28 June 2016

Ships of the Line: Frigates

One of the oldest and continuously used classifications for surface warships is the Frigate, and it goes  all the way back to the Age of Sail. However, the name "Frigate" is often confused and contextual based on the time period in discussion. The Age of Sail Frigates and the Post-WWII Frigates are entirely different. This traditional classification of naval warships has also made out into the ranks of combat starships seen in works like Mass Effect, Old Man's War, and Star Trek. Here, in the next installment of Ships of the Line, FWS will breakdown the Frigate of past, present, and future.

What the Hell is the "Frigate" Anyways?
The term "Frigate" is one of the most historical and longest used in surface warships going all the way back to the 15th century; it is also one of the most confusing terms as well. Originally, the term "Frigate" was primarily used to describe a fast warship in the days of sails and broadsides of cannons. The origin of the name is unknown and could be a bastardization of Latin or Greek naval terminology. These early Frigates were constructed for the purpose of speed and maneuverability, not for massive exchanges of cannon fire. One of the matters not helping the confusion over the use of the terminology of this naval classification is that not all ships carrying the name Frigate are true Frigates in the same sense as others. The first types of these warships were developed by Dunkirker Privateers around the early 16th century, who were employed by the Spanish government to raid Dutch shipping. With the success of the Dunkirkers and their ships, the Dutch constructed their own fast warships to counter the threat posed by the Dunkirkers. These fast, sail-only warships impacted naval design.
The Dutch became one of the key naval powers to use the Frigate extensively by the 17th century. By the time of the Napoleonic Wars, the Royal British Navy was constructing and fielding Frigates improved from captured French designs, in peacetime to protect its global holdings. This made the Frigates of the Royal Navy the ships that saw the most action, consequently, they had the most experienced crews. Assignment to an Frigate was seen as a fast track to promotion in the Royal Navy. The Frigates of this era were heavily romanticized and desired, as seen in the Master & Commander series of books and the 2003 film. Frigates were seen by the British and the French Naval commanders as a way to field warships that were very effective general warships, while conserving wood and metal resources. One of the more famous Frigates from the Age of Sail is the "Super-Frigate" USS Constitution. These American heavy or super Frigates were outfitted with 44 cannons, and caused panic in European naval circles. The Age of Sail Frigates were the most popular of sailing warships due to their mission flexibility, less taxing on resources and manpower, long-range, able to operate independently, and were often manned by the best of the navies. When the world of naval seapower switched locomotion from sail to steam in the 19th century, the Frigates were some of the first iron warships to be developed and fielded, and where called "Armored Frigates". However, by late the 19th century, the term "Frigate" on the way out, replaced by the cruiser and the battleship.

Frigates of the Modern Navy
As is the case with many of the warships we discuss here on Ships of the Line, the 2nd World War altered the roles and classifications of these surface warships. The term Frigate was resurrected by the Royal Navy, and it only shared the name with the historical Frigates of the Age of Sail. Given the extensive use of U-Boats by the 3rd Reich, the Frigate was recreated as an anti-submarine warship, protecting convoys from the underwater predators and was slotted in-between the Corvette and Destroyer. Unlike it's predecessor, the modern Frigate was shorter range and lower in speed.
There was also, anti-aircraft Frigates produced by the British in the Loch class and patrol Frigates, used by the American Navy. After the war, the dominant naval surface warship class switched from the battlecruiser/battleship to the aircraft carrier and the dominant weapon system moved from cannons to missiles. The modern medium warship Frigate, like the Destroyer, and Cruisers, became a platform for guided anti-ship missiles and anti-submarine duties for the fleet ground. They also served as escorts and patrol vessels, but they are becoming less and less common due to roles overlaying with other surface combat ships.

