The frigate is today the surface combatant of excellence for the navies of the first rank, combining the versatility of their sensors with advanced weapon systems to ensure a wide range of missions, from escort to control of maritime spaces, and sometimes even denial of access and land strikes. In this article, we will study some of the main classes of modern medium-tonnage frigates, called to become the backbone of many navies in the world, in order to compare them with each other but also to refine the perception of the technological balance of power and military in the naval field.
China: Type 054A
With 30 units in service for the People's Liberation Army alone, the presented first class frigate is the most prolific of the frigates since the famous American OH Perry class. Entered into service in 2008, the Type 054A is 134 meters long and weighs barely 4000 tonnes when loaded. However, this frigate specializing in anti-submarine warfare is remarkably well equipped, with 32 vertical cells for medium-range HQ-16 anti-aircraft missiles (max 50 km, Buk family) and Y-8 missiles, local version of the US anti-submarine SUBROC. In addition, 8 C-803 subsonic anti-ship missiles with grazing trajectory with a range of 180 km, 2 triple torpedo launchers of 324mm, 2 close anti-aircraft systems CIWS Type-730 of 30mm, and a main gun 26mm PJ76.
Each frigate also has a PESA Type 382 radar with a power of 100 KW capable of detecting a hunter at high altitude at a distance of 250 km, as well as an MGK-385 hull sonar and a sonar towed H / SJG-206, giving it anti-submarine detection capabilities both in coastal areas and in the high seas. The combat system of the ZKJ-4B / 6 ship is derived from the TAVITAC system of Thomson-CSF, today Thales, within the framework of technology transfers in the 2000s when the two countries maintained very close relations. Beijing was then the main customer of the French defense industry.
Although light, the Type 054A are in fact well armed and equipped, and able to carry out anti-submarine escort missions, one of the privileged missions of frigates in the world. With an export price of less than $ 400 million, it is also very economical, and has already been chosen by Pakistan (4 units) and Thailand (3 units). A more modern version, the Type 054B, should soon see the light of day. This frigate should benefit from the latest Chinese technological advances, and in particular from a flat-faced EASA radar, a locally made combat system, new armaments andan electric propulsion system. It should also be longer and more imposing, but in a limited way, the Chinese nomenclature being strict on its needs in terms of tonnage.
France: FDI Belharra Program
122m long for 4500 tonnes in load, the Defense and Intervention Frigate, or IDF, designated Belharra for export, is today the flagship of the French military naval industry. Ordered in 5 units by the French Navy, it will complete the surface fleet made up of the FREMMs of the Aquitaine and Alsace classes, and the FDA Horizon of the Forbin class. Although almost 25% lighter than FREMM, the FDI retains a large part of its capacities, especially in its export version as offered to the Greek Navy, with 3 Sylver 50 for 24 octuple vertical launcher systems Aster 30 anti-aircraft missiles with a range of over 100 km, and a Sylver 70 system for 8 MdCN cruise missiles reaching more than 1500 km. In addition, the frigate has the brand new AESA flat face radar Sea Fire 500 from Thales, offering very extensive capabilities for the detection of aerial targets, but also surface or ballistic targets.
Alongside the traditional (for French ships) 2 × 4 MM40 Block 3C Exocet anti-ship missiles and the 76mm gun, the Belharra also has remarkable anti-submarine capabilities, a specialty of the French naval industry, with a Kingklip hull sonar and a Captas-4 towed sonar, completed by its NH90 CAIMAN Marine helicopter and its Flash tempered sonar. Both Caiman and Belharra have Mu90 light torpedoes to take on the submersible once located. In addition, the ship has a high degree of automation and data digitization, making it appear as a “digital” frigate according to Naval Group, its designer.
However, the FDI is not without weaknesses. First of all, its price remains high, at € 750m per unit in the export version 4 sylver, excluding ammunition. Above all, it is handicapped by the limitations of the French VLS Sylver system which, unlike the American Mk41s or the Russian UKSK, does not allow different types of missile to be loaded depending on the mission. Thus, the Sylver70 can only use MdCN cruise missiles, the Sylver 43 only Aster 15 anti-aircraft missiles, the Sylver 50 being the only exception in being able to receive Aster 15 or 30.
French (and Italian) ships are therefore deprived of the flexibility provided by VLS, and do not have, moreover, an offer of anti-aircraft missiles of intermediate range capable of being embarked at 4 per cell, as this is the case with the American RIM-162 ESSM. The MICA VL missile would be the perfect candidate for this, but the developments, however useful both for export and to give a second life to the MICA of the Air Force and the Navy, have never been launched by the French authorities. In fact, although potentially well armed and equipped, the Belharra is sometimes at a disadvantage in international competitions.
