A Buyer’s Guide to the Frigate Market

Militaries have a very poor record as comparison shoppers, so as Canada joins the ranks of countries looking for a new surface combatant design, it makes sense to give an overview of surface combatant offerings in our bracket, the capabilities militaries around the world are looking for and the implications for Canada. Given Canada’s limited design capabilities, the most likely course is to build an existing design, likely one of the European offerings detailed below.

What Are We Looking for in a Surface Combatant?

Logically, there are two main ways to approach this question, depending on which set of assumptions you start with.

Global Navy
The first approach is to assume that the RCN can expect to be a major player in future conflicts and should arm itself accordingly, in line with the capabilities that other global navies possess.

Canada’s Navy
The second approach is to ask why Canada needs to do any of that. There is virtually no possibility of a direct naval threat to Canada. The most likely spot for a naval spat these days is in East Asian waters, where Canada could hardly be more than a bit player. In that light, if all the tactical bells and whistles exist only to win international brownie points, we might as well not buy them and put the money somewhere else. See Mark’s expansion on these issues here.

The RCN has never consistently laid down doctrine either way, and likes to mix and match. However, the Canadian Surface Combatant Program thus far looks more like the former than the latter, so we will proceed on the assumption that we are going to buy a ship equipped for classic blue-water missions.


De Zeven Provinciën- Netherlands

Estimated Unit Cost: $816 million US

Power Plant: Combined Diesel and Gas
Speed: 30 knots
Crew: 30 officers, 202 ratings

Thales Nederland APAR (Search, Tracking and Guidance)
Thales Nederland Smart-L (Air and Surface Surveillance)
Thales Nederland Scout (Surface Search, Navigation)

Atlas Elektronik DSQS-24C Hull-Mounted Sonar

Other Sensors:
Thales Nederland Mirador (Optical Tracking)
Thales Nederland SIRIUS IRST (Infrared Search and Track)

Combat System:
Thales Nederland SEWACO XI

8 Harpoon Anti-Ship Missiles
Mk 41 Vertical Launch System with 40 cells, carrying
32 SM-2 Block IIIA Surface-to-Air Missiles and
32 Enhanced Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM) Surface-to-Air Missiles (quad packed)
2 twin launchers for Mk. 46 Mod. 5 Anti-Submarine torpedoes
1 Oto Melera 127mm/54 Gun
1-2 Goalkeeper 30mm Close In Weapons Systems
Combination of Browning M2 and FN MAG 12.7 and 7.62mm machine guns

Thales Sabre ECM Suite
BAE Systems SRBOC Chaff/ Infrared Decoy Dispenser
AN/SLQ-25 Nixie Torpedo Decoy

1 NH-90 ASW Helicopter


The De Zeven Provinciën class epitomises the northern European frigate. The Active Phased Array Radar (APAR)/ Smart-L mix with small numbers of SM-2 and ESSM missiles confers a lower mid-tier area air defence capability, which nevertheless improves upon that of the preceding generation of frigates. Harpoon, the ubiquitous and dated Western subsonic anti-ship missile, anti-submarine helicopter and torpedoes round out a three-dimensional capability. This pattern is replicated with minor variations in the Danish and German offerings.

And it is the pattern Canada is most likely to select. It would allow Canada to leverage its participation in the development of the Active Phased Array Radar (APAR) system. Use of weapons systems already in service in Canada such as the Standard missile family and the Harpoon anti-ship missile would help to make the ships economical. Canada is known for developing a great deal of the software for its own ships, which would likely be easier with a European combat system than with the American Aegis system.

The De Zeven Provinciën’s drawbacks are cost and a relatively heavy crew requirement.

Iver Huitfeldt- Denmark

Estimated Unit Cost: $333 million CD

Power Plant: Diesel
Speed: 28 knots
Crew: 18 officers, 83 crew, berths for 165 provided

Thales Nederland APAR (Search, Tracking and Guidance)
Thales Nederland Smart-L (Air and Surface Surveillance)
Furuno Navigation Radar
Saab CEROS 200 Fire Control Radars

Atlas ASO-94 Hull-Mounted Sonar

Other Sensors:
Seastar Seafire III Forward-Looking Infrared

Combat System:
Terma C-flex

8-16 Harpoon Anti-Ship Missiles
Mk 41 Vertical Launch System with 32 cells, carrying
32 SM-2 Block IIIA Surface-to-Air Missiles
Mk 56 Vertical Launch Systems with
24-48 Enhanced Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM) Surface-to-Air Missiles
2 twin launchers for MU90 Anti-Submarine Torpedoes
1-2 Otobreda 76mm Super-Rapid
1 Oerlikon Millennium 35mm Close In Weapons Systems (to be installed)

