Only seven years to wait until the Royal Navy gets a new frigate

Head of the Ministry of Defence, Stephen Lovegrove recently wrote another confessional letter, this time to the Public Accounts Committee admitting that the first Type 31 frigate will not be in service until May 2027. Back in the halcyon days of 2017, the First Sea Lord was expecting the lead ship to be in service fully 4 years earlier, by 2023.

2023 becomes 2027

To considerable dismay, in 2018 it emerged that HMS Glasgow, the first Type 26 frigate would not be in Service until 2027. This was much later than the “early 2020s” that had been the expectation and is the result of deliberately slowing the build rate to spread out costs and to ensure long-term workflow for BAE Systems. Until quite recently it had been the RN’s hope that the first Type 31 would be in service as early as 2023 which would help to mitigate the slow delivery of the Type 26. Admiral Jones speaking in September 2017 said: “In order to maintain our current force levels, the first Type 31 must enter service as the first general-purpose Type 23, HMS Argyll, leaves service in 2023. Clearly that’s a demanding timescale…”. This was not just the navy’s vague hope but government policy enshrined in the National Shipbuilding Strategy which stated: “We plan to make a Main Gate investment decision in Q4 2018 and commence build in early 2019. We are aiming for the first Type 31 to be in service in 2023 to coincide with the departure from service of the first Type 23.”

As we reported in November, the whole plan has obviously been sliding to the right for some time. The schedule in the NSbS proved way too optimistic. When Babcock announced they had won the Type 31 competition in September 2019 they were saying steel cutting will begin in 2021 and the first vessel will be “in the water” by 2023. It now appears it will take another 4 years to convert the structurally complete vessel into an operational warship.

By committing to such a distant delivery target, a least there is a generous margin of time to iron out the inevitable issues with the first of class. Speaking this week, Rear Admiral Paul Marshall, Senior Responsible Owner for the Type 31 programme, said all the ships should be delivered by 2028. This would imply that once the first-of-class hurdle is surmounted, the remaining ships will be brought into service during a relatively compressed period. At this stage, how the test, commissioning and trials phases may unfold is an unknown but there is a least some pace in delivery at the tail end of the project.

Bottom of the league

Combatant-Construction-Comparison-1

This gives a rough comparison of the time taken to build first of class combatants by various navies around the world. Bear in mind each programme will have its own challenges and individual political-industrial context. Some vessels may be formally commissioned before they are fully in service and trials continue for some time afterwards. The Japanese Atago class destroyers are based on a design already in service and benefit from a sensible iterative development approach and a steady drumbeat of warship construction. For the UK it does not look good, only the stagnant economy of Russia is delivering warships more slowly. Despite the intention to “do things differently”, the time needed to build the Type 31 will still be above average. Although a more complex and capable ship, the 10-year build schedule for the first Type 26 is particularly unimpressive.

Fast, Cheap or Good?

There is a project management maxim called ‘The Triple Constraint’ that says you can either have a product fast, cheap or good, but you can’t have them all. With astute management, it is usually possible to produce something that has two of these attributes but not all three. The Type 31 concept made public in 2015 was always going to be a tough challenge to build a credible warship quickly and at a very low price.

Most would agree that the selection of Arrowhead was the correct choice, the proven platform with the most room for development. Perhaps what was not really recognised was the time penalty that would accompany its selection. Although BAE Systems’ Leander candidate was an unproven design, its Kahreef core had been built before and the more experienced company was probably in a position to deliver the smaller ship more quickly in partnership with Cammell Laird. Babcock has come up with a very credible bid package but despite the experience from Denmark and Thales know-how, there are many elements that must be brought together that will take time. In simple terms, it would appear that price and quality have been prioritised ahead of speed in the Type 31 programme. The quality of the Type 31 will continue to be the subject of much discussion but if the 5 ships are delivered for a total of £1.25Bn they will certainly represent great value for money.

When tomorrow comes

Admiral Jones’ comments about replacing the Type 23 frigates are every bit as true today as in 2017. “They remain capable, but to extend their lives any further is no longer viable from either an economic or an operational perspective. Eight of those Type 23s are specifically equipped for anti-submarine warfare and these will be replaced on a one-for-one basis by the new Type 26 frigate. As such, we look to the Type 31 to replace the remaining 5 remaining general purpose variants. This immediately gives you an idea of both the urgency with which we view this project, and how it fits within our future fleet… we end up with a vicious cycle where fewer, more expensive, ships enter service late, and older ships are retained well beyond their sell-by date and become increasingly expensive to maintain. So we need to develop the Type 31 differently if we’re going to break out of that cycle.” Somewhere along the line the urgency the Admiral advocated and expected has been lost.

Shephard Media have forecast escort numbers will fluctuate and fall as low as 16 at times between 2023 – 40. The Type 23s, which were originally designed to serve for 18 years, are undergoing a programme of delayed but reasonably effective life extensions which should keep them going until around their 34th birthday. Unless they continue to have repairs after repairs and soldier on at ever-spiralling expense, dipping below the magic number of 19 escorts is now a cast-iron certainty. With narrowing options, enhancement of the Batch II OPVs, not a choice favoured by all, looks like the only alternative means for sustaining the surface fleet numbers.

We have discovered a fantastic new way of keeping on schedule, by moving planned in-service dates into the distant future, nothing will ever be delivered late.

Besides the concerns about the fall in escort numbers, perhaps the bigger worry is that the new ships could be semi-obsolete before they enter service. Technology and the geopolitical situation will undoubtedly have moved on significantly in the next seven years. Might the fleet even be tested in a come as you are conflict before 2027? Both the Type 26 and Type 31 platforms have great potential to evolve and develop in future but trying to change the design during construction or even add new capability (other than perhaps software) is to be avoided. Painful past experience dictates tight contracts that bind the supplier to deliver what was agreed at the outset and the Navy must avoid making changes during the project. This kind of client discipline was a major theme of Sir John Parker’s NSbS. The pace of technological change, diversifying threats and speeding up the procurement process is constantly being discussed by defence planners. Meanwhile, we are building frigates (and submarines) at a glacial pace.

“Pace and grip” was another theme of the NSbS. The intention was to speed up the construction of ships and keep building to a steady constant schedule, making small improvements and driving production efficiency. Sir John envisaged a scenario where Type 31s would be withdrawn from RN service after only serving for around 10 years to be sold second-hand overseas and be replaced with new-build vessels. This might still be possible but does not fit especially well with the selection of a large, slow-build platform with an initially austere equipment fit intended to be upgraded at a later date.

There now seems a good chance HMS Glasgow will enter service ahead of Type 31 ship 1 in 2027. We will then be able to celebrate an extraordinary silver jubilee – 25 years since the RN commissioned a new frigate (HMS St Albans).