“THIS is the one they got right!” Not my words, but the introductory sentence in naval writer Leo Marriott’s 1986 book “Type 22”. At the time he wrote that, the 14- strong class that was also known as the Broadsword class was still in production. Its final incarnation, the powerful Batch III ships were yet to commission. Those that had been built had proved their worth in war, and the future looked bright for Britain’s latest class of world-beating warships. Little did Mr Marriott know (And who could have predicted?) that ten years on from his book, members of the Type 22 class would be decommissioning.
With the last of the Type 22 frigates leaving Royal Navy service in 2011, the time is now right to take a retrospective look at this class and ask why, though they did all the right things at the right time, history will not judge them as the most successful post war example of British warship design?
The cold war made military planners do things we today may question. Dedicated single-mission ships were the norm. The Royal Navy’s role with NATO the most important priority. The job of the frigate was to ride the North Atlantic swell, hunt Russian submarines and survive for as long as possible. A remake of World War Two’s Battle of the Atlantic but with more sophisticated weapons and - with the addition of nuclear weapons - very high stakes.
The Post-war Type 12 frigate programme brought the Royal Navy three classes of anti-submarine and general purpose escort vessel. Its ultimate expression, the Leander class. Leanders became the backbone of the Royal Navy in the 1960s and 70s. From keeping a weather eye on the remnants of empire to escorting carrier groups and that all-important NATO mission - anti-submarine warfare - Leanders fitted the bill. Many were converted into single-mission roles which meant most ditched their conventional gun armament in favour of state-of-the art missile systems. The naval gun was seen as something no longer needed. The missile age allowed ships to sink other ships with long range weapons like Exocet. Submarines could be dealt with by helicopter or torpedo carrying missiles which would match the range of the ever-sophisticated sensors on the ships.
For those planning new ships in the late 1960s and 1970s the choice of technology was astounding. Warships were moving on from the Leander generation which in themselves were really just developments of World War II technology. The Gas turbine reduced manning, increased flexibility and improved performance over the steam turbine propulsion systems of their day. The new generation Sea Wolf was British, and it worked.
With steel cheap and technology available, the designers looking to produce a replacement for the Leander Class came up with a new design. The Type 22 would benefit from Leander’s excellent sea keeping capabilities. Its crew accommodation would be a leap forward in comfort, its flexible Rolls Royce gas turbine propulsion plant would need fewer crew but deliver greater performance. Above all, its electronics and weapon fit – including the Exocet anti-ship missile and Sea Wolf would take the navy to a new level.
Many armchair admirals – not understanding why she looked like she did – criticised HMS BROADSWORD when she made her first public appearance. She looked like no other ship before her. No main gun, boxes housing missiles, a tall, bulwarked, inelegant bow, high freeboard, slab sided hangar and fat funnel. No-one could argue the ship was a looker.
What those armchair commentators failed to appreciate was that the ship was the way she was, because of her new technology. Gas turbines required the fat funnel. Air intakes for those turbines had to be where they were. Exocet came in sealed canisters bolted to the deck. The hangar was big and boxy because this ship could carry not one, but two of the latest maritime helicopter – the Westland Lynx.
The tall stumpy bow – indeed the rest of the hull form – was a well disguised and highly modified Leander Class design.
As with a lot of British defence technology emerging in this period, it was not long before the Type 22 was given its ultimate test. The Falklands War of 1982 saw thee Type 22s joining the task force sent to retake the islands from Argentina. Such was the faith in Sea Wolf, that through much of the campaign the units were assigned to closely guard the aircraft carriers acting as “goalkeepers” to fend off an incoming Argentine attack. Indeed, such was the fear of Sea Wolf that Argentine pilots – tasked with taking out British warships – tried to give the Type 22s a wide berth where they could.
Some Argentine pilots did attack, and those that pressed on did get lucky. HMS BRILLIANT had her sophisticated defence systems disabled by unsophisticated small calibre rounds fired by an Argentine aircraft. A shell struck the hull, penetrated and destroyed cabling knocking out Sea Wolf.
HMS BROADSWORD received a direct hit from an Argentine bomb. Luck meant the weapon didn’t explode. It passed through the flight deck destroying a helicopter after ricocheting off the sea.
On May 25 HMS BROADSWORD was in company with the Type 42 destroyer HMS COVENTRY when the latter was attacked by aircraft and sunk. Problems with Sea Wolf meant Broadsword was unable to defend the stricken destroyer.
There was nothing fundamentally wrong with Sea Wolf. It went on to continue to be a world-beating system, but even at this early stage in the Type 22s life, the writing was beginning to be seen on the wall.
The design had been asked to perform a role it had not been designed for. Swapping North Atlantic sub-hunting for brutal littoral warfare. A gun on the foredeck would have been useful; the ability to operate a larger helicopter would have been good too. The sophisticated sensors, ideal for detecting threats and targeting missiles over hundreds of miles of empty flat sea, did not work well close to land.
With the first four of the class in service, an improved, lengthened Batch II design appeared. For those armchair admirals critical of the original ships’ aesthetics there was a dramatic clipper bow, a long sleek hull, a smaller funnel. What may have a few years ago appeared boxy now appeared lithe and purposeful. But warships – with a few exceptions – are not built for looks. As with most warship designs, the change in the appearance of the Batch II ships was for a reason.