EDO 3701 electronic warning system
4×12 Terma DL-12T 130mm decoy launchers

1 SH-90R Seahawk ASW Helicopter


Though very close in sensor and weapons fits, the Danish Iver Huitfeldt class is in some ways a more attractive proposition than their Dutch counterparts. The Danish Navy has invested considerable time and thought in economic shipbuilding practices, as reflected in the unit cost, and in ensuring flexible combat capabilities. The Standard Flex system containerises systems and armament so that they can be easily swapped out at dockside within a few hours- notice the variations in possible armament indicated in the specifications.

That means not only that armament can be bolstered according to the mission, and that the armament can evolve fairly easily without major refit, but that whatever systems Canada chooses to purchase for the frigates are completely transferable to other hulls equipped to receive StanFlex modules. The Iver Huitfeldts, like most Danish naval vessels, are true plug-and-play ships in a sense that no other navy has achieved. For relatively small navies like the RCN, this could be a tremendously attractive proposition. The Iver Huitfeldts also feature a very small crew complement, reducing operating costs.

Their weaknesses are the diesel engines, which allow for a slower speed but make up for it in range, and in some aspects of their electronics and countermeasures fit (which can be easily addressed).

Sachsen- Germany

Estimated Unit Cost: $1.12 billion CD

Power Plant: Combined Diesel and Gas
Speed: 29 knots
Crew: 243

Thales Nederland APAR (Search, Tracking and Guidance)
Thales Nederland Smart-L (Air and Surface Surveillance)
2 STN Atlas 9600-M multi-function I/J band ARPA radars

STN Atlas DSQS-24B bow sonar

Other Sensors:
STN Atlas MSP 500 electro-optical fire control system
Thales Nederland SIRIUS IRST (Infrared Search and Track- fitted for but not with)

Combat System:
Thales Nederland Sewaco FD

8 Harpoon Anti-Ship Missiles
Mk 41 Vertical Launch System with 32 cells, carrying
24 SM-2 Block IIIA Surface-to-Air Missiles and
32 Enhanced Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM) Surface-to-Air Missiles (quad packed)
2 triple launchers for MU90 Anti-Submarine Torpedoes
1 Oto Melera 76mm Gun
2 Rolling Airframe Missile Close In Weapons Systems
2 Mauser MLG-27 27mm Cannon

EADS Systems and Defence Electronics FL1800 SII ECM suite
6 BAE Systems SRBOC launcher

2 NH-90 or Sea Lynx ASW Helicopter


Looking at the cost of the Sachsen class next to its very similar Dutch and Danish counterparts, one is tempted to say that the Germans didn’t give themselves a very good deal. The sensors and armament are all but identical. Save for the extra helicopter, there is no good reason to spend the extra money for this design.

Still, the Sachsens are not the final word in Germany’s frigate potential, as the MEKO line of ship designs allows for tailoring the ships to the needs of foreign customers.

F100- Spain

Specifications for Spanish version

Estimated Unit Cost: $600 million US (see comments)

Power Plant: Combined Diesel and Gas
Speed: 28.5 knots
Crew: 48 officers, 202 enlisted

Lockheed AN/SPY-1D Multifunction Radar
Raytheon SPS-67(V)4 surface search radar
Raytheon SPG-62 Mk 99 radar illuminator

Raytheon DE1160 LF Hull-Mounted Sonar

Other Sensors:
DORNA Infrared and Visual Tracking Suite

Combat System:

8 Harpoon Anti-Ship Missiles
Mk 41 Vertical Launch System with 48 cells, carrying
32 SM-2 Block IIIA Surface-to-Air Missiles and
64 Enhanced Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM) Surface-to-Air Missiles (quad packed)
4 dual launchers for Mk 46 Anti-Submarine Torpedoes
1 Mk 45 5 inch Gun
1 FABA Meroka 2B Close-In Weapons System (not installed)
2 20mm Cannon

Aldebaran Electronic Support Measures / Electronic Countermeasures System
Lockheed Martin SRBOC chaff and infrared decoy launcher
AN/SLQ-25A Nixie

1 SH-60B Seahawk ASW Helicopter


Variants of the Spanish F100 design serve the Spanish and Norwegian navies, and the Royal Australian Navy has selected it as the basis for their forthcoming Hobart class. The Spanish original is by far the most American of the European frigates, using American AN/SPY-1D phased array radars and the Aegis combat system, a lighter version of the system used on the American Ticonderoga and Arleigh Burke classes. Whether Aegis retains significant advantages over its European equivalents, especially in this truncated form, is an open question; however, it is known that foreign versions of the system are generally a few steps behind the current American version. Additionally, the Aegis system will have no Active Phased Array Radar associated with it for several years.

