Principal Researcher’s View: Future Surface Combatant – is this the Successor of the Leander Class?

Posted on November 27, 2010


Author: Alexander Clarke

HMS Apollo as she was in the original Leander class form

 The Royal Navy is shrinking, and many are pointing to the new escorts, the Future Surface Combatants (FSC) as something which can reverse that trend; or at least stabilise it, whilst replacing the Type 22 and Type 23 Frigates. To be successful therefore the FSC will need to also take on the mantle of the Type 12L Leander Class; a class which in its time managed to stabilise much, and which participated in operations with distinction and significance throughout their 30 years of service with the Royal Navy; i.e. providing the largest group of escorts in the 1982 Falklands war. The 26 vessels of this class mirror the 28 that the FSC is proposed; the question is though is the FSC enough like the Leander class to succeed?  Before this can be answered both of these classes have to be examined.

 The proposed Type 26 Frigate or C1 Future Surface Combatent

The FSC is not one class or one type of ship it is three. The largest and most powerful will be the C1 or Type 26 Force Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Combatant. With the class numbering 10 vessels, they will be large, six to eight thousand tons, and focused on high-threat environments. As part of this focus it would operate as an integral part of the maritime strike group or amphibious task group; giving them the high-end ASW, land attack and coastal suppression that is needed for modern intensive operations. Perhaps more important for asymmetric warfare, it will also have an organic Mine Counter Measures (MCM) capability and facilities for an embarked military force, like the Daring class.

These vessels will in turn be supported by the C2’s or Stabilisation Combatant, a class of about eight, smaller, four to five thousand tons, and cheaper vessels. These vessels would be optimised for operations in support of small-scale stabilisation operations, sea line protection, guard ship and chokepoint escort; what is currently taking place off the coast of Somalia. It is in many ways the C2, as will be shown by the examination of them, which is most similar to the Leander Class.

Finally, the C3 or Ocean-Capable Patrol Vessel, a class of around eight smaller corvette sized ships designed to replace minesweepers and possibly current patrol ships; but not on a one for one basis. Eight ships would be primarily rolled for MCM as replacements for the current Hunt-class and Sandown-class vessels; as well as forming the possible long term replacements for the River Class and smaller survey ships. However, none of these ships will be built that soon, no matter how much they are needed; and not many may be built at all if the rumours about yard closures are to be believed; not too dissimilar to 50 years ago.

Plan of an original Leander Class

It was in 1959, just 51 years ago, that the first of arguably one of the most successful frigate designs of the 20th Century was laid down; the type 12M Leander Class. They were given an initial armament of a single double 4.5 inch deck gun, primarily for amphibious warfare support, but also possessing anti-ship and anti-aircraft capabilities. They were some of the first ships to be fitted with the Seacat surface to air missile system, although only mounting one launcher. They were the last ships in the RN to be fitted with an ASW mortar, the Limbo, but by no means the last to be fitted with 2 single 20mm cannon. This might sound under armed, but fully loaded at the beginning of their lives they weighed in at about 2962 tons. However, if any ships were built to be modified and upgraded (in this period of naval construction) the Leander Class was; they would rise to over 3300tons fully loaded by the end of their service lives, and the three batches whilst retaining their similarities in basic shape would look very different in terms of weapons by the end of their lives. There was one constant across all the batches, the ability to carry a light helicopter, for a large part of their careers this was the Wasp.  It was then replaced by the Lynx (still used to this day) which is good all-rounder, not as sophisticated an ASW platform as the more expensive, larger and more capable Merlin, but still a very useful addition to the ships capability. The helicopter adds flexibility, and despite the talk of the FSC being able to have a Chinook land on its flight deck, the ability to carry and operate a Lynx and perhaps some of the A160 Hummingbird Rotary UAVs offers greater flexibility and is arguably far more important. A Chinook can carry a heavy load or 50+ soldiers, but it’s not a flexible tool, it is not useful outside the sphere of carrying things. The little Lynx on the other hand, can be used to assist in ASW, to act as a gunship, to land a smaller number of soldiers or naval boarding parties on other vessels; it is therefore another attribute which is of most important consideration.

HMS Naiad a Batch I after her Ikara Conversion

In 1970-75 the Batch 1s, like the FSC-C1, were modified for ASW, hence they supplemented the Limbo with an Ikara ASW missile system; in a show of the growing faith in missiles, they gained an extra Seacat as well. They lost the 4.5in guns on the front; a reflection of the moving of focus away from amphibious operations to the projected North Sea/North Atlantic conflict with the Soviet Union. Their 20mm cannon were upgraded to 40mm, they gained two triple mounts of ASW torpedoes; capable of carrying either the American Mk 46, or the British Stingray. 

HMS Argonaut – A Batch II vessel after conversion with Exocets

Between 1973 and 1978, Batch 2 vessels undertook their modification, having their 4.5in gun replaced by four single MM.38 Exocet anti-ship missile launchers; they gained two extra Seacat launchers, thus giving them three in total. However they lost the Limbo mortar, but received the same torpedo outfit and 40mm cannon upgrade as the Batch 1s. Thus the Batch 2’s, like the Batch 1’s focus on ASW, were focused on anti-ship and to an extent anti-air warfare.