Is the Frigate Disappearing from Modern Navies?
If we look at the numbers of frigates in active naval service around the globe, we see an odd displacement of numbers and what nations field this type of surface warfare vessel. China has the most frigates in service, with 48 with two major US allies: India and Australia only fielding 14 each. The US Navy ranks 48th in frigates, with only six in active service and that seems to be the norm, many navies around the world only deploy a few if any Frigates. Then the historical naval strong United Kingdom only has 13 in its inventory. So, is the frigate, one of the older classifications of warships, disappearing from modern navies? Yes. Why? Well, with the end of the Cold War, and the prospect of a large scale naval battle between flotillas of warships being less likely (expect maybe with China?), governments have been parrying down their surface fleets by combining the roles and responsibilities of classical classifications of surface warships into one or two warships; as is the case with Destroyers and Heavy Cruisers. Some navies, like Germany, are still deploying Frigates to replace their Destroyers, but most navies are fielding more Destroyers and Missile Cruisers than Frigates.  What two things that could save the Frigate class warship for future navies is the US Navy's Littoral Combat Ship and the advent of "stealth technology" for navy warships. These two unique roles could save the Frigate classification from completely disappearing.

The Modern Frigate: The LCS
It seems that one of the forms the modern and future frigate will transform into is the Littoral Combat Ship or LCS. With growing threats coming from to land, AKA the littoral zone, the US Navy has developed the LCS to counter these threats with a flexible platform that could run anti-pirate operations along with special operations with naval special forces. The new LCS class vessels are fitted with roll-on/roll-off ramp to deliver combat vehicles for shore operations. Along with littoral zone missions of irregular and amphibious warfare, the LCS Frigates will be tasked with mine and submarine countermeasure, along with classical surface warfare duties. It is likely that other nations will follow suit to the US Navy thinking.

The Space-Going Frigate
The Frigate of science fiction is often generalized as small, lightly armed and armored warships designed to fight in packs and operation during fleet engagements. During solo operations, the space-going Frigate is a master of secondary role like scouting, escorting, and patrol. At times, Frigates are the first assignment of recent graduates of the space navy academy and first commands. They are also the choice for the intra-solar system patrol service (coast guard) and the first to run into hostile forces at times. Would there be an hard-science Frigate? I think there will be patrol vessels that are first responders to an crisis or threat in high traffic regions. Frigates could patrol the route from Earth-to-the-Moon and the "L" neighborhoods, similar to the modern LCS naval vessel. These could be glorified probes or patrol vessels, but they will not be combat forces in the sense of other hard-science space warships we've discussed in the past.

Science Fiction and Frigates
The relationship between science fiction and the Frigate is an odd one and is unlike other smaller classifications of warships we've explored before. While Frigates are one of the oldest continually used classifications of naval vessels, there are fewer Frigates than one might think presented in sci-fi. However, there some very famous and iconic examples of sci-fi Frigates like the Forward onto Dawn from HALO, the Normandy from Mass Effect and the Nebulon-B from Star Wars. The bulk of other examples are seen in familiar war-game settings where Frigates are just one of the gang in the space taskforce, as we have seen in Star Trek, EVE Online, and Starblazers.
Why the bipolar nature of the sci-fi Frigate? Some works, like Mass Effect are deliberately setting their characters and actions around an smaller warship, like the Normandy and others use the name because of its historical status; but most creators are wanting to use more familiar (and sexy) naval vessel classifications. Frigates are not the "hero" kind of ship like Battlecruisers or Carriers, that most would think of, outsides of readers of Master & Commander. Some of the creators just do not understand what an Frigate is, and ignore them or just thrown in a Frigate for good measure in developing an vast naval force for their universe. It also does not help matters that Frigates are less common in modern naval organizations. With the visibility of the SSV Normandy and the In Amber Clad, we could see more Frigates....could.   


