Frigate or Destroyer?

This is an article published in our December 2016 Issue.

The ‘Sejong Daewang’ class destroyer
The ‘Sejong Daewang’ class destroyers are in service with the ROKN and will provide the basic design of the new, improved variant of this class which will include the Aegis CMS. (US DoD)

Budgetary and strategic factors are slowly dividing the Asia-Pacific region into navies that can afford destroyers, and those that cannot. This, in turn, is contributing to an increasingly blurred distinction between the two ship categories.

For much of the twentieth century, the distinction between frigates and destroyers was betrayed by their displacement and intended missions. Traditionally, frigates displace between 2000 and 3000 tons, and are considered to be small surface combatants specialised in Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW). Destroyers, on the other hand, traditionally displace between 4000 and 5000 tons, and were designed not only for ASW but also, in some cases, to deliver a heavier punch than frigates by carrying Anti-Surface Warfare (ASuW) and Anti-Air Warfare (AAW) capabilities: “However, if we fast-forward to today, the mission lines between frigates and destroyers have become blurred,” says Collin Koh, a research fellow at the maritime security programme of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore: “Many new frigates have started to tout heavier AAW and even ASuW punches, even if they may still retain a primary ASW fit,” Mr. Koh continues. The continued reduction of defence budgets since the end of the Cold War combined with a wide variety of security and strategic factors, are contributing to shaping a geographical map of Asia-Pacific surface combatant programmes that draws very clear lines between sub-regions.


Mr. Koh continues that: “Australia and New Zealand continue to operate frigates, but Australia is the only country investing long-term into new-build ships.” In fact, the Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN) operates two frigates but no destroyers, and has no plans to acquire any new ships in either category. Australia, on the other hand, is much closer to the: “competition between countries and major powers” currently taking place in the East and South China Seas propelled by the maritime and territorial claims which the People’s Republic of China has in these two stretches of water, and is particularly concerned with “military modernisation in the region,” as its 2016 Defence White Paper which outlines the governments strategic and defence procurement priorities. As such, the Australian government has two major programmes: the Air Warfare Destroyer (AWD) and the Future Frigate initiatives.

Through the AWD programme, the AWD alliance (which includes Navantia, Australia’s Defence Material Organisation procurement agency, Raytheon and ASC) is building three ‘Hobart’ class AWDs. Displacing 7000 tons and armed with a BAE Systems’ Mk.45 127mm main armament and a Raytheon Phalanx Block-1B Close-In Weapon System (CIWS), the ship’s AAW capabilities include Lockheed Martin’s Mk.41 Vertical Launch System (VLS) to accommodate Raytheon’s RIM-66 Standard Missile-2 (SM-2) and RIM-174 Standard Extended-Range Active Missile SAMs (Surface-to-Air Missiles). ASuW provision is provided by the ship’s Boeing RGM-84 Harpoon family Anti-Ship Missiles (AShMs) with the vessel’s ASW punch provided by its EuroTorp MU-90 Impact torpedoes.

The three ships in the class, HMAS Hobart, HMAS Brisbane and HMAS Sydney, were initially respectively slated for delivery in December 2014, early 2016 and mid-2017 however a number of delays have continuously increased the overall cost of the programme and postponed delivery. HMAS Hobart successfully completed Builder Sea Trials off the coast of South Australia on 24 September 2016, and is slated for delivery in June 2017, while HMAS Brisbane and HMAS Sydney should now be delivered in September 2018 and March 2020 respectively.

Despite the ‘Hobart’ class delays, the Future Frigate programme, also known as the SEA-5000 initative to the Australian Department of Defence (DoD), was on the other hand brought forward, a DoD press release announced in August 2015. The programme involves the construction of nine frigates to replace the eight ‘ANZAC’ class frigates currently serving with the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). In April 2016 the DoD announced the three competitors shortlisted for the Competitive Evaluation Programme (CEP) launched in October 2015: BAE Systems, Fincantieri and Navantia. BAE Systems is offering its Type 26 Global Combat Ship (GCS) design while Fincantieri is competing with its ‘Bergamini’ class frigate design already in service with the Marina Militaire (Italian Navy), while Navantia’s design is: “based on the latest and most modern (‘Álvaro de Bazán’ class frigate operated by the Spanish Navy),” says Ms Esther Benito Lope, a Navantia spokesperson: “and Navantia’s added value is its experience with frigates”, with five of these vessels built for the Armada Española (Spanish Navy) and three planned for the RAN via the ‘Hobart’ class which uses this design as its base.

