigate, and Who’s Sailing Them
Kyle Maxey posted on March 11, 2019 |

Recently, the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) announced that it would be upgrading its fleet with a massive order of British-designed Type 26 frigates—15 in all.

With this new upgrade, the RCN is reestablishing it credentials as a fleet capable of sophisticated anti-submarine and escort operations.

But the introduction of a new class of frigate to the RCN made us wonder, what is a frigate anyway? Aircraft carriers, missile cruisers, submarines and other capital ships have clearly defined roles in a navy, but the frigate’s role isn’t immediately clear. That’s what we’re here to establish.

What is a Frigate?

The frigate has a history of naval service dating back to the 17th century. Originally designed to be fast, nimble ships that could disrupt and plunder trade routes, frigates haven’t changed that much in concept, but their missions and technology have been updated.

Over the last four centuries, obvious changes have come to the frigate class. Sails have been shed for engines and cannons for missile delivery systems. Radar now scans the horizon, rather than a lowly mate high in a bird’s nest. 

Today, frigates are mainly used to escort larger capital ships such as battleships and aircraft carriers, conduct anti-submarine warfare, bolster air defenses and close critical naval channels. Needless to say, while smaller than other ships in a navy’s fleet, the frigate represents a critical component of a unified naval command.

Britain’s Type 26 Frigate

When talking about Navies, no conversation can begin without an introduction featuring the British fleet. Since 1588, when a combined English and Dutch force defeated the Spanish Armada, the British have floated one of the most impressive militaries in the world.

Continuing its centuries-long tradition of being masters of the sea, the British have commissioned a new class of frigates, called the Type 26.

An artist's rendering of a Type 26 frigate.
An artist's rendering of a Type 26 frigate.

The Type 26 has been designed to replace the Royal Navy’s Type 23 frigates which, at 30 years old, are getting a bit long in the tooth. Each of the 32 ships that the Royal Navy has on order will provide the fleet with updated anti-submarine warfare capabilities and air defense capabilities.

Type 26 frigates are estimated to have a displacement of 6,900 tonnes and can steam ahead at 26 knots (30 mph / 48 km/h) making them relatively fast and nimble. In terms of armament, the Type 26 will carry an impressive complement of kinetic and aircraft capabilities.

To begin with, each ship will carry 48 missile cells armed with common anti-air missiles (CAMM). In addition, another 24 cells will be available to stockpile Tomahawk, anti-submarine, or long-range anti-ship missiles (LRASM). Close-in kinetic support will be handled by a range of weapons, including one 5-inch 62-calibre Mk 45 navy gun, 2 30 mm DS30M Mk2 guns, 2 Phalanx systems, 2 mini-guns and 4 general purpose machine guns.

If air support is needed on any Type 26, several helicopters will be stationed onboard, and a Chinook can even land on the ship’s flight deck if needed.

To bind all of these assets together, each new frigate will carry a Type 997 Artisan 3D radar, several types of navigation radar and a towed sonar array.

With these systems, the Type 26 will give the Royal Navy a vigilant and potent option to deploy during conflicts. According to the U.K.’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) the first Type 26s will set sail in the mid-2020s.

China’s 054A Frigate

Although the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) doesn’t have the history of Britain’s Royal fleet, it is making up for legacy with rapidly improving technological prowess.

To that end, the PLAN currently sails 28 Type 054A frigates, which represent the largest single type of ship in the PLAN fleet. These vessels have been developed to provide air defense options and some anti-submarine and anti-surface capabilities.

First commissioned in 2008, the Type 054A displaces some 4,053 tonnes and can travel an estimated 27 knots (31 mph / 50 k/h), faster than the U.K.’s Type 26.

The PLAN's 054A frigate, a step in the right direction.
The PLAN's 054A frigate, a step in the right direction.

Each Type 054A carries 16 cells capable of juggling eight P-800 supersonic anti-ship missiles or Kalibr land attack cruise missiles. Additionally, the ship will house 32 cells that contain short range missiles and two torpedo tubes that can be armed with anti-submarine or anti-torpedo missiles. 054A’s will also carry two 14.5 mm pedestal machine guns.

