SDSR implications for the RN – The surface escort conundrum

This is the first in a new series of articles looking in detail at what the recent SDSR announcements may mean for the RN. The navy will get 8 Type 26 frigates and government has affirmed its promise to maintain a surface escort fleet of at least 19 ships. How will this be achieved?

Planning certainties

Although many hoped that an order for 13 Type 26 Frigates would be forthcoming, it was always unlikely. Warships are ordered (and paid for) in batches and 8 is a large batch by post-war standards. The SDSR was also very clear in its commitment to “at least” 19 escorts. The RN is very confident that the 5 or more vessels besides the T26 will be ‘a new generation of credible general purpose frigates’. There is even a genuine aspiration for an escort fleet of more than 19 ships.

The Type 26 frigates will be excellent submarine hunters with a wide array of capabilities. The design has lots of room for additions and future upgrades. Industry and the navy can now plan and prepare for these 8 ships, but how the balance of the frigate force will be made up leaves many unanswered questions.

A two-tier navy is not in the plan

At first glance at the SDSR it seemed possible that the RN had changed tack and was considering a ‘2-tier’ navy. Taken with the order for a further 2 OPVs and assuming the additonal ships could be corvettes, it is possible to come to this conclusion. The resounding message from the RN is that there is no aspiration for a “two-tier navy”. The RN wants vessels with full range of fighting capability that can operate anywhere and are able to re-role from low-high intensity operations, even if this means fewer hulls.

The OPV orders have always been about Terms of Business Agreements with BAES and keeping Clyde shipyard workers busy until the work on the T26 frigate starts. Although the OPVs are welcome and have some potential for overseas deployment, the RN sees them as primarily for use in UK waters and they are not central to the RN escort fleet plans. The RN is managing an incredibly tight manpower balancing act so don’t be surprised if some of these OPVs never see service in the UK and get sold abroad.

The failure to control costs

The RN are undoubtedly fed up with exquisite, complex and over-priced offerings from BAES. Although it will be a fine platform, the T26 is not a great revolution in frigate design and will use a lot of existing equipment, some of which is already bought and paid for and will be transferred across from the Type 23s. The target price was supposed to be around £300 Million per ship but It is baffling where the big cost drivers are coming from and very disappointing to hear that the T26 design in its current form is now perceived as too expensive to attract export interest.

Why can we only afford 8 Type 26? Reasons could include:

  • BAES is profiteering or at least grossly inefficient
  • The design contains some new element that is fiendishly expensive to develop or build
  • The budget has to include the purchase of a full outfit of Tomahawk, LRASM, ASROC or other missiles for the 24 x Mk41 vertical launch cells
  • The Treasury has simply forced the RN to lower the T26 programme budget to release money for other things.
  • The Treasury is trying to budget for the entire lifetime cost (hence the shocking, but unconfirmed £12Bn cost let slip by Rear Admiral Burton in September)

It was somewhat overlooked in the mass of SDSR news, but the build programme has been pushed back again. The first T26 may not now be delivered until 2025, assuming the first steel is cut as the last of the 5 river class OPVs is completing around 2018. Delaying the build may push invoices conveniently into the future but inevitably adds to overall costs. It will also impact on the Type 23s, having to be run on to the very limits of their hull life expectancy, where they become more increasingly more expensive to maintain.

Does the credible “low cost frigate” actually exist?

Is it really possible to produce a fully effective frigate that is significantly cheaper than a T26? Let us call it the ‘Type 31’, It still requires point defence missiles, anti-ship weaponry, a hangar and small flight deck (even if only for a UAV or Lynx size helicopter), plus a command and control system and suite of sensors. Although the hull size could be reduced, a simpler propulsion system used and the anti-submarine capability eliminated or reduced. You might cut the cost by 30%, and get a general purpose ship but there is still the cost of developing a new design. (At least £200M has already been spent on the T26 design as well as various development ‘blind alleys’ along the way.) A second frigate type will also need its own equipment support logistics and training pipelines.

The desire to create an exportable frigate design is laudable but will we not be re-inventing the wheel when there are already cheaper foreign designs that could be licensed or adapted? The highly successful German MEKO design and the Danish Stanflex system are good examples.

If your warship is designed to cope in high-intensity conflict then it will need expensive weapons and sensors. Todays generation of supersonic anti-ship missiles are truly formidable. Modern surface ships face greater and more diverse threats than ever. To counter this requires good sensors, agile missiles and an array of decoys, backed up by last-ditch close in weapon systems (CIWS). Although the general purpose frigate may not be dedicated to hunting submarines, it will still need a decent sonar to give some hope of prosecuting a submarine or detecting and avoiding torpedo attack. Submarines are also getting more and more stealthy with a growing arsenal of weapons. Without quiet propulsion and sophisticated sonars (i.e. towed arrays) that can detect threats at range and helicopters to attack them, the Type 31 could be just another target.

If your escorts are really going to escort anything eg. an aircraft carrier or merchant shipping, then they need more than just last-ditch self-defence weapons. A Phalanx CIWS may defend the ship it is mounted on, but it is little use protecting another vessel. If the escort ship can only defend itself, it has very limited use or must be permanently on the offensive. The Sea Ceptor being fitted to the Type 23 and Type 26 frigates has the major advantage over the Sea Wolf it replaces. Having more than double the range (around 25Km) it significantly extends the size of the protection umbrella over other ships being escorted. Frigates are traditionally built to hunt submarines, if our Type 31 has no real ASW capability then it is pretty limited in a wartime role.

Sleek, fast and loved by their crews, the Type 21 was the poster child for the cheap frigate. There is a very fine line between a successful ‘less capable, cheaper frigate’ and a compromised warship design that becomes a liability. The Type 21 Frigate design of the 1970s was designed by a private company and accepted by the RN as a way to get a modern and affordable frigate to sea. Unfortunately when tested in the heat of the Falklands war their deficiencies became obvious. A top-heavy design on a lightweight hull, they suffered structural problems in the prolonged South Atlantic operations. They were also inadequately armed and suffered accordingly. God help them if they had gone up against Soviet aircraft or missiles. Ironically the surviving Type 21s still soldier on today in the Pakistani navy. Upgraded with a Phalanx system and Chinese SAMs / Harpoon missiles they are now slightly more potent.

If the aim of the Type 31 is to try to avoid or minimise expensive BAE involvement, is there alternative industrial capacity to design or build complex warships in the UK outside of the Clyde? The Babcock yards at Appledore, Devonport and even Rosyth, together with Cammel Laird in Birkenhead all have potential to contribute to a build programme but at present almost certainly lack the staff and experience needed to manage the construction of a complete new class of frigate.

In some ways it is exciting that the MoD is willing to start from scratch and look for new solutions. Maybe by escaping the gold-plated mentality of recent BAE offerings it can be pulled off, but it is hard to be truly optimistic that UK industry can turn back the clock, develop and build a cheap, credible frigate with export potential. There are two further defence reviews to come before the first T26 is even in commission. We can expect the unexpected, and events will surely impact on these plans. When the dust has settled we may still find the most cost-effective solution is a batch II Type 26, using the same hull but removing the Mk41 VLS, towed array and cutting a few other corners.