In August, the Royal Navy released details of its next surface combatant, the Type 26, a modular ship. Announced plans are to build 13 of these vessels to replace the surviving 13 Type 23 frigates. All were intended primarily for antisubmarine warfare (ASW); the Type 23s were conceived as minimum towed-array ships to work in the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) Gap mainly in support of maritime patrol aircraft. With the end of the Cold War, this mission disappeared, and the Type 23s found themselves carrying out a wide variety of peacetime missions, such as drug interdiction in the Caribbean and anti-piracy work off Somalia. An incidental effect of the change from harsh GIUK waters to calmer ones is that the ships’ hulls have lasted far longer than expected. (Cynics may suspect that the ships’ longevity is really the consequence of successive governments’ reluctance to buy replacements on a timely basis.)
Comparing the Type 26 to the U.S. Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) shows how wide a range the concept of modularity covers. The Type 26 is a 5,500-ton frigate that can be built in one of at least two versions. In appearance it is a scaled-down Type 45 destroyer with the same sort of tower foremast, in this case topped by the Artisan three-dimensional radar rather than the big Sampson of the Type 45. The Type 26 was conceived as part of a long-running project to design a Future Surface Combatant, which was originally to have been built in three versions of varying capability (and cost).
The Type 26 is apparently the ASW variant, presumably a direct replacement for the current Type 23, with much the same systems as the projected modernized Type 23. They include the Sea Centor vertically launched suface-to-air missile (replacing the current Seawolf) and the Type 2087 low-frequency active-passive sonar (towed pinger plus array plus medium-frequency bow array). Sea Centor is an active-radar-guided derivative of the current British short-range air-to-air missile, also known as CAMMS (Common Modular Missile System). It uses an uplink for mid-course guidance. The ship will have a single gun, either the 4.5-inch currently standard in the Royal Navy, or perhaps a derivative of the U.S. 5-inch/62 (BAE owns United Defense, which makes the U.S. gun). There may be provision for a more powerful gun; in the past BAE has advertised a 155-mm gun within the footprint of its 4.5 inch.
Another version of the same hull would be a gunboat (perhaps designated Type 27) supporting special operations, with the towed sonar replaced by a slipway for a fast raiding boat (this version would, apparently, retain a bow sonar). Type 27 may also have a larger vertical launcher with provision for land-attack missiles. Both versions have large helicopter decks and empty spaces aft for replaceable modules. Given the signal-processing requirements of the sonar, that is probably the role of the space in the ASW version; in the other version it likely supports the boat. The slipway also can be used to launch unmanned craft, in which case the combination of slipway and space might support a mine-countermeasures system (if the space is large enough).
BAE, the builder, also expects to offer (for export) an anti-air warfare (AAW) version using the Sampson radar of the Type 45 and (presumably) a smaller number of missiles. The main difference from the Type 45 may actually be elimination of command facilities and perhaps drastic reduction in helicopter capacity, rather than in the number of missiles (which is not very great even in the big Type 45).
All versions of the design can accommodate 36 troops (for special operations). In contrast to the LCS, the Type 26 is relatively slow, at about 28 knots.
In some accounts the Type 26 is designated the Global Frigate; the British government hopes to sell export versions. Brazil is reportedly interested, but approaches to Australia and Canada, both of which plan major surface ship building programs, have apparently failed (at least for now). Reportedly the British Ministry of Defence has also approached India and Turkey.
The Value of Modularity
For the Type 26, modularity means mainly that the same hull can be completed in various forms. The Royal Navy is hardly the first to embrace this way of spreading out the cost of hull and machinery design over the largest possible number of ships. Examples from the past are the U.S. Spruance class (which could be built in both ASW and AAW versions, the latter materializing as the Kidd class and then as the Ticonderogas) and the German commercial MEKO frigate. In the German case, the builder minimized the cost of hull design by allowing the customer to choose whatever weapon and sensor fit he wanted, within fairly wide limits. In both cases, allowing for multiple alternative systems increases the size of the hull, but hull steel is cheap.
The Royal Danish Navy pushed this kind of modularity further in its StanFlex 300 series (Flyvesken class), beginning with a 450-ton corvette. In its case the idea was that modules should be quickly replaced to change a ship’s role (a small number of corvettes replaced numerous older hulls). Danish experience seems to show that such replacement is actually rare, because a ship’s crew specializes to a considerable extent. Presumably the sort of modularity adopted by the Royal Navy reflects that lesson. On the other hand, current modular Danish ships have large internal bays more reminiscent of the U.S. Littoral Combat Ship.
