The Frigate An Archetypal Naval Warrior

The Evolution of the Modern Frigate Its Importance to the Indian Navy

22 April 2007


Ever since it's advent as a submarine hunter/convoy escort in WW-II, the modern frigate has been the versatile workhorse of all navies. Over the years It has undergone tremendous changes in size, weapons fit and intended role, to emerge as the ultimate modern day multi-role surface combatant. Navies of all types ranging from superpower fleets to small flotillas have operated frigates to fulfil some of their most vital requirements. Indeed, it remains one of the most powerful assets of most small and medium sized navies.

Nilgiri Class

While the importance of the frigate as a useful weapon of war was already well established at the end of World War II, because of its famous role in defeating the U-boat menace and keeping the Atlantic Ocean open for convoys, its importance gradually declined in the immediate post war years. Super-power navies were then gearing up to fight the cold war in the age of nuclear primacy and upcoming technologies like anti shipping missiles were altering naval doctrines in a big way. Both USN and Soviet Navy quickly relegated their gun destroyers and frigates in favour of large ships packed with assorted missiles. The greatly expanding Soviet Navy built a series of such ships bristling with anti-ship, anti-air and anti-sub missiles and generally classified them with descriptive nomenclature of Raketny Kreyser (Rocket/Missile Cruiser), ironically the US Navy (USN) initially designated its own cruisers (including nuclear-powered Bainbridge, Truxtun and California classes) as guided missile frigates.

Shivalik Class

Frigates or Destroyers?

In later years the classification between frigates and destroyers blurred to a great extent, designated largely by the intended role rather than actual vessel type. Only the Royal Navy continued with production of specialised anti-submarine ocean going frigates in the range of 25003000 tons displacement. Several such designs like the Type 12 Whitby Class and later Type 12 M Leander class proved to be major export successes worldwide. The 1970s saw a renewed interest by super-power navies in frigate design and its apparent usefulness as a smaller and relatively cheaper alternative to replace the large number of vintage ships then getting decommissioned. The resulting designs like USN Oliver Hazard Perry class and Soviet Krivak class ships were eventually built in huge numbers and re-established the frigate's status as a principal naval workhorse. Frigates themselves had undergone a quantum change in their sizes and intended roles. While still being focused on anti-submarine escort duties they also carried a respectable anti-ship and air-defence missiles suite. Aviation assets also started to become a standard on such ships, both for submarine hunting and missile guidance duties, resulting in bigger heavier designs tipping the scale at 35004000 tons class.

The 21st century frigate designs have evolved into truly multi-role platforms designed for multi-dimensional offensive warfare. European navies have inducted several big frigate classes to act as their main surface combatants, German Brandenburg Class (Type 123), British Duke Class (Type 23) and French La Fayette Class are amongst the most potent frigates in service today. These ships carry considerably powerful anti-surface missile suites in addition to their anti-submarine armaments and are more comparable to destroyers. Export derivatives of such designs are already operational with Saudi Arabia (Al Riyadh Class), Singapore (Formidable Class) and Malaysia (Leiku Class). Even bigger and more heavily armed specialised anti-air warfare frigates are now entering service with European navies. German Sachsen Class along with Spanish Alvaro de Bazan Class, Danish De Zeven Provincien Class and French Horizon Class are dedicated air defence platforms sporting high performance Aegis type active phased radars and long range SAM systems. Most of these ships however are in 6000 ton+ weight class and are actually destroyers, called frigates mainly for political reasons.  

Future Perfect

A number of development programmes are currently underway to develop new frigate classes. Almost all are based in Europe. Significantly the US Navy plans no replacement for its Oliver Hazard Perry frigates, intending to replace them with the LCS (Littoral Combat Ships) currently under development. The LCS design itself is pretty much similar to a frigate or large Corvette (around 3000 tons) with additional provision for transporting and launching small amphibious groups.

European ship designers are scheduled to come out with some of the most capable frigates both for their internal markets and also for exports. Perhaps the most promising is the FREMM (European Multi-Mission Frigate) programme shared by France and Italy, which aims to build a new class of heavy (around 6000 tons) multi-role frigates with significant land attack capability in littoral environment. It will be armed with the now experimental MBDA SCALP long range land attack missile in VLS launch tubes. The SCALP Naval a development of Storm Shadow cruise missile is one of the most promising weapon systems to come out of Europe. It is similar in capability to US Tomahawk utilising TERCOM to accurately deliver a conventional weapon load to a range exceeding 1000 kms. The FREMM ships when they enter service would easily be the most powerful frigates in the world


INS Talwar

Frigates also constitute the most modern ships now being manufactured in Russian shipyards. All post modern Russian frigate designs can trace their ancestry directly to the Krivak class which served prolifically in Soviet Navy generally designated as patrol ships. Indeed the Krivak III Talwar frigates produced for the Indian Navy remain the most modern Russian surface warships todate. Russia has also restarted production of Neustrashimy Class (Type 11540) frigates and plans to complete Yaroslav Mudry and Tuman for service entry by 20082010. Intended primarily for anti-submarine warfare they have been hastily armed with Kh-35 cruise missile to give a more balanced capability. The ships themselves remain one of the most potent anti-submarine escorts in the world and are perhaps the last in the line of the classic frigates in service today. All future Russian frigates are expected to be multi-role platforms resembling their European counterparts. Apart from the Krivak derivatives intended only for export, Russia is also developing the Project 22350 frigate for domestic deployment and first of the class Admiral Gorshkov is currently under construction. It is a fully stealth integrated design, similar in design philosophy to the Project 17 frigates of Indian Navy. It is expected to carry the Brahmos' predecessor P-800 Yakhont (NATO: SS-N-26) supersonic cruise missile as main strike weapon and Shtil SAM system all launched through VLS tubes. Again it will be a fairly large platform displacing around 5000 tons and more akin to a destroyer for all practical purposes. Interestingly Russia has proposed Project 22350 ships in response to the Indian Navy's Project 17A frigate programme.