HMS Andromeda – a Batch III after conversion with Exocet & SeaWolf

It was not till 1978 that Batch 3s, sometimes called Broad Beamed Leander’s, as they were of broader beam got their modifications. Interestingly when rearmed they retained their 20mm cannon, they lost their 4.5in gun to Exocets like the Batch 2s, and were fitted with the, by then, ubiquitous torpedo outfit. There was a major difference though; they lost their Seacat. It was replaced with Seawolf, a naval SAM system made famous by the Falkland’s, was first fitted to these ships. It was fitted through the installation of a single sextuple GWS.25 launcher, but it made the Broad Beamed Leander’s the core anti-aircraft element for any inshore ASW Leander Task Group the RN would deploy.

HMS Andromeda – the point above is most succinctly highlighted by this photograph of Andromeda protecting the ATG and particularly the Canberra in San Carlos Bay during the Falklands War

The Leander Class developed with time; but they were a cheap option, they were built with a simple armament, the 26 vessels of this class were built to the same standard in order to be upgraded when the money was available, and that is what the RN did. It is also what many other navies did, with four being built in the UK for export, and a further eleven being built under licence.

In conclusion the times are similar but the designs are different; the C2 design is perhaps the closest in terms of philosophy, and the C3 in terms of size. Both these classes are being designed simple; they are being designed with limited initial outfitting. However, it is not these which could sink the FSC in budgets meetings when treasury officials are arguing for cuts and holding up the spectre of the current economic strictures; it is the C1 which will be more expensive than either of the others, and even the Daring class.

Although there are options that could make the C1 cheaper, for example why develop a new vessel when it is easier and cheaper to build a batch of modified Daring class vessels…the Broad Beamed Daring’s, after all they were designed to be able to take the more multi-purpose MK41 VLS which would enable them to operate the SM-3 Theatre ABM and the Tomahawk Cruise Missile, rather than their current Aster only Sylver A50 VLS, all the development costs have been paid so it is a far cheaper option, the tools built, the people trained and support facilities created; why is it necessary to build a brand new class? Especially a class which is apparently being designed as less capable than the cheaper option of a General Purpose Daring class. This is not said lightly, but the Royal Navy asked for 12 Daring class AADs for a reason, 12 Batch 2 Daring’s could fill that gap in Area Air Defence and also provide the high-end land attack capability which it is desired for the C1s. Then build the C2s as a Leander like class, effective and easily upgradeable these vessels could operate in war time under the protective umbrella of the Carriers and Daring’s providing the layers and extra numbers which are needed for truly effective independent capability. In peacetime though these vessels would provide the extra presence to support British diplomacy, the guard ships, the anti-piracy patrols, the anti-drugs patrols and most importantly the ability to react to events as Britain needs to be independent of other nations stipulations or limitations.

Putting all that to one side though, without a doubt the next battles after the Carriers will be the escorts and the aircraft, Trident is a completely different contest and looks to have been won if Conservative Party conference speeches are anything to go by. The aircraft are more an inter-service battle which more than likely the Treasury as always will win unless the politicians actually look at the history and experience. The escorts though will be a straight up battle with the Treasury and it is one which the Royal Navy, for the sake and security of the British people, cannot afford to lose.

Therefore when the FSC hits trouble with the bureaucracy, because it is definitely not an ‘if’; should they force the Royal Navy to choose between the C1s or the C2s, then it will be a difficult decision – on the face of it a few good escorts or more less capable escorts. In such a case this author believes they should remember and follow the success of the Leander’s by modifying the C2’s design so that they can be upgraded later; as finances improve and purse strings relax. The vessels could be specialised later so that they could fill whatever roles the RN needed them to fill; like the Leander’s some might become ASW specialists, so might be modified to provide greater support to Royal Marines, the options are only limited by the ships’ basic design. Furthermore this course of action also has the benefits that the reduced initial costs would hopefully allow the RN to build them in the quantity it requires- even in the face of stiff opposition they may well be able to keep slipping a couple more onto the procurement line. This does not create weak ships though, as has been put forward the whole way through this the Leander’s were very effective – because although the Leander’s were designed for ‘flotilla’ work; they were designed to work together with one vessel having one set of capabilities being teamed with one or two or three others of different capabilities, the Royal Navy was able to build enough for this to be effective. In the end this flotilla approach added to their success and effectiveness, especially in terms of diplomatic influence and deterrence; Britain hardly ever sent just one, but it had enough to send more than one and therefore Britain always had real presence and real capability. They were not perfect though, they required manning to a level which would seem exhaustive today; and which the FSCs, whatever are eventually built will certainly not replicate; but the  durability and upgradeability are things which should most definitely be considered. It’s just that having 3 fairly good ships, is better than having one spectacular ship…especially if the latter bashes into a tug boat or has another accident.