Modern frigates are now being equipped with greater capacity to deliver ‘high end’ force protection.
Queen Elizabeth Carrier Strike Group (CSG)
The inaugural deployment in 2021 of the UK Royal Navy’s (RN’s) Queen Elizabeth Carrier Strike Group (CSG) will see HMS Queen Elizabeth and its various escorts conduct operations, exercises, and diplomatic engagement around the world, from the Mediterranean Sea, across the Indian Ocean, and into the Pacific.
Precise details of both the deployment and the contributors to the CSG remain to be confirmed. However, it is likely that the CSG will include, at different stages of the deployment, international participants alongside the presence of RN assets such as Type 45 air-defence destroyers and anti-submarine warfare (ASW)-capable Type 23 frigates.
In October 2018, the UK government announced that the Royal Netherlands Navy (RNLN) would be contributing to the HMS Queen Elizabeth CSG’s maiden deployment. As of January 2020, precise details of what this contribution might be – such as which ship might participate, where, and in what role – remain to be confirmed.
However, one of the RNLN’s four De Zeven Provincien air-defence and command frigates (LCFs) would be a likely candidate, and would certainly fit with the operational and capability requirements for escorting a carrier. With strategic tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Gulf, and the South China Sea enduring, a capable air-defence platform such as an RNLN LCF would add much value for a CSG.
“The original operational analysis for the UK carrier group required three guided-missile destroyer (DDG) platforms for air-defence protection, given the expected level of risk that was acceptable, against the threat posed,” Professor Peter Roberts, Director Military Sciences at the London-based think-tank the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), told Asian Military Review.
“That level of protection was deemed acceptable on the assumption that all units were fitted with [US] Co-operative Engagement Capability (CEC).”
UK participation in the CEC programme was dropped in 2012. More recent models for the UK CSG deployment concept suggest only one or two Type 45 destroyers may be included (the RN only has six, in total).
“Given the increased risk that seems to have been accepted, and the lack of mitigation available, the inclusion of a Dutch [air-defence and command frigate] in the CSG21 group would be significant,” said Roberts.
Anti-Ship Missile Threat
According to the Netherlands defence ministry, the frigates provide force protection for other units against surface and air threats, as well as being able to contribute to task group command-and-control (C2) capacity.
In terms of air threats, kinetic response is provided by the Raytheon RIM-162 Enhanced Sea Sparrow Missile (ESM) and Standard Missile-2 (SM-2). The integrated engagement of the missile capability is enabled by the ships’ Thales Sensor, Weapon, and Command (SEWACO) combat management system.
However, perhaps the most significant air-defence capability onboard is the Thales Nederland Smart-L Extended Long-Range radar:
- With the ability to track multiple targets simultaneously, it can prosecute endo-atmospheric threats such as inbound aircraft.
- It also, perhaps more notably, provides a sensing capability for incoming ballistic missiles.
- In addition, the LCF platforms have the ability to share such data with other units in the group, so that those units can also engage the inbound targets.
Security of Carrier Strike Groups (CSGs)
All the major carrier navies – China, India, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States – operate or will be operating their CSGs across the Indo-Pacific theatre. Many Indo-Pacific navies are also developing task group capabilities, based around (for example) amphibious forces.
Security of task groups centred around high-value units such as aircraft carriers and amphibious ships has been the subject of much discussion, given the emerging anti-ship missile threat, in the form of both ballistic and cruise missiles.
In fact, there are several layers involved in defending such a group against such a threat. First, the group needs to be found and fixed: here, it should be noted that the group will be constantly on the move. Second, those layers will include air-defence destroyers and, more commonly now, frigates.
The emerging air-defence role of frigates such as the LCF platforms underline how frigates have become far more of a high-end warfighting platform, as opposed to being simply a mid-level escort.
Frigates were historically used as ASW pickets, deployed far forward from the task group to deal with incoming submarine threats. However, the frigate’s close-in air-defence role is now increasingly significant, for example with ships having to address the emerging threat of anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs).
