New generations of destroyers and frigates are continuing to bring an increase in capability, and an increase in contribution across the battlespace.
As state-on-state strategic competition has returned, with this competition played out at sea in the form of heightened naval presence, navies and their national leaders have focused increasingly on aircraft carriers and submarines. However, the primary platform for generating the at-sea presence that sits centrally within this renewed naval rivalry are the ‘greyhounds’ or ‘escorts’ of the fleets – surface ships, and primarily destroyers and frigates.
A combination of post-Cold War reduction in threat and, consequently, budget precipitated a transition for destroyers and frigates from single- to multi-mission ships, as hulls were reduced in number, but then required to embark multi-role capabilities to compensate.
Writing in The Future of Sea Power in 1990, the late Professor Eric Grove defined a destroyer as a “medium-sized combatant of between 2,750 and 7,000 tons [2,500 and 6,350 tonnes] with the speed and capabilities of the most demanding combat operations, including participation in fast carrier battle groups. Large destroyers differ from cruisers of equivalent size in that they lack comprehensive capability, e.g. no area defence anti-air warfare (AAW) system.”
Prof Grove defined a frigate as a “combatant of about 1,750 to 3,000 tons (1,587 to 2,720 tonnes) usually optimised for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) but with general purpose capability; essentially intended for the escort of non-combatant shipping, although useful for patrol and limited offensive operations; capable of ocean-going transits and tasks; usually air capable.”
Assessing a selection of contemporary destroyer and frigate programmes demonstrates how such definitions have changed, including due to the increased multi-role requirements.
Perhaps the premier destroyer at sea today, one which provides highly visible capability and presence around the world, is the US Navy’s (USN) DDG 51 Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. Three Arleigh Burke ‘flights’ – Flight I, Flight II, and Flight IIA – are operational, with 70 ships in service and five more in build. Most notable is the arrival of the next flight, the Flight III.
The first Flight III, USS Jack H Lucas, was launched in June 2021 and is scheduled for commissioning in 2023, with a total of 26 Flight IIIs to be built.
“The DDG 51 Flight III upgrade is centred on the (Raytheon) AN/SPY-6(V)1 air and missile defence radar (AMDR) and incorporates upgrades to the electrical power and cooling capacity plus additional associated changes to provide greatly enhanced warfighting capability to the fleet,” US Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) announced in a June 2021 statement. “Flight III ships will provide cutting edge integrated air and missile defence (IAMD) capability to include significantly greater detection range and tracking capacity.”
According to the USN, the AMDR capability enables simultaneous AAW and ballistic missile defence (BMD) operations, meeting the navy’s need for enhanced IAMD capability.
Beyond IAMD, the 9,800-tonne Flight IIIs bring multi-mission capacity across the spectrum of combat operations, including multi-function towed array and hull-mounted ASW sonars (TB-37 SQR-20 towed array and SQQ-89(V)15 hull-mounted), a Tomahawk land-attack missile fit in the ship’s Lockheed Martin Mk 41 vertical launching system (VLS), capacity to carry two Sikorsky MH-60 Romeo Seahawk ASW helicopters, and Aegis Baseline 10 as the combat system.
The Arleigh Burkes play a prominent role in USN carrier strike groups (CSGs), amphibious ready groups (ARGs), and surface action groups (SAGs), as well as operating as independent deployers.
Likely to be shadowing the Flight III Burkes in the coming years will be China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN’s) Type 055 Renhai-class guided-missile destroyers (DDGs). Currently, 12 of these 13,000-tonne platforms are planned, although numbers may rise to 16.
The first Type 055 destroyer, Nanchang, was commissioned in January 2020. The seventh and latest, Wuxi, followed in March 2022.
A 2020 US Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) report on the Type 055 pointed to the ship’s 112-cell VLS capability as representative of the augmented lethality. The report also noted the ships’ increased range. In addition, it continued, “The Type 055 is most striking for the consolidation of its sensors within one single integrated mast, marking a major improvement for the ship’s stealth characteristics.” The Type 055 also has hull-mounted and towed array ASW sonar systems, and can carry two ASW helicopters, such as the Harbin Z-9.
The CMSI report revealed that the Type 055 “provides very substantial naval capability to escort Chinese carrier groups, protect Beijing’s long sea lanes, and take Chinese naval diplomacy to an entirely new and daunting level.”
Likely to be paying close attention to Type 055 operations in the Indo-Pacific are the Royal Australian Navy’s (RAN’s) three air-warfare focused Hobart-class DDGs. All three 6,350 tonne DDGs are in service, with the last – HMAS Sydney – commissioned in May 2020.