The Normandy SR1/SR2 class Frigate from the Mass Effect Universe
The most iconic Frigate in all of science fiction is the SSV Normandy, the ship that was home to your Shepard throughout all three Mass Effect games. In the original game, the SSV Normandy SR1 was an advanced testbed prototype Frigate of the Systems Alliance Navy with state-of-the-art stealth and communication technology. Its was built for recon and scouting operations in unstable regions of the galaxy. The SR1 was able to store the waste heat and cool the hull to minimize the heat signature. It was also fitted with the Tantalus Drive, that allows the SR1 Normandy to "fall into" rather than being pushed by heat-generating thrusters.
She was an technological partnership between the Terrans and the Taurians and there was nothing like the Normandy, and it gained galaxy-wide fame during the defense of Citadel against Sovereign. While it was not as armored nor armed as the heavy hitter warships, the speed and maneuverability allow the Normandy to be an effective warships. That attention caused the Collectors to target the ship and her commander. After the Collectors destroyed the original Alliance SR1 and killed Commander Shepard, the Cerberus Corporation rebuilt the Normandy, but bigger and badder than the original.
This was SR2 Normandy and it was final incarnation of the ship. Given her larger size, the SR2 could not land on-planet, so she used shuttles as seen in ME2 and ME3. During the hunt for the Collectors, the SR2 when defensive and offensive upgraded over the SR1, and it came in handy was the Collector was assaulted. After the events of ME2, Shepard turned over the ship to the Alliance and she came back into the fold. As the ship and her captain were being studied at the Alliance HQ in Vancouver, the Reapers hit Earth, forcing Shepard to escape in the SR2. During her effort to unite the galaxy, the SR2 was her mobile command center, making this little Frigate the most important vessel in the galaxy. After the Reaper Invasion, the fate of the SR2 Normandy was uncertain...it is likely that the ship was repaired and it rejoined the Earth, destined to become a museum piece and an enduring symbol of the 23rd century. Some believe that the Tempest ships seen in the Mass Effect: Andromeda trailers could be an Frigate. 

The UNSC Charon class Light Frigate from the HALO Universe
One of the most famous science fiction Frigates (besides the Normandy) is the UNSC Charon class "Light" Frigate. This is the class of warship that the Forward onto Dawn and others seen on-screen in HALO 3 and ODST were a member of. In Amber Clad of HALO 2 was an Steward class Light Frigate...very similar to the Charon class. No idea why the two classes exist in the UNSC inventory. Originally, the Charon class were designed for planetary defense and other similar duties, however, the alien invasion pressed the Charon into massive fleet engagements, where a single Charon  was not able to successfully engage a Covenant warship.
This caused Charon class to work together to bring down a single Covenant warship with their MAC guns throughout the Covenant-Human War. One unique feature of the Charon class was that it could operate endoatmospherical and as seen during the critical battle of Reach and at Voi on Earth, Charons could be used as planetside heavy fire support and even delivering ground forces as seen at Installation 00. Given the role of Forward onto Dawn and it being made into Megablok set, it is one of the more well known ships in the HALO universe.

The Federation Chandley Class Frigate from the FASA Star Trek Starship Tactical Combat Simulator
The Chandley class Federation Frigate is one of those Movie-era Trek ships that was developed by FASA for their 1980's Trek RPG and wargame. However, it became on of the best and most beloved of the FASA ships. Just casual Googling reveals the love for the Chandley class that still exists, and for good reason: the Chandley is a badass. The class was developed after the Four War Year with the Klingons when it was revealed that the need for a combat starships to carry Starfleet Marines for boarding operations was not fulfilled. Starfleet asked for designs in 2256 and the best was from the Chandley  Naval Engineering Firm, named for an Cold War era American Naval commander. This is the only starship in Federation service that is named for the company that designed her.
The Chandley can carry 250 Marines for boarding operations in separated sections of the ship (the wings) that allow the Marines excellent facilities to train and relax. When the time comes for action, the Chandley class can teleport over all 250 armed Marines in less than four minutes, while the ship itself is heavily armed to deal with any incoming threats. The Chandley class was the most powerful Frigate in the region at the time of her launch, making her a favorite among users of the STSTCS game. Of course, as with all FASA starships, the design is unofficial and non-canon.

