British industry manoeuvring on the Royal Navy’s Type 31e frigate programme

In response to the MoD’s invitation, industry across the UK is now working on a variety of proposals to win the Royal Navy’s Type 31e frigate design and build contract. If the project succeeds in its goal of achieving export orders, the winning consortium could see a sustained flow of construction work and competition is intensifying.

Enter “Leander”

On 18th October Cammell Laird shipbuilders announced they had formed a partnership with BAE Systems to bid for the Type 31e contract. CL would assemble the ships at their Birkenhead yard while BAES will provide the technical expertise required for design and systems integration. Focussing firmly on the local and domestic economic benefits, John Syvret, CL Chief Executive said  “We will offer a UK warship design, a UK combat system, a UK build and a supply chain with high UK content, we will be working with BAE Systems and A&P to deliver certainty, speed and agility on this nationally important project.”

The rather crude ‘Avenger’ design that was hastily produced by BAES in 2016 has been dispensed with. The ‘Cutlass’ concept, a stretched version of the Khareef corvettes built for Oman (2009-2013) has been refined and re-named as ‘Leander’ as the basis for the joint bid. So far BAES have declined to make public any details of the concept, other than some simple CGIs (main image above).

The choice of name is a smart move, echoing past British warship design success. 26 Leander class frigates were built for the RN in the 1960s and 70s, they were highly regarded and won considerable export orders. There remains much affection and nostalgia in navy circles for the Leanders (named after characters in Greek mythology).

BAES were initially only semi-interested the Type 31 and even described the project as “a race to the bottom”. They now appear to be taking a potential threat to their warship building monopoly rather more seriously, recently describing it as “an exciting and important programme”. A successful Type 31 bid by Babcock and BMT could open a way for real competition in a sector that BAES have all to themselves. Part of the motivation for the Type 31 was to diversify the RN’s supplier base, making it less reliant on what is perceived as BAES gold-plated offerings and ballooning prices.

There is also a political desire to revive English warship building potential as an insurance policy against Scottish independence. Scottish Nationalists and Unions on the Clyde are highly vocal about how they were “betrayed” by promises of 13 type 26 frigates which have now been reduced to 8. In a narrow sense, they have a point, but workers on the Clyde still have the most secure shipbuilding jobs in the UK and the approximately £6Bn, 20-year, Type 26 project is the richest shipbuilding contract in Europe. It should also be remembered the Portsmouth construction yard was closed by BAES to consolidate work on the Clyde.


BAE Systems-designed ‘Leander’ concept for the Type 31e

A successful partnership with Cammell Laird would be strategically beneficial to BAES by keeping Babcock out of the project. Type 31 could also offer continuity of work for BAES ship design teams, whose workload will to decline as the Type 26 construction gets into its stride. When HMS Prince of Wales is completed, there will be a large pool of skilled workers who will transfer from Rosyth back to the Clyde. If the Type 26 does not provide enough work for them all, the Type 31 could offer another option.

The Type 31 is likely to offer the winning bidder a much lower profit margin than the lucrative Type 26. In modern warship construction the main expense, and therefore profit, is usually in installation and integration of the electronics weapons and sensor fit. This allows BAES a slice of whatever profit there maybe without the problem of building more ships concurrently with Type 26s that will fully occupy their Clyde yards into the 2030s

Despite the revival of commercial ship construction at Cammell Laird and their experience building the RRS Sir David Attenborough, they do not have sufficient in-house expertise needed to design and build complex warships. Their partnership with BAES gives them access to the most experienced naval architecture talent in the country. CL also plan to partner with A&P (Tyne and Falmouth) who would build some of the blocks which would then be shipped to Birkenhead for assembly.

Other contenders

A request for information (RFI) to support Type 31e market testing was released to industry by the MoD on 11 September, with a deadline of 16th October for responses. The MOD says it is now considering a whopping 20 different proposals to build Type 31e. This level of interest is an encouraging sign that UK industry is very excited by the project and looking at a variety of creative approaches.

Although each company had already developed their own concept, at DSEI in September 2017, Babcock and BMT announced they had formed a strategic partnership to bid for the Type 31e project. The BMT Venator-110 design was widely perceived as the leading candidate but it is unclear if Venator has been dispensed with so BMT can focus on developing the Arrowhead concept with Babcock. The new CL/BAES partnership suddenly offers them much more formidable competition. Although Babcock has more recent small warship construction than CL, BAES are a corporate giant with enormous resources and experience in the sector. Despite BAES’ formidable strength, when the MoD chooses a contractor, other contenders may have the advantage over them by simply not being BAES.

Babcock Arrowhead Type 31e

Babcock ‘Arrowhead’ looks likely to be the main competition for Leander

It would be ironic if the Babcock Appledore yard is left out of the Type 31 programme as they are the only UK facility that has won a warship export order in recent times. The 4 OPVs that have been constructed for the Irish Navy are a low profile success story that deserves to be continued. For workers at Appledore in particular, a successful BMT/Babcock bid for the Type 31e is critical as they will need work when the final Irish OPV is completed.

It will also be interesting to see if smaller bidders such as Steller Systems Spartan concept can find a construction partner or gain enough traction to compete with the Babcock and BAES big boys.

In our next article, we will look in more detail at the price point of the Type 31e and whether it is adequate for the Royal Navy’s requirements.