The navy just wants some frigates but can government and industry deliver?

There has been predictable union and Scottish Nationalist fury at the revelation there could be upto 800 job losses at BAE Systems on Clyde. At a time when Scottish unemployment is rising and the SNP are using every opportunity to push for another independence vote, frigate construction becomes ever more politically sensitive. 

Three Batch II River class OPVs are currently building on the Clyde bridging the gap between the completion of aircraft carrier work and the start of Type 26 construction. These OPVs are welcome but are essentially expensive job creation projects and are definitely not central to the RN’s surface fleet plans (whatever the UKDCDC may have recently suggested).

Unfortunately additional further delays to the start of Type 26 construction leave the Glasgow workforce under-utilised. Reducing the programme to 8 ships from the promised 13 does not help and a major £100M shipyard investment in a ‘frigate factory’ could be curtailed. Although the Type 26 design has been shortlisted for Australia’s Future Frigate program, effectively the 2015 SDSR admitted the cost of a Type 26 had put it out of reach of most potential foreign customers.

Type 26 frigate

The Type 26 will eventually be an outstanding anti-submarine frigate but it is fast becoming seen as another ‘gold plated’ solution, lacking real export potential as the unit cost is spiralling.

Lack of timely government funding is part of the issue, but BAES and MoD failure to control the cost of the Type 26 is a bigger problem. Plenty of Scottish politicians will be shouting about how they have been betrayed by Tories in London but like most defence procurement issues, the story is more complex than that. It should also be remembered that the lion’s share of warship construction in the last 30 years has been done in Scotland, sometimes to the detriment of English yards.

Sir John Parker

For the future of the Royal Navy, much rests on Sir John Parker’s ability to deliver.

Somewhat under the radar, there is a Treasury initiative to implement a National Shipbuilding Strategy. The NSS is being led by the very respected industrialist Sir John Parker, one of the ‘grown ups’, independent of the Whitehall madhouse and possessing real warship building management experience. His remit is to provide strategic direction for the industry as a whole. The questions surrounding the construction of the Type 26 and 31 will inevitably occupy much of his time. His agenda may also involve the parlous state of the UK steel industry, a key supplier to shipbuilding and Government desire to rebuild a ‘northern [England] powerhouse’ based on manufacturing. When George Osbourne first announced the NSS it was a feeble plan to build a single new warship every 2 years (which would actually reduce the fleet further). There is clearly now a recognition the RN needs faster delivery.

RN frustration over the Type 26 programme has led to the Type 31 – a requirement for an affordable, exportable, frigate. The design is at an embryonic stage but it will reportedly be around 3,000 tons and priced around £3-400M, rather similar in fact to a Type 23. It is hoped construction will be done using mainly English facilities that may include Babcock (Appledore & Devonport), Cammel Laird, (Birkenhead) and A&P (Tyne and Falmouth). The plan is to build the Type 31 concurrently with Type 26s being constructed on the Clyde. The Type 31 obviously presents a major challenge to design a credible warship so quickly and then manage construction using yards with little or no complex warship experience. (Remember the gestation of the Type 26 / Global Combat Ship has taken more than 20 years, £millions spent and no steel yet cut!)

Cynics will say Type 31 will be doomed to repeat the cycle of past failures and we will just end up with a tiny number of expensive “Type 36”. An alternative view is the RN has already achieved what had seemed impossible, breaking the stranglehold of the BAES monopoly and thinking differently. Something radical had to be done to stop the downward spiral of fewer and fewer, ever-more expensive vessels. The RN just needs some frigates fast, but even more than usual is caught in political, economic and industrial crossfire.

Main image: BAE Systems shipyard, Govan Glasgow.
© Richard West, via Geograph.