Musings on Frigates

So, CDR Salamander had a post on shipbuilding estimates  for the DoN going forward. Of course, you can’t have a post like that and not have frigates come up in the conversation. So I thought I’d muse on frigates for a bit.

The term “frigate” has been around navies for a long, long time. But the meaning of frigate has tended to drift a bit.

Back in the age of sail, or Nelsonian navy times, if you said a ship was a frigate, it tended to have a very precise meaning. First, it was  a ship. That is, it was a vessel with three masts (not two, not four, ONLY three), and each was square rigged. Further, the ship had at least 20 guns. Finally, the guns were installed on a single gun deck, not multiple gun decks like ships of the line, or on the main deck like smaller vessels. Frigates were used for a wide variety of missions. They conducted convoy escort, they raided enemy commerce, conducted reconnaissance as the eyes of a fleet, and supported the line of battle, usually by repeating signals to those ships that couldn’t see the flagship. They were strong enough to defeat anything smaller than them, and fast enough to outrun anyone stronger than them.  They were the “utility infielders” of the sailing navies. Indeed, the first warships built specifically for our fledgling US Navy were Six Frigates.

But as wooden ships and iron men came to be replaced by steel hulled ships in the age of steam, traditional ship classifications tended to fall into disuse.  While ships of the line (of battle) eventually became battleships, the term cruiser tended to be used for those ships that operated well away from the fleet, either for scouting, or for commerce raiding.  In our own navy, the term frigate pretty much disappeared for the first half of the 20th century.

During World War II, the British named escort ships bigger than corvettes, but smaller than destroyers “frigates.” In our own Navy, for the most part, we called them “Destroyer Escorts” but a small class of ships was built (by the Maritime Administration, not the Navy) to commercial standards, and called frigates.

After World War II, the Navy built a series of fast carrier task force escorts as replacements for the World War II era fleet destroyers. The need for speed, endurance, large sensor suites and seakeeping drove the size of these ships up greatly from their WWII forebears. The increase in size and cost stunned a lot of people, and rather than calling them destroyers, they were at first called “destroyer leaders*” but eventually, the term frigate for a fast carrier task force escort came into being. These ships were still numbered in the “DL/DLG” category, even if the name was changed.  But unlike frigates of old, these ships were not intended to operate independently. Rather, they were tied into the carrier task force, both by their sensors, and (eventually) by an early electronic network, the Navy Tactical Data System (which, we’ll get around to writing that post eventually).

On the lower end of the combatant scale, the Navy continued building destroyer escorts, but over the years, changed the name to “Ocean Escorts” even while still numbering their hulls in the “DE” category.  These ships were tailored to providing anti-submarine escort to convoys and shipping in the open ocean, and were not suitable for inclusion in the fast carrier task force.

For reasons known but to the SecNav and CNO at the time, in 1975, the Navy changed the naming conventions. Ocean Escorts/Destroyer Escorts were now to be called “Frigates.”  All the ships formerly numbered in the “DE” series suddenly were numbered in the “FF” series. Their hull numbers didn’t change.

The fast task force escorts suddenly needed to be redesignated, as it was silly for an 11,000 ton nuclear powered guided missile escort to share the same category as a 3000 ton anti-sub ship. Accordingly, those ships in the DL/DLG classes were redesignated either cruisers or destroyers, based rather arbitrarily on their displacement.

*Ironically, Destroyer Leaders of the inter-war period were numbered in the DD series, not their own.

6 thoughts on “Musings on Frigates”

  1. I think you have put your finger on a very important, but delicate issue, flexibility. Does the the President, either party, have the right to re-direct money in a Congressionally Approved budget? I believe the US Constitution says no. This does not conflict with C-I-C Role of POTUS. These are about the details or issues, but are extremely important,

  2. And soon we’ll be without any frigates to do the dirty work of the Navy…just oversized gun boats unable to protect themselves or save themselves and cost enough to buy two Perry Frigates. What ship will stand at the outer defense ring, waiting to kill a sub or eat a supersonic anti-ship cruise missile? THAT was the mission of the frigates in the bad old days of the Cold War when John Lehman envisioned two carrier battle groups sailing north to attack the Red Banner Northern Fleet in the Kola peninsula.

    1. Figs were never intended to serve with CVBGs. That they were forced to was more a statement about the lack of DDs, DDGs, DLGs, and CGs.

      Think more as outer escort for an ARG or a merchant convoy. In fact, Clancy’s depiction of them in Red Storm Rising was pretty good, as far as intended purposes.

      Very good blue water ASW sensors/weapons, decent AAW/ASuW weapons. Low cost, good but not great sustained speeds. Wish we could build a new batch of 50. Or more.

  3. I certainly agree that Clancy depicted the DE/FFs quite well in “Red Storm Rising.” DEs were never meant to be carrier screen ships and their speed capability in that regard is telling. A 25-30 knot ship is enough for ASW in the convoy escort role, but not as a carrier screen ships as the speed needed would be 30 knot+. Top speed I saw on Courtney was 27 knots and the ship was trying to shake itself apart. I think Knox class DEs were supposed to be capable of 32 knots, but have my doubts they would make it very often. It’s still too slow for carrier support.

  4. I read someplace that the re-designation of the FFs as “frigates” was due to a NATO standardization effort. Every other navy called their small escorts frigates, and the USN shows up with Bainbridge.

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