‘Hobart’ class destroyer
The ‘Álvaro de Bazán’ class frigate is used by the Spanish Navy, and the design has also been selected as the basis for the Royal Australian Navy’s ‘Hobart’ class destroyers. (Brian Burnell)

Northeast Asia

Further north, Japan and the Republic of Korea face the common threat of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) ballistic missiles, with the DPRK claiming that it was now in possession of a missile capable of hitting the United States in August. Therefore both Japan and the ROK’s destroyers are equipped with the latest iteration of the Lockheed Martin Aegis Combat Management System (CMS) which can provide command and control for ballistic missile defence, as does the allied US Navy: “The PRC acquired its own ‘Chinese Aegis’ in large to match what its immediate neighbours are having, but also to provide fleet AAW cover for the (People’s Liberation Army Navy/PLAN) aircraft carrier and accompanying forces,” Mr. Koh continues.

In a continuous effort to increase its assertiveness, the PLAN, has ongoing frigate and destroyer programmes. Regarding the latter, the PLAN has designed an updated version of the ‘Type 052C/Luyang-II’ class destroyer dubbed the ‘Type 052D/Luyang III’ class. According to local sources, this latter class may displace as much as 10000 tons and is fitted with a vast sensor suite including the Type 346A naval surveillance radar. It is armed with YJ-18A/B AShMs and surface-to-surface missiles, China Precision Machinery Import-Export Corporation HQ-9 SAMs and anti-submarine rockets. Jiangnan Shipyard built the first eight vessels of the class and launched a ninth one on 28 July. The Dalian Shipbuilding Industry Company (DSIC) also began construction of ‘Type 052D/Luyang III’ destroyers on 28 November 2015, with the first ship currently being fitted the second one launched on 3 August 2016 and third expected to be launched shortly. Meanwhile, in the frigate domain, construction of the PLAN’s ‘Type 054A/Jiangkai II’ class frigates continues. On 8 June 2016, Shanghai’s Hudong-Zhongua shipyard launched the 25th example, while the Huangpu shipyard in Guangzhou, southern China launched the 24th example on 17 June 2016.

‘Type 54/Jiangkai II’ class frigates
The PLAN is pursuing an energetic schedule for construction new frigates and destroyers. These new ships include the ‘Type 54/Jiangkai II’ class frigates, the 25 example of which was launched in June 2016. (US DoD)

Accompanying Japan’s desire to show more assertiveness in the region in the face of the PRC’s increasingly outward strategic posture, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF) has launched its own destroyer programme. The ‘Azikuzi’ class is expected to replace the JMSDF’s current ‘Asagiri’ class destroyers. Two ships have been ordered and are currently being built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, with the first one to be completed in 2017 according to a local source. Very little information is available on the programme, other than the ships will have a displacement of 5000 tons, will have a high performance ASW capability and will be equipped with Combined Gas Turbine Electric and Gas turbine (COGLAG) propulsion as well as using a new naval surveillance radar of an unknown type.

Away from Japan, in the last decade, the Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) has been focusing on procuring; “capable high end ships complete with ASW, AAW and ASuW capabilities,” says Matthew Caris, senior associate at Avascent, a Washington DC-based consultancy. As such, the ROK Defence Acquisition Programme Administration (DAPA), which overseas the country’s defence procurement, signed an agreement with Hyundai Heavy Industries, on 24 June 2016, to commence development of the second batch of ‘Sejong Daewang’ class destroyers. The three new ships will be an improved variant of the three batch one ‘Sejong Daewang’ class, with a full load displacement of 10000 tons and equipped with Lockheed Martin’s Aegis Baseline-9 CMS (see above), and the AN/SPY-1D S-band (2.3-2.5/2.7-3.7 gigahertz) naval surveillance radar. The ships’ sensor suite also includes Atlas Elektronik’s bow-mounted DSQS-21 BZ-M sonar and MTeQ towed array sonar system. In terms of armament, the ships are fitted with a single Thales Goalkeeper 30mm CIWS, Raytheon’s RIM-116 family SAMs and a BAE Systems Mk.45 Mod.4 127mm naval gun. The ASuW capabilities include the LIG Nex1 SSM-700K Hae Sung long-range AShMs and LIG Nex1 Hyunmoo-III surface-to-surface missiles: “Currently HHI is finishing-up the design, and plans to start building the ships within the next two years,” says Seon Jeong U an HHI spokesperson.

The ‘Sejong Daewang’ class destroyer
The ‘Sejong Daewang’ class destroyers are in service with the ROKN and will provide the basic design of the new, improved variant of this class which will include the Aegis CMS. (US DoD)

Regarding frigates, the ROKN will receive eight ‘FFX-II’ class frigates; an improved variant of the ROKN’s existing ‘Incheon’ class frigates that will be built by Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering (DSME). The ‘FFX-II’ class has a full load displacement of 3600 tons and is armed with the RIM-166 Block-1 SAM, the SSM-700K AShM and Agency for Defence Development/Almaz-Antey Cheolmae-2 SAMs. The first vessel, launched on 2 June 2016, is slated to be commissioned in 2018.

