The U.S. Navy adopted the classification "frigate" (FF) for ships used for open- ocean escort and patrol. When they were developed during World War II, frigates were classified as destroyer escorts (DEs). Frigates resemble destroyers in appearance; but they are slower, have only a single screw, and carry less armament. FFs have grown in size from about 1,500 tons displacement to over 4,000 tons, as in the Knox class (FF-1052). Their armament varies from class to class.
Historically the frigate was a ship of the 4th or 5th rate. The role they filled was that of independent patrol, or fleet picket work. Later in time the former task fell to cruisers and the latter to the destroyer. The term has come back into fashion in modern navies.
Ships of the Continental Navy were in three classes. Ships-of-the line were the battleships of the sailing days. They carried from 64 to over 100 guns. Frigates were the cruisers of the 18th century. Usually smaller and faster. They carried 28 to 44 guns. Sloops-of-war: The smallest warships. They carried 10 to 20 guns.
During the 18th and early 19th centuries, a frigate was a sailing vessel designed for speed, with a flush gun deck carrying 24 to 44 guns, used as a commerce raider and for blockade duty. When warships were made of wood and had sails, frigates were small, fast, long range, lightly armed (single gun-deck) ships used for scouting and carrying dispatches.
Frigates formed the backbone of the early American Navy. These wooden warships sailed quickly across the seas to protect merchant shipping, capture enemy cargo, and fight battles with enemy ships. A typical American frigate was a square-rigged, three-masted ship. Frigates were built with oak, pine, and elm wood. A frigate had many levels, or decks, that were used for different reasons. The open upper deck, called the spar deck, carried short-barreled guns called carronades used at close range. The gun deck, the next one down, was lined wiht heavy guns on each side of the ship. Below that was the berthing deck where the ship's crew slept in hammocks and ate their meals. The orlop was a small storage deck that doubled as the ship's hospital during battle. All supplies were stowed in the hold, the lowest deck on any ship. The oldest American frigate is USS Constitution.
The first ironclads also had only a single gun-deck because of the weight of armor, even though they were bigger ships with bigger guns. They were nevertheless referred to as frigates although they were really ships of the line. Thus the definition of a frigate changed. With the introduction of steam and steel warships frigates as a class of warship passed out of use.
In World War II the Frigate was reintroduced by the British as an antisubmarine escort vessel larger than a corvette but smaller than a destroyer. Tacoma Class frigates, based on the British-designed River class, were ocean escorts built in US Maritime Commission yards. In mid 1943, the first 303-foot, Tacoma class patrol frigate, or PF, joined the fleet. All but two of them were manned by Coast Guard crews. They were not Coast Guard Cutters in the true sense of the meaning but U.S. Navy ships manned by Coast Guard crews. Tacoma class ships bore strong resemblance to USN destroyer escorts in size and layout.
There were six classes of destroyer escorts built during the wartime emergency demand for cheap, quickly constructed ocean-going escort ships. The destroyer escort was a British design concept for a 300-foot long, 20-knot ship; easy to build and maintain as well as cost effective and able to be mass produced. The actual design and production was done in America. President Roosevelt intiated the program in June 1940; the following month, Congress authorized $50 million for patrol, escort, and miscellaneous craft. BuShips drew up the first Destroyer Escort (DE) design which would become the Evarts (DE-5) class. The somewhat larger DE-51 Buckley was designed to have a higher maximum speed of almost 24 knots with a range of 5,000 nm at cruising speed of 15 knots. The four other classes were based on the Buckley hull with variations in propulsion and armament.
The US Navy altered the designation of the DE (destroyer escort) and DEG (destroyer escort with an anti-aircraft missile system) in June 1975. The new nomenclature was FF (frigate) and FFG ( frigate, guided missile).
In modern military terminology, a frigate is a warship intended to protect other warships and merchant ships as anti-submarine warfare (ASW) combatants for amphibious expeditionary forces, underway replenishment groups, and merchant convoys. Frigates fulfill a Protection of Shipping (POS) mission as Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) combatants for amphibious expeditionary forces, underway replenishment groups and merchant convoys.
The guided missile frigates (FFG) bring an anti-air warfare (AAW) capability to the frigate mission, but they have some limitations. Designed as cost effective surface combatants, they lack the multi-mission capability necessary for modern surface combatants faced with multiple, high technology threats. They also offer limited capacity for growth.
Destroyer Leader [DL] Frigates
The DL-6 Farragut / DL-9 Coontz class constructed in the late 1950s and early 1960s were significantly larger than previous destroyers. The term "frigate" was reactivated to describe them, although they carried the Destroyer Leader [DL] designation. Finally redesignated as Guided-missile destroyers (DDGs), they displaced 5,800 tons fully loaded. Each of these ships has one 5"/54-caliber gun mount, one twin- Terrier surface-to-air launcher, one ASROC launcher, and two Mk 32 triple-torpedo tubes.
In an attempt to provide escorts that could keep up with nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, the US Navy commissioned several nuclear-powered frigates in the 1960s. DLGN-25 Bainbridge, a 7,800-ton nuclear-powered guided missile frigate, was built at Quincy, Massachusetts and commissioned in October 1962. Thereafter followed units of the DLGN-35 Truxtun, DLGN-36 California and DLGN-38 Virginia classes of nuclear-powered frigates. They were all far larger than any other frigates ever seen, and all were reclassified as cruisers in 1975 and struck from the Naval Vessel Register in the 1990s.
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