See F. Dorovan, The Tall Frigates (1962); J. Henderson, The Frigates (1970); Jane's Fighting Ships (pub. annually since 1897).
A frigate /ˈfrɪgɪt/ [frĭg'-ĭt] is a warship. The term has been used for warships of many sizes and roles over the past few centuries.
In the 18th century, the term referred to ships which were as long as a ship-of-the-line and were square-rigged on all three masts (full rigged), but were faster and with lighter armament, used for patrolling and escort. In the 19th century, the armoured frigate was a type of ironclad warship and for a time was the most powerful type of vessel afloat.
In modern navies, frigates are used to protect other warships and merchant-marine ships, especially as anti-submarine warfare (ASW) combatants for amphibious expeditionary forces, underway replenishment groups, and merchant convoys. But ship classes dubbed "frigates" have also more closely resembled corvettes, destroyers, cruisers and even battleships.
The rank Frigate Captain derives from the name of this type of ship.
The term "frigate" (Italian: fregata; Spanish/Catalan/Portuguese/Sicilian: fragata; Dutch: "fregat") originated in the Mediterranean in the late 15th century, referring to a lighter galleass type ship with oars, sails and a light armament, built for speed and maneuverability.
In 1583, during the Eighty Years' War, Habsburg Spain recovered the Southern Netherlands from the rebellious Dutch. This soon led to the occupied ports being used as bases for privateers, the Dunkirkers, to attack the shipping of the Dutch and their allies. To achieve this they developed small, maneuverable, sail-only vessels that came to be referred to as frigates. Because most regular navies required ships of greater endurance than the Dunkirker frigates could provide, the useful term 'frigate' was soon applied less exclusively to any relatively fast and elegant sail-only ship, such that much later even the mighty English was described as 'a delicate frigate' after modifications in 1651.
The navy of the Dutch Republic was the first regular navy to build the larger ocean-going frigates. The Dutch navy had three principal tasks in the struggle against Spain: to protect Dutch merchant ships at sea, to blockade the ports of Spanish-held Flanders to damage trade and halt enemy privateering, and to fight the Spanish fleet and prevent troop landings. The first two tasks required speed, shallowness of draft for the shallow waters around the Netherlands, and the ability to carry sufficient supplies to maintain a blockade. The third task required heavy armament, sufficient to fight against the Spanish fleet. The first of these larger battle-capable frigates were built around 1600 at Hoorn in Holland. By the later stages of the Eighty Years War the Dutch had switched entirely from the heavier ships still used by the English and Spanish to the lighter frigates, carrying around 40 guns and weighing around 300 tons.
The effectiveness of the Dutch frigates became most visible in the Battle of the Downs in 1639, triggering most other navies, especially the English, to adopt similar innovations.
The fleets built by the Commonwealth of England in the 1650s generally consisted of ships described as 'frigates', the largest of which were two-decker 'great frigates' of the third rate. Carrying 60 guns, these vessels were as big and capable as 'great ships' of the time; however, most other frigates at the time were used as 'cruisers': independent fast ships. The term 'frigate' implied a long hull design, which relates directly to speed (see hull speed) and also, in turn, helped the development of the broadside tactic in naval warfare. In French, the term 'frigate' became a verb, meaning 'to build long and low', and an adjective, adding further confusion.
The classic sailing frigate, well-known today for its role in the Napoleonic wars, can be traced back to French developments in the second quarter of the 18th century. The French-built Médée of 1740 is often regarded as the first example of this type. These ships were square-rigged and carried all their main guns on a single gun deck which replaced the upper gun deck on earlier similarly-sized two-decked ships. The lower deck, known as the "gun deck", now carried no armament, and functioned as a "berth deck" where the crew lived, and was in fact placed below the waterline of the new frigates. The new sailing frigates were able to fight with all their guns when the seas were so rough that comparable two-deckers had to close the gun-ports on their lower decks. Like the larger 74 which was developed at the same time, the new frigates sailed very well and were good fighting vessels due to a combination of long hulls and low upperworks compared to vessels of comparable size and firepower.
The Royal Navy captured a handful of the new French frigates during the early stages of the Seven Years' War (1756–1763) and were impressed by them, particularly for their inshore handling capabilities. They soon built copies and started to adapt the type to their own needs, setting the standard for other frigates as a superpower.
