While historically it is perhaps the most common large warship, the US Navy hasn't a single frigate left in its fleet for the first time since 1943 ... and it's looking for a new one. Meanwhile, many other navies, both large and small, are replacing theirs with frigates more suitable to the 21st century. So what will the frigates of the future look like and how will they impact future conflicts?

When we look at modern navies, it's easy to be mesmerized by larger, more glamorous ships like supercarriers and nuclear submarines, but it's thanks to the frigate that these stars of the seas are able to even leave port safely. Called the "eyes of the fleet," frigates fit in size between a smaller corvette and a larger destroyer, and act as a multirole warship that can act independently of the fleet and free up larger ships in medium-threat areas.

It's been this way ever since the first frigates were introduced in the Age of Sail (mid-16th to mid-19th century) and were immortalized in the novels of C. S. Forester, Alexander Kent, and Patrick O'Brien. In those days, frigates were small, fast, square-rigged, three-masters equipped with light armament. They weren't suitable to fight with the rest of the fleet in formal battles, but they were ideal for long-range solo missions all over the world, including patrols, convoy escorts, blockades, anti-piracy and anti-slavery interdictions, and exploration.

The modern frigate

During the Second World War, the frigate name was revived by the Royal Navy and used to describe a new class of anti-submarine ships that were fast and maneuverable, yet inexpensive to build and maintain. During the Cold War, there was an explosion of new technologies and frigates morphed into a bewildering array of variants as they were lumbered with new sonars, radar, guided missiles, helicopters, flight decks, hangars, and other advanced gear.

Today, the definition of a frigate is a bit flexible, with many ships that one navy would call a destroyer referred to in another as a frigate – as in the French, German, Spanish navies. But they are still medium-sized, general purpose warships that are fast and maneuverable, and can carry out a variety of low- to medium-threat missions in blue water and other areas. Since the introduction of the French La Fayette class, a stealth hull that is very quiet and has a tiny radar cross section has been added to the description.

Modern frigates are also far more capable than they were in the past, with a single ship enjoying capabilities that would have required a task force only 40 years ago. Today's frigates are powered by gas turbine engines or hybrid propulsion systems, have advanced radar that can detect a supersonic golf ball, the latest sonar and towed arrays, and a formidable suite of vertical launch missiles, cruise missiles, and deck guns.

And then there are the helicopters that have evolved from tiny scouting craft to long-range hunters. Their sonobuoys, dipping sonars, and magnetometers, combined with depth charges and homing torpedoes, make them a submariner's worst nightmare. They can also act as airborne early warning systems against fighter or missile attacks, and can even engage and destroy other ships with their own missiles.

The problem

The problem with frigates is that they have become the victim of the end of the Cold War, which resulted in decades of underfunding, neglect, and slow replacement for almost 30 years. The US Navy had 100 frigates when the USSR was formally dissolved in December 1991. Today, there are none and the Americans are realizing that the alternatives they are relying on aren't up to scratch.

Other major and minor navies are in a similar predicament. Britain, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, and other NATO powers are trying to find the best replacement for their Cold War frigates. The same is true for navies on almost every continent. And it isn't just a matter of finding the money to place orders at the shipyard. Technology is on the move and there's been a sea change in frigate design.

These new advances in technology are both the worst part of the problem and the best part of the solution. As technology advances, costs of developing, building, maintaining, and running ships increase as well. Taken to its absurd conclusion, this would ultimately result in a country having the most formidable warship ever built, but ending up with a fleet of exactly one hull.

It's a problem that the US and Britain have addressed in the past by accepting the fact that they'd have to settle for shrinking fleets made up of super ships. That's why the Royal Navy is now 77 ships – smaller than it was in the days of Henry VIII – and the US Navy is now frigateless.

Future Frigate (FFGX)

Until recently, the US Navy has addressed this deficiency by trying to adapt to a post-Cold War world. Since the 1990s, the winning argument has been that since the Soviet Union is gone and the Russian Navy spends most of its time rusting at the pier, the days of preparing to engage an equal-sized enemy on the high seas were over. Instead, the foes of tomorrow were supposed to be regional hostiles who mainly operated in littoral areas – that is, the shallow waters on the continental shelves and smaller seas like the Mediterranean or the Taiwan Strait.

