World Naval Developments: British Deep-Six Project Horizon

By Norman Friedman

These statements merely may cover the British government's understandable embarrassment; it can show very little for more than a decade of work. As for PAAMS, Horizon had been justified to the British Treasury largely by the spurious argument that the alternative, the U.S. Standard Missile, was obsolete, and that PAAMS would be much more capable. In fact, PAAMS uses the very small Aster missile that the British are finding difficult to adapt to their desired area-defense capacity. The Royal Navy has begun to consider the antimissile role the U.S. Navy now espouses, and it is difficult to see how the Aster missile can be adapted to the new role. It seems possible, then, that there will be a later move away from PAAMS itself. That is aside from rumors that Aster lacks performance and that its few tests to date have been lackluster.

The British announcement would seem to imply that the command system developed by British Aerospace for the British version of Horizon will be salvaged. That would be a wise choice, since combat system development is a large fraction of overall ship development cost. Since the projected British version of the system included the new Sampson active-array radar, presumably that sensor will be on board the new British ship.

Still, the shape of a British national design is unclear. There have been rumors of a stretched version of the Type 23 frigate with missile launchers amidships, but there also have been reports that the Royal Navy has rejected the concept. During Project Horizon's tortured life, British naval officers sometimes were heard to say that, alas, the Royal Navy could not back out because it had no alternative design in the pipeline. Yet now there are reports that orders for ships may be placed by the end of this year, which suggests that the British were developing a parallel design of their own.

By the middle of the next decade the British plan to build the first of their future escorts, replacements for the existing Type 22 Batch IIIs. These ships may incorporate the new trimaran hull currently under development. It is possible that the future escort program will be moved forward and merged with the projected Horizon alternative. Perhaps the first few new ships really will be stretched Type 23s, or else will be larger hulls incorporating some Type 23 systems.

From its beginnings, Project Horizon was plagued by its three partners' differing requirements. The British wanted escorts capable of protecting other ships, while the French and the Italians were willing to settle for self-defense capability. As a consequence, although in theory all three navies have bought a common missile system—PAAMs—the British no doubt will be developing their own area-defense variant, at a considerable cost. Similarly, the British ships almost certainly will use the Sampson radar, which is very different from that planned for the French and Italian ships.

The British reportedly wanted larger ships; the French and the Italians wanted to limit size because many of their shipyards could not build the big ships the Royal Navy considered acceptable and even economical. The final straw may have been financial. Neither France nor Italy was likely to build even the projected small numbers of Project Horizon very soon. The French Navy spent very heavily on its new carrier the Charles de Gaulle and probably would prefer to buy a second carrier rather than invest in more surface escorts. Already, it has had to cancel the sixth projected La Fayette -class frigate, a ship far simpler than (and far less expensive than) the projected Horizon. Thus its stated requirement for four ships seems questionable, particularly since its version of the PAAMS system is intended mainly for point defense.

The Italian Navy hopes to build a 20,000-ton air-capable ship. Again, that project is almost certainly much more important than new surface combatants. In any event, their need for eight general-purpose frigates probably is more urgent than the need for two Horizons.

Project Horizon suffered from some other fundamental problems. It was a ship of the 1970s or 1980s, a single-purpose antiaircraft escort of a type NATO would have found absolutely essential had World War III broken out in the last few decades. In effect, it was a Ticonderoga (CG-47) Aegis cruiser or an Arleigh Burke (DDG-51) Aegis guided-missile destroyer with about half the missile capacity, but only two-thirds the size and quite possibly more expensive. The most important difference was not the missile system (PAAMS versus Aegis) but that the ship's vertical launching system could not accommodate large land-attack missiles such as Tomahawk.

The U.S. investment in missile ships seems to have been a very wise one is that the ships have proved adaptable to the needs of the post-Cold War era. Today, rather than being armed mainly for battle group defense or for self-defense (Sea Sparrows can, after all, fit in those vertical cells), they now are armed mainly with Tomahawks. If some sort of Cold War comes back, or if the fleet faces strong antiship threats, they can switch back. Project Horizon never offered anything like that sort of flexibility. It had far too few missile cells for its tonnage, and the cells were far too small. This is not to say that the Europeans should have bought Tomahawks, but rather that in their design they foreclosed their own options.

In the post-Cold War world, Western navies have been called upon mainly to project national power, often as part of a multi-national force. For many navies this is a profound shift of focus, albeit probably an inevitable one. It explains why countries such as Norway and Denmark suddenly have become interested in large next-generation frigates with the endurance needed for protracted out-of-area operations. Projecting power inevitably means striking at targets ashore. Project Horizon ships could not have done so, except by gunfire or by small missiles carried by the on-board helicopters. The main power projection roles available to a Project Horizon ship would have been to escort offensive ships and to enforce blockades or embargoes.

The great fact of life so often forgotten is that ship steel is very cheap. Bigger ships do not cost very much more than smaller ones carrying much the same combat systems. By extension, vertical launch cells do not cost much, either (until they are filled). It follows that an Arleigh Burke -size ship fitted with Project Horizon electronics would not cost very much more than a Horizon. It would have much more firepower, and it would be inherently far more flexible. It would have better seakeeping characteristics, and it would have greater endurance. It might also have a better chance of resisting damage, simply owing to its size. A larger ship also tends to be more durable.

