Britain Looks to Stealth, Drones to Rebuild Naval Power


LIGNET

Britain’s Ministry of Defense and UK defense contractor BAE Systems (London: BA) have unveiled plans for a next-generation Type 26 Global Combat Ship (T26 GCS) that would become the workhorse of the British navy, performing maritime security, counter-piracy, disaster response and humanitarian missions around the globe. The T26 GCS ushers in a new era for the British navy as it embraces the tangible and tactical advantages of stealth designs and the use of unmanned drones at sea in an era of huge budget cuts.

The new stealth frigate is designed to be the most modern vessel in the British navy’s arsenal. It will be constructed with a large amount of built-in flexibility, allowing it to adapt to numerous mission profiles and assuming a greater role in the future of Britain’s naval force. The new ship should provide the UK with an increased naval capability for decades to come and will go a long way toward supporting the military maxim that “presence requires numbers.”

Background

BAE has been working with the UK Ministry of Defense since 2010 to establish the T26’s “basic capabilities and baseline design.” Preliminary design requirements and a phased construction plan for the new vessel have been approved. The project will continue into the “assessment phase, which will examine the detailed specification of the vessel.” Projected to reach 485 feet – longer than a football field – the T26 is expected to weigh almost 6,000 tons. Yet its hull design would ensure greater sleekness and convexity, emphasizing overall and fundamental stealth capabilities.

The new ship has been designed to meet the operational role requirements of a global navy operating far from its home base. It will have a helicopter landing pad for search-and-rescue missions, as well to make supply deliveries during humanitarian operations and emergency-response scenarios. The ship will have a mission bay door in the aft that would allow rigid-hull inflatable and other surface transport vehicles to deploy fast-reaction troops, as well as surface-level and submersible unmanned vehicles for counter-mining operations.

The T26 will also be outfitted with substantial firepower and military hardware. The aft bay compartment will house a variety of manned and unmanned vehicles. The flexible design enables a wide variety of vehicles to be housed on the ship, depending upon the mission or threat scenarios. An important capability of this ship will be its drone capacity, which would allow the British navy to deploy a greater number of drones for various operational needs. In its escort role in larger battle groups, the T26 will have the ability to conduct counter-submarine functions. This includes torpedo launchers and counter-torpedo defenses, as well as the ability to deploy decoys against incoming torpedoes.

From an offensive, battle-focused engagement-infrastructure perspective, the new ship will be outfitted with the Future Local Area Air Defense Systems, including Sea Ceptor missiles. The system and missiles allows the T26 to do soft and cold vertical launches of cruise missiles using a gas propulsion system, a feature that reduces the amount of fuel necessary to launch as well as storage space to hold the missiles, which are more compact.

The missile system will be well-positioned to provide significant firepower on targets on sea or on land. Specific design advantages of the Sea Ceptor allow the T26 to fire multiple missiles simultaneously and at supersonic speeds, maxing out at nearly Mach 3. The speed advantage prevents targets from making defensive moves or effectively using countermeasures, especially if such systems are not automated.

The current procurement schedule aims to have some of the 13 new frigates enter service after 2020.

Analysis

The T26, when it enters service around 2020, will greatly benefit the British navy at a time of large defense cuts by serving as an affordable cutting edge combat ship utilizing stealth and drone deployment.

The expected price tag for the T26 comes in at nearly $350 million per ship. While that may appear to be a significant sum, a higher-tech U.S. ship, the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), has encountered significant setbacks and runs nearly $700 million each. Unlike the T26, the LCS is designed for missions close to shore. While the original price of the LCS was estimated at $220 million, cost overruns, structural deficiencies and recent reports of widespread equipment failure have plagued the LCS project. It is possible that British estimates are wishful thinking and that the T26 will face similar cost overruns and other problems.

The British approach to development of the T26 appears to circumvent some of the issues encountered by the LCS. T26 systems have been field tested to ensure that integration and readiness testing don’t slow deployment of this next-generation naval vessel. The underlying components, including propulsion systems and combat as well as auxiliary systems – nearly two-thirds of the new ship – will have undergone rigorous testing through previous deployments as part of the T23.

Whether the British encounter delays in designing and deploying the T26 is yet to be seen, but London recognizes a need to upgrade its frigate fleet nonetheless. The projected delivery of 13 new T26 frigates will depend upon cost controls and successful construction of the ships. UK officials believe naval presence requires numbers, and presence is the only way to achieve an effective naval force that projects power at key chokepoints and along global transit routes. As a world economic power reliant upon trade, Britain needs a navy and seeks to reduce its significant dependence upon the United States.

The T26 also should provide greater deterrence capability. The ship will be able to conduct operations around the globe and stay on patrol for extended periods. The modular, adaptable framework is designed to make upgrades and retrofitting smoother. Agile design and construction is intended to allow it to adapt quickly to changing threat situations as well as operational needs of commanders.

Conclusion

The T26 GCS is expected to become the dominant go-to ship for the British navy, capable of a myriad of important roles, including maritime security, counter-piracy, disaster response and humanitarian missions. Ultimately, the major stumbling block to this ship will be cost controls in an era of severe defense cuts. Even with the integration of proven technologies from its predecessor, it’s doubtful that the T26 will come in on budget. The real question is how much over budget it will be and how much cost overruns will affect the number of ships that can be built and deployment delays.

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