In the LCS, modularity means that the same hull shifts easily and quickly from role to role, and that the keys to the various roles are unmanned vehicles (air, surface, and underwater). The modularity involved is really much like that of an aircraft carrier. In most of her modes the ship is a carrier of various unmanned vehicles, the containers taken on board holding what is needed to maintain them. We are so used to carrier modularity that we have forgotten how special it is. The same ship, with some changes in maintenance equipment, can host radically different air wings with different kinds of aircraft—the key is its huge hangar and flight deck combination.
An LCS has a large hangar plus launching facilities for unmanned vehicles, including (but not limited to) a flight deck. In one variant, the Independence (LCS-2), the payload is controlled by a combat information center (CIC) separate from that adjacent to the bridge. To some, that seems outré, even ridiculous. However, if you think about a carrier, it makes much better sense: The payload CIC is analogous to the aircraft-operations control (and planning) spaces of a carrier. It is striking that the great gap in LCS manning is in those who launch and recover the unmanned vehicles—the equivalent to the carrier’s deck personnel.
Payloads or Platforms?
All of this suggests that the emphasis on a focused payload as a way of producing an affordable ship is misguided. Carriers succeed in part because they can mix and match payloads (aircraft and weapons) as needed, using those enormous empty spaces on board. Right now it may take the full hangar to accommodate one kind of payload, but as electronics shrink and become more reliable, surely the same space will accommodate multiple payloads, either of one or of several types. The constant will be the ability to deploy those payloads.
Most of the payloads in turn are ways of deploying offboard sensors to deal with the difficult conditions of a littoral area. For example, poor acoustic conditions and underwater topography limit the reach of sonar in coastal areas. Strewing (and monitoring) underwater arrays can transform the situation. Using multiple UUVs might make it possible to clear (or at least to delineate) a minefield far more quickly than a single minehunter can. The LCS also seems to be the natural successor to the old APD as a transport for small numbers of special-operations personnel.
It may make sense to distinguish between modules that are like those of an aircraft carrier and those that add integral hull weapons and sensors, but do not have much impact on the internal hangar space—things such as the 30-mm guns intended to repel swarm boats, or a towed sonar. One might suspect that the main reason these fittings are treated as modules is that if their weight were combined with that of the usual modules, the ship would not make the spectacular maximum speed claimed for her. Since that speed is probably the least important attribute of the LCS, this distinction seems unfortunate.
Of course, it is also true that making any of the hull weapon systems permanent would raise the unit price of an LCS, and that an important goal of the program is to produce large numbers of affordable hulls. That is not a new idea; it is why the Spruances were completed with so little armament. The appropriate phrase, invented by the British, is that ships can be “fitted for but not with” important features, which are added later, when money becomes available. Surface guns are not a module in the same sense as a complete mine-countermeasures system. It is also possible that the designed crew cannot support any of the hull weapons the ship can accommodate, but that can be resolved, perhaps by slight enlargement of the vessel.
We might learn from some of the British ideas. In adopting Sea Centor, the British have taken advantage of a combination of two current antiaircraft technologies. One is three-dimensional track-while-scan radar. A second is self-homing missiles with uplink mid-course guidance. The radar provides sufficient information for the uplink to direct the missile into a homing “basket,” and the missile takes over. This does not work very well at long range—Aegis is still well worth the price of admission—but it offers considerable value closer in. Sea Centor uses active radar guidance. The Swedish, Finnish, and South African navies have done about the same thing with infrared guidance. A version of Evolved Sea Sparrow is to have an active radar seeker (plus its existing uplink), and the LCS already has a three-dimensional track-while-scan radar.
The combination might well be worth investigating, because it would not entail any encroachment on the big hangar or flight deck in the form of fire-control radar. We already envisage an ASW module (for blue water) involving a towed sonar, and the proposed shallow-water operating concept (using bottom arrays) is something a Type 26 cannot support. Of course both we and the British can easily support raiding craft, but presumably we gain considerably from all of that hangar space in the LCS. The high speed of the LCS may be another story.