A critical moment for the Type 26 Frigate programme

Speaking at the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) Exhibition last week, the First Sea Lord Admiral Zambellas said:

“the Type 26 [Frigate] will form the backbone of the Royal Navy, with a design that has the potential to meet the operational needs of a number of major navies around the world.”

This was a subtle and timely reminder to ministers that there is a rare opportunity for British warship designers and builders. The UK has failed to export any major new warships or successfully participate in multi-national warship projects since the 1970s, but this could be about to change. Germany, Canada, Australia, Brazil, India and Turkey all require new frigates and are known to have an interest in the Type 26 design. If the UK government was to make a long-term commitment to a full programme of ships this would provide considerable reassurance to potential export customers.

BAE Systems has the global strength and resources for success in the naval export market but needs UK government support. Although it is unlikely many complete ships for export would be built in the UK, the design could be licensed to foreign yards helping to recover some of the design cost. Many of the key components would be manufactured in the UK, notably the excellent Rolls Royce engines, the Sea Ceptor missile system and the Artisan radar. Sea Ceptor has already gained export orders to Brazil and New Zealand and is likely to win more.

The Type 26 has a broad appeal. Built for the Royal Navy, an acknowledged world leader in anti-submarine warfare, it will undoubtedly be a superb submarine-hunting platform and a worthy successor to the proven Type 23. Furthermore the spacious hull with large mission bay gives it a general purpose capability, able to operate in a wide variety of roles that could be tailored to the needs of individual nations. There is also plenty of room to fit alternative equipment that export customers may prefer.

Even modest export success for the Type 26 could help reduce the unit cost of vessels and their equipment while producing a ‘halo effect’ besides the obvious economic and employment benefits. It would enhance inter-operability and partnerships with other allied nations but most importantly it could be the catalyst for other naval exports. Britain could regain a foothold in the export market where it has so long trailed behind other European nations. This in turn may help reinvigorate the UK’s weak warship building sector, with all the strategic benefits and opportunities that would give the RN in the long-term.

Type 26 Frigate escorts aircraft carrier

Credibility

The 2015 defence review (SDSR) is currently in full swing in Whitehall and a key decision for the Royal Navy will be the number of Type 26 Frigates to be ordered. The size of this order will be a real indicator of whether the Treasury or ministers drive defence policy. Having firmly committed to building both aircraft carriers, it would be the height of folly and a potential political embarrassment not to provide them with sufficient aircraft and escorts.

After enduring considerable criticism that it was over-reaching in its procurement of these large carriers, perhaps the RN’s long-term plan will start to reap some rewards. Senior government figures have been on something of a journey of enlightenment. When they came to power in 2010 they wanted to “axe the damn things” but discovered they were locked into unbreakable commercial contracts. Over time they have come to realise the value and benefits of these mighty vessels and both the Prime Minister and George Osborne personally endorsed the project, attending HMS Queen Elizabeth’s naming ceremony in July 2014. By October the Prime Minister was proudly announcing the reversal of the decision to mothball the second carrier HMS Prince of Wales and the RN can now look forward to maintaining a continuous carrier capability. With the future of the aircraft carriers looking secure, the RN now has a very strong case to argue that appropriate escort and support ships be provided.

Considerable funds have already gone into the design of the Type 26 but presently only the long lead items for 3 vessels have been paid for, with no actual ships ordered or any indication of the final number of hulls. The Royal Navy needs at the absolute minimum of 13 Type 26 Frigates just to maintain its existing meagre force levels. With its frigates deployed around the globe in a wide variety of roles, finding spare escorts to form a carrier battle group will be a stretch and of course, more than 13 frigates would be desirable.

Admiral Zambellas highlighted the need for the Type 26 again:

“The judgement that the spectre of state-based conflict had gone from Europe has evaporated. So our future capabilities must match or outpace the threat. And areas such as anti-submarine warfare and maritime ISTAR now have heightened significance.  It’s another pressing reminder of the need to replace our respected but ageing Type 23 frigates. There is an opportunity as well as a necessity here – recognised at the highest levels of Government, in the Chancellor’s support for the National Shipbuilding Strategy”

So far the talk of a national shipbuilding strategy has been a vague and disappointing promise of 1 ship every 2 years. That would actually reduce the surface fleet and see some of the existing Type 23s go out of service before replaced by new ships. The Type 26 programme is already running much later than ideal but needs to deliver at least 1 ship every year between 2020 and 2033 just to replace the Type 23s before they fall apart.

Some frigate orders will be undoubtedly be forthcoming this year but just how many remains to be seen. The defence review ‘mood music’ is more positive now than it has ever been in the previous few years with the Defence Secretary recently stating:

“the Strategic Defence and Security Review will not lead to the kind of cuts seen in 2010”

Nevertheless, despite sexed-up government claims to be spending 2% of GDP on defence, funding will be tight and a generous order for frigates might only come at the expense of cuts elsewhere.

Decision makers in Westminster should be aware that now is the time for an enthusiastic and fully funded commitment to the Type 26. This would not only build the credibility of the RN, but could reap long-term financial benefits of export success.

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