Italy: PPA class Thaon di Revel
The Italian PPA, to Multi-purpose Offshore Patrol, of the Thaon di Revel class, are original ships. Imposing like heavy frigates, with a length of 143 m and a loaded tonnage of 6000 tons, as much as the French Aquitaine, they are however listed as Polyvalent Patrollers in the nomenclature of the Italian Navy, and are delivered according to 3 standards of equipment, Light, Light + and Full, more or less well armed and ready for higher intensity missions.
The full PPA thus carries 2 Sylver50 systems to implement 16 Aster 30 anti-aircraft missiles guided using a new dual-band 3D AESA radar developed by Leonardo. The anti-ship capabilities are entrusted to the 8 Teseo Otomat Mk2 missiles as well as to the heavy on-board artillery, even according to the Italian standard, with a 127 mm and 64 calibers gun firing in particular Volcano guided shells ranging a 120 km, 76mm Strales, and two 2mm Oerlikon KBA B25 guns for close protection.
The ship also has an enhanced anti-submarine capability with ATAS towed sonar, and 2 triple 324mm torpedo launchers for Black Arrow light anti-submarine torpedoes. Finally, the ship can use two S2 medium helicopters or one EH90 Merlin heavy helicopter. Italian Navy plans to acquire 16 ships, but only 7 units, including 2 full standard, have been ordered to date, for an amount of € 3,9 billion, development included. The option for the following 3 units, all at full standard, must be lifted before May 2021, and will most likely be given the marked ambitions of Italy in the naval field.
The fact remains that the PPAs have an ambiguous position on the international scene. Neither OPV nor truly frigate, they are struggling to find commercial outlets for the time being, handicapped, like the French Belharra, by a high price and a Sylver system lacking in flexibility.
India / Russia: Talwar Program (Admiral Grigorovich)
Commissioned by New Delhi from Moscow to strengthen and modernize its surface fleet, the Talwar program is based on the Russian Project 11356P / M frigates, designated by the Russian Navy as thea class Admiral Grigorovich, and by NATO as Krivak IV. 125 m long, they weigh only 4000 tonnes when loaded, and as is often the case with Russian ships, they are heavily armed for a ship of this size. Indeed, they carry, in addition to the A-190 gun of 100mm, 8 Brahmos anti-ship missiles piloted by 2 UKSK systems, as well as 24 medium-range anti-aircraft missiles 9M317M, a naval version of the Buk system can reach targets 50 km away while flying at Mach 4.
Inheritance from their past, the Admiral Grigorovich also implement 2 hexatube close range self-protection systems CIWS AK-630 30 mm, and a close anti-aircraft system armed with 8 Verba missiles, the ultimate version of the famous infantry missile SA -7. Aerial surveillance is carried out by an M2M Fregat radar, designed to be able to detect a fighter at 230 km and a missile at 50 km. The anti-submarine component, the primary function of the Krivak frigates, relies on an MGK-335EM-03 hull sonar and a Vinyetka-EM towed sonar, as well as on the onboard sonar of the Ka-27 helicopter carried by ship. 2 heavy 533mm twin torpedo tubes and an RBU-6000 rocket launcher complete the anti-submarine armament.
3 frigates entered service between 2016 and 2017 in the Russian Black Sea fleet. The next 2 units were sold during construction to the Indian Navy, while the last two will be built by the Indian shipyards in Goa. The Indian ships will enter service between 2024 and 2027, and will have cost $ 475m per unit.
Japan: 30DX Program
Traditionally, the designation of "frigate" within Japanese naval self-defense forces, was not in use, and even vessels with a tonnage between 2000 and 3000 tons were referred to as "escort destroyer". But the new program of Japanese multipurpose frigates 30DX breaks with this nomenclature, to follow Western standards. Indeed, the frigates of this program, intended to replace the Abukuma-class escort destroyers, will reach 5.500 tons in load, for a length of 130 meters.
The armament of the 30DX is quite comparable to that of European frigates of the same tonnage, with a 45 mm Mk-127 gun, 2 Mk41 octuple systems for 16 vertical silos equipped with RIM-162 ESSM anti-aircraft missiles and the anti-aircraft missile. medium-range aircraft Type 03 Chu (50 km), as well as 8 Type 17 anti-ship missiles with a range of 200 km. Close protection is provided by a RIM-116 SeaRAM system, and by 2 remotely operated systems. An OPY-2 flat-face EASA radar designed and manufactured by Mitsubishi Electronic will power the ship's OYQ-1 combat system.
