New UK frigate programme: the contenders to build Type-31e

Defence companies are competing to build a new generation of British frigates. But tight budgets have presented them with a difficult task.

HMS Argyll Type 23 Frigate

By Nick Childs, Senior Fellow for Maritime Forces and Naval Security

Much of the discussion at this year’s Defence & Security Equipment International (DSEI 2017) exhibition, held on 12–15 September, surrounded the viability of the new United Kingdom National Shipbuilding Strategy, announced virtually on the eve of the event. 

This included whether the UK’s defence industry, and potential international partners, can really deliver a ’credible’ frigate for UK Royal Navy (RN) purposes, and a design that is attractive to potential export customers, for a unit price target of £250 million (US$310m).

There are widespread doubts as to whether all these goals are achievable. On the export front, the market is already crowded with established players, including from the rest of Europe, and emerging players, not least China, who are developing or have developed their own industries and will be competing in the export arena. Much will depend on how the industrial partnerships form to bid for the Type-31e contract, and also – of course – on which design ultimately appears most likely to meet the requirements.

The field is probably finite, for two key reasons. One is that the National Shipbuilding Strategy stipulates a ’UK-owned’ design. The second is the very tight timeline for the first Type-31e to be in service by 2023 when the oldest of the RN’s current Type-23 frigates, HMS Argyll, is due to be withdrawn, suggesting the need for a design that exists, at least ’on paper‘, now.

The UK requirement for a new, cheaper general-purpose frigate (which became the Type-31e) was revealed in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review. Soon after, BAE Systems unveiled two design concepts that might fit the requirement: at the lower end of the capability spectrum, the Avenger concept was evolved from the company’s Batch 2 River-class offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) being built for the RN; and the higher-capability Cutlass concept was a development of the Al-Shamikh-class corvettes built for the Royal Omani Navy.

Given that the whole thrust of the new shipbuilding strategy is to re-inject competition into UK industry, BAE Systems might be forgiven for thinking that the odds will be stacked against their designs. Perhaps significantly, neither design concept featured on BAE’s stand at DSEI. That need not preclude the company taking on a significant role, however. And much will depend on whether any of the other potential designs are in the end considered viable.

In terms of the rest of the field, BMT Defence Systems’ Venator-110 design has long been seen as a strong contender. It has been developed by the company specifically to meet international requirements. It pre-dates the Type-31e requirement, but is widely perceived as being adaptable to meet it.

Steller Systems has entered the fray with its Project Spartan design. And late in the day, Babcock International revealed its hand with its 120 metre Arrowhead 120 concept, leveraging its recent experience building OPVs for the Irish Navy but representing a significant departure from that design, with a significantly more adaptable, capable and balanced design.

The UK Ministry of Defence is about to hold industry days to provide more information for potential bidders on its thinking. And it no doubt will be looking for a better sense from industry on the appetite to take on this project. Much will depend on how consortiums might coalesce around the potential designs, including shipyard interest, and the providers of the combat systems and equipment fits, as to how much ’headroom’ there will be between delivering the platform that the RN would like and the systems it feels it requires.

The challenge, though, is considerable. The immediate past First Sea Lord and Chief of the UK Naval Staff, Admiral Sir George Zambellas, has said he would be ’very surprised’ if it were possible to produce a properly capable and credible platform for £250m. Another knowledgeable industrial source at DSEI said that he thought the RN would be ’disappointed‘ in terms of the capabilities that will be on offer.

As another indicator of the challenge, the total programme for five Type-31es for the RN is essentially £1.25 billion (US$1.55bn). France, meanwhile, has also recently launched a scaled-down frigate programme to complement a reduced number of FREMM frigates in the French Navy. The total budget for its five medium frigates (Fregate de Taille Intermediaire) is put at €3.8bn (£3.4bn, US$4.2bn).

Intriguingly, the UK National Shipbuilding Strategy states that, if industry is unable to meet the challenge of the Type 31e approach, ’we will revise our plans’. But what the alternatives would be is far from clear. However, the clock is certainly now ticking.

This analysis originally featured on the Military Balance+, the new IISS online database that enables users in government, the armed forces and the private sector, as well as academia and the media, to make faster and better-informed decisions. The Military Balance+ allows users to customise, view, compare and download data instantly, anywhere, anytime.

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