The F100 series is a very clean, capable and flexible design. One of its useful features is the mounting of machinery on anti-vibration mounts to make the ships less detectable to submarines. Unit prices range from $640 million (US) for the Norwegian vessels to $600 million for the first four Spanish vessels, to $1.1 billion for the final Spanish vessel. It should be noted that the Australian contract, for ships that will be assembled in Australia, allocated 8 billion Australian dollars ($7.12 US) for only three ships. This scaling makes a useful and frightening benchmark for Canada’s own build-it-yourself projects.

FREMM- France/Italy

Specifications for French version

Estimated Unit Cost: $726 million US

Power Plant: Gas Turbine/ Electric
Speed: 27 knots
Crew: 145

Héraklès multi-purpose radar
Terma Scanter 2001 radar

Thales UMS 4410 CL hull sonar
Thales UMS 4249 CAPTAS4 towed sonar

Other Sensors:
STN Atlas MSP 500 electro-optical fire control system
Thales Artemis IRST (Infrared Search and Track)

Combat System:

8 MM-40 Exocet Block III Anti-Ship Missiles
SYLVER A43 Vertical Launch System with
16 Aster 15 Surface to Air Missiles
SYLVER A70 Vertical Launch System with
16 SCALP Naval Land Attack Cruise Missiles
MU90 Anti-Submarine Torpedoes
1 Otobreda 76 mm
3 Nexter Narwhal 20mm Remote Weapons Stations

Thales Electronic Warfare Suite
Sagem NGDS Decoy System

1 NH-90 ASW Helicopter

Future air defence variant may include new or upgraded radar, Aster 30 long-range surface to air missile and tactical unmanned aerial vehicle.

FREMM is the child of two projects. The cancellation of further units of the expensive Horizon class air defence frigate left France and Italy with a gap that needed to be filled by a cheaper vessel, which should nevertheless carry the Aster surface to air missile system. French experience fitting this system to their smaller La Fayette class design (to produce the Formidable class for Singapore) was proof of the idea that a smaller air defence ship could be financially viable and effective. The French and Italian versions differ significantly, the Italians having a stronger surface to air fit, retaining the EMPAR radar and Aster 30 missile from the Horizon class. The Italian version also uses the new Otobreda 127mm/64 gun with Vulcano guided ammunition, yielding a range of up to 120km.

FREMM’s “air defence light” approach may be the way of the future, as the perceived threat of massed anti-ship missile attack diminishes (though of course, the number and capability of such missiles is only increasing). The proliferation of ultra-quiet conventional submarines worldwide should make anti-submarine specialised vessels attractive, and FREMM is one of the few new ships in Europe to have an associated towed array sonar. FREMM is an excellent design, and the wide range of systems which are already integrated thanks to the different French and Italian configurations gives the buyer considerable choice.

Unfortunately, none of the major sensors or weapons systems already integrated are in use with the RCN or are on Canada’s “likely to buy” list. Attempting to Canadianize the design will therefore come at a premium as new systems are integrated. Aside from that, FREMM represents a reasonable level of ambition for Canada- more capable than both of our existing surface combatant designs combined, but not a true area air defence ship.

Finally, of course, the FREMM does not achieve its major program objective: economy. It is cheaper than the Horizon class, but by much less than was envisaged, and its cost is slightly toward the high end of the European average.

MEKO Derivatives- Germany

The German MEKO series has a long history of leveraging domestic production experience to provide customised designs for foreign buyers. The most recent export in Canada’s bracket is the South African Valour class, which is not only much cheaper than the Sachsen class at $327 million US, but incorporates numerous life-cycle cost reduction measures. The MEKO option is something to think about if Canada intends to do any significant customisation of whatever design we purchase, especially given that Canada’s own design capacity was effectively dissolved in the 2000s.

Type 26- United Kingdom

The British built excellent frigates in the 80s and 90s, and the current Type 23 is among the best of its generation. Unfortunately, the Type 26 looks less promising, as the Royal Navy has decided not to include an area air defence system of any kind.

The Type 26 will instead feature the British-designed Sea Ceptor surface-to-air missile, a short-range replacement for the famous Sea Wolf. Sea Ceptor, like Enhanced Sea Sparrow (ESSM), is designed for close-range anti-air and anti-missile defence, and can be packed four to a vertical launch tube. However, Sea Ceptor has only about half the range of ESSM. Unfortunately, this makes the design unsuitable for countries which want area air defence capability and can’t afford a separate platform to carry it.