To deal with these environments (and save money) the Americans invested in the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). With a displacement of about 3,000 tons, the LCS is a bit on the small side and it has half the crew of a frigate, but it has a new modular design that allows it to be quickly adapted to different missions by swapping out one module for another.

It's not a bad design and the US Navy is commissioning quite a few of them. It has a top speed of over 40 knots (74 km/h, 46 mph), is relatively well armed for its size, and is made for high-speed deployment. However, it's also not designed for blue water cruising and is poorly defended against air and missile attacks, so it's largely restricted to low-threat environments. This means that for anything hairier, the Navy has to pull in much more valuable destroyers and cruisers to do the job.

To fill this gap, the US Navy is seeking to build 20 new guided-missile frigates (FFG(X)) at a cost of about US$800 million each. These will be larger than the LCS and fitted out like frigates of old, though with room for a lot of new technology and the ability to handle medium-level threats.

Because there was a new imperative to keep costs down, the new frigate isn't a completely new design and the bidding was open to both American and foreign companies, though US law required the production ships to be constructed in an American shipyard.

The exact details of the FFG(X) are still in flux, but we do have some idea of what it will look like from its specifications. In terms of armament, it will have 32 Mk 41 Vertical Launch System (VLS) cells that can carry up to 128 Block II RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles (ESSM), and in the future could include the multipurpose Standard Missile 6 (SM-6), Tomahawk cruise missiles, and the RUM-139 Vertical Launched Anti-Submarine Rocket that can deliver a small homing torpedo to targets over 13 mi (21 km) away. In addition, there will be a 57mm deck gun using the Advanced Low-Cost Munitions Ordnance (ALaMO) guided shell, and a SeaRAM close-in defense system.

This deadly combination is backed up by a three-face fixed array Enterprise Air Surveillance Radar (EASR), a fixed sonar array and two variants of towed sonar. In addition, the FFG(X) has expansion space and spare electrical power to accommodate a 150-kilowatt solid-state laser weapon when they are deployed, as well as flight deck and hangar for an MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter and MQ-8C Fire Scout drone.

But one harbinger of the navy of the future is the new communications' suite that will allow the new US frigate to use the Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) network. This new interactive system allows warships, aircraft, and other platforms to coordinate with one another, turning them into one giant weapon. Instead of acting as a central command post, the next-generation frigate will work in coordination in a way that will, for example, allow F-35s to act as advanced scouts while remaining radar silent, and as local command units for drone swarms while recon aircraft can take control and guide missiles in flight.

Currently, the US Navy plans to award the first contracts for the FFG(X) in 2020 with another to follow each subsequent year. In 2018, General Dynamics Bath Iron Works, Fincantieri Marine, Huntington Ingalls, Austal USA, and Lockheed Martin were given US$18 million each to develop design proposals.

Type 26

Unlike the US Navy, Britain's Royal Navy still has its frigates, but is suffering from both a shrinking fleet and the need to revamp its 19 remaining frigates. Central to this is the Type 26 City-class that is currently under construction. Also known as the Global Combat Ship and the Future Surface Combatant (FSC), the Type 26 was originally designed to replace the navy's 13 Type 23 frigates, but was also intended to be of a general enough multi-mission design to make it suitable for export – which turned out to be very successful with sales of the design to Canada and Australia.

Like the American FFG(X), the Type 26 is meant to be a high-end frigate filled with the latest technology and carries a crew of 118. Displacing 6,900 tonnes with a length of 492 ft (150 m), it's powered by gas turbine engines and four high-speed diesel generators driving two electric motors in a combined diesel-electric or gas (CODLOG) configuration, giving it a top speed of over 26 knots (30 mph, 48 km/h), and a range of 7,000 nautical miles (8,055 mi, 13,000 km).

The armament has a similar sting to its US counterpart with 48 VLS canisters holding Sea Ceptor (CAMM) air-defense missiles and 24-cell Mark 41 "strike-length VLS" cells for Tomahawk missile, anti-submarine missiles, or current and future anti-ship missiles. In addition, there's a NATO-standard BAE 5-in, 62-calibre Mark 45 deck guns and two Phalanx CIWS anti-missile auto-fire guns.

