London — The British Royal Navy, run by sailors made a lot wiser by their experience of a shooting war in the South Atlantic, has chosen a warship for the 21st century.
It is a slender, rakish frigate designed to hunt submarines silently and defend itself against sea-skimming missiles of the Exocet type used to great effect by Argentina in last year's Falklands fighting.
The ''Type 23'' frigate will begin coming off the production line three years from now. By the end of the present decade there will be a dozen of them. Later on, a second batch will be launched to complete what is planned as a highly mobile, cost-effective fleet.
For at least a decade naval designers have puzzled over how to build a convincing naval force in an era of rising costs. Two years ago more urgency entered the picture as it became accepted here that the days of aircraft carriers and other hulking warships were fast disappearing.
Then last year's confrontation between Britain and Argentina gave planners a stimulus to freeze their design aims.
In the Falklands campaign, naval commanders learned three main lessons: (1 )the need for ships with quiet engines and the ability to launch large helicopters for torpedo attacks on submarines or surface ships, (2)the importance of a low profile and a minimal radar echo, so that ships are difficult for an enemy to detect, and (3)the ability to attack enemy aircraft approaching at low altitude.
The new frigate is said to meet all these requirements.
Designers are also working on ways to prevent ships from being engulfed by smoke as enemy firepower hits home.
Royal Navy ships in the Falklands fighting became smoke-filled infernos as plastic and light metal fittings caught fire.
The Type 23 frigate will be 123 meters long and a slender 15 meters wide. It will cruise at a maximum 28 knots and have a range of 8,000 miles, perhaps not coincidentally the steaming distance between British ports and the Falklands.
Each ship will cost some (STR)100 million ($66 million) to build. By the year 2000 as many as 20 are expected to be in service, mostly in the North Atlantic.