The ROKN’s ‘Incheon’ class frigates
The ROKN’s ‘Incheon’ class frigates are to provide the baseline design for the navy’s forthcoming ‘FSX-II’ class ships; the first of which is expected to be commissioned in 2018. (ROKN)

South Asia

Looking forward South Asia, Mr. Koh states that: “the key player remains India, with comparable frigate and destroyer programmes relative to Northeast Asia (see above) … whereas Pakistan continues to focus on frigates as its largest surface combatant, after having retired the navy’s Cold War-era destroyers.” Pakistan, however, does not have any ongoing frigates programmes, while India continues with the construction of its ‘Kolkata’ class destroyers, of which the first two ships, INS Kolkata and INS Kochi, were commissioned in August 2014 and September 2015 respectively. Built by indigenous shipbuilder Mazagon Dock Limited (MDL), the ‘Kolkata’ class destroyers have full load displacement of 6,800 tons. The last vessel, INS Chennai, is slated for commissioning by the end of 2016. MDL was also selected, in January 2011, for the construction four ‘Visakhapatnam’ class destroyers. According to local sources, the ‘Visakhapatnam’ class will have a displacement of 7300 tons and will feature a deck with a low radar cross section while maintaining the hull form of the ‘Kolkata’ class.

Southeast Asia

Meanwhile: “In Southeast Asia, the key players, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, are all into frigates, since destroyers are regarded as … too expensive,” argues Mr. Koh. While Singapore does not currently have any ongoing programme, the Philippines have just recently signed a contract with HHI for the construction of two frigates. Furthermore, in August 2010, Indonesia’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) launched the SIGMA 10514 frigate project, resulting in the development of the ‘Martadinata’ class vessels. The contract for the two vessels was awarded to Damen Schelde Naval Shipbuilding (DSNS), which is working with indigenous shipyard PT PAL in the development and construction of the vessel. The first eponymous example successfully completed sea trials on 7 September and, according to Hein van Ameijden, the director of DSNS: “As a result of the close collaboration between DSNS and PT PAL, we expect to deliver both vessels according to schedule: the first one in January 2017 and the second one in September 2017.”

Away from Indonesia, while a contract for the multipurpose frigate programme was signed in August 2013 between DSME and the Royal Thai Navy (RTN), it was only on 18 May 2016 that DSME laid the keel for the first of the two frigates that the RTN expects to receive. The DW3000 is a modernised variant of the ‘Kwanggaeto Daewang’ class destroyer in service with the ROKN, and is expected to have a displacement of 3650 tons. No additional information is currently available regarding this programme. Moreover, on 29 April, Russia’s Zelenodolsk Shipyard launched the first of an additional three ‘Gepard’ class multipurpose frigates to the People’s Army of Vietnam Navy (PAVN). This is part of a contract signed between the PAVN and the Zelenodolsk Shipyard in 2006, which has already seen the delivery of two ‘Gepard’ class multipurpose frigates, Dinh Tien Hoang and Li Taï Toh, in March and August 2011 respectively. The last two ships of the class were scheduled for delivery in August and September 2016, although no additional information has been released since April to confirm this.

After having experienced a number of significant delays since it was launched in October 2013, the Philippines’ Navy (PN) Frigate Acquisition Programme (FAP) was finally awarded to HHI in August 2016. The contract to build two 2600 tons frigates was signed on 24 October, and the design, according to Mr. Jeong U, will be a smaller light combatant version of the ‘Incheon’ class frigate currently in service with the Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN): “HHI should start building the first ship in a year’s time,” estimated Mr. Jeong U: “and we project delivery of the second ship within 42 months of signing the contract,” in approximately mid-2020.

Larger priorities

The ongoing frigate and destroyer programmes in the Asia-Pacific read like a map of regional priorities. While countries with sufficient defence budgets are building both frigates and destroyers to match their neighbour’s naval capabilities, others are focusing on the construction of ships with designs and capabilities which are slowly blurring traditional distinctions between frigates and destroyers.

Indeed, constrained by their financial resources and the uncertainty of the economic climate in the region, countries throughout the Asia-Pacific are being pushed to design ever-larger surface combatants as a result of the factors discussed above. As an example, the RAN’s ‘Hobart’ class (see above) displace 6250 tonnes, considered above the traditional classification for a destroyer, while the PLAN’s ‘Type 054A/Jiangkai II’ class frigates displace 3900 tons; heavy for a ship classified as a frigate. This increase in size allows navies to not only accommodate increasing capabilities and pack a more significant punch, but also to acquire a comparatively smaller force of these ships for various roles: “The idea of building (large frigates and destroyers) is also to provide for redundancies onboard to accommodate future retrofits and mid-life upgrades,” notes Mr Koh, as such extending the service life of the ships: “Frigates and destroyers consequently become larger, to accommodate a greater repertoire of capabilities to suit the spectrum of missions their builders and buyers envisage them to fulfil.”