Royal Navy frigates of the late 18th century were based on the 1780-vintage Perseverance class, which displaced around 900 tons and carried 36 guns; this successful class was followed by the Tribune class batch of fifteen ships starting in 1801 that displaced over 1,000 tons and carried 38 guns.
In 1797, the US Navy's first major ships were 44-gun frigates (or "super-frigates"), which actually carried fifty-six to sixty 24-pounder long guns and 36-pounder or 48-pounder carronades on two decks, and were exceptionally powerful and tough. These ships were so well-respected that they were often seen as equal to 4th-rate ships of the line and, after a series of losses at the outbreak of the War of 1812, Royal Navy fighting instructions ordered British frigates (usually of 38-guns or less) to never engage American frigates at any less than a 2:1 advantage. The , better known as "Old Ironsides", the oldest commissioned ship afloat, is a surviving example of a frigate from the Age of Sail.
Frigates were perhaps the hardest-worked of warship types during the Age of Sail. While smaller than a ship-of-the-line, they were formidable opponents for the large numbers of sloops and gunboats, not to mention privateers or merchantmen. Able to carry six months' stores, they had very long range; and vessels larger than frigates were considered too valuable to operate independently.
Frigates scouted for the fleet, went on commerce-raiding missions and patrols, conveyed messages and dignitaries. Usually frigates would fight in small numbers or singly against other frigates. They would avoid contact with ships-of-the-line; even in the midst of a fleet engagement it was bad etiquette for a ship of the line to fire on an enemy frigate which had not fired first.
For officers in the Royal Navy a frigate was a desirable posting. Frigates often saw action, which meant a greater chance of glory, promotion. and prize money.
Unlike larger ships that were placed in ordinary, frigates were kept in service in peacetime as a cost-saving measure and to provide experience to frigate captains and officers which would be useful in wartime. Frigates could also carry marines for boarding enemy ships or for operations on shore.
Frigate armament ranged from 22 guns on one deck to up to even 60 guns on two decks. Common armament was 32 to 44 long guns, from 8 to 24 pounders (3.6 to 11 kg), plus a few carronades (large bore short range guns).
Frigates remained a crucial element of navies until the mid-19th century. The first ironclads were classified as 'frigates' because of the number of guns they carried. However, terminology changed as iron and steam became the norm, and the role of the frigate was assumed first by the protected cruiser and then by the destroyer.
Frigates are often the vessel of choice in historical naval novels, such at the Patrick O'Brian Aubrey–Maturin series and C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower series. The motion picture Master and Commander features a reconstructed historic frigate, HMS Rose to depict Aubrey's frigate HMS Surprise.
Vessels classed as frigates continued to play a great role in navies with the adoption of steam power in the 19th century. In the 1830s navies experimented with large paddle-steamers equipped with large guns mounted on one deck, which were termed 'paddle frigates'. From the mid-1840s frigates which more closely resembled the traditional sailing frigate were built with steam engines and screw propellers. These 'screw frigates', built first of wood and later of iron, continued to perform the traditional role of the frigate until late in the 19th century.
From 1859, armour was added to ships based on existing frigate and ship of the line designs. The additional weight of the armour on these first ironclad warships meant that they could have only one gun deck, and they were technically frigates, even though they were more powerful than existing ships-of-the-line and occupied the same strategic role. The phrase 'armoured frigate' remained in use for some time to denote a sail-equipped, broadside-firing type of ironclad.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the term 'frigate' fell out of use. Armoured vessels were designated as either 'battleships' or 'armoured cruisers', while unarmoured vessels including frigates and sloops were classified as 'unprotected cruisers'.
The contemporaneous German Flottenbegleiter ("fleet escorts"), also known as "F-Boats" were essentially frigates. They were based on a pre-war Oberkommando der Marine concept of vessels which could fill roles such as fast minesweeper, minelayer, merchant escort and anti-submarine vessel. Because of the Treaty of Versailles their displacement was officially limited to 600 tons, although in reality they exceeded this by about 100 tons. F-boats had two stacks and two 105 mm gun turrets. The design was flawed because of its narrow beam, sharp bow and unreliable high pressure steam turbines. F-boats suffered relatively heavy losses and were succeeded in operational duties later in the war by Type 35 and Elbing class torpedo boats. Flottenbegleiter remained in service as advanced training vessels.