The Frigates of EVE Online
The Frigates of one of the best space combat strategy games, EVE Online, are a light warship, cheap to build and cheap to replace. They are tasked with secondary functions, like pirate suppression, fleet security, and escort. While light in armor and armament, they are used for hit-and-run tactics due to their speed, but are cannon-fodder for the larger warships, even if operating in packs.

The UNSC Strident class Heavy Frigate from the HALO Universe
After the devastating Covenant-Human War, the UNSC had to rebuild the bulk of its space navy from scratch. This may have been a good thing due to the influx of new technology gained by exposure to the Covenant and Forerunner tech. One of the most visual representations of that is the massive UNSC Infinity.
During her assignment to the Shield-World of Requiem, the Infinity would deploy several smaller warships to aid in her establishment of an place around Requiem. Stored in the belly of the massive warship was ten of the new Strident class Heavy Frigate. These are seen briefly on-screen, but they are worth discussing. These ships were constructed around an shipborne MAC KEW system along with energy shielding and Triple-A defensive weaponry with a mission of fast attack and escort. Given that the Strident class were seen alongside the Infinity, they are little more than background pieces and mentioned or seen in other post-HALO 4 works. It reminds to be seen if the Strident class will gain the exposure as the Charon class Frigate.   

The Republic class Frigate from the Star Wars Universe
During the Clone Wars, the old ways of the galaxy and the Republic were swept away and replaced by a time of war and unity. That meant that the former peaceful mission of the Jedi and the Republic vessels were displaced in favor of wartime duties. This is seen in the retrofitting of the diplomatic Corellian Consular class cruiser to the Republic Frigate that served as a stop-gap while new dedicated warships were constructed. By the end of the war, these Frigates were mothballed or sold as scrap...some found their way into the hands of the rebels. There was an Lego Set, number 7964, released of the Frigate.

The EDF Airone Class Frigate from Starblazers/Space Cruiser Yamato Universe
The world of the classic Space Cruiser Yamato and Starblazers is packed with all manner of combat starships, and the series was and is still known for massive space battles. One of the smaller warships in service with the EDF at the time of the White Comet Empire invasion of the Sol System in 2201 was the Airone class Frigate. This Frigate class was never on-screen for more than a few seconds, and even then it was either being blown up or seen mixed in with other EDF capital ships during the critical Battle of Saturn. However, the Airone class was given a starring role in the 1987 Comico Comics Starblazers limited series...more on that later.
During the massive reconstruction project after the restoration of the Earth's atmosphere and biosphere, the EDF was never going to let an alien power dominate the Earth as the Gamilon Empire did. That meant that as the cities of Earth were being rebuilt above ground, the Earth Defense Force was on a feverish ship building boom...because all they had was one single combat starship: the Yamato.  The Airone was a product of that time and the influence of the Iscandar technology. And the name? I believe the name for the class comes from the Italian word for the wider classification of Heron birds and Italy was the funding sponsoring nation for the class. Looking at the stats from the tech manual, the Airone is crewed by about 38 (due to automation) and comes in at 112 meters and weighs in at 3,600 tons, making it one of the smallest warships in the new 2201 EDF reconstructed fleet. It is well armed with two light shock turrets, torpedo launchers, a single heavy shock cannon mounted in the very nose of the Frigate. One of the variants of the Airone class is the Konigsberg class patrol vessel .
While the Airone is not well known to even many Starblazers/Yamato fans, it was featured prominently in the 1987 Starblazers Comico limited series. The series picks up right after the defeat of the White Comet Empire, and the Argo is captured by one of the few surviving White Comet Empire generals and his taskforce. General Radnar's dark plan is to turn the wave motion cannon against Earth. While the crew resists and Derek makes a deal with the Gamilons, Sandor and Mark are given the mission by the Earth Defense Council to finish the construction of the Airone class Frigate S.S. Hanley, the last ship of the EDF navy and still under construction in the San Diego shipyards. The Frigate Hanley is tasked with intercepting the Argo and stopping Radnar's mad plan by coordinating the last of the EDF defenses. While this Comico series is one of the best Starblazers stories of all time, and a must for any fan...they did get the Hanley completely wrong. Throughout the comic, the characters refer to the Hanley as an Destroyer, most likely of the Gearing class and that she is armed with an wave motion cannon...both are wrong. It is likely that writers Phil Foglio and Doug Rice were going off limited information available at the time (I own the tech manual), and the opening on the nose of the vessel seems to indicate the presence of an wave motion cannon...but a ship that size could not mount an WMC and it is just an heavy shock cannon. When comparing the drawings in the tech manual and the Hanley in the comic, it is clear that the Hanley belongs to the Airone class and not the Gearing class. Another element that may be confusing is that the Gearing and the Airone are both similar in shape, due to the common hull design of some EDF warship classes. This is last known appearance of the Airone class in Starblazers/Yamato...it may make an appearance in the sequel to Space Battleship Yamato 2199  