Based around Aegis (Baseline 9 standard) and the combination of the AN/SPY-1D(V) phased array radar and Standard Missile (SM)-2, the Hobart DDG “will provide an advanced air defence system capable of engaging adversary aircraft and missiles at ranges in excess of 150km [80 nautical miles]”, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) noted, in a ship capability profile. This air-defence capability will enable the ships to cover both maritime task forces and forces operating ashore.
The Hobart DDGs also carry a single MH-60R, which contributes to the ship’s overall ASW capability that includes hull-mounted and towed-array sensors. The RAN highlighted the ship’s Mk45 Mod4 127/62 gun and its capability for firing extended-range munitions to support forces ashore.
Overall, the RAN wrote, “these capabilities ensure that the Hobart-class DDGs have the layered defensive and offensive capability required to counter conventional and asymmetric threats”. There has been continued talk, too, of adding to the ships’ capability with a TLAM fit in the 48-cell Mk41 VLS.
Security concerns emerging across the Indo-Pacific are evident in the designated focus for the Republic of Korea Navy’s (RoKN’s) Batch 2 Sejong Daewang/KDX-III (Korean Destroyer eXperimental) DDGs. The Batch 2s will be dedicated to dealing with regional contingencies around the Korean peninsula and across North-East Asia.
The Aegis-capable (Baseline 7) KDX destroyers are modelled on the DDG 51. For the lead ship in the second batch of three ships, steel was cut in February 2021: launch is anticipated in 2023, and commissioning is scheduled for 2024.
The larger, 10,920-tonne Batch 2 ships will bring improved ASW and BMD capability. BMD and other missile capabilities will be accommodated in the ship’s mix of Mk41 VLS and indigenous K-VLS cells.
Although its six ships have all been in service for some time (commissioned between 2009 and 2013), the UK Royal Navy (RN) Type 45 Daring-class destroyer still provides state-of-the-art destroyer capability, particularly through its sensor and CMS fit.
Despite the relative longevity in service compared to other new destroyers, the 8,000-tonne full-load displacement Type 45s have faced significant time out of the water in recent years. The ships propulsion systems are currently being upgraded under the power improvement programme (PIP).
Notwithstanding this issue, the Type 45s have demonstrated significant capability, in particular their surveillance/fire control radar, CMS capability, and wider command and control (C2). The surveillance/fire control radar capability is delivered by the BAE Systems E-/F-band multifunction Type 1045 Sampson system. The radar is reported to be able to capture significant volumes of surveillance data, due to both the radar’s capability and the height of the ship’s mast.
The ship’s CMS – the BAE Systems CMS-1 – then collates, sifts, and disseminates this information. Using Link 11, Link 16, and Link 22, the ship is then able to share this information with other platforms, acting as a command and control (C2) node.
Such is the Type 45’s capability for sensing, sifting, and sharing data that it now has a well-established reputation for being able to function as the ‘eyes and ears’ of an entire task group, sharing surveillance and wider sensor data with the rest of the group.
Reflecting a combination of the technological capability UK industry continues to produce and the operational standing of the RN, the UK’s Type 26 Global Combat Ship ASW frigate concept has found both domestic and export success. The RN is buying eight as its City-class frigate: the first three hulls are in build, with lead ship HMS Glasgow due for commissioning in 2026. The RAN was the first export customer, purchasing nine under its Hunter-class ASW frigate programme, with ships scheduled to begin entering service from the late 2020s. The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) followed, planning to purchase 15 ships to meet its Canadian Surface Combatant (CSC) requirement, with ships arriving from the early 2030s.
Of note across the Type 26 family is the fact that the concept was drawn up from the outset with a bespoke focus on ASW. Consequently, there is some commonality in capability. However, due to different national requirements, there is also some dissimilarity in capability.
In ASW terms, all three classes will carry the Ultra Electronics S2150 hull-mounted sonar. The RN and RAN ships are confirmed as carrying the Thales 2087 low-frequency active towed-array sonar as their ‘tail’: however, the RCN’s CSC will carry the Ultra Electronics Towed Low Frequency Active/Passive Sonar (TLFAS) system.
There is also difference in the AAW sensor suites. The RN ships will carry the Type 997 BAE Systems Artisan 3D E-/F-band medium-range radar. The RAN’s Hunter class will carry the indigenous CEAFAR2 phased-array radar. The RCN CSCs will carry the Lockheed Martin SPY-7 solid-state 3D active electronically scanned array (AESA) system.