New sonar, sensors and command systems lay beneath the sleeker looks. Later ships in the batch would have bigger flight decks and hangars that would allow them if needed, to operate the larger Sea King and Merlin anti-submarine helicopters. Despite the new gear, the fundamentals of the Type 22 remained the same. No-longer regarded as the replacement for the ubiquitous Leander Class, these ships were specialised escort vessels, refined and optimised for conflict in the North Atlantic.
Something the Navy did recognise about the Batch II ships was the space offered in the hull for future weapon systems. The public were told that as time went by; new technology could be added into the class to keep it up there with the best.
Out of sentiment, two of the Batch II ships already on order were renamed after vessels lost in the Falklands campaign, Sheffield and Coventry. More significantly, four ships built to replace those losses formed a new sub-class. The Batch III.
Everything the Type 22 Batch I lacked in the Falklands war was incorporated into the new Batch III ships. There was a gun to give the ship punch against shore targets or small surface targets. American Harpoon missiles were mounted high up, making use of the space offered in the bigger hull. Sea Wolf featured alongside a radar-controlled, Dutch-sourced rapid firing gun system. The Batch III ships had newer more efficient gas turbines.
Modern warships don’t tend to bristle with armaments, but the Batch III design bucked that trend. Configured for more than war in the North Atlantic, it would go on to carve its own role in the Royal Navy.
The collapse of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent rapid thaw of the cold war in the late 1980s and early 1990s brought new challenges for the Royal Navy. The so-called “peace dividend” meant ships like the Type 22 no-longer had a role. There would always be submarines to hunt, but as was demonstrated in the Falklands in 1982, there would also always be the threat of the smaller but brutal brushfire war. Conflicts where high technology could be unexpectedly thwarted by the unsophisticated opponents of topography and a lucky 20mm shell.
Little more than a decade into their service lives, the Royal Navy found buyers for the four Batch I Type 22s. With a hastily installed export version of Sea Wolf, the ships transferred to Brazil. Quite why Brazil thought expensive to run, middle-aged all-missile frigates were the way forward is open to question. Prestige, force multiplication, who knows?
The addition of American-supplied electronic intelligence gathering equipment to some Batch II and Batch III units meant the cold war era ships found a new role with the Royal Navy of the 1990s. They were often seen in operations and deployments to the Adriatic during the Balkan conflict and the persistently volatile Persian Gulf region.
This is where the opportunity with the Type 22 was lost. Much had been made about the bigger Batch II ships’ capacity to take new technology and weapon systems. This had been demonstrated with the additions made to the Batch III ships. The Type 22s were now making their mark as task force command vessels, like pre-war Royal Navy cruisers, they led task groups, and had become hubs for command control communications and intelligence gathering. Refitting the Batch II ships to the same standard as the Batch III Type 22s would have been expensive but it would have given the Royal Navy a ten-ship class of ships that it really needed. Well-armed general purpose warships, with global reach and importantly a powerful punch.
At the time, cash was being poured into the building of the Type 22’s successor, the Type 23. A smaller but very effective and ultra-sophisticated platform still dedicated to that cold war doctrine of submarine hunting.
Instead of refitting and life extension, the Batch II ships were retired. Buyers were hard to find. One of the class at just 17 years old, middle age in warship terms, was sent to a Turkish beach for scrap. Two met their ends as targets in a live firing exercise ironically slipping beneath the North Atlantic waves they had been designed to rein supreme over.
The surviving three languished at mooring buoys, until buyers could be found.
The first unlikely new owner – taking two ships - was the former Eastern Bloc nation, Romania. Stripped of their reason-d’-etre - Sea Wolf, towed array sonar, Exocet and much of the electronics fit, the former HMS LONDON and HMS COVENTRY acquired an Italian made gun on the foredeck and little else. Controversially sold for a knock-down price to Romania, they operate today as fleet flag ships with an armament that makes them little more than very big, and very expensive to run, offshore patrol vessels.
It was Chile – that hungry buyer of former Royal Navy ships – and master at innovation, that took the last Batch II ship on. HMS SHEFFIELD became Almirante Williams.
Williams represents what should have happened to the Batch II ships when with the Royal Navy. Retro fitted by her new owners with a 76mm gun, Harpoon anti-ship missiles and a sophisticated but cheap to buy Israeli-sourced air defence missile system called Barak, Williams offers Chile a lot of warship for its money. Ideally suited to post cold war duties, she can act as a flag ship, an escort, and intelligence gathering platform – indeed she can fulfil any role reasonably expected of a ship of her type.
With the 2010 defence review ordered by the Britain’s coalition government, the decision was taken to retire early the Royal Navy’s four Batch III Type 22 frigates. With their demise, the RN loses the global cruiser role these ships fitted so perfectly. It loses a valuable intelligence gathering capability. It also loses one of the most powerful classes of surface ships that ever saw service with any post-war navy.
Will the Batch III ships meet their end like so much of the Royal Navy on a scrap man’s beach? Will their communications networks soon buzz with the voices of South American-accented Spanish speaking sailors? Time will tell.
Was Leo Marriott correct? Was the Type 22 the one they got right? Was the class a victim of changes in world order? A hostage to naval doctrine that became outmoded? A servant to the needs of accountants looking for a quick budget cut? The answer has to be yes to any of the above.
The Type 22 was the ship of missed opportunity, and in isolation Almirante Williams - the only one they really got right.