AskDefine | Define frigate

Dictionary Definition



1 a medium size square-rigged warship of the 18th and 19th centuries
2 a United States warship larger than a destroyer and smaller than a cruiser

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. An obsolete type of sailing warship with a single continuous gun deck, typically used for patrolling, blockading, etc, but not in line of battle.
  2. A 19th c. type of warship combining sail and steam propulsion, typically of ironclad timber construction, supplementing and superseding sailing ships of the battle line until made obsolete by the development of the solely steam propelled iron battleship.
  3. A modern type of warship, smaller than a destroyer, originally (WWI) introduced as an anti-submarine vessel but now general purpose.


An obsolete type of sailing warship
A 19th c. type of warship
A modern type of warship

Extensive Definition

For the bird, see Frigatebird.
A frigate [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 age of sail


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, notably 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. According to the rating system of the Royal Navy, laid down in the 1660s, frigates were usually of the fifth rate, though small 28-gun frigates were classed as sixth rate. 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.

Guided missile frigates

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.

Anti-submarine warfare frigates

At the opposite end of the spectrum, some frigates are specialised for anti-submarine warfare (ASW). Increasing submarine speeds towards the end of the Second World War (see German Type XXI submarine) greatly reduced the margin of speed superiority of frigate over submarine. The frigate could therefore no longer be a relatively slow vessel powered by mercantile machinery, and as such postwar frigate construction was of fast vessels, such as the Whitby class. Such ships carry improved sonar equipment, such as the variable depth sonar or towed array, and specialised weapons such as torpedoes, ahead-throwing weapons such as Limbo and missile-carried anti-submarine torpedoes like ASROC or Ikara. They can retain defensive and offensive capabilities by the carriage of surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missiles (such as Sea Sparrow or Exocet, respectively). The Royal Navy's original Type 22 frigate is an example of such a specialised ASW frigate.
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.

Modern developments

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 F125 class frigate will be the largest class of frigates worldwide with a displacement of 6,800 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.


  • Gresham, John D., "The swift and sure steeds of the fighting sail fleet were its dashing frigates", Military Heritage magazine, (John D. Gresham, Military Heritage, February 2002, Volume 3, No.4, pp. 12 to 17 and p. 87).
  • Royal Navy Frigates 1945-1983 Leo Marriot, Ian Allan, 1983, ISBN 0-7110-1322-5

External links

Lists of frigates

Note that Algerian, Tripolitan and Tunisian sail frigates are listed under Turkey. All Italian city-state frigates are listed under Italy.
Sail frigates(1640-1860) Steam frigates(1830-1880) Modern frigates(1940-present) Current frigates
Note that the People's Republic of China also currently operates the Jianghu and Jiangwei class frigates, as well as constructing the 054 Jiangkai series of modern stealth frigates.
frigate in Min Nan: Hō͘-ōe-lām
frigate in Bosnian: Fregata
frigate in Catalan: Fragata (vaixell)
frigate in Czech: Fregata
frigate in Danish: Fregat
frigate in German: Fregatte
frigate in Modern Greek (1453-): Φρεγάτα
frigate in Spanish: Fragata
frigate in Esperanto: Fregato (ŝipo)
frigate in Persian: ناوچه
frigate in French: Frégate (navire)
frigate in Croatian: Fregata
frigate in Indonesian: Fregat
frigate in Icelandic: Freigáta
frigate in Italian: Fregata (nave)
frigate in Hebrew: פריגטה
frigate in Georgian: ფრეგატი
frigate in Hungarian: Fregatt
frigate in Dutch: Fregat
frigate in Japanese: フリゲート
frigate in Norwegian: Fregatt
frigate in Norwegian Nynorsk: Fregatt
frigate in Polish: Fregata (okręt)
frigate in Portuguese: Fragata
frigate in Russian: Фрегат
frigate in Slovenian: Fregata
frigate in Serbo-Croatian: Fregata
frigate in Finnish: Fregatti
frigate in Swedish: Fregatt
frigate in Turkish: Fırkateyn
frigate in Ukrainian: Фрегат
frigate in Chinese: 巡防艦
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