The different radar fits have also impacted the hull displacement. The RN and RCN ships will tip the scales at full load at around 8,000 tonnes. The RAN ships, however, will weigh in heavier at 8,800 tonnes, with the larger displacement enabling accommodation of the CEAFAR system.
All three ships will carry strike-length Mk41 VLS fits. What these VLS cells carry may differ. The RCN has an aspiration for a TLAM fit. The RAN may consider a TLAM fit for the Hunter class, following the prospective Hobart-class fit. The RN does not seem disposed to consider a TLAM surface fit, despite having TLAM onboard its nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) fleet.
The ships’ surface-to-air missile (SAM) fit also differs, with the RN ships to carry MBDA’s Sea Ceptor for local area air-defence and the RAN and RCN ships both carrying Raytheon’s SM-2 for local area air-defence and the company’s Evolved SeaSparrow Missile (ESSM) for point defence. The RAN and RCN ships will also have anti-ship missile (ASM) capability.
Another new frigate type demonstrating both a mix in capability and export appeal is the European FREMM multi-mission frigate concept. The French Navy (FN) and the Italian Navy (ITN) both built and operate FREMM frigates.
The FN’s 6,000-tonne Aquitaine-class frigates began entering service in 2015, and the final ship of eight was launched in November 2020. The class is split between a focus on ASW and AAW, with the last two ships being AAW-optimised.
The ITN’s 6,700-tonne Bergamini-class FREMM frigates began arriving in 2013; the last two were laid down in 2021. The Bergaminis also bring a blend of capabilities, mixing general purpose and ASW-focused outputs.
What is significant too about the FREMM frigates is their export success. The Egyptian Navy has purchased two Bergamini-class ships and one Aquitaine-class ship. Both the FN and ITN purchased additional FREMMs for themselves to compensate.
The Bergamini-class FREMM was also selected to provide the derivative design for the USN’s FFG 62 Constellation-class future frigate. According to the USN, “This ship class will be an agile, multi-mission warship, capable of operations in both blue-water and littoral environments, providing increased combat-credible forward presence that provides a military advantage at sea.” The FFG 62 programme is intended to build on the curtailed Littoral Combat Ship programme, but bringing more general-purpose frigate capabilities, including AAW, ASW, and anti-surface warfare (ASuW) outputs. In April 2020, the USN awarded Fincantieri Marinette Marine a detail design and construction contract for 10 of the 7,400-tonne, Aegis-capable frigates. Lead ship construction is scheduled to start in fiscal year 2022.
The new USN, RN, RAN, and RCN frigates deploying around the world in years to come will see a lot of the PLAN’s Type 054A Jiangkai II-class frigates. As the Arleigh Burkes are for the USN, so the Jiangkais seem to have become for the PLAN the platform that is present wherever China has interest to demonstrate.
While the Jiangkai II frigates may have capacity for less capability as they displace only 4,000 tonnes, their ubiquitous presence is a capability in its own right. A class of at least 50 is planned, with over 30 already in service and ships commissioned as recently as December 2021.
The Jiangkai II frigate has also seen export success, with the Pakistan Navy having ordered four.
The Jiangkai IIs also reflect the trend of containing different variants within the class. For example, according to The Diplomat, from ship 17 onwards a variable-depth towed array sonar has been fitted. Broadly, the ships carry a range of AAW, ASW, and ASuW capabilities.
The PLAN is continuing to integrate ever more closely with the Russian Federation Navy. The Russian navy is continuing to develop its own frigate capability, for example with the Project 22350 Admiral Gorshkov-class ships. Indeed, frigate capability appears to have become a Russian focus, perhaps due to the affordability challenge of producing new generations of cruisers and destroyers (which have made up the bulk of the Russian surface fleet since the end of the Cold War). Russia plans to build at least 15 of the 5,400-tonne Gorshkov frigates, with the second-in-class ship commissioned in July 2020 and at least six more currently in build.
Perhaps most notable within the ships’ broad capability set is the 3M-22 Tsirkon (NATO designation SS-N-33) hypersonic cruise missile. In May 2022, lead frigate Admiral Gorshkov was reported to have test-fired a Tsirkon missile in the White Sea. The frigate test-fired Tsirkon previously back in January 2022 and January 2020.
In July 2022, The Barents Observer reported that NATO naval forces were tracking Admiral Gorshkov as it sailed south from the Barents Sea into the North Sea.
by Dr Lee Willett