Canada's New Frigate Will Be Brimming With Missiles

Canada may add Tomahawk cruise missiles to the ships, which already sport an impressive arsenal, including two types of point air defense missiles.

Government of Canada

The Royal Canadian Navy's future Canadian Surface Combatants, frigates derived from BAE System's Type 26 design for the U.K. Royal Navy, are set to have an impressive and particularly diverse missile armament for warships of their size. This includes Sea Ceptor, RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile, and Standard Missile 2 surface-to-air missiles for close-in, point, and area air and cruise missile defense respectively, as well as Naval Strike Missiles for engaging surface targets. Most notably, an official Canadian infographic says the ships will carry variants of the Tomahawk cruise missile, a weapon that the United States has only ever exported to the United Kingdom. 

Naval News was first to report on the new details about the Canadian Surface Combatant's (CSC) armament on Nov. 9, 2020, after noticing the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) infographic. The Canadian government had first announced that the Type 26-based design, pitched by a team led by BAE Systems and Lockheed Martin, was its "preferred" bid for the CSC competition in 2018. The Canadian government intends to buy 15 CSCs to replace its existing 12 Halifax class frigates, the first of which began entering service in the early 1990s.

Royal Canadian Navy

This Royal Canadian Navy's Canadian Surface Combatant infographic discusses the ship's planned armament and other features.

BAE Systems had already begun the construction of the first of eight Type 26s, which you can read about in more detail in this previous War Zone piece, in 2017, so there had been some idea of what kind of capabilities the Canadian ships might have. The Royal Navy's Type 26s are set to have a 24-cell Mk 41 Vertical Launch System (VLS) array, as well as 48 more VLS cells for the Sea Ceptor missile, also known as the Common Anti-Air Modular Missile (CAMM), along with a five-inch main gun and torpedoes. However, it had previously been unclear what the exact armament for the Canadian derivatives would be. We now know that the RCN ships will also have a five-inch gun and torpedo tubes.

When it comes to missiles, though, the CSCs will have a 32-cell Mk 41 array, eight more than the Type 26s, which can accommodate various weapons. Most interestingly, the infographic mentions the inclusion of the Tomahawk cruise missile in the ship's arsenal for "naval fires support." Last year, Lockheed Martin representatives confirmed to Naval News that the Mk 41 cells on these ships will be "strike-length," meaning that it is the larger version of this VLS that can accommodate Tomahawks and other longer missiles.

The video below shows the U.S. Navy's Arleigh Burke class destroyer USS Gridley firing a Tomahawk from one of its strike-length Mk 41 cells in 2015.

Naval News said it had been unable to confirm, so far, what the RCN's plans are exactly with regards to integrating Tomahawks onto the CSCs. It's important to note that Canada does not have any other ships armed with Tomahawks and that the United States, to date, has only ever exported these weapons to the United Kingdom. It has long been posited that the Type 26's Mk 41 array would also have strike-length cells and be able to be armed with the Tomahawk. 

It is possible that Canada could be eying newer anti-ship focused variants of the Tomahawk, such as the Block V Maritime Strike Tomahawk (MST). However, the infographic states that the CSC would carry these missiles for naval fire support, a term that typically refers to strikes against targets on land, which strongly indicates that, if this is indeed the RCN's plan, it is looking to acquire an entirely new maritime capability.

For Canada, having ships capable of very long-range stand-off strikes against targets on land could give it a completely new role in future operations, especially together with allies and partners, such as other members of NATO. Within that alliance, only a very few countries beyond the United States, most notably the United Kingdom and France, have this kind of capability. Other nations in that bloc do have land-attack cruise missiles, but generally not with anywhere near the range of a missile like the Tomahawk.

CSCs armed with Tomahawks could certainly give the Canadians a new organic ability to project naval power, in general, as well. This could offer something of an anti-access/area-denial deterrent for responding to challenges to the country's specific national security interests, especially its claims in the increasingly strategic Arctic region.