It was not until the Royal Navy's Bay class of 1944 that a British design bearing the name of frigate was produced for fleet use, although it still suffered from limited speed. These frigates were similar to the United States Navy's (USN) destroyer escorts (DE), although the latter had greater speed and offensive armament to better suit them to fleet deployments. American DEs serving in the British Royal Navy were rated as frigates, and British-influenced Tacoma class frigates serving in the USN were classed as patrol frigates (PF). One of the most successful post-1945 designs was the British Leander class frigate, which was used by several navies.
The introduction of the surface-to-air missile after the Second World War made relatively small ships effective for anti-aircraft warfare (AAW): the "guided missile frigate." In the USN, these vessels were called "Ocean Escorts" and designated "DE" or "DEG" until 1975 - a holdover from the World War II Destroyer Escort or DE. Other navies maintained the use of the term "frigate."
From the 1950s to the 1970s, the USN commissioned ships classed as guided missile frigates which were actually AAW cruisers built on destroyer-style hulls. Some of these ships - the Bainbridge-, Truxtun-, California- and Virginia- classes - were nuclear-powered. These were larger than any previous frigates and the use of the term frigate here is much more analogous to its original use. All such ships were reclassified as guided missile cruisers (CG / CGN) or, in the case of the smaller Farragut-class, as guided missile destroyers (DDG) in 1975. The last of these particular frigates were struck from the Naval Vessel Register in the 1990s.
Nearly all modern frigates are equipped with some form of offensive or defensive missiles, and as such are rated as guided-missile frigates (FFG). Improvements in surface-to-air missiles (e.g., the Eurosam Aster 15) allow modern guided-missile frigates to form the core of many modern navies and to be used as a fleet defence platform, without the need for specialised AAW frigates.
Especially for ASW, most modern frigates have a landing deck and hangar aft to operate helicopters. This negates the need for the frigate to close with unknown sub-surface contacts it has detected, and thus risking attack and is especially pertinent as modern submarines are often nuclear powered and faster than surface warships. The helicopter is utilised for this purpose instead, allowing the parent ship to stand off at a safe distance. For this task the helicopter is equipped with sensors such as sonobuoys, wire-mounted dipping sonar and magnetic anomaly detectors, to identify possible threats and combat confirmed targets with torpedoes or depth-charges. With their onboard radar, helicopters can also be used to reconnoitre targets over-the-horizon and, if equipped with anti-ship missiles such as Penguin or Sea Skua, to engage in anti-surface warfare as well. The helicopter is also invaluable for search and rescue operation and has largely replaced the use of small boats or the jackstay rig for such duties as transferring personnel, mail and cargo between ships or to shore. With helicopters, these tasks can be accomplished faster and less dangerously, and without the need for the frigate to deviate from its course.
Stealth technology has been introduced in modern frigate design. Frigate shapes are designed to offer a minimal radar cross section, which also lends them good air penetration; the maneuverability of these frigates has been compared to that of sailing ships. Examples are the French La Fayette-class with the Aster 15 missile for anti-missile capabilities, and the German F125 class and Sachsen class frigates.
The modern French Navy applies the term frigate to both frigates and destroyers in service. Pennant numbers remain divided between F-series numbers for those ships internationally recognized as frigates and D-series pennant numbers for those more traditionally recognized as destroyers. This can result in some confusion as certain classes are referred to as frigates in French service while similar ships in other navies are referred to as destroyers. This also results in some recent classes of French ships being among the largest in the world to carry the rating of frigate.
Also in the German Navy frigates were used to replace aging destroyers; however in size and role the new German frigates exceed the former class of destroyers. The future German F125 class frigate will be the largest class of frigates worldwide with a displacement of 7,200 tons. The same was done in the Spanish Navy, which went ahead with the deployment of the first Aegis frigates, the F-100 class frigates.
Some new classes of frigates are optimized for high-speed deployment and combat with small craft rather than combat between equal opponents; an example is the U.S. Littoral Combat Ship.
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