Bargain basement Type 31e – the Lidl frigate or an industrial miracle?

The RN published its outline specification for the Type 31e on 7th September this year. The £250 Million-per-ship price cap that has been set for the project is remarkable. If the project can deliver a credible ship at this price it would be something of a miracle and represent the most affordable western frigate design on the international market. The goals of Type 31e can therefore either be seen as ambitious ‘blue sky thinking’ or compromised and unachievable.

The new National Shipbuilding Strategy has adopted most of Sir John Parker’s recommendations. Unsurprisingly his most controversial idea that shipbuilding funds should be ring-fenced to avoid uncertainty and delay was not taken up. The NSS is an otherwise sensible document and appears to offer a pathway to expanding UK warship building and getting back into the export business. Sir John argued that economies of scale would drive down costs. With an initial requirement for just 5 ships for the RN, Type 31e will need to attract plenty of export orders if the unit cost is to be reduced and the overall price is to be so tightly constrained.

Defence analyst Francis Tusa has studied UK shipbuilding patterns since 1945 and argues against the whole industrial ethos of Type 31. He says that shipbuilding is most efficiently done by a single company on one large site. He suggests that because ship construction numbers are relatively low, the benefits of competition are outweighed by no single yard having the skills and economies of scale to drive down costs. BAES would probably agree.

The NSS recommendations about internal governance, management and accountability are particularly welcome. However, in the excitement around the new strategy, there has perhaps been too much focus on exports and the build process an not enough on the product.

“To win increased exports sales, ships must instead be designed with exports in mind from the outset… We have set a maximum £250 million per ship price for the Type 31e, as we judge that the capabilities that the UK requires can be accommodated within this limit and that beyond this price the ships would not be attractive to the sector of the export market we are targeting.” (National Shipbuilding Strategy)

No Western nation has built a credible frigate even close to this price. The modular Danish Iver Huitfeld frigates (built 2008-12) at around £300M are closest, but their hulls were built in cheap East European yards and re-used equipment from old ships. The average cost of light frigates in the 3,500 tonne range built in the last decade is around £350M. Germany’s new Braunschweig class corvettes cost approximately £400m each and are certainly not frigates. The successful French warship exporters DCNS are building 5 FTI frigates for the Marine Nationale which are priced in the region of £580m. The FTI intermediate frigate is far cheaper than a Type 26 but represents a sound mid-range design. DCNS agrees with the MoD’s assessment that there is a global requirement for around 40 medium-light frigates in the long term.

The French Frégates de taille intermédiaire (FTI). Pig ugly and more than double the price of Type 31 but a fully credible ASW platform, built to warship standards.

The original Type 31 concept of arresting the spiralling cost of warships was fundamentally sound but delivering an effective ship at the target price appears unachievable. £250M will place the Type 31e at the very bottom of the range for frigates and may well attract foreign buyers with less demanding requirements than most NATO navies. The weak pound could also potentially help export orders for ships actually built in the UK, not just licensing the design and technology for construction abroad. Despite this, by pitching itself towards the budget end of the market, the Type 31e may find itself in competition with cheap Asian warship builders who have much lower overheads than UK yards. If the price has been set at £350M per ship it would be closer to the ‘sweet spot’ offering a balance between price and performance.

Further pressure is added to a very challenging project by the requirement that the first ship must be in service in just 5 year’s time, by 2023. A taught schedule is desirable and the RN needs new frigates quickly. Far too many projects have been delayed, while costs spiralled and the specifications changed but a whole new of level of client discipline and competent project management will be required to meet this target. On top of this, the new ships must be constructed by English yards that have limited recent warship construction experience.

Go big or go home

The outline specification reveals that alarming compromises required to keep within the price cap are already recognised. Most seriously the ship will be constructed to “commercial shipbuilding standards by default”, only “enhanced in places where a clear requirement or benefit exists”. Watertight sub-division, blast protection and redundancy are a big part of what defines a warship. Compromise on this can cost lives in action and may allow the ship to be quickly sunk or crippled by even minor damage. The USS John S. McCain and USS Fitzgerald both suffered very serious collisions with merchant ships in 2017. Both ships are still afloat because they built to full warship construction standards. Real warships can survive to fight another day. Many deficiencies in a warship can be remedied by upgrading equipment over its lifetime but if the hull is not initially constructed to high enough standards, it is virtually impossible to address without rebuilding almost from scratch.

A point defence missile system such as Sea Ceptor are ‘optional’ for Type 31e, with a CIWS (i.e. Phalanx) as the minimum. Without PDMS the Type 31e would be of little value for escorting other vessels. Anti-ship missiles are also optional and there is no requirement to fit sonar at all. Hull mounted and towed array sonar are ‘desirable’ but not part of the minimum spec. If a frigate is incapable of effectively hunting submarines what exactly is it for?

The RN has always said it does not want a two-tier navy but the frigate plan looks likely to provide exactly that. We appear to have abandoned the middle ground with an exquisite high-end Type 26 and budget low-end Type 31e

At the inception of the Type 31 project, the then First Sea Lord Admiral Zambellas was very clear that the ship must be “credible” – capable of escorting the aircraft carrier and operating in a high threat environment. At the start of discussions, the original ballpark budget must have been more generous, but at the time of writing the RN is facing another swathe of cuts so reducing the future frigate budget by about £500 million was probably an attractive saving. Now retired, and speaking recently Zambellas said “I would be very surprised if they are able to create a properly capable platform for 250 million Pounds”

Theoretical routes to success

Either the Type 31e will be a corvette dressed up as a frigate, industry must work a miracle or a cost compromise must be reached. The final design will not be selected for at least a year so meaningful judgement on the precise merits of the ship cannot be made at this point. Maybe the MoD has deliberately started low so as to have more flexibility in negotiations. Perhaps the result will be a £250M hull with the main sensors and weapons funded separately. The intention has always been that export customers could select an equipment fit to suit their requirements and budget.

Perhaps the ‘baseline’ Type 31e will be quickly evolved by retrofitting better weapons and sensors. History shows RN warships constructed ‘fitted for, but not with’ equipment rarely ever received the additional items so this approach could be a trap. This route is also not really consistent with the NSS which recommends the RN should aim to keep ships in service for a much shorter period and then sell them on second hand, to be replaced by new construction. Perhaps some of the weaknesses of the platform can be offset by major investment in off-board autonomous systems that give it reach and power beyond its modest conventional equipment fit.

At this early stage there appear to be deep concerns but we fervently hope this innovative project can succeed, balancing benefits to the UK economy with the urgent needs of the RN fleet.