Future Surface Combatant and Other Myths

This is the second part in a series of reports on the current state of the Royal Navy. The first entry focused on the expeditionary tool of the Royal Navy’s future force; the aircraft carrier. This article discusses the Future Surface Combatant and the effectiveness of modular versus “hardwired” vessels.

Earlier this week, the blog War is Boring reported on the development of the Royal Navy’s Future Surface Combatant while the Royal United Services Institute featured an article (PDF) about the very same subject in their February Defence Systems. In the short month since my last post new events have occurred within Procurement planning circles which directly influence the future of the Royal Navy and pose some interesting points to the wider community interested in naval and security affairs.

I had first heard of the Future Surface Combatant (FSC) in a lecture presented by a former Royal Navy officer on the current and future capability of the Royal Navy in October, so already had an inkling of what to expect in both the RUSI’s article and the basic but informative War is Boring entry. Not much. Both are scant in regards the nuts and bolts of a complex defense project.

The Future Surface Combatant has been in the design stage for some years now, and as one can tell by viewing the craft it shares a lot in common with the T-45 Destroyer in terms of looks. This is no accident, the two are cousins descended from the same design office from the same years of the last decade. For some time the Navy were pursuing numerous and varied routes of research for the next class of frigates. As War is Boring asserts a tri-hull design was pursued to the model testing stage.

Despite looking impressive the design failed to win the practicality desired by the Royal Navy for the same reason USS Independence is a can of worms for operational effectiveness: over 99 percent of the world’s large dry docks are for monohull vessels and it seems even the aesthetic conscious BAE aren’t braindead enough to try to push the idea through, although your correspondent wouldn’t be surprised if they tried. Mr Axe of War is Boring, in his article, points out that there’s a preference amongst the Royal Navy to hardwire the systems compared to a modular format compared to the United StatesS Freedom.

A modular system works in an interesting new way for war ships as I shall illustrate with the following fictitious example: HMS Indefatigable, a modular vessel, pulls into dock after three months patrolling in the Caribbean for drug-carrying vessels and is called upon during this down time to carry out anti-submarine exercises in the North Atlantic as part of a wider set of NATO wargames. Previously her “modular setup” was geared toward surface patrol. A section or sections of the ship, usually not that large but containing highly specifics systems, is then removed and replaced by a set of modules containing anti-submarine warfare systems such as computers and weapons. This is the sort of system on board the USS Freedom but not FSC, which may seem odd. Mr Axe states this is due to a “European preference” for hardwiring the ships systems; i.e., having a complete vessel all the time, as opposed to the module option of specially equipping it for certain duties. He is however in error, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands are all designing, testing, building or have modular vessels. The effectiveness of such ships compared to “hardwired” ones is debatable and something which naval procurement administrators are studying with great attention since the launch of the Danish Flyvefisken class in 2005 and the impossibly named USS Freedom in 2006.

War is Boring asserts that BAE was awarded the contract for the new FSC class, but let’s be honest, who else would get “awarded” the contract? The RUSI entry by Commodore Steve Brunton is a lot of (accurate) padding about the role of the Royal Navy in the world and the vital importance of naval affairs in Britain’s global interests. No complaints there. In fact the commodore went one better and not only spoke like a well informed book but pointed out some harsh truths by stating,

What is increasingly recognised by the Royal Navy and the maritime sector is the sea blindness in the United Kingdom at large; the lack of awareness of our dependency as a nation on sea trade.

There are few greater supporters of this view than myself as my previous entries on the subject may illustrate, however this nice shiny RUSI piece seems much too optimistic. We only have to view recent Royal Navy projects to know what’s going to happen with the FSC. As my article on the Queen Elizabeth class illustrates, it is not a good time for Navy projects. Constant budget cuts in defense and thus what we used to call “the Navy Estimate” have proved quite a blight for the carrier. The T-45 anti-air warfare destroyer has also suffered. Originally her class size was to be over ten vessels, then eight, then six and now who knows?

The plan for FSC is a series of vessels numbering perhaps up to seventeen. This is wildly optimistic, even by Navy standards, but there is method in their madness. By asking for seventeen vessels, they may get five. The role of the frigates would be the same as frigates such as the current T-23 and T-22 class; patrolling, anti-sub, carrier fleet work (if there’s a carrier that is) and showing presence, and the possibility of being “up gunned” in the case of a serious conflict. Nothing that innovative in its role then, but nevertheless an urgently needed replacement for the dwindling supply of surface combatants currently in fleet.

It looks impressive too, or would do if BAE’s computer designers put a bit more effort in. Bare in mind that the last Strategic Review suggested about thirty destroyers and frigates to secure British global interests. The chances of the new class being able to take the strain for such a projection are laughable, even in league with the currently expected total number of T-45s. C’est la guerre. This is all that can really be expected from the Ministry of Defense given their recent history of short changing the Navy. It seems to be a pervading thought amongst politicians and Whitehall mandarins that better ships mean fleet size cuts. The fact that a T-45 can, say, perform twice as well as its predecessor, or cost twice as much, does not mean that you only need half as many of them. A ship cannot be in two places at once. With each cut in the T-45 batch, the number of FSC was promised an increase, keeping in line with the Strategic Defense Review, to have over thirty general surface warships.

However, despite this continuing cause for cynicism for the future of the service, it is a General which has been making the most waves of late. In a recent lecture delivered at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, General Sir Richards, Chief of the General Staff, reaffirmed popular demand for “body armour and helicopters” and more soldiers as the correct focus for the MOD’s future planning and dismissed RAF projects like Eurofighter and the Navy’s carrier, F-35 and destroyer plans as irrelevant. Flying in the face of expectations and belief of both civilian strategic academics and Royal Air Force and Royal Navy senior officers, Richards dismissed state on state war as a thing of the past and that the concentration of the MOD should be on “boots on the ground” and support measures for the Army in an era of counter insurgency operations. Richards compared his opponents to cavalry officers of the First World War, refusing to accept the import of the tank. Needless to say, Admiral Stanhope disagreed:

We must look beyond Afghanistan . . . we must be prepared for surprises and strategic shocks. The Falklands War was such an event. It came in from left-field.

It certainly seems foolish to place one’s long-term defense and war fighting capabilities on a small war like Afghanistan. While destroyers, frigates and aircraft may have limited effect against irregular enemies, they make fine systems in regular warfare against enemies such as Russia and China. The formers high proliferation of diesel-electric submarines to anyone with a checkbook and the latter’s building of a large subsurface fleet means that now as much as ever, anti-submarine warfare frigates should be duly considered by all NATO defense planners.

At the moment, even with the sunny hopes of the FSC, the future of the Navy is still bleak. Continuing trends affecting other large-scale defense projects show no sign of sparing this latest potential addition to the fleet.


  1. Good stuff, sir! I’ve been following the development of the FSC with something of a reluctant interest, mostly as how they fit into the Navy’s broader plans for the future. Asking for 17 with the hope of getting 5—that’s how bad things have become, eh. IIRC, only 6 rather than 12 Type 45 destroyers will be built, bringing the Royal Navy significantly in pure numbers over the next few decades.

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