Why do we have or want frigates today?
Sadly, the most accurate answer is probably just because we’ve always had them.
We’re going to take a look at the role of the frigate, its historical function, and how that role translates into today’s naval force, if it even does.
Frigates originated in the days of sail. They were single deck ships designed to be fast. They were not part of the line of battle. Their role was patrol, scouting, commerce raiding, escort, communications, and diplomacy (often of the gunboat variety!).
It was their scouting and patrol functions that were most valuable in that they provided what we now refer to as ‘situational awareness’ for the fleet commanders. In many respects, fleet commanders valued frigates more than ships of the line.
As the age of steel and steam emerged, the traditional frigate somewhat disappeared. The scouting role for the fleet became the responsibility of the cruiser – more so when aircraft appeared and cruisers could launch their own planes. Cruisers were the eyes of the fleet commander until the rise of aircraft when carrier and land based, long range scout planes largely took over the role.
By the time of WWII, frigates were relatively rare. However, the advent of submarines gave rise to the small anti-submarine ship which, in the US Navy, was referred to as a destroyer escort (DE) although in terms of size the DE slotted into the space between a destroyer and a corvette which would be the frigate space. The DE’s role was anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and escort. Other navies referred to the same function/size vessel as corvettes or frigates. Thus, we see the beginning of today’s widespread overlapping designations.
So, by the end of WWII the frigate’s traditional role of situational awareness had given way to ASW and escort.
During the post-war period the
continued building destroyer escort (DE) classes such as the, US
- Dealey, DE, 1952
- Claud Jones, DE, 1956
- Bronstein, DE, 1963
In 1975, the Navy redesignated many ship classes and introduced the formal use of the frigate (FF/FFG) designation. Subsequent classes such as the Garcia, Knox, and Perry were now frigates.
Regardless of designation, they retained the DE’s role of ASW and convoy escort.
As the Cold War developed and Western military planners contemplated the need to move convoys across the Atlantic to support a land war in Europe, Soviet submarines were seen as the major threat with some additional, less likely, threat from long range, cruise missile armed bombers. Thus, the convoy escort was mainly an ASW vessel with a nod to self or near area air defense – hence, the Perry FFG’s fit of Standard missiles.
With the collapse of the
Soviet Union the need for
massive cross-Atlantic resupply convoys disappeared and, to a large extent, so
did the need for frigates, at least in the convoy escort role. There just wasn’t any need for convoys and
this remained the case until the rise of . A China war once again raises the
specter of trans-oceanic convoys, this time across the Pacific. As with the Soviet scenario, submarines will,
again, present the major threat to convoys. China
Concurrent with the rise of the Chinese threat, small, conventionally powered submarines (SSK) proliferated and created a need for up close ASW although, in this case, the need is for pure ASW without the need for convoy escort or even limited area AAW. Thus, what is needed is a small, cheap, expendable, pure ASW vessel along the lines of a WWII Flower class corvette.
Another chapter in frigate development has been the world-wide tendency of budget-limited navies (almost everyone except the
and US !) to try to pack as much
firepower and capability as they can into their frigates since those ships are
what constitute the major suface combatant of those navies. If a frigate is your biggest ship, it makes a
certain kind of misguided sense to load it with as much capability as you can
to try to make it your ‘capital’ ship.
So called ‘frigates’ now perform almost every naval role: ASW, AAW, ASuW, cruise missile land attack,
etc. Unfortunately, this trend has led
many US Navy observers to call for similar frigates for the US Navy. We’ve already debunked this desire in
previous posts so I won’t belabor it further, here. Suffice it to say that the US Navy has no
need for a frigate and would benefit much more from a small, cheap, ASW
We see, then, that there have been three major incarnations of the frigate:
- the original sailing frigate with its role of fleet scout
- the oceanic convoy escort with its role of ASW and limited AAW
- the pseudo-capital ship of budget limited navies
Today’s frigates are, by and large, just generic surface ships of as a great a size and capability as the building nation can afford. Generally speaking, frigates with a specific role no longer exist.
Hopefully, this little review has shed some light on the historical development of frigates. In the end, though, this is just a semantics discussion. Lacking a specific role, a frigate can be anything and trying to compare one country’s frigate to another’s is pointless since it is not comparing apples to apples. So, sit back, relax, and enjoy your favorite version of ‘frigate’.
USS Ford – aviation frigate?