Size offers flexibility, which is important because ships can turn into white elephants. The end of the Cold War made single-purpose NATO antisubmarine warfare ships largely obsolete; their classic convoy-escort mission nearly disappeared. During World War II, British naval constructors derided U.S. destroyers (which many British officers liked) for their excessive size. Postwar, both navies instituted mass conversion programs to deal with fast enemy submarines. The British had to retire their converted destroyers before the U.S. Navy because they were too small to incorporate the technology of the late 1950s and early 1960s. There was a world of difference between a Fleet Rehabilitation And Modernization (FRAM) I Gearing (DD-710)-class destroyer and a British Type 15 frigate, because there was so great a size disparity between the destroyers from which they had been converted. Similar arguments applied to aircraft carriers, cruisers, and submarines.

These points apply to any navy, but in the British case they gain force because the Royal Navy is limited in the number of its surface combatants—32 at this writing, or less than one-third the number in the U.S. Navy. Thus it would seem that the Royal Navy needs more- rather than less-capable ships, since its ships more often will have to operate in very small groups. To the extent that capability can be bought simply by providing a larger missile launcher in greater numbers on board each ship, it seems almost criminal to accept a less-capable ship of similar cost. Moreover, the larger number of launchers need not be filled initially. The launchers offer growth potential; they help endow the ship with a fully open architecture (the combat system already provides much of what is needed).

The more fundamental point is that, in a world changing much more rapidly than during the Cold War, a premium ought to be paid for the most open architecture possible. That affects the choice of combat direction system (including the bus, which is the element most difficult to change once the ship is built); the provision of the largest possible helicopter hangar (the helicopter offers a kind of open architecture); and the choice of missile launchers and their numbers. Numbers count because the ship probably needs a minimum number of defensive weapons; what is left over is the capacity for other things, which may include land-attack missiles.

In the U.S. Navy, the Tomahawk shooters have proved invaluable, because in many cases it is vital to be able to attack shore targets when a carrier is not available—or when the decision has been made not to risk air crews. This is not to say that air defense is no longer important, but rather that the combination of effective air defense and offensive capability has proven invaluable. How much more important must offensive capability be to a navy—like the Royal Navy—with fewer carriers and with many fewer aircraft on board each? That point would seem to apply even more strongly to the Italians and to the French.

Perhaps the most remarkable point about the Horizon program was that its creators ignored a very basic fact of modern naval life: that a ship's combat system accounts for a very large proportion of its overall cost and complexity. The hull wrapped around the combat system is not too important from an overall financial or industrial point of view. In Project Horizon, however, the emphasis was always on finding a common hull, which was the point on which the three navies tended most to disagree. There was some effort to develop a common combat system, but it was half-hearted. The result was that the details of hull and fittings, which were difficult to decide, fatally slowed the project without really helping anyone. The last time anyone made a choice this disastrous was in the NATO Frigate 90 (NFR 90), another dream that never materialized.

All of these points might seem theoretical, were it not for the considerable success of the German-Dutch air-defense frigate program, where the two partners simply chose a common weapon system, built around the Dutch active phased-array radar (APAR) and the U.S.-supplied Standard Missile. Each partner wrapped its own hull around the system. This program is on schedule and will deliver ships within the next few years. Not coincidentally, government intervention was minimized, and there seems to have been little or no attempt to insure that each partner gained an appropriate work share. Each navy simply wanted to replace aging air-defense ships—the Dutch Tromp class and the German Rommel (modified ex-U.S. Navy Charles F. Adams [DDG-2] class). These ships are still single-purpose antiair vessels, broadly equivalent to Horizon, so they still fall afoul of the argument that they should have had more vertical launchers (and their Mark 41s are presumably too short to accommodate Tomahawks). They are being built, however, whereas Horizon remains essentially a series of intractable arguments.

In the past, multinational programs often seemed attractive because they are much more difficult to cancel than purely national ones. They tend to be very protracted, but that was not objectionable during the during the drawn-out Cold War, when military requirements remained remarkably stable. Despite much talk about onrushing technology, there were lengthy periods during which stable designs were quite acceptable. Lest all of this appear to be an attack on Europe, one might include the U.S.-German rolling airframe missile (RAM) system in this category of very slow developers.

The two star examples, however, surely are Project Horizon and the Eurofighter. Both embody tactical concepts of the early 1980s, with some later technology. Neither is really well adapted to a post-Cold War world. Horizon is a single-purpose warship facing a complex world in which ships have many more roles. Technologically, it apparently does not reflect any current thinking on stealth, although that may not be entirely true. The Eurofighter is a point-defense interceptor, destined for a world in which, at least for a long time, none of its builders is likely to face an air threat at home. At least as designed, it is hardly the sort of long-range fighter-bomber useful in places like Iraq or Kosovo. Because its design dates from the 1980s, it does not embody much (if any) stealth technology. Moreover, it is likely to be so expensive (partly because the program has been running for so long) that the British will be unable to buy any advanced air-to-air missile to arm it, at least for a good decade.

Optimistically, the real meaning of the British withdrawal from Project Horizon is the realization that conventional weapons must pay their way—part of the transition from the Cold War to a much more violent era of overall peace. It remains to be seen whether Eurofighter will suffer a similar fate.


Norman Friedman is a prominent naval analyst and the author of more than thirty books covering a range of naval subjects, from warship histories to contemporary defense issues. He is a longtime columnist for Proceedings magazine and lives in New York City.

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