Real Hope for a Bigger Royal Navy – the Type 32 Frigate Concept
As part of the Integrated Review announcements on 19th November, the Type 32 frigate concept emerged blinking into the light of public gaze for the first time. In this speculative article, we consider the possible design of this vessel and when it may enter service.
There are plenty of theories doing the rounds about the purpose of Type 32 which include; motherships for mine warfare USVs, an anti-submarine specialist or a replacement for the Type 45 destroyer. It is very early days and the RN is still working to define its requirement in more detail but official sources say the vessel will primarily be a general-purpose frigate. It will play a similar presence and maritime security role as the Type 31 and will not be a high-end combatant like the Type 26.
‘The Type 31 Batch II’
Delivery of the Type 31 is a fixed contract between Babcock and the MoD that does not allow the customer to make changes to the design or equipment fit during construction. Although there is plenty of margin for additions, any upgrades will have to be made after they enter service. As embodied by the RN’s transformation programme, there is a recognition of the increasing pace of global change and the main difference between Type 31 and Type 32 will be to incorporate a decade’s worth of technological advances.
There are no guarantees but logic dictates Type 32 will almost certainly be a development of the Type 31. There are many good reasons for this. It would be expensive and take time to develop a new combatant design from scratch and if there is already an open production line for Type 31 up and running, it would make sense to sustain the drumbeat of work and utilise the experience readily available from building a similar platform. This approach would keep costs down and allow manufacture to start sooner. Assuming the Type 31 hull is used as the basis for the platform, commonality of propulsion and other systems could be maintained, simplifying both the design, logistic support and training requirements.
Besides BAE Systems in Glasgow fully occupied with Type 26, there are no other UK shipbuilders with recent experience of warship construction. Theoretically, Cammell Laird could build a Type 32 design based on the BAES ‘Leander’ candidate that failed to win the Type 31 competition but this would appear to be a much higher risk option.
There are a few wrinkles to iron out in any proposal to just continue production at Rosyth. Competition is a central tenet of the National Shipbuilding Strategy which could make it politically awkward simply to award the Type 32 contract to Babcock, even if this makes most industrial and economic sense. Other UK consortiums will want a chance to be involved despite the Fleet Solid Support Ship action and other work in the promised shipbuilding renaissance. The possibility of Scottish Independence also casts a malevolent shadow of uncertainty over any long term discussion about UK warship building.
A combatant fit for the 2040s
Automation and off-board systems are the are two key areas where Type 32 is likely to differ significantly from Type 31. Artificial Intelligence and automation is likely to have a greater role, in the combat management system, navigation systems and maintenance management. Continuing the trend of reduced crew size places fewer people in harm’s way, lowers costs and may offer a quicker response to complex threats. The entirely uncrewed warship may not yet be viable by the 2030s but that is the direction of development.
While further automation can primarily be achieved with software and may have a less visible effect on ship design, increased reliance on hosting off-board autonomous platforms will have a bigger impact. One of the weaknesses of Type 31 is that its mission bay is below the flight deck. Useful for storing containerised equipment but it has to be loaded or unloaded by crane in harbour. There are 3 boat bays but these are limited to launching RIBs or small/lightweight UUV and USVs.
With no significant effort to reduce its acoustic signature for simplicity and cost reasons, Type 31 is a poor ASW platform. By deploying a medium-large size UUV equipped with its own sensors that can dive deep and get away from the radiated noise of its mother ship this situation could potentially be remedied. The 4-tonne USVs that the RN is acquiring for the autonomous mine hunting and similar vessels that may be used for patrol and surveillance would also need robust handling systems if they are to be deployed from a frigate in the open sea.
Thinking out loud
Let us speculate wildly for a moment that Type 32 will have a full-width mission bay by deleting the missile silos in the centre of the Type 31. The bay could then be properly equipped with a bespoke handling system (MBHS) similar to the Type 26 to facilitate the safe handling of much larger USVs and UUVs in higher sea states.
The defensive role of Sea Ceptor could instead be performed by Directed Energy Weapons which have small mountings and do not need to be deck-penetrating. There is also still top weight margin available for ‘conventional’ canister-launched guided weapons on the deck above the central mission bay. It can also be assumed that Type 32 will have an updated sensor fit that will reflect the advances in radar, EO and infrared sensing technologies.
The RN appears to be preparing to decommission its minehunters without direct replacement and rely on small uncrewed boats for mine countermeasures. This has led to some speculation that the Type 32 will act as ‘motherships’ for MCM boats. It could be very useful on occasions for frigates to carry their own mine warfare capability but it would be difficult to justify allocating limited surface escorts to routine MCM duties. (We will consider developments in autonomous mine warfare in a future article.) Like the Type 26, a Type 32 with a properly equipped mission bay offers an adaptable space that can be re-configured from a toolkit of autonomous systems, MCM capability being just one of many potential options.
The aspiration for 24 escorts
The Type 32s are intended to strengthen the RN escort fleet with additional ships, not just replace ships being decommissioned, The RN has a long-held ambition to have 24 escorts (6 destroyers and 18 frigates) which it believes is the real minimum required to sustain a carrier strike group at readiness and fulfil its other tasks. Unfortunately, even with the increased defence spending and intention to build a new frigate class, this ambition cannot be realised until at least the late 2030s. Until then forward-deployed OPVs will have to plug the gaps.
The chart above gives an approximation of the RN frigate programme into the 2040s. It is based on the assumption that the Type 32 will be approved and follow almost directly on from Type 31 construction and deliver ships at the same pace. Assuming the Rosyth facility gets into its stride and is able to construct the Type 31s to the tight schedule agreed, the lead Type 32 could be laid down in 2027/28, even before the last of the Type 31s is in service. It should also be noted that the exact delivery schedule for the later part of the Type 26 programme can only be guessed at as the last 5 ships have yet to be ordered and the pace of their construction may be slightly slower or faster than indicated.
What is obvious is the 2024-28 ‘frigate gap’, when numbers dip even below 13 between is unavoidable but strength increases steadily throughout the 2030s. Unless there was some kind of emergency building programme or Type 26 was accelerated, there is no way the RN can have 24 escorts before about 2037-38. Even the ‘rapid’ Type 31 programme will have taken 12 years (since first announced in 2015) until the first ship becomes operational in 2027.
By the 2040s, the Type 45 destroyers will be 30 years old. If there is an ‘upside’ of having spent more time alongside that they should have due to propulsion problems, then their hulls are less fatigued than the hard-run frigates. Assuming they receive some form of mid-life weapon and sensor upgrade, this allows more breathing space to start the programme to replace them. The most likely scenario is that BAE Systems will begin constructing the Type 45 replacement (Future Anti-Air Warfare Programme) as the Type 26 programme tails off. Speculation that the ‘Type 46’ destroyer will be based on a Type 26 frigate hull makes some sense but may prove to be more technically challenging than assumed.
There will doubtless be further turbulent political and financial waters to be navigated before a bigger fleet can become a reality but the Type 32 is welcome proof that the navy’s case is finally being appreciated by government. To remain relevant and credible, the pace of UK warship design, procurement and upgrades are going to have to accelerate and the Type 32 concept is another small step in the right direction.