The workhorses of the majority of modern naval forces, these ships were originally and still are at the forefront of the surface based anti-submarine warfare effort. However, as the Cold War developed and they became more and more important in making up the numbers of escorts; frigates have grown both in versatility and breadth of weaponry carried, as well roles for which they are to fulfil. These factors have in turn lead to a growth in size of the vessels themselves, something which is shown by the chart below.
A general description of a frigate is “A warship, usually of 4,000 to 9,000 displacement tons, that is smaller than a destroyer and used primarily for escort duty”. The average modern displacement is often closer to 9,000 tons, than to 4,000. This, as is said above, is reflective of the weapons capacity they are now outfitted with.
There is a slight exception to this general trend, now to be discussed. HMS Chatham, pictured to the left, is a prime example of the growth of roles which frigates are supposed to carry out when considered alongside HMS Somerset, pictured at the beginning. Chatham is a Batch 3 Type 22 Frigate of the Royal Navy, weighing in at 4,900-5,300 tons as opposed to Batch 1's 4,400 tons. She is armed with Sea Wolf SAMs in the visible launchers fore and aft, a 4.5in main gun, Stingray Torpedoes, a Dutch Goalkeeper CIWS and Harpoon SSMs; as well as the ability to carry two Lynx Helicopters or one Merlin (EH101).
HMS Somerset is a Type 23, she weighs in at 4,200 tons, as can be seen in the picture she has 4.5in deck gun, behind which is a Vertical Launch System (VLS) for her Seawolf SAMs, poking out between this and the bridge are the Harpoon SSMs launchers. She carries only a single Merlin helicopter, has not got CIWS, but does retain the Stingray torpedoes. Even with her lower level of armament HMS Somerset and her 12 sisters who remain in the service of the Royal Navy make up 50% of the escorts available. The reason for this is that they were originally designed to act as part of an escort group, along with larger numbers of destroyers/general purpose frigates; whilst they took care of the submarines. The Type 23's are considered the best Sub-Hunters, in NATO's arsenal, but the problem which has come about with them, is that the Governments have never built the rest of the escort group, leaving them to fight in roles for which they do very well, but not as well as they could if they were properly supported.
I have, however, spoken of a trend of ever larger and more powerful Frigates, and this I shall now show by pointing to the other navies of the world. Germany is a prime example of this, with an expanding fleet of general purpose frigates, the F124s- F221 Hessen pictured left, weigh in at 5,960tons, the new class of Frigates the F125s, are 7,200tons - picture to the left below. Whilst both classes can carry two NH90 helicopters, the difference that appears between them is that of armament. The F124, carries a MK. 41 VLS with 8 cells for 32 RIM-162 ESSM (4 per cell) and 24 SM-2 IIIA SAMs, 2 RAM launchers with 21 SAM/CIWS-missiles each, 2 quadruple Harpoon anti-ship missile launchers, an OTO-Melara 76 mm deck gun, 2 Mauser MLG 27 mm auto cannons, and 2 triple torpedo launchers with EuroTorp MU90 Impact torpedoes; an impressive outfitting for a ship which focuses on Anti-Submarine and General Purpose warfare.
On the other hand the F125, which focuses on peacekeeping and land attack roles, has a very different outfitting. This is projected to be 8 × RGM-84 Harpoon SSM (interim solution until joint sea/land attack missile becomes available), 2 × RAM Block II SAM/CIWS, 1 × 127 mm lightweight Otobreda naval gun with guided VULCANO ammunition for land-attack missions (range: more than 100 km (62 mi)), 2 × 27 mm MLG 27 remote-controlled auto cannons, 5 × 12.7 mm Hitrole-NT remote-controlled machine gun turrets, 2 × 12.7 mm heavy machine guns (manually controlled). Most notably there are no torpedoes carried; in fact these frigates could be called destroyers, if they carried a better SAM system, such as Aster, which might be put in to the Type 41 launcher anyway at a later time. What points mostly to their future inshore operations is the sheer weight of firepower devoted to close defence, 2 Auto cannons, 5 remote controlled machineguns not to mention the RAM (Rowling Airframe Missiles) and 2 manually controlled machineguns. This will provide these ships with an almost unparalleled capability within the Littoral regions of operation.
The F125's are not the only large frigates coming into service, replacing/complimenting smaller, older vessels. The De Zeven Provinciën class frigates, of which HNLMS Tromp, below, is a prime example.
Weighing in at 6,050 tons, and with another very impressive aray of armaments; it has a modular Mk41 VLS with 8 cells each Standard armament: 8×4 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile, 32 SM-2 IIIA surface-to-air missiles, as well as this she carries 2 Goalkeeper CIWS guns, 2 quadruple Harpoon anti-ship missile launchers, an Oto Melara 127 mm/54 dual-purpose gun, 2 Oerlikon Contraves 20 mm machine guns, 2 twin MK32 Mod 9 torpedo launchers with Raytheon MK46 Mod 5 torpedoes. They have a flight deck and hangar facility for a lynx helicopter. The class has also the advantage that as it stands it can add in at least one more set of 8 cells onto the VLS. This class fall in the category of large general purpose frigates. It is a good class of ship, which will provide a truly powerful bastion for the support of operations. In a way it is like the complimentary class of frigates the Royal Navy planned when they were building the Type 23s.
France and Italy are providing another addition to the large frigate family; 5,800-6,000 tone FREMM or FREDA (depending on whether it belongs to the Anti-Submarine, General Purpose or Anti-Air subclasses). Whilst weapon outfits for this class are sketchy, and fairly fluid at the moment, the Anti-Air or FREDA's will be almost certainly be carrying the Aster Missile system.
The Chinese are also building new escorts, although currently they seem to focus on destroyers, rather like America is doing; this maybe something to do with superpower status, or more likely it is a reflection of the usual truth, that if in doubt the larger more versatile and well armed escort is the better bet – if you can afford it, and both these nations can.
For my view on frigates, they are going to get larger in size and be multi-role focused, also I am doubting the wisdom of small nations commissioning more than 6 vessels in class or perhaps making them batches of 4, as such nations need to adapt their forces to meet a constant changing set of requirements, building one large class based in one set of ideas, such as the Type 23s of the Royal Navy, would seem to undermine their position.