While the simple deployment of a CSG to a particular region does not of course mean crisis or conflict, the RN’s Queen Elizabeth CSG will require an air-defence capability to offset risks posed by such threats as China’s DF-21 and DF-26 ASBMs. More capable, higher-end frigates can add significant capability here, as demonstrated by the RNLN LCF ships.
The ASW role is still significant for frigates. This is evident in the Indo-Pacific theatre, where the ASW threat is both growing and diversifying. Existing submarine fleets are being upgraded, and other navies are seeking to develop a submarine capability.
Consequently, several of the region’s larger navies are improving their ASW capability with prominent new frigate programmes. Such frigates, though, also carry potent air-defence capability.
The Indian Navy’s Project 17A
The Indian Navy’s Project 17A Nilgiri-class frigates bring a very capable sonar suite, with a Bharat Electronics HUMSA hull-mounted active search-and-attack sonar and a Thales Sintra towed array sonar.
According to media reports, in September 2019 the Indian Navy revealed further details of the Project 17A design. The frigates’ air-defence capability will be provided by the India/Israel-produced Barak-8 surface-to-air missile (SAM), a vertically launched, 70km range system designed to address long-range aircraft and anti-ship missile threats.
The programme will deliver seven frigates, and the reports suggest these are planned to enter service in 2025-27.
As regards the Project 17A frigate (and the predecessor, three-ship, Project 17 frigate programme), Dr Sidharth Kaushal, sea power research fellow at RUSI, said these frigates “do add some value in terms of providing the Indian Navy with a vessel that can both perform lower-end tasks that its Kolkata-class guided-missile destroyers might not be appropriate for [and] that also has a degree of offensive punch – ASW capability and organic air defence – that could make it a useful warfighting asset.”
Kaushal pointed in particular to the Barak-8 SAM capability and the EL/M-2248 MF-STAR active electronically scanned array radar in delivering “a significant improvement on the older Talwar-class [Project 1135.6] frigates in terms of their air defence capabilities.”
“Unlike the Talwars,” he added, the Project 17/Project 17A frigates “also carry a bow-mounted sonar, so could be a useful part of the ASW picket for an Indian carrier group.” Of course, the Sintra towed-array sonar in the Project 17A platforms would add further ASW capability.
Royal Australian Navy’s Future Frigate Capability
One navy that is very likely to be contributing high-end ASW capability to multinational task group operations in the Indo-Pacific region in the future, perhaps for example operating with an RN CSG, is the Royal Australian Navy (RAN).
Here, the RAN’s future frigate capability will be delivered by the Hunter-class frigate. There are nine ships planned in the class, and the first ship is scheduled to enter operational service in the late 2020s as the class begins replacing the in-service MEKO 200 ANZAC-class frigates.
- The 8,800-tonne (full load) Hunter-class frigate is derived from the UK RN’s Type 26 Global Combat Ship.
- In ASW capability terms, the equipment fit will include the Ultra Electronics S2150 hull-mounted sonar, and the Thales S2087 towed array/variable depth sonar. The frigates’ ASW reach will be extended by the embarked helicopter, the ASW-optimised MH-60 Romeo.
- Above the water, the principal sensor will be the CEA Technologies CEAFAR2-L long-range, phased array air-search radar. The principal effectors will be ESSM and SM-2, fired from Mk41 vertical launching systems.
- In terms of combat management, the ships’ Aegis capability will be interfaced with the Saab 9LV combat management system.
According to the RAN, the Hunter-class vessels “will be one of the most advanced anti-submarine warships in the world”, providing “the highest levels of lethality and deterrence our major surface combatants need in periods of global uncertainty”.
The RAN added that the ships will be able to conduct various missions “[either] independently, or as part of a task group”. Such task groups could be national constructs, based around the RAN’s Canberra-class landing helicopter dock (LHD) amphibious assault ships or its Hobart-class, air-defence focused DDGs; they could also be international constructs.
In written evidence submitted in November 2019 to an Australian Senate Reference Committee inquiry into Australia’s future sovereign ship-building capability, the Department of Defence (DoD) stated that “design and pre-production efforts on the [Hunter-class frigates] … continue as planned,” adding that “production prototyping [is] set to commence before the end of 2020”.
