By Nick Childs, Senior Fellow for Naval Forces and Maritime Security
It has been a long time coming. As a result, it is difficult to overestimate the significance of the announcement on 2 July of a contract, worth £3.7 billion, to start building the first three Type-26 frigates for the UK Royal Navy. But, while this is critical both to the ability of the Royal Navy to sustain its surface combatant capability and to the United Kingdom’s future complex warship building capacity, it is also only part of the solution, and begs many further questions.
At least as crucial will be whether the government can produce a transformed naval procurement model based around industrialist Sir John Parker’s report on a new National Shipbuilding Strategy, unveiled late last year. This revolved around a more robust and disciplined procurement process to deliver capabilities that the Royal Navy will need in a cost-effective way, to sustain and actually develop the skills and capacity for a broader warship-building industrial base, and to revive UK major warship exports. A key centrepiece of that is the planned new general-purpose frigate design, dubbed Type-31 or Type-31e to emphasise the export focus.
Decisions on these significant elements are due in the coming weeks. They are crucial in terms of whether a viable and sustainable strategy, on both the operational and industrial fronts, can be produced.
Type-26’s long history
Clearly, the Type-26 has huge potential as a high-end multi-purpose design, particularly in the crucial role of anti-submarine warfare (ASW), provided it is procured with the full set of designed-in capabilities. And the timing of this order is critical to sustaining the UK’s complex warship industrial base, now centred in Scotland.
But, remarkably, this is the first UK government order for a major surface combatant for the Royal Navy in more than a decade and a half, an indicator of just how strained UK defence resources have been. Of course, there has been a huge focus on the new aircraft carrier programme. But the gap has compounded the challenges around maintaining a sovereign warship capacity, with sufficient critical mass and work flow, and with essentially only one supplier.
That is in part why the search for a new-generation UK surface combatant capability has been some two decades in gestation. And what emerged, the 6,900-tonne Type-26 design (almost the same size as the Type-45 destroyer design, the final unit cost of which was some £1bn), made the aspiration of one-for-one replacement of the current 13 Type-23 frigates in both ASW and general-purpose roles look ever more unrealistic. That was finally acknowledged in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review. Eight Type-26s would be procured chiefly for high-end ASW tasks, with at least five cheaper new-design frigates for general-purpose roles.
This, it was officially suggested, would offer the prospect of growing UK surface combatant numbers again by the end of the next decade. Currently, that officially stands at what most analyses regard as an inadequate 19 escorts (six Type-45 destroyers and the Type-23s – although two ships are in extended readiness, reducing operational availability further).
But a bill of £3.7bn for the first three Type-26s already represents a significant chunk of the likely available resources. Even delivering eight will still represent a major challenge. And whether eight is really enough given the revived Russian submarine challenge, let alone the wider proliferation of advanced submarine capabilities, is also a major question. It is a paradox, given that one of the key impetuses behind the Type-31e is to generate new export success, that there has been a renewed focus on high-end ASW capabilities globally, such that the Type-26 design is now a contender at least for future surface combatant requirements in Australia, Canada, and to a lesser extent Germany.
The delays in the Type-26 production schedule have also exacerbated the challenge of even maintaining overall Royal Navy escort numbers with Type-23s scheduled to retire, essentially on an annual basis, from 2023. Further extensions of their already greatly extended service lives have been deemed uneconomic. That may yet have to be revisited as an issue.
Cheaper export model
That is where the Type-31e obviously comes in. The main driver for this project has clearly been to produce a significantly cheaper-per-unit design, with the aiming point believed to be in the £250–300 million bracket, both to deliver to the Royal Navy the numbers it needs, but also to attract export orders. Now, a key requirement would also seem to be to develop and produce a vessel (almost certainly based on a commercially available design) by 2023, assuming – critically – that funding is available.
Inevitably, the issue of just what capability compromises are implied by such a target price also rears its head. Surely, for the Royal Navy, at least some operational flexibility and potential capability beyond basic maritime security and presence missions will remain crucial, but how feasible is that within the price ceiling? And how attractive would a new UK design be in a market where there are a number of established suppliers of affordable but capable designs? Where would the Type-31e sit, for example, in a market place and level of capability compared to the new French medium frigate design (Frégate de Taille Intermédiaire) at approximately 4,000 tonnes?
As for the broader challenges for the new UK National Shipbuilding Strategy, they are clearly considerable and to some extent contradictory. It must produce an effective and innovative procurement plan, to deliver some urgent solutions, but also simultaneously offer assurance and flexibility to both supplier and customer.