The cry from observers for the US Navy to build a frigate is incessant and deafening. Further, most observers want the frigate to carry almost everything a Burke does and they cite a long list of foreign designs as proof that it can be done. ComNavOps, on the other hand, has expressed ambivalence about a frigate, opting instead for a small, dedicated ASW vessel as being far more useful and relevant.
So, who’s right – nearly everyone or ComNavOps? I think you can predict the answer – it’s ComNavOps, of course. That makes everyone else wrong. Why is that? There’s a lot of pretty smart people included in “everyone”. How can they all be wrong? Well, that’s what we’re going to look at in this post.
The explanation for “everyone’s” wrongness is two-fold:
2) Relevance (CONOPS)
The first, definitions, is where a lot of people get tripped up and the discussions are largely a matter of semantics.
What is a frigate? Well, unfortunately, there is no actual, useful definition. A frigate is less than a destroyer. Less what? Less size? Less missiles? Less crew? Less range? Less sensors? The answer is, yes – less of everything. That’s not particularly helpful because one less missile is still less.
Of course, that leads to the next question, less compared to what? For the US Navy, that answer is easy – less compared to a Burke which is a “destroyer”. Thus, anything “less” than a Burke is, by “definition”, a frigate. To the rest of the world, however, the “less” comparison is far less (no pun intended) clear.
doesn’t have destroyers comparable to a Burke so
what is their “lesser” frigate compared to?
In fact, few other countries have a ship comparable to a Burke. Russia
At this point, we need to take a small detour and discuss the classification of the Burke. For that, we need to take yet another small detour and discuss historical ship classifications. Historically, the biggest, most powerful ship was called a battleship. A ship half that size/capability was called a cruiser. A ship half the cruiser’s size/capability was called a destroyer. A ship half the destroyer’s size/capability was a frigate/destroyer escort. Smaller than that was a corvette. So, we see that ship classifications were relative.
Now, let’s return to the Burke classification detour. To call a Burke a destroyer is ridiculous. The ship’s size and capabilities are far beyond any reasonable historical description of a destroyer. Further, and more importantly, the Burke is the largest, most powerful surface ship in the fleet and, arguably, the world. Thus, by any criteria, the Burke is not a destroyer and a very good argument can be made that the Burke is the battleship of today.
Okay, this is mildly interesting but how is it relevant to this post? It’s relevant because what most people are describing as a frigate is, in today’s world, a cruiser relative to the Burke’s battleship status. Further, for most countries, the “frigate” is their most powerful ship. If a “frigate” is your most powerful ship, of course you’d want to load it with as much firepower, sensors, armor, stealth, and whatnot as you could, right? After all, it’s the “battleship” of your navy. That’s fine but the problem is that US Navy observers have gotten caught up in the nomenclature and descriptions of other countries’ battleship-frigates and come to believe that is what a frigate really is. It’s not. What other countries are building and calling a frigate is really their attempt at a top of the line ship within the constraints of their budget. The US Navy already has top of the line ships. Lots of them. We don’t need more.
So, what most people call a frigate is anything but. It’s a poor man’s Burke. The US Navy doesn’t need a poor man’s Burke – we have actual Burkes! What we need are smaller, ASW specialized frigates. Which leads us into the relevance explanation for everyone’s “wrongness”.
Every ship in the fleet should be designed and exist to support the overarching geopolitical and naval strategy. As we’ve noted so many times, we have neither type of strategy and so we wind up with haphazard ship designs, types, and capabilities that do not meaningfully support our “desires”. The lack of an actual, viable strategy makes this next part of the discussion a bit difficult because I’m going to have to substitute my own strategic thoughts and other people may have different thoughts – that’s fine. I have no problem with anyone who has considered the strategic and operational level and concluded that a mini-Burke frigate is needed. They’re wrong but at least they thought it through.
The problem is that most people just want a frigate in the abstract. We need a frigate because everyone else has one and, therefore, we should, too. That thinking is utterly divorced from any actual fleet need. I’ll repeat – we don’t need mini-Burkes because we already have big Burkes and are continuing to build more as fast as we can. The last thing the fleet actually needs is more Burkes. Therefore, logically, why would we need mini-Burkes?
What does the fleet actually need to execute almost any type of strategy? We need dedicated mine countermeasure ships, dedicated ASW ships to counter the burgeoning nuclear and, especially, non-nuclear (SSK) submarine fleets around the world, aircraft carriers, UAV carriers, logistic support ships of all types, small patrol ships (along the lines of upgunned Cyclones), and so on. Nowhere in that list of needs is a mini-Burke or the mini-Burkes main characteristic, AAW.
Thus, anyone who calls for a mini-Burke frigate is doing so in isolation, divorced from any relevant context and that’s wrong – just plain wrong.
There you have it. We don’t need frigates. ComNavOps is right and everyone else is wrong.