Air support is in the form of two AgustaWestland AW159 Wildcat or AgustaWestland Merlin helicopters and the next generation of UAVs. However, the flight deck is large enough to accommodate a Boeing Chinook transport helicopter.

Type 31e

The main problem with the Type 26 is its cost, with the first three coming in at £3.7 billion (US$4.9 billion). Faced with increasing costs and the threat of a fleet shrinking beneath the minimum size to carry out its mission, the British government decided to start a second frigate program, the Type 31e. It would be a return to the more balanced fleet structure of the 1960s and '70s, with the Type 31e replacing the Leander, Rothesay, and Tribal class of the day.

Also known as the General Purpose Frigate, the idea was to create a cheaper, multi-mission ship that would take on the more general tasks of the fleet, leaving the more specialized Type 26 to handle jobs like protecting the carrier strike forces or escorting Trident submarines in and out of their homeport in Rosyth, Scotland. Meanwhile, the type 31e would deal with maritime security; defense engagement; fleet escorts; patrols in the South Atlantic, the Caribbean, and the Gulf; as well as fulfilling NATO duties.

The present plan is to build five Type 31e frigates and eight Type 26s by the mid-2030s, with the hope that the less expensive frigate would allow the British fleet to actually expand for the first time in decades. In addition, its simpler, modular design makes it attractive as an export product, and the Type 31e would provide the Royal Navy with ships that could be used as deployable task groups by the aircraft carriers.

The Type 31e has had a rocky career since it was announced in 2015, with bidding suspended in 2018 when the proposals submitted were deemed to be inadequate. However, the frigate is under contract to BAE Systems, Babcock and Atlas Elektronik UK and is now expected to enter service in 2023 at a total cost of £1.25 billion (US$1.65 billion).

Despite its more modest design, the Type 31e will have a medium deck gun, point defense systems, and flight deck and hangar capable of handling helicopters of up to 10 tonnes. Down below, there are accommodations for up to 140 personnel, including the crew of 80.

The frigate yet to come

Currently, new frigate building programs are aimed at balancing how to make warships that are advanced enough for the job, yet cheap enough to prevent the fleets from shrinking radically. But there are other factors emerging in the form of radically new technologies.

One interesting point is that the development of the next generation of frigates echoes that of the next generation of fighter aircraft. In recent decades, the cost of fighters rose exponentially while the development times stretched out to almost a generation. The result was to find trade-offs in 5th-generation fighters like the F-35 Lighting II by making them multi-role machines while keeping down the cost and making them more formidable by turning them into force multipliers rather than one-on-one dog fighters.

A similar thing is happening with the frigate. The new networking technologies mean that, though the frigate is still designed to operate alone, it can fight as part of a giant cyber network where every asset from ships to aircraft to drones to individual weapons constantly share information with one another and support one another far beyond what even today's command and control systems can manage. In practical terms, this means, for example, when a frigate launches a helicopter, it isn't just linked by a radio conversation, but the aircraft becomes a digital extension of the frigate's entire sensor and weapons systems while the frigate becomes part of the aircraft's eyes and defenses.

Connected to this is the emerging field of cyber warfare that make modern electronic countermeasures look like Second World War radio jamming. The frigate of the future will have to operate in an environment where binary code can be as deadly as a torpedo and where the menace may lie in a seemingly innocent silicon chip nestled in an engine room computer.

Other technologies will also have an impact. New frigates are already anticipating the energy needs of laser weapons and rail guns that replace gunpowder with electromagnets. Then there are smart munitions down to self-guiding shells and networked missiles, not to mention proliferating capabilities of both flying and floating drones. The captain of tomorrow may not only command a ship, but also a swarm of flying drones or companion robotic vessels with capabilities equal to that of a manned frigate.

This automation will also extend to the frigate itself. Already warships need only a fraction of the crew they once had as robotics take over tasks like handling munitions or the launch and recovery of small craft. It may be that the frigate of tomorrow will be man-optional, with some needing no crew at all for routine operations.

But whatever the future brings, no matter if the frigate looks like something out of the 1950s or a science fiction epic, the job will remain the same. So long as the job is there, it will be the eyes of the fleet.

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