Britain gets a new frigate factory

As part of their successful bid to build 5 Type 31 frigates for the RN, Babcock is constructing a new module hall to assemble the ships at their Rosyth yard. Here we examine the new facility and the implications of this investment.

On 24th January 2020 planning permission was given for the development at the dockyard at Rosyth. The building will occupy land between the Syncrolift hall (opened in 1980 and used primarily for minehunter refits), and Number 1 Dry Dock where both QEC aircraft carriers were assembled. This area was previously used to fabricate and erect the 14 sponson blocks for each carrier that Rosyth contributed to the construction. A spokesperson for Babcock said this week: “Demolition work for the new module hall is now complete, with development of the new facility underway”.

The basic building design is relatively simple, a large hall where two Type 31 frigates can be assembled side by side. This will be an impressive structure measuring 160m in length, 60m wide and 40m high. A prefabricated steel-framed shed can be usually be constructed rapidly, once the foundations are in place. The main internal feature will be two rail-mounted gantry cranes each with two hooks able to provide lifting cover to the full internal floor area of the hall. The cranes will be used to lift the modules into position as the ships are assembled. Both the north and south facade of the building will have two vertical-lift ‘megadoors’. Each door is 24m wide by 30m high with a demountable column between, creating a 48m-wide opening. The building is designed with flexibility for future shipbuilding operations beyond the conclusion of Type 31 construction.



Once assembled, the ships are lifted off the floor of the hall in their cradles using self-propelled modular trailers (SPMT) and rolled out onto a hardstanding area where masts and additional fittings are then added by crane. When the hull is ready to be launched, a specialist submergible barge will be brought into the basin and aligned with the dockside. SMPTs then slowly move the ship onto the barge. The barge will then be moved out of the basin and into the deeper water of the river before slowly submerging, allowing the ship to float off. This method is now common shipbuilding practice and reduces stress on the hull, complications of assembly on an incline and the risk of damage during a traditional dynamic launch. (HMS Duncan was the last RN vessel launched down a slipway in 2010.)

  • Aerial view of the Rosyth yard taken during the assembly of HMS Queen Elizabeth in 2014. The area that will be redeveloped is outlined in white and the position of new module hall shown in blue.  (Original photo: Aircraft Carrier Alliance)

  • Rosyth Dockyard

    The view from the north showing where the module hall will be sited and the position of the staff welfare facility behind the Syncrolift offices. (Original photo: Aircraft Carrier Alliance)

  • Type 26 frigate loaded onto barge

    GGI showing how the Type 26 frigate will be rolled on to the launch barge prior to float-off. The Type 31 will be launched in the same way. The new facility in Rosyth will be large enough to accommodate the whole frigate whereas the existing Ship Block Outfit Hall (SBOH) in Govan is only big enough to allow the Type 26 to be constructed in two halves, which will be joined together on the hardstanding before launch.

  • HMS Tamar being floated off her launch barge into the Clyde. By careful flooding of the ballast tanks in the barge, it can be made to submerge allowing the ship to float free. (Photo: BAE Systems)

An area totalling 1.96-hectares will be redeveloped including the ship module hall, the hardstanding area and a single storey staff welfare facility. Around 200-250 people will be directly involved in type 31 frigate construction at Rosyth and their facilities will include toilets, showers, changing areas and a mess hall in Portakabin-type buildings. Some existing buildings will have to be demolished and vertical piles put into the ground across the site to provide a foundation able to cope with heavy loads. Surveys have confirmed the area is not threatened by flooding, being 4.8m above mean sea level and well protected from tidal surge and wave action by the dock basin. A solar farm or ground-heat recovery plant is also planned to provide at least 50% of the power needs of the site.


Competition v Capacity

Although very welcome, the development highlights incongruities in UK shipbuilding as a whole. Whether by accident or design, naval surface ship construction is all now centred in Scotland which can count on orders for at least 13 frigates. Such industrial bounty goes deliberately unrecognised by nationalists who are increasingly strident about Scottish independence. While we are about to construct a new facility at Rosyth, Cammell Laird’s ship hall and construction capability is under-used. English shipyards in Appledore and Portsmouth were closed in 2019 and 2015 respectively (Although neither would have been large enough to construct two Type 31 hulls). Some analysts advocate concentrating all warship building in a single, efficient ‘mega yard’ but the alternative philosophy of the National Shipbuilding Strategy has driven competition back into the market by the creation of a second UK warship construction operation. A high-risk path has been taken, only a regular drumbeat of naval orders or export success will make this additional capacity sustainable.

Although loosely called a frigate factory, ships are not really built on a production line but efficiencies come from repetition of tasks which drive improvements in the process and phasing of work. Economies of scale from the bulk purchase of materials and equipment also reduce costs. At an approximate cost of £50 million, the improvements at Rosyth amount to 4% of the £1.25 billion construction budget for Type 31. (The total cost to the RN will be well above this as there will be some Government Furnished Equipment). The profit margin must already be slim and to really make the investment at Rosyth pay off, Babcock needs either the RN to buy a second batch of Type 31s and/or to win some export orders in a tough market.

It is unclear whether Babcock intends to do all the fabrication in Rosyth or sub-contract some of the blocks to their Team 31 partners, Harland & Wolff (Belfast) or Ferguson Marine (Clyde). Neither of these yards has recent experience in warship construction and both have had difficulties, Cammell Laird could be a more capable partner. There is a lot of steelwork to be completed in a short time but building blocks elsewhere, then transporting them by barge to the assembly yard may not be the most efficient method.

A second British frigate export success?

There are some real potential export opportunities for Type 31 but most nations want to maximise their own industrial participation and construct warship hulls domestically if possible.  New Zealand is in the market for two new frigates and does not have the capacity to build themselves. Indonesia is known to be interested in Type 31 to meet its requirement for two frigates to be built overseas. Babcock recently pitched the Type 31 to Ireland for their Multi-Role Vessel requirement, this would probably be a very lightly armed version with the emphasis on maritime security and logistics. Unfortunately, the Irish navy has a serious manpower shortage and the MRV project may be shelved. The Type 31 design is a possible contender for the Polish navy’s ‘Swordfish’ programme to build two frigates, but the Poles will want to construct the ships themselves. Credible sources suggest that Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII) may pitch a Type 31-based design for the US Navy’s FFG(X) competition. There may also be other customers in Asia, South America and the Gulf but there will be competition from established French, German and Spanish players.

5 ships, 7 years

Conceived in 2015, Type 31 acquisition has taken far longer than necessary but Babcock are now moving as quickly as possible to deliver on the contract signed in November 2019. Manufacturing will commence in 2021, and the hull of ship 1 must be in the water by 2023, although she will not be fully operational until May 2027. This assumes around two and half years for fitting out, and 18 months first of class trials and work up. The module hall will be a very important enabler, protected from the weather in a purpose-built facility, serial production should provide the efficiencies needed. To meet the demanding schedule that calls for the last ship to be delivered to the RN in 2028, it is planned to operate shifts around the clock in the module hall. Work will have to progress quickly to complete five vessels in less than seven years.

There is some scepticism amongst industry insiders that five large ships can be built in this timeframe, especially given the relatively modest steel fabrication and experience in Rosyth. However, there is considerable public, political and industry goodwill behind the project, hopeful to see the RN get dramatically more affordable frigates and the UK return to building warships for overseas customers.