The Royal Navy retired its Invincible-class light aircraft carrier in 2010. This was widely believed to be the end of the British military expeditionary capacity. However, in 2019 with the declaration of HMS Queen Elizabeth’s operational capacity, it can be assumed that Britain is once again on the world stage for global power projection and expeditionary air support. At 65,000 tonnes, the Queen Elizabeth class is the largest warship the Royal Navy has ever had. Especially compared with the 20,000 tonnes of the Invincible-class, it’s easy to see why these new ships are so anticipated. However, with such a large asset on the high seas, it is imperative it gets the protection it needs.
Traditionally protection for an aircraft carrier was provided by the “carrier strike group”. Current plans for the carrier strike group include the aircraft carrier itself, 2 type 45 AAW (anti-airborne warfare) destroyers, 2 type 23 ASW (anti-submarine warfare) frigates, an Astute-class attack submarine and a Tide-class resupply ship. This group is designed to support the carrier in operations and provide protection from hostile forces – both from the air, and from under the waves.
The type 23 frigate was introduced to service in 1987 and at the time was widely considered one of the most capable warfare vessels in the world. 13 of them were built at a cost of £130m per ship and they have been in service ever since. However, with the introduction of more advanced submarines, it has become apparent that the frigate design will need to be updated. 2023 is the expected year for the launching of the GCS (global combat ship) also known as the type 26 frigate, designed to replace 8 of the type 23 frigates currently in service.
The type 26 frigate (T26 for the sake of simplicity) when compared with the type 23 is an upgrade in every sense. An increase from 4900 tonnes to 6900 tonnes, a new mark 45, 5-inch main gun and the SAMPSON radar systems from the type 45 destroyer – widely considered one of the best in the world, capable of hitting a cricket ball at 3 times the speed of sound. However, upgrades come with a cost and at £8bn to develop and build 8 of the ships, it is needless to say, we cannot build an infinite number. This is where the Type 31e frigate comes into play. At an estimated cost of £250m per ship, they will be slightly scaled down, allowing for more of them to be procured, of which the MoD has committed to buying 5 – commenting that the lower price could allow for the acquisition of more in the future. 8 T26 and 5 T31e would replace the current 13 frigates in service.
The proposed surface combatants of the Royal Navy will provide the true carrier strike group that Britain needs to be able to return to its expeditionary capacity. However, with an oncoming general election, it is yet to be seen if current spending rates will be maintained by the party in power.