Indian Navy Frigates

The Indian Navy (IN) has been a prolific user of frigates, employing no less than nine different classes over the years since independence. Most of the early ships were British hand me downs in the post war period. The first modern frigate types were the two new build Whitby (Type 12) ocean going ASW ships acquired from UK as Talwar class in 195960. These were very sophisticated and fast submarine hunters of their time sporting the latest in sonar and Limbo Mark 10 ASW mortar armament.

Godavari Class

Naval expansions of 1970s saw the induction of a large numbers of new modern frigates sourced from UK and Soviet Union. Most important was the production of six Nilgiri (Leander Class) frigates by MDL, a first for an Indian shipyard. These ships also introduced first intrinsic helicopter capability for IN and other sophistication like a VDS (variable depth sonar). They have proved to be a regular workhorse for the IN with a high degree of employment and have gone on to influence two very important follow on classes namely the Project 16 and 16A. A parallel induction programme concerned acquisition of up to 10 light (1100 ton) Petya II (Kavaratti class) frigates from Russia.

Presently the IN fleet employs a total of 13 active frigates with three others in advanced stages of construction/trials and three more on confirmed orders. In addition up to seven are tentatively planned for acquisition in near future. In fact they constitute the fastest growing acquisition programme of IN (in comparison to only three new Destroyers which are currently projected). The break up of the above list includes:

  • Nilgiri Class (broad beam Leander Class built by MDL) a total of six ships four remain in service.

  • Godavari Class (Project 16 Leander based with twin helo hangars and Styx SSM) A total of three ships.

  • Brahmaputra Class (Project 16A modernised Godavari follow-on with Uran SSM) A total of three in service.

  • Talwar Class (Russian Built Krivak III) A total of three in service.

  • Shivalik Class (Project 17 based on Krivak III being built by MDL) A total of three in advanced stages of construction/trials with the first expected to be inducted in Sept 2007.

  • Krivak III follow-on order of three ships similar to Talwar Class with possible addition of Brahmos SSM. To be built by Yantar Shipyard, Russia for planned induction by 2011.

  • Project 17A programme for acquisition of additional seven platforms similar in capabilities to Shivalik design, RFI issued to shipyards in Europe and Russia.

The preceding break up is illustrative of the past three decades of IN frigate acquisition programmes. IN is more focussed on indigenous production now, only relying on some quick imports to arrest the diminishing fleet levels resulting from dry decade of 1990 when no orders were placed. The excruciatingly slow delivery rates of Indian shipyards and their relative lack of infrastructure for modern ship building hasnt helped either.

Needless to say most of the new classes now being inducted are all multi-role types in range of 5000 tons displacement. IN frigates have tended to be heavier and more heavily armed since Godavari Class (project 16) when a SSM and SAM suite was adapted into the weapon load giving a useful surface strike capability. Follow-on Brhamaputra (Project 16A) ships carry a rather heavy SSM mix in the form of 16 Kh-25 Uran SSM launchers and Israeli Barak SAM system (also retrofitted in some Godavari vessels).

Talwar Class

The three Talwar (Krivak III) class frigates are arguably the most advanced warships in IN arsenal pioneering signature reduction features and a VLS launch systems for SSM with land attack capability. Also added is a medium range SAM system in the form of Shtil (SA-N-7 Grizzly), these are currently the longest ranged and most lethal SAMs afloat on any IN ship. The ship's sensor suite is tailored towards its multi-dimensional capabilities including advanced passive sonar and a MR-710 Fregat-M Top Plate 3 D radar, which is arguably the most advanced ship borne radar with the IN, surpassing the MR-755 Fregat-M Half plate carried on Delhi Class Destroyers. Indeed several commentators have called the Talwar class as a destroyer class of its own. The upcoming Shivalik (Project 17) and Krivak III are very similar designs and expected to continue the present trend towards heavier multi-role designs.

Prospects of the ubiquitous Frigate seem secure for the foreseeable future. Still a submarine hunter it is has grown immensely in size and capability. The modern frigate is still evolving, no longer a mere destroyer escort (USN nomenclature) but is starting to take over most destroyer functions and mirror them in designated roles. For many navies frigates are just an operational designation today rather than a distinct warship class. Whatever they may be called however, there would always be a need for an inexpensive and capable workhorse to take the rough and tumble of peacetime operations, and which in wartime the admirals are more inclined to send in theatres deemed too risky for high value prime combatants. The frigate would always be on station and working the hardest.

Shashank Sinha (shanksinha@rediffmail.com)


             1.      www.indiannavy.nic.in

             2.      www.naval-technology.com

             3.      www.cast.ru

             4.      Sea Power and Indian Security, by Rear Admiral Raja Menon.

             5.      RIA Novosti website http://en.rian.ru

             6.      www.hazegray.org

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