Monday, 2 November 2015

21st Century Cruisers, the future of the Royal Navy?

Pictured above is HMS Blake, one of three Tiger class cruisers laid down for the Royal Navy at the end of the Second World War and completed in the early 1950s. She was the last warship in British service to be officially designated a cruiser. Equipped with quick-firing six and three inch guns, Sea Cat anti aircraft missiles and, later in her career, a large hangar for anti submarine helicopters; she remained a well-rounded surface combatant throughout her career, often in spite of her age. Why, you might ask, is a ship that was designed during WWII and decommissioned in 1979 at all relevant to the future of the Royal Navy?

Before the Second World War the RN was predominantly a "cruiser navy ", holding down a range of global deployments with its 15 heavy and 41 light cruisers. These ships had endurance and combat power at the core of their designs, each could operate alone for extended periods, effectively defend itself in most circumstances and demonstrate the interest or resolve of the government in a particular region. The ensuing World War and the Cold War radically changed the type of warships the RN needed. Instead of cruisers built for endurance and complex warfighting the navy built a profusion of smaller frigates and destroyers, mainly to guard convoys and fight submarines close to the UK and in the North Atlantic. To carry out these tasks the navy could make do with smaller, cheaper, ships with relatively shorter legs and far less ability to act independently in high threat environments. Trade-offs like these were made in order to ensure the navy got enough escorts to protect the convoys which would be vital to Britain's survival in the event of a war; and to hunt the Soviet ballistic missile submarines that threatened NATO. These were ships designed to act as part of a military system that would defeat the threat posed by hostile submarines. This system also included land based aircraft, anti submarine helicopters, aircraft and helicopter carriers and the enormous US/NATO SOSUS fixed sonar array. The Leander class is probably the most famous example of these sort of light frigates, operated by the RN into the early 1990s. When the immediate and pressing threat from submarines operating in the North Atlantic, be they German or Soviet, ceased to exist so the naval forces the UK had constructed to defeat them also fell by the wayside.These ships were, broadly speaking, a product of their time and a deviation from the much older structure that had served the RN well for centuries. This structure consisted of a core "battle fleet", made up of capital ships; mainly there to act as a deterrent, supported by powerful forward deployed cruisers that conducted most of the day to day activity.
HMS Euryalus, one of 26 Leander Class frigates built for the RN
By modern standards almost all of the cheap and numerous frigates and destroyers of the past, even the excellent Leanders, would be classed as lightly armed corvettes. The simple fact was that these cheap and numerous ships sacrificed a lot of capability in order to achieve the affordability necessary to build them in numbers. They were still recognisable as frigates built in the convoy escort mold. Similarly the Type 42 anti-aircraft warfare destroyers, in service from the mid-1970s, were also a design that compromised range and armament for numbers. At only 3500 tonnes the Batch 1 Type 42s were clearly a very light and economical design. When compared with their American counterparts, the 8000 tonne Spruance class, it's clear that these ships sacrificed range and armament for economy and numbers. Both the Leanders and the Type 42s are recognisable as frigates and destroyers, light warships designed to act in groups and alongside other warships, auxiliaries and aircraft to be effective in combat. The closest the RN came to "cruiser" designs during the Cold War were the eight County Class missile destroyers commissioned in the early 1960s and HMS Bristol, the sole survivor of the pre-1968 carrier escort programme. While these destroyer classes were cruiser-like in some aspects, they carried a far more comprehensive armament and had a greater range (in terms of fuel) than their contemporaries, they lacked the self-sustainment ability, protection, survivability and range of "true" cruisers. While Bristol was initially labelled a light cruiser by Jane's, the Royal Navy always saw her for what she was: an oversize missile destroyer with the similar limitations to the navy's other destroyers.
HMS Bristol, the closest the RN came to a new cruiser during the Cold War
With the later Type 22 and 23 frigates the RN moved to fewer, more individually capable, platforms. This change was partly necessitated by the introduction of a new generation of bigger towed array sonars which required larger ships to operate effectively. Despite their greatly improved self defence ability, achieved by fitting the Sea Wolf point defence missile system, these ships were still designed to be expendable escorts and lacked the endurance of cruisers. That said, these two classes signalled the start of the navy's shift from a fleet of numerous, small and cheap escorts to fewer, larger ships capable of independent operations in a high threat environment.

This brings us right up to the present day situation, with the RN currently operating nineteen high end surface escorts: six Type 45 destroyers and thirteen Type 23 frigates. It is expected that the first of a new class of escorts, the Type 26 "global combat ship ",  will be ordered in the upcoming SDSR. These ships, and the Type 45s before them, constitute a step-change in the navy's design approach to its surface combatants. Both classes are recognisably cruiser-like ships at around 8000 tonnes, with nearly double the endurance of their predecessors (giving them a similar range to WWII light cruisers). The smaller crews of these ships has improved their ability to act autonomously for extended periods, with far less support needed from auxiliary tankers and stores ships. They have the potential for an extensive armament suitable for power projection and can individually defend themselves and other ships from a variety of threats. This potential will be realised from the start with the Type 26, however, the Type 45s currently lack the Mk.41 strike-length VLS cells they were "fitted for but not with". That said, the RN has been working to integrate ballistic missile defence software with the Type 45s existing air defence radars, this suggests that the long-term intention may very well be to fit the 12 strike-length cells; in order to make use of the american SM-3 anti-ballistic missile and a next-generation anti ship missile (which will eventually replace the RN's aging Harpoon system). With access to the range of weaponry available for the Mk.41 launcher Type 45 has the potential to develop from a dedicated anti-aircraft platform into a more well rounded general purpose surface combatant, or it could be utilised as a more specialised AAW/ballistic missile defence platform.
The Type 26 frigate and Type 45 destroyer, RN cruisers for the 21st century.
Extrapolating current trends leads to a pretty clear vision for the RN's future surface escort fleet: large powerful ships capable of a very broad range of independent action. These ships will require fewer auxiliaries to support, relying instead on their ability to range much further from their bases in the UK and Bahrain. More of the existing auxiliary fleet will be needed to support the UK's new carrier group when it participates in high-intensity operations, this will likely be achieved by reducing the need to support the escort fleet to the extent we currently do. While the navy will almost certainly continue to describe it's major surface combatants as frigates and destroyers, the line between the two will only be the anti-submarine equipment carried by the "frigates" and the area air defence equipment of the "destroyers". Both classes will, in effect, be specialised cruisers; bearing little resemblance to their immediate or historical predecessors. The Royal Navy seems to be returning to it's historical structure, a forward-deployed "cruising navy" supported by a potent UK-based "battle fleet" consisting of Carriers and nuclear powered attack submarines. While HMS Blake may have been the last ship the RN operated that was officially designated a cruiser, the navy currently has six distinctly cruiser-like ships, and plans to build thirteen more. The future of the navy lies in two classes of what are, in effect, 21st century cruisers.

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