To tie all of its weapon systems and navigation together, each 054A will use Furke-4 5P-27 and Poliment 5P-20K detection radars along with a Monolit 34K1 surface search system, a Zarya M sonar and a Vinyetka towed sonar array for submarine detection.

While the PLAN has stocked up on frigates over the last decade, the 054A appears a bit light when it comes to armament. What’s more, given that nearly all its systems are manufactured by foreign defense industries, the 054A is inherently more vulnerable to foreign trade relations, sanctions and other diplomatic situations than ships that rely on domestic weapons and systems.

As the PLAN continues to develop into a blue water navy, it will need to address several technological hurdles. The design and potency of their next generation frigate will be among the top priorities on the PLAN’s modernization list.

The Admiral Gorshkov Class Frigate

Named for Sergey Gorshkov, two-time Hero of the Soviet Union and the admiral that modernized the Soviet fleet, Russia’s newest frigate was fully commissioned in July 2018. Displacing some 4,500 tonnes, the Admiral Gorshkov class (AG-class) can cruise at 29.5 knots (33.9 mph / 54.6 km/h), making it the fastest frigate in the water today.

The AG-class has been designed to be a multi-role frigate capable of attacking surface ships, submarines and carrying out escort missions as needed.

The Admiral Gorskov frigate may be the best frigate sailing today; it is certainly the fastest.
The Admiral Gorskov frigate may be the best frigate sailing today; it is certainly the fastest.

Similar to the 054A, each AG-class frigate will be equipped with 16 missile cells that can carry either P-800 or Kalibr missiles. Additionally, 32 cells will be stationed on-ship to house medium range air-defense missiles. If the AG-class needs to defend itself from underwater threats, it also carries eight torpedoes. For close-in combat, the Gorshkov seats a 130 mm A-192M naval gun, two Palash close-in weapon systems and two 14.5 mm pedestal machine guns. Air support for the AG is provided by a single helicopter landing pad that will be home to a Ka-27 chopper.

Somewhat bafflingly, the Admiral Gorshkov has the exact same radar, sonar and overall detection array as the 054A.

Although the 054A and AG-class frigates share a number of similarities, the AG appears to be the better of the two ships. Not only is it faster, but it’s also marginally larger, is capable of managing multiple military roles simultaneously and is supplied and supported by domestic industry.

Where’s the U.S. Navy’s Frigate?

The truth of the matter is that the U.S. Navy doesn’t have a single frigate in its fleet, and it hasn’t in years. In fact, the last Oliver Hazard-Perry-class frigate (first commissioned in the 1970s, and the latest in U.S. Navy frigate designs) was retired in 2015, and its replacement, the FFG(X), is still in early development. For the time being, the U.S. Navy has tasked the Littoral Combat Ships with assuming the role once played by the frigate.

The U.S. Navy's Littoral Combat Ship. Not a Frigate, and not cutting it.
The U.S. Navy's Littoral Combat Ship. Not a Frigate, and not cutting it.

In that capacity, the U.S. LCS ships are very fast, travelling upwards of 40 knots (46 mph, 74 km/h), and have a modular design. This modularity provides the LCS with the capacity to rapidly upgrade and change their weapon and surveillance complements, making it possible to temporarily outfit a ship with a mission-specific payload.

In addition to its modular build, the LCS cuts a stealthy frame and houses a flight deck and hangar that can support two Seahawk helicopters. To give itself some additional cover, the LCS can carry autonomous vehicles that operate in the air and on the water and it is armed with Mk 110 57 mm guns and RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missiles.

Still, the LCS is not a frigate, and there are those who feel it’s a nearly worthless ship. With the FFG(X) set to be offered out to contract in 2020 and 2021, the U.S. Navy will be without a competent frigate fleet for many years to come.

For more Navy technology, check out Can China’s Navy Match the U.S. Fleet?

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