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By David Axe,The National Interest
The Royal Navy’s new Type 26 frigate could be its most powerful and flexible warship type in many decades. Assuming, that is, that the U.K. defense ministry properly funds the ships.
The British fleet is acquiring eight of the 7,000-ton-displacement frigates at a cost of more than $9 billion in order to replace an equal number of 1980s-vintage Type 23 frigates. The plan is for at least eight copies of the smaller, less heavily-armed Type 31 frigate eventually to replace the balance of the 13-strong Type 23 force.
The first Type 26 is due to enter service in the mid-2020s.
With the Type 26, the Royal Navy could get a balanced warship with a wide array of sophisticated weaponry and the flexibility to handle a range of missions, U.K. Defense Journal explained.
“The new design is 149 meters long, has a top speed of more than 26 knots and accommodation for up to 200 people. It is expected to have 60 days endurance and have a range of 7,000 miles at 15 knots.”
It’s no secret that the Type 26 is designed with modularity and flexibility in mind to enhance versatility across a wide range of operations ranging from counter piracy and disaster-relief operations to high-intensity combat.
The final BAE design had a large amidships mission bay instead of the stern well deck featured in previous designs. … This versatility of roles is enabled by the mission bay, capable of supporting multiple helicopters, [unmanned underwater vehicles], boats, mission loads and disaster-relief stores.
BAE says that a launcher can be provided for fixed-wing UAV operations and it’s well known that the flight deck will be capable of landing a Chinook helicopter for transport of embarked forces.
The frigate’s weapons loadout in theory is impressive. In addition to the standard five-inch gun, it includes 48 vertical launch cells for Sea Ceptor surface-to-air missiles with a 15-mile range. There also are 24 Mk. 41 vertical launch cells for larger missile types, including the Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile and various heavy anti-ship missiles.
“The next generation of anti-ship missile is a huge deal, as this would ensure that these vessels would be one of the most versatile British warships in decades,” according to U.K. Defense Journal.
The next generation of anti-ship missile bit is especially important as Royal Navy ships will lose anti-ship missile capability in 2020 when the Harpoon missile is withdrawn with a replacement not due until “around 2030.”
While the Royal Navy will still have an anti-ship capability via the submarine fleet and embarked helicopters, this will still be a significant capability gap and even then, no Royal Navy helicopters will have anti-ship missile capabilities until 2020.
But it’s not at all clear that London intends fully to fund the Type 26’s weapons. “No firm commitment has been made for any of the weapon types able to be fired by the Mk. 41, but with the first vessel not entering sea trials for quite a few years, the time hasn’t yet come to order anything,” U.K. Defense Journal noted.
The U.K. government has a habit of buying ships while neglecting their weapons. The United Kingdom paid billions of dollars for a force of six Type 45 destroyers, but never fully funded the vessels’ weapons suite.
Likewise, the Royal Navy is getting two 70,000-ton-displacement aircraft carriers, each of which can embark up to 36 F-35 fighters. But the Royal Air Force plans to buy only 48 F-35s for ship-board use.
“The key factor that will determine the true capability of these [Type 26] ships is really quite simple, the funding put in place to arm it properly,” U.K. Defense Journal explained. “Without proper funding, the vessels will not be fitted out to their maximum potential with the wide range of weapons they’re designed for and as such are likely to see the vast sums of money already spent on their design and build, spent in vain.”