In other respects, the Type 26 may be alright- we could count on a sound ASW suite, there is the possibility of a land-attack capability, and if the Perseus missile program goes forward, these frigates might carry the first Western supersonic anti-ship missile. This would finally give a Western ship a naval strike capability on par with Indian, Russian and Chinese equivalents (see below).


There are certain parts of the world the Canadian military just doesn’t buy from, but it is nevertheless instructive to watch the trends in Russia and Asia, both to understand what they are buying and to see how it compares with Western equivalents. The failure to take a global view of such things often results in procurement requirements living in an intellectual vacuum.

The three designs that seem most appropriate to evaluate are the Indo-Russian Talwar/Shivalik/Admiral Grigorovitch classes, the Russian Admiral Gorshkov class and the Chinese Type 054. Not only are they in the right weight class and equipment set, but these designs are set for mass production and are likely to be exported (the Type 054 has already been offered to Thailand).

A highly capable design initially built by Russia for India. Although based on the old Krivak class hull, the Talwar is a generational leap forward, incorporating the capabilities of the old Soviet Sovremenny and Udaloy class destroyers combined, enhanced with new systems and electronics. The success of this class has caused the Indians to build their own equivalent, the Shivalik class, and Russia is reported to be purchasing six Talwars as the Admiral Grigorovich class.

The Admiral Gorshkov class is the great white hope of the Russian Navy, with 20 units planned to replace existing destroyers and frigates. The Gorshkov is Russia’s all-out attempt to optimise the Talwar design, including new electronics and the formidable S-400 surface to air missile system. Although only about a thousand tons heavier than the old Krivak class frigate, the Admiral Gorshkov will be individually more capable in every respect than any two destroyers of the old Soviet Navy.

Type 054:
China has apparently decided to conduct fleet air defence in two brackets, with the long-range HQ-9 system aboard destroyers and the medium-range HQ-16 shifted over to frigates. The Type 054A is a typically well-rounded Chinese design with a balance of anti-surface and anti-submarine capability rounding out the mix.


Electronics have historically been the weakness of Russian naval technology (on which all these designs are based), but there are signs that this is changing. The Talwar and Shivalik classes are known to incorporate fully integrated combat systems, the lack of which was the main weakness of legacy Soviet designs.

While the Talwar, Shivalik and Type 054 all use updated versions of legacy Russian radars, the Admiral Gorshkov introduces a new generation of radars, the details of which are not known. The Chinese are also known to be working on active electronically scanned radars which will probably be fitted to future Type 054 variants.

Anti-Ship Capability

All of these designs feature enhanced anti-ship capability compared with Western equivalents. The Chinese YJ-82 and YJ-83 missiles bring a number of useful features. The subsonic YJ-82 can attack both land and sea targets, and uses imaging infrared or tv seekers in addition to radar to find stealthy targets. The missile’s datalink also allows (but does not require) the operator to see those images and direct the missile’s terminal guidance, much like the US Air Force’s Maverick. The YJ-83 retains the dual radar-infrared seeker and adds a supersonic terminal phase to cut the defending systems’ reaction time.

The Russian and Indian ships each carry anti-ship missiles capable of sustaining Mach 2.8, Oniks and BrahMos respectively. The Admiral Gorshkov class will be able to carry up to 16 Oniks missiles, the heaviest anti-surface armament in the Russian Navy since the Kirov class battlecruiser. BrahMos-2, currently in development, is intended to be the world’s first hypersonic anti-ship missile.

Air Defence

Each of the in-service designs incorporates a medium-range area air defence system based on the highly capable Shtil (SA-N-12) missile or its Chinese copy the HQ-16. The Admiral Gorshkov will use the new generation S-400 system with 120 km range. It should also be noted that each of these ships serves beside larger vessels with additional air defence capability.

It is still common for Western officers and analysts to scoff at Russian and Chinese designs, but that is a serious mistake. China has been using all means including espionage and reverse engineering to catch up to the West in military technology, and Russia never stopped developing and upgrading its systems, whether or not it could afford to field them. Both countries have paid consistent attention to areas of development in which the West has been complacent, including anti-ship missiles, anti-torpedo defences, surface-to-air missiles and anti-submarine warfare.