Intended to escort the major naval units but also to protect the Japanese archipelago, the new frigates will be powerfully armed for anti-submarine warfare, with hull sonar and towed-array sonar OQQ-25, as well as the new Type 12 light torpedo launch from the vessel or its SH-60L Seahawk helicopter. 8 units have already been ordered by the Japanese self-defense naval forces, with a production rate of 2 ships per year. In 2032, the Japanese navy aims to have 22 of these ships in its inventory. The Japanese authorities having opened up to exports of military systems, Tokyo intends to sell 8 of these frigates to Indonesia, 4 of which will be built locally, for an amount of € 2,5 billion, for a very competitive unit price of order of $ 400 million.
Norway / Spain: Fridtjof Nansen class
In 2000, the Norwegian authorities ordered from the Spanish Navantia 5 new frigates to replace, from 2006, its Oslo class frigates which entered service between 1966 and 1967. The $ 2,5 billion contract gave birth to the class. Nansen, and the 5 units will enter service at the rate of one per year between 2006 and 2011. Unfortunately, this class hit the headlines in June 2019, when the frigate Helge Ingstadt, 4th unit of the class, sank afterwards. a collision with the tanker Solas TS, in the estuary of the Norwegian terminal of Sture.
134 meters long and weighing 5.390 tons, the frigate of Spanish origin is in a way the archetype of European frigates of this period, imposing, with excellent sensors, but relatively weakly armed for ships of this tonnage. Thus, the Nansen carried a single VLS Mk41 with 8 vertical cells, each equipped with 4 ESSM medium-range anti-aircraft missiles. The anti-ship fight is entrusted to 8 Naval Strike Missiles from local Kongsberg missiles, with a range of 185 km. Naval artillery is limited to the main 76mm Otomelara rapid-fire gun, and three 3mm heavy machine guns. Anti-submarine firepower relies on 12,7 torpedo tubes armed with light Stingray torpedoes, and the NH4 ship-mounted helicopter.
On the other hand, the Nansens have excellent sensors, and in particular the 3D AN / SPY-1F radar derived from that which equips the American destroyers of the Burke class. Anti-submarine detection is entrusted to the Spherion MRS 2000 hull sonar and the CAPTAS MKII towed-array sonar, both designed by Thales. Admittedly, the Norwegian ships retain modernization capabilities, and in particular the possibility of receiving a second Mk41 system, which can bring the number of vertical launchers to 16, and the number of ESSM missiles potentially carried to 64, or even to accommodate a few long-range SM2 missiles. But experience shows that these “planned” modernizations are only very rarely converted.
United Kingdom: Program Type 31
If the Nansens represent the archetype of European frigates, the Type 31 frigate program intended for the Royal Navy to replace, alongside the Type 26, the Type 23 frigates which entered service at the beginning of the 90s, represents the extreme example of the excesses of this European approach. Indeed, like the German frigates of the Baden-Württemberg class, the Type 31 frigates, though 138 m long and weighing 5700 tonnes, are extraordinarily under-equipped for ships of this size and function.
To achieve budgetary savings, the British government decided, in 2010, to replace 5 of the 13 heavy (and expensive) frigates of the Type 26 program, with 5 lighter, more economical frigates from a new program designated Type 31. It will take almost 8 years, and several national psychodramas, to give substance to this program, with a very binding, each vessel must not exceed 250 million pounds. Thus the future Type 31s, which should enter service from 2027, found themselves considerably reduced, with an armament limited to a 24-cell Sea-Ceptor short-range anti-aircraft system, a Mk110 gun of 57mm, and 2 remotely operated 20mm cannons. In the field of sensors, the situation is not much brighter, with a Thales NS3 110D radar radar, but no sonar system.
This weak armament, and the weak general operational capacities of the 5 ships, strongly reacted several circles of influence in Great Britain, demanding more means to equip the frigates, but also more frigates. In fact, the withdrawal of the 13 Type 23 frigates, which have a significant anti-submarine capacity, will only be compensated in this area by the 8 City Type 26 class frigates, creating a deficit of 5 anti-submarine warfare vessels for the Royal Navy, even though submarine activity, particularly Russian activity, is growing strongly.
In fact, although one can hope that the 5 Type 31s of the Royal Navy will indeed be equipped with the future interim anti-ship missile selected by Great Britain pending the entry into service of the Franco-British FMAN, it appears that the ships will have operational performance classifying them more in the category of armed patroller than of frigate, having almost no escort capacity. In this area, the Royal Navy is today experiencing what the French Navy experienced at the end of the 90s, when the Lafayette-class light stealth frigate program was deprived of its MICA VL missiles in vertical launchers and of its sonar system, making ships with high theoretical potential due to its stealth, but with more than limited effective operational potential. However, the years 2000 and 2010 presented very different risks from those which are looming for the years to come ...
