Type 31 frigate project on schedule despite challenges of the pandemic

A year on from signing the contract with the MoD, today Babcock provided a media briefing, giving an overview of the industrial aspects of Type 31 frigate programme to date. Despite the impacts of COVID-19, the project is on schedule and the company remains optimistic about delivering the ships on time.

Chief Executive of Babcock Marine, John Howie was keen to address some of the frequent criticisms of Type 31. While conceding there are ”ambitious targets”, he outlined some aspects of their delivery strategy needed to keep within the strict budget and meet the taught schedule. The design is based on an existing 3D model and is not being modified significantly. Apart from the weapons and combat systems, the only big platform changes are an additional boat bay and compliance with modern safety and survivability standards, together with MARPOL environmental regulations.

The original Danish designers OMT, paid considerable attention to reducing complexity to ensure construction challenges and through-life costs were minimised. Type 31 will benefit from the trials and experience gained during the Iver Huitfeldt frigates 9 years of operational service with the Danish navy. The design has a significant margin beyond the contracted performance requirements. (Arrowhead is 50% bigger than was envisaged in the original RN specification). The Babcock management team also has experienced professionals who have worked on Royal Navy warship projects over the last two decades.

The adoption of the Thales TACTICOS combat system reduces software risks because its is open architecture and already in service on many platforms and functionally integrated with the majority of weapons and sensors. The investment in a covered construction hall is designed to remove weather-related productivity risks. Most crucially, the RN recognised from the outset that making changes to a design after the contract has been signed has been a major cause of delays and increased cost in the past. As a result, the Type 31 contract does not allow the customer to make changes.

Despite its obvious advantages, the Danes failed to attract export orders for its this design for 12 years until Type 31 came along. Although not the most powerful navy, the RN is still held in very high regard around the world and its seal of approval for Type 31 project helped attract 34 expressions of interests from overseas when it was launched.


Howie confirmed that they are working with the UK Defence and Security Exports organisation to explore potential opportunities to either license the design or sell Rosyth-built frigates overseas. Babcock Marine has a wide customer base and, although exporting Type 31 is a major ambition, its future is not dependent on this being successful. The Rosyth Dockyard has diversified its customer base away from dependence on the MoD and the new module hall is intended to be adaptable beyond Type 31 for future shipbuilding and other engineering projects. Should export orders be forthcoming, Babcock are comfortable that there is sufficient capacity at Rosyth and elsewhere to handle the work. The customer would not have to wait until the construction of the RN vessels is complete before work could begin.

Babcock were keen to stress the benefits to the UK prosperity agenda and say they have now placed 73% of the supplier contracts, 75% of which are with domestic contractors. In should be noted that in several significant cases the manufacturing work will be done overseas. For example, the engines are made in Germany, the guns in Sweden and the main radar in the Netherlands. The programme will directly employ at least 1,250 people and a similar number in the supply chain in the UK.

Following the contract for the Rolls Royce MTU main engines placed in May, Renk will supply gearboxes, and MAN energy solutions will manufacture the propellers and shaft lines. Blunox will supply exhaust emissions control equipment. Darchem Engineering will provide the intake and exhaust systems for the main engines and generators, and Novenco will manufacture the main parts of the HVAC system. In September an order was placed with BAE Systems for five Bofors 57mm Mk3 guns and ten Bofors 40mm Mk4 guns to equip the five ships. They will be manufactured in Karlskoga, Sweden and delivered to Rosyth between 2023-24.

Mock-up of the module hall showing the open rear doors. This facility is due to be handed over for the start of frigate production in July 2021.

Around £100 million was invested at Rosyth for the aircraft carrier project and Babcock are spending a further £50M building the new module hall (Full details about this facility in our earlier article) and a new pulse-line facility for the cutting and welding of steel ship sections. Investment in new design software will see Babcock use similar methods to those already adopted by BAE Systems on the Type 26 frigate programme. A ‘smart production’ process will include the ability to visualise the design using Virtual Reality headsets and Augmented Reality.

Rosyth Dockyard

Rosyth Dockyard, August 2020. The land between Number 1 Dock and the Sandown minehunter refit facility has been cleared and piling work began on 24th August to support the weight of the module hall and the hard standing. Note Ex-HMS Swiftsure awaiting the next phase of disposal in Number 2 Dock. The laid up cruise ships in the basin are a sign of the impact of COVID-19.

Mockups showing the Type 31 in production. Modules are brought into the hall for assembly on self-propelled modular transporters (SMPTs) and are moved into position using the two gantry cranes. The completed ship will be rolled out onto the hardstanding for the addition of masts and further fitting out work.

The construction of the frigates will incorporate some innovate practices to improve speed and efficiency. There will be no scaffolding used and parts will be supplied to the place where work is being done on the ships using an ‘Amazon-warehouse’ style of inventory management, avoiding workers making time-consuming trips back and forth to stores.

There is nothing in the contract that compels Babcock to use other UK shipbuilders to build blocks of the vessels. However, once the detailed design phase