The Frigates of the Honor Harrington Universe
The Honorverse is packed with all manner of warships that fit within the classical classification of naval vessels, and Frigates are no different. These small warships are below a Destroyer class, and are given the more secondary duties of the space navy, like patrol. In the history of the Honorverse, the Manticore navy started with four Sol System constructed Frigates in 1389 PD. Several hundred years later, most space navies did not field many Frigate class warships, due to their limited combat use. However, an Manticore Royal Navy Frigate, the HMS Osprey, was one of the first postings for Lt. Harrington after her graduation from Royal Naval Academy as sailmaster.  

The Frigates of the Legends of the Galactic Heroes Universe

In the massive space opera/military sci-fi anime Legends of Galactic Heroes, there is every major type of combat starships...including the lonely Frigate. In the show, the Frigate is an small, lightly armored and armed warship that are designed for secondary combat duties and roles, like patrol, escort, scouting, and as a screener. There is very little mentioned about the Frigates of Legends of Galactic Heroes and finding a picture was extremely difficult. The design, basic as it is, reminds me of an upper receiver of an battle rifle.

The Kuat Drive Yards Nebulon-B Class Escort Frigate from the Star Wars Universe
At the end of TESB, we see one of the only sci-fi Frigates ever on-screen, the EF76 Nebulon-B class. Built by massive starship construction firm Kuat Drive Yards, the Nebulon-B escort Frigate was one of their most popular and iconic ships. The flexibility of the platform allowed the Nebulon-B class to serve in many roles in the Rebel Alliance and the Imperial Fleet. From raider platform, AAA platform, medical ship, and escort, the Nebulon-B was seen throughout the conflict and on both sides. Rebels were known to steal these Frigates. The ship was designed by Nilo Rodis-Jamero, who was inspirited by an outboard boat motor. I was not fully aware of the Nebulon-B class Frigate until high school when I started obsessively playing LucasArts' X-Wing. In that game, this class is front and center, with some on the side of the Empire and on the side of the Rebels. They were deadly with a massive side-arch of AAA lasers and I ran many a mission with my B-Wing taking down Imperial Nebulon-B Frigates. 