Not only is the Hunter class based on the UK Type 26 design, but the RAN also is future-proofing technology for the frigates by testing them out on the in-service ANZAC frigates, as the RN is doing with its own Type 23s.
In its evidence, the DoD explained that, under the ANZAC Midlife Capability Assurance Program, HMAS Arunta was at sea fitted out with the CEAFAR2-L and integrated Identification Friend or Foe capability in a new mast superstructure. “The experience gained by Australian industry in this project will be further leveraged for the integrated mast for the Hunter-class frigates,” the DoD said.
Participation in CSG
The participation of any international ship in any multinational task group will depend on political agreement and common or overlapping rules of engagement, over and above any technical integration. However, partner navies seem likely to be able to make a significant contribution to UK RN task group deployments, and the RAN may be able to make a significant contribution in the Asia-Pacific region in particular.
When the RN’s new carrier capability was first conceived, in the mid-1990s, the sub-surface threat was perceived to be reducing. That is far from the case now, and great powers such as China and Russia are developing extensive and capable submarine fleets.
Here, the frigate’s traditional focus on ASW will remain critical. Noting UK intentions to deploy its major naval assets globally, the RN’s ASW-capable Type 23s and Type 26s will face a busy operations plot in the North Atlantic theatre alone. Here, Roberts noted “requirements to counter Russian submarines in the Atlantic, North Sea, Norwegian Sea, and the Arctic [are] arguably higher priority national tasks” than similar tasking requirements elsewhere.
“One might imagine that matching the threat, risk, and mitigation might now require at least two ASW (towed-array fitted) frigates to accompany any UK carrier during a deployment,” said Roberts.
“A higher number would be required, depending on where the CSG was deploying to – the South China Sea, for example.”
The inclusion of such platforms from other navies operating in the Asia-Pacific region thus would add much to the capability and coverage of the CSG, and the RAN’s Hunter-class frigate would be a prime example.
Global capability of The Royal Danish Navy
Another carrier-escort capable frigate provides another interesting case study for the Asia-Pacific region. The Royal Danish Navy’s (RDN’s) Iver Huitfeldt guided-missile frigate is demonstrating capacity to support a range of tasks across the operational spectrum, including escort tasks but also providing more general-purpose frigate outputs.
In February 2017, second-in-class frigate HDMS Peter Willemoes deployed into the Mediterranean with the US Navy’s USS George H W Bush CSG. During the deployment, the frigate conducted air control tasks, for example, for the CSG.
Two years later, in February 2019, sister ship HDMS Niels Juel joined up with the French Navy’s FS Charles de Gaulle CSG for a deployment that stretched from the Mediterranean into the Northern Indian Ocean and Gulf region. Once again, the frigate conducted a range of air-defence tasks.
Such is the importance of the flexibility and design the frigates provide for the RDN that the navy is currently considering an ASW fit for the frigates (as announced in 2018).
Iver Huitfeldt design
Highlighting the potential appeal of the Iver Huitfeldt design – with its broad capabilities interesting several different navies – in September 2019, the UK government down selected a Babcock-led consortium as preferred bidder to deliver its new Type 31e general purpose future frigate. The consortium offered the Arrowhead 140 design, based on the 6,600-tonne Iver Huitfeldt frigates. The UK hopes that the Type 31e may appeal to other navies, including in the Asia-Pacific region.
Kaushal also pointed to Indonesia’s five-year programme to procure four frigates, noting the programme “may begin shortly with [Indonesia] buying two Iver Huitfeldts”.
Another frigate programme of interest in the Asia-Pacific region – and one that underlines the increasing appeal of frigate capability – is the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s (JMSDF’s) acquisition of a new frigate, to replace its Abukuma-class ships.
The JMSDF has a long-established record of working at sea with other partner navies. Given the regional threats it faces, it also has a surface ship force structure dominated largely by DDGs. Kaushal pointed to Japan’s interest in producing a multi-mission vessel to meet its future frigate requirement, although he added that the programme may take time to deliver as it is currently still in the concept phase. According to reports, hull-mounted and variable-depth towed array sonar systems may feature amongst the vessel’s ASW capability.