Some interesting new details about Britain’s future Type 32 Frigate came to light in a recent meeting in the parliament’s Defence Committee. As cited in UK Defence Journal, First Sea Lord Admiral Tony Radakin said:
“We are just kicking off the concept phase now. In terms of whether it will be an ASW platform, an AAW platform or more a general-purpose frigate, it is in the general-purpose frigate class. Does it have a wide spectrum of what it might be? At the moment, absolutely. The debate we had was whether this is really a Type 31 and just call it a batch 2. That could be one answer. Or, in the world that we are in, where the technology is moving so quickly, should we challenge ourselves about whether this could be a very different ship? It could have a lot more automation, a lot fewer ships company and a lot more in terms of some of the new technologies, whether drones or directed energy or some of the weapons that are coming through. That is why we have now started the concept phase to better understand what those choices are.”
The Type 32 Frigate is intended to increase the Royal Navy’s frigate and destroyer fleet from 19 to 24 when they come online in the 2030s.
Using Type 31 as a basis for the new design sounds like a good option. It is a flexible platform, and the first ships are just being built. There could be significant synergies in terms of component costs, maintenance and training. But reducing the manning in favor of automation and new technologies sounds like a terrible idea. This is the kind of over-optimism about technical innovation that I described in my article on Why Small Navies Prefer Warfighting over Counter-Piracy:
Nevertheless, Denmark still struggles with the low personnel numbers. The Danish warships were built to have a very lean manning. The Absalon-class originally had a crew of just 99 persons, and the Iver Huitfeldt-class was designed to have just 101 crewmembers (Danish Defence Command, 2013). These numbers have since been increased in the acknowledgement that they were too small, and the Danish warships now have a crew size that is closer to comparable warships in other countries. However, the desire to operate the ships with the leanest possible manning does reflect an inclination toward wishful thinking about what can be achieved with technical innovation.
The Type 31 Frigate is largely a modified Iver Huitfeldt-class design, and reducing the crew size further will not work any better for the Royal Navy than it did for the Danes.
Radakin also has some interesting observations about the need for flexible platforms that can be developed and improved throughout the lifetime of the ship. Essentially the trend is to build platforms with interchangeable equipment. This means that you can design the ship much faster because you don’t have to make all the choices upfront, and you can improve the capabilities after the ship is built.