The Royal Navy is looking to the past as the way to build the fleet of the future. The British Defence Secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, has unveiled the government's plan to increase the size of the Navy by embarking on a crash program to build a new class of frigate costing no more than £250 million (US$327 million) each. Called the Type 31e, its designed to bring back the general purpose frigates of the last century as a way to free up the new, more expensive and specialized Type 26 frigates.

One of the paradoxes of technological advances is that it can mean having to hold onto a lot of old technology. A case in point is military and especially naval technology.

In 1945, the Royal Navy had about 900 major warships. Today, despite Britain being much wealthier in absolute terms, the fleet has shrunk to only 77 ships, with 19 frigates and destroyers, 10 submarines, and one helicopter carrier. There are many reasons for this decline, but one important factor is that today's warships have capabilities far beyond those of their counterparts from just a generation ago. This means that a single frigate can match the entire task force from the 1982 Falklands War, but ends up costing as much as that task force.

The same is true of all the other advanced navies of the world. As technology advances, costs of developing, building, maintaining, and running ships increase as well. Taken to its absurd conclusion, this would ultimately result in having the most formidable warship ever built, but ending up with a fleet of exactly one hull.

This isn't too far from the situation the Royal Navy is heading towards today. According to the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Philip Jones, the new Type 26 frigates are magnificent ships, but there will be only eight of them when completed, and there are 13 Type 23 frigates that are serving well beyond their projected service life to fill a gap that may never be filled if the current building program continued as is.

Acting on the recommendations of an independent study by Sir John Parker on British Naval shipbuilding, the government has announced a new National Shipbuilding Strategy that focuses on developing a new Type 31e frigate. The plan is to cap the price at £250 million per ship and develop and deliver the new ships in the same timeframe as the Type 26, with the first Type 31e delivered by 2023.

The hope is that this will not only fill the gaps left by the small number of Type 26s, but will also allow the fleet to grow even in a time of tight budgets, open a new market for exporting such ships by reselling them at a midlife point, and improve the Navy's global reach. In addition, by exploiting the same modular design used in the Queen Elizabeth class carriers, production can be speeded up by farming the job out to many shipyards and oversea vendors, giving a boost to the shipbuilding sector of the economy.

In a speech given today, the First Sea Lord emphasized that the Type 31e was not a cheap fix, but a return to the deployment of general purpose frigates that were the backbone of the Navy in the days of Nelson and the Cold War.

"[T]he Type 31e is not going to be a glorified patrol vessel or a cut price corvette." says Admiral Jones. "It's going to be, as it needs to be, a credible frigate that reflects the time honored standards and traditions of the Royal Navy."

The purpose of the Type 31e will be to 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.

To do this, the general design of the new frigate will include a hangar and flight deck for a small helicopter and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles; accommodations for a ship's company of 80 to 100 plus a number of mission specialists; storage for sea boats, disaster relief supplies, and specialist gear; and the ability to be refitted with new systems and weapons.

In addition, it must be capable of sustained independent operations anywhere in the world in a manner that would be familiar to the fictional Horatio Hornblower. Admiral Jones sees this as 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.

Jones acknowledged that tight budget discipline will be needed to produce the Type 31e under budget and in the numbers needed, but that the alternative is a "vicious cycle where fewer, more expensive ships enter service late, and older ships are retained well beyond their sell by date and become increasingly expensive to maintain."

"I am very impressed by the courage that the Secretary of State has shown – and the Government – in adopting my recommendations, which were very extensive, and will change the shape of naval shipbuilding over the country in the future," says Sir John Parker. "The next challenge is to come up with a world-leading design; one that can satisfy the needs of the Royal Navy and the export market. We have the capability to do that, the will is there and it is a tremendous opportunity for UK shipbuilding. I see no reason why industry will not rise to that challenge. There is an incredible keenness from around the country, from Scotland to Merseyside, to the South West and over to Belfast."