Type 26 Frigate Promises Naval Interchangeability

Type 26 anti-submarine warfare (ASW) frigate
The UK Royal Navy’s (RN’s) first-in-class Type 26 anti-submarine warfare (ASW) frigate, the future HMS Glasgow, is pictured in build in 2021. Three navies – the RN, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), and the Royal Canadian Navy – are buying Type 26s. (UK MoD)

Three navies are looking expectantly ahead at the advantages of the trilateral Type 26 frigate programme.

The United Kingdom’s Type 26 Global Combat Ship programme – which now consists of three partners, the UK Royal Navy (RN), the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), and the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) – is providing a marker for co-operation trends in capability development, collaborative operations, and platform interchangeability. Such trends seem likely to shape and drive Western naval developments over the coming years.

Interchangeability can be seen as the enhanced evolution of interoperability and integration. It can be defined too as the ability to interchange capabilities and platforms, for example being able to swap the helicopters deployed onboard a frigate or being able to swap the frigates deployed within a task group.

In parallel with returning Western naval emphasis on task group operations is the focus on anti-submarine warfare (ASW), driven by the increasing ASW threats in both the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific theatres. The Type 26 has been designed from its concept phase as a dedicated ASW frigate. With ASW returning to the very top of Western navies’ strategic, operational, and tactical agendas, the Type 26 will have significant global impact, bringing its ASW (and wider) capabilities to bear through operating in national and multinational task groups across the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific theatres.

Talking at the RN’s Seapower conference, hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London on 5 May, UK First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Sir Ben Key said: “We will see over the coming 15 years significant transition as we strive to increase our operational advantage.” Here, he pointed in particular to the Type 26.

The Type 26 has been designed by BAE Systems, and is being built (for the RN) by BAE Systems, (for the RAN) by ASC and BAE Systems Australia, and (for the RCN) by Irving Shipbuilding and Lockheed Martin Canada.

For the RN, eight Type 26s will be delivered to make up the City-class frigates. The first three ships are in build, with steel cut for ship three in June 2021. In February 2022, the UK government stated that the first three ships – HMS Glasgow, HMS Cardiff, and HMS Belfast – are scheduled to enter service in the late 2020s. A batch contract for the final five ships is expected to be awarded in the early 2020s, the UK government revealed in early 2022.

The RAN is purchasing nine Type 26s, to provide its Hunter-class ASW frigates. The RAN’s ships are currently scheduled to begin build in 2024 and enter service from the late 2020s. According to Australian news reports in July 2022, the ships are planned to be built in three batches, with ship deliveries to the navy expected to continue into the 2040s.

The RCN plans to purchase 15 Type 26s to meet its Canadian Surface Combatant (CSC) requirement. According to Canada’s Department of National Defence, the first ship is expected to begin build in 2023, with ships starting to arrive in the early 2030s and continuing to arrive into the 2040s.

The Type 26 programme underlines the RN’s role as a reference point for interchangeability amongst Western navies. The RN has already made significant strides in terms of interchangeability, when its aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth embarked 10 US Marine Corps Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II joint strike fighter aircraft for its Carrier Strike Group 21 (CSG21) maiden deployment in 2021, providing – when integrated onboard with eight UK RN/Royal Air Force F-35Bs – the first fully ‘fifth generation’ carrier airwing.

Speaking at the IISS conference, RN Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Andrew Burns stated:“We must continue to demonstrate to our allies around the world that we are a reliable partner, capable of contributing to and leading multinational task forces. That’s why our ability to be interchangeable with our allies – and by that, I mean beyond routine interoperability – is so important.”

Interchangeability points to the RN’s position as a ‘reference navy’. Being a ‘reference navy’, VAdm Burns explained, means “having an adaptable tactical mentality, at the operational level having convening power, and offering credible sea power to play a part in statecraft at the strategic level.”

At an operational level, Type 26 represents a ‘convening’ programme under which three navies with credible capability and an established history of robust operations are coming together to deliver a high-end ASW platform that will – when combining the three navies’ programmes – provide 32 ships deployed in a global operational profile. All three navies have a proven record of operating their frigates around the world.

RAN MH-60R Seahawk ASW helicopter
Pictured is an RAN MH-60R Seahawk ASW helicopter. The three different Type 26 variants will each embark a different ASW helicopter. (Commonwealth of Australia)

Already built to a baseline design with significant commonality – although with some key differences in key systems, for example with the RAN ships to carry the CEA Technologies CEAFAR2 phased array radar – the Type 26 programme has the potential to offer significant interchangeability. For example, all three Type 26 variants will embark a different ASW helicopter, with the RN City ships carrying Leonardo Merlin HM2 helicopters or Lynx Wildcats, the RAN Hunters carrying the Sikorsky MH-60 Romeo Seahawk, and the RCN CSCs carrying the Sikorsky CH148 Cyclone. Assuming appropriate certifications are achieved, the ships have capacity to accommodate each of these helicopter types, either embarked or through ‘lily pad’ operations.

One of the most significant elements of the Type 26 programme will be the ability of the three partner navies to discuss and deliver interoperability, integration, and interchangeability between the three variants. As a group of users working to a common design at the lower end of the ship’s capability ‘scale’ all the way up to how to employ the ships in ASW and other high-end operations, the three navies are well placed to maximise not only the capability and operational output to be generated out of the three variants but also the interchangeability across such platforms and such capability.

by Dr Lee Willett