These ships will also have the shorter-range, stealthy NSMs, a very capable and increasingly popular Norwegian-designed missile, which you can read about in more detail in this past War Zone piece. This missile, which uses an imaging infrared seeker that electronic warfare systems can't jam to find its target in the terminal stage of flight, also has a land-attack capability, making a very flexible weapon in its own right.

Beyond all that, the RCN is also planning to fill at least some of the Mk 41 cells on the CSCs with a mixture of RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles (ESSM) and Standard Missile 2 (SM-2) Block IIICs. The U.S. government approved the sale of the SM-2 Block IIICs for Canada's future frigates just last week.

Only one SM-2 can be loaded into a single Mk 41 cell, but four ESSMs can be packed into one, expanding the ship's available magazine capacity. At present, the plan is for the ESSMs, which you can read about in more detail in this previous War Zone story, to provide point defense against incoming threats, including barrages of cruise missiles, while the SM-2s tackle more general area air defense duties. The CSC's primary sensor to cue these weapons will be a version of Lockheed Martin's AN/SPY-7 Long Range Discrimination Radar (LRDR), an active electronically-scanned array (AESA) type, supplemented by a solid-state AESA radar target illuminator. 

With this already significant anti-air defense capability, it's interesting that the CSCs will also be armed with Sea Ceptors. It's unclear what launchers will be used to fire these missiles or where they will be located, but Naval News has pointed out that a model of the ship publicly displayed last year had a previously explained six-cell VLS array, possibly a version of Lockheed Martin's Extensible Launching System (ExLS), amidships. Sea Ceptors can also be quad-packed into a single ExLS cell, which would allow these ships to carry 24 of these missiles in total. 

MBDA

A Sea Ceptor missile flies from an Extensible Launching System cell during a test in 2018.

ESSM and Sea Ceptor are typically seen as somewhat equivalent competitors and the Royal Navy's Type 26s will have a 24-cell VLS loaded with them for general air defense. However, MBDA told Naval News that, on Canada's CSCs, its Sea Ceptor missiles will be filling the role of a close-in weapon system. Typically, very rapid-firing guns or horizontally-fired missile systems, such as the U.S. Phalanx Close-In Weapon System (CIWS) with its 20mm Vulcan cannon or the SeaRAM loaded with RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missiles (RAM), provide this last line of defense for warships. 

Of course, it is possible that Sea Ceptor will also be capable of supplementing the ESSMs in the point defense role, meaning their addition to the CSC's arsenal could offer the ships added flexibility in that regard.

Regardless, taken together, all of these missile options represent major, multi-purpose firepower for a frigate-type warship. It's not entirely clear how big the CSCs will be compared to the British Type 26s, but the general size of the two designs will be very similar. The Type 26s are expected to displace around 7,000 tons, which is more than existing variants of the Franco-Italian Fregata Europea Multi-Missione (FREMM), or European Multi-Mission Frigate, on which the U.S. Navy's future Constellation class frigates will be based. Those forthcoming American warships, also referred to as FFG(X), are also set to be armed with ESSM, SM-2 Block IIIC, and NSM, as well as the SeaRAM close-in weapon system, but there are no plans to add a weapon like Tomahawk to their arsenal at present.

Canada's plans for its CSCs, at least as they are understood now, would make them very similar capability-wise to the U.K. Royal Navy's future Type 26s, as well as France's FREMM variants, known as the Aquitaine class. Those French warships also have a long-range land-attack cruise missile capability in the form of MBDA's Missile de Croisière Naval (MdCN), or Naval Cruise missile. The Aquitaine class frigate Languedoc actually fired some of those weapons in anger in 2018 as part of a U.S.-led missile barrage against chemical weapon-related sites in Syria, underscoring the kind of capability that could become available in the future to the RCN if it does ultimately acquire Tomahawks.

The CSCs had already looked set to usher in a new era for the Royal Canadian Navy. Armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles, together with the various other missiles they will be able to employ, the ships now look set to offer Canada an entirely new form of maritime power projection.   

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com