The Federation New Orleans class Frigate from the Star Trek Universe

Star Trek was never has smooth about canonizing ship classes and classifications until around DS9, and when it came time for TNG to demonstrate the offensive power of the Borg via the Battle of Wolf 359...one of the worst defeats in Starfleet history, the producers and the visual effects department had to conjure up some starships. With budgetary limitations, the graveyard of Federation starships was littered with previously unseen starship classes due to the massive amount of kit bashing. One of the classes that emerged was the New Orleans class frigate. The name was never mentioned onscreen and it only would appear in printed media, and the New Orleans class was tied to some previously mentioned Frigate class starships. The damaged hulk of the USS Kyushu was read aloud by Commander Shelby as the Enterprise made its way through the graveyard of 39 Federation starships at Wolf 359=.
The ship's blackened hull was only briefly seen and no intact New Orleans class is seen onscreen in any Trek show, and the model seen in the "Best of Both Worlds Pt. I" was pieced together from an AMT/ERTL Enterprise-D model with some other style pieces to reshape the New Orleans from its Galaxy class model roots. The most notable feature is these two pods on either side of the saucer section as well as one on the engineering section, but there is no mention on what function these pods have. One websites concluded that the pods are saucer-mounted torpedo launchers. According to sources, the New Orleans class Frigate was created in the design style and technology of the Galaxy and Nebula class explorer vessels and was envisioned by Starfleet to be the replacement for the aging Miranda class cruisers.
It was jokingly referred to as "the junior Galaxy class", but not all was smooth for the Frigate, and it was only the modular pods on the saucer section that saved the New Orleans from the mothball fleet...that and the Dominion War. Every ship was needed and outfitted for combat, and thus, the pods of the New Orleans class were now additional torpedo launchers. It is believed that after the war, the remaining New Orleans class were refitted and placed into service as the fleet rebuilt from two bloody conflicts. It is likely that the New Orleans class was discontinued by Starfleet after the rebuilding.

Next Time on FWS...
One of the most iconic pieces of a soldier's gear is their helmet, and it is high time that FWS discussed the military helmet. As per normal business around here at FWS, we will be exploring the past, present and future of the military helmet, and explaining details of the helmet. Time to strap it on, soldier!


  1. Another fine article on the Frigates. Will be looking forward to the article on Helmets. :)

  2. Little note- the UK has 13 frigates because of budget cuts to the entire fleet. Frigates currently outnumber destroyers by 2 to 1 and would continue to do so in the event of a naval expansion.I don't know about other powers but cheap frigates provide numbers that destroyers cannot in these (eternally) financially straightened times.

  3. Great article
    But I still have some questions left:

    would you think of frigates as jack-of-all trades to be the smallest warship able to fulfill missions alone (peace keeping, pirate hunt including on planet missions)

    or should a "sicfi" firgate better be a specialized ship for escort dutys say the protector of a fleet mainly armed with counter missile and pdf systems but still some punch. I think the chart says something about 30% offensive 35% defense and 35% drive. This would underline the jack-of-all-trades role.

    the third and least favorite idea would call frigates just frigates because of their displacement.

  4. An interesting blog entry, especially on the Frigate's rather contradictory deployment both contemporary and space faring in sci-fi. It looks like the most common element between age of sail, World War II, and sci-fi is that these ships were constructed and fielded with the most minimal of resources in order to deploy them and "bulk up" a given fleet/constellation.

    I guess, when given the same analogies of Battleships/cruiers being akin to Main Battle Tanks, Dreadnaughts as Self-Propelled Artillery, Destroyers and Cruisers being IFVs, I guess one would make a similar analogy of the frigate being akin to an Armored Car in terms of tactical deployment and primary mission profile.

    Though now that I think of it, over long periods of time and the technological revolutions and evolutions that come with them, what was once cruisers and battleships in the early days of interplanetary space faring could be demoted to corvettes, monitors, and frigates due to their limited DeltaV, mass, armor and armaments, and what technologies they lack.

    Either way, this gives some interesting food for thought for my own setting, thanks for the inspiration!

  5. I loved the Article but have to hit you on the LCS, The USN introduced the LCS more as a Corvette/Patrol ship. The First batch of both LCS as such are rather under armed and intended more as support craft. The Navy has since then been working to hot rod the LCS into a truer Frigate with the addition of more weapons. but sacrificing much of the roll-on/roll-off ramp and multi mission equipment to re focus the LCS into a more traditional Frigate.

  6. Great article, as always :).

    I do have to protest the EVE frigates being called cannon fodder though. They might only be able to take on larger ships in packs, but without drones these larger ships have a very hard time actually hitting the frigates, especially if they are the more advanced ones. Most fun ships in the game, though destroyers come close.

  7. I always find strange how you include FASA and other tabletop designs but Babylon 5 Wars designs are always left out. Sierra's Narn Light Cruiser was basically fleshed out in the tabletop.