Global Trends

Anti-Ship Missile Proliferation:
Anti-ship missiles, launched from ships, aircraft, shore batteries or submarines, are a cheap way to do a great deal of damage, and modern anti-ship missiles are now within the reach of all but the poorest nations. While we may not be facing a Soviet style three-dimensional saturation missile attack, the case for strong air and missile defence remains on solid ground.

Conventional Submarine Proliferation:
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, conventional submarine technology has proliferated far and fast. Rising powers are now building Air-Independent Propulsion (AIP) submarines. Western exercises against modern conventional submarines have inflicted a number of sharp lessons which are starting to shake Western navies out of their post-Cold War complacency in this area.

Surface Combatant Armament Shifts:
We seem to be on the brink of major changes in surface combatant armament. Long-range guided ammunition such as Vulcano is reinventing the naval gun, converting it from an archaic secondary weapon into the cheapest, most flexible and potentially most deadly part of a ship’s offensive armament. Ranging anywhere from 30 to 120 km depending on the version, this ammunition makes the medium-calibre gun a serious shore bombardment, anti-ship, anti-air and even anti-missile weapon.

Other changes on the horizon include the advent of the hypersonic missile, which could make most current air defence and close-in weapons systems obsolete, and the potential solution, the directed-energy point defence weapon. Railguns, currently in development, will further reinvent the gun as an offensive and defensive weapon. Unmanned aerial and surface vehicles are in consideration for a number of ships and in a number of roles.

Of more immediate concern, electronic and EMP warfare is now an important part of naval doctrine because of China’s adoption of these strategies, and extra care should be taken to harden new surface combatants against this kind of warfare.

The “Relevant” Ship:
Navies, like political parties, churches and NATO, are trying to be “relevant,” although the quality of the perception to which they are trying to be relevant varies. I’ve written previously about the counterproductive nature of using major combatant vessels for shore support, humanitarian aid, troop transport etc, as opposed to designs better fitted to those duties.

The best of the “relevant” combatant ships is the Danish Absolon class, which combines a modular and respectable frigate armament with the flexibility to take on multiple special roles, from field hospital through special forces support. In the worst cases, requirements for ships like this assume that none of the other trends detailed in this article exist. The American Littoral Combat Ships, which have no significant tactical capability in any respect except as a ferry for troops, and the German Baden-Württemberg class shore support frigate (armed with land attack missiles and water cannons) are prime examples.


Frigates are both more expensive and more capable worldwide than they have ever been. The world’s oceans are at peace, but the world’s material potential for naval war is at its highest since the end of the Cold War. If the navy wants to be out on the sharp end, it had better prepare accordingly. Is there a compelling reason for us to be involved in any future naval conflict? Debatable. In either case, clear policy should be made before we invest another dollar in ships that, in the absence of doctrinal direction, may end up as neither fish nor fowl.

If we are to buy a foreign design and build it here, with all the extra costs that entails, we owe it to ourselves to start with a method of ship design and construction that is cheap, proven and flexible. The Danish approach is that method. If we buy Iver Huitfeldt, we will have a design with virtually all of the systems we would want already integrated, and the modular capability would allow us to modify it however we wanted.


3 thoughts on “A Buyer’s Guide to the Frigate Market

  1. KC says:

    Excellent review of the frigate market — thorough but to the point.

    Please consider adding information on the Multi-Service Standard Guided Projectile (MS-SGP) and Hyper Velocity Projectile (HVP) in the section on Armaments, if and when you update the entry.

    Information on MS-SGP can be found at: http://www.baesystems.com/product/BAES_157359/5-multi-service—standard-guided-projectile?_afrLoop=265811956250000

    In addition, there are some articles and press releases in the public domain which speak to the MS-SGP, the U.S. Navy’s possible start of a developmental program, and the successful firing of an SGP from a land based Mk45 in June 2013 (to range of 36km, with rocket motor and GPS guidance, hitting within 1.5m of the target).

    The HVP is in the very early stages of development for use with the Electro Magnetic Railgun which the US Navy is developing, but it is also being looked at for use with the Mk45. There is not much in the public domain on this projectile, but there is a video which the Office of Naval Research released last week that should be accessible and which shows an unguided version of this round.

  2. Mark says:

    Nice survey, quick question, what is it about the Iver Huitfeldt that makes it weak on electronics and countermeasures?

    Also, isn’t a lack of a towed sonar array more of an issue, or would this be easily fixable?

    • Countermeasures-wise, the lack of torpedo decoys or countermeasures is the major flaw. Also, the design seems to lack a passive ECM suite to compliment the SRBOC decoys. The lack of a towed array is, unfortunately, a common flaw among European frigates these days, but relatively easy to address.

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