Russia: Admiral Gorshkov Class project 22350
The Russian frigate class Admiral Gorshkov of project XNUMXis, so to speak, the exact opposite of that of the British Type XNUMX frigates. As the Russian Navy surface units inherited from the Soviet era began to mark the weight of years, the country's naval authorities faced two major difficulties in starting their replacement: a limited budget and the obsolescence and loss of know-how of national shipyards in terms of large combatant surface units. In this sense, the XNUMX class Admiral Gorshkov program represents the symbol of the rebirth of industrial and military capabilities of Russia in the naval field.
135 m long, the Russian frigate, which is to replace the Krivak and Neustrashimyy frigates, has an average tonnage of 5.400 tonnes fully loaded, and is, as one might expect, very well equipped. Indeed, each ship carries 3 UKSK octuple vertical launch systems (2 for the first two units), to implement 24 long missiles, such as the P800 Onyx supersonic anti-ship missile with a range of 300 km, the 3M54 Kalibr cruise missile with a range of over 1500 km, and soon the 3M22 Tzirkon missile, the famous hypersonic anti-ship missile under development.
For anti-aircraft defense, the frigate implements the Poliment-Redut system, derived from the S350 ground system, with 32 vertical Redut cells capable of receiving one 9M96 medium-range missile or 4 9M100 short-range missiles in quad packs per cell, and the Poliment 3P-5K face-mounted 20D radar, offering extensive commitments in terms of scope and number of targets. 2 CIWS Palash close protection systems, each with 12 9M340 missiles with a range of 10 km, and the 192 mm A130M gun complete the surface and anti-aircraft weapons.
For anti-submarine warfare, in addition to the traditional Ka-27 helicopter, the new Russian frigates carry a Zarya M hull sonar and a Vinyetka towed-array sonar, as well as 2 quadruple 330 mm torpedo launchers equipped with Paket NK light torpedoes, ensuring anti-submarine warfare missions but also protection against enemy torpedoes. With such an abundance of equipment, one would have thought that autonomy at sea would have been sacrificed. This is not the case, since the Admiral Gorshkov frigates are given for a range of 4850 nautical miles at 14 knots, barely 150 nautical miles less than the French FDI, for example.
The initial number of frigates of this class was initially to be limited, pending entry into service of Lider-class destroyers. But the performance displayed by the pre-production unit, the frigate Admiral Gorshkov, which entered service in 2018, has apparently convinced the Russian Admiralty to change its point of view on the subject. While the second frigate and first "production" unit in the class, the frigate Admiral Kasanatov, entered service in 2020, Russian shipyards have currently under construction no less than 6 other frigates, and 2 additional units have already been ordered.
Additionally, a new derived class, identified project 22350M, is under development. This new combat ship, sometimes referred to as " Super Gorshkov“, will receive 48 vertical silos from the UKSK system, and will also see the number of Redut systems increase, for a tonnage that will this time reach 7800 tonnes. The new ships will enter service from 2028, following the delivery of the last Admiral Gorshkov frigate in 2027. In total, the Russian Navy plans to receive at least 15 Gorshkov / Super-Gorshkov frigates.
It is understandable that the designation of Frigate covers ships of very different dimensions and capacities, ranging from the imposing but very weak British Type 31s, to the powerful Russian ships of the Admiral Gorshkov class. However, the efficiency of a ship should not be considered as the simple sum of its on-board systems, but as a set of more or less homogeneous capabilities served by a more or less trained and experienced crew, and used in sometimes very different. Thus, if the Chinese Type 054A and Japanese 30 DX frigates primarily serve as an anti-submarine escort for major naval units, the French FDI Belharra and the Russian Admiral Gorshkov have land strike capabilities, and can implement a denial of access bubble like destroyers.
However, it is evident that the European navies have very often significantly underarmed their frigates compared with Russian or Chinese ships of the same type. This situation is partly due to the budgetary constraints affecting certain European states, but also to the very significant price difference between potentially similar European, American, Russian and Chinese missiles. Thus, a P800 Onyx cruise missile costs to the Russian Navy four times less than an MM4 Block 40C exocet missile and costs to the French Navy. Under these conditions, we understand that it is much easier for Russian and Chinese naval architects to offer heavily armed ships, where their European counterparts are very often forced to give up these weapon systems to enter a budgetary framework. very (too?) constrained.
Still, if the European ships have, for the most part, "reserved spaces" to receive new armaments later, one can wonder if there is someone to consider that this option could indeed have any role to play when will the operational need prevail? History shows in fact that crises have the annoying habit of hardly announcing themselves before breaking out, and that at this time, the military to whom politicians turn must do with what they have, and not with what they could “potentially” have… In these times when the pace and intensity of international crises are constantly increasing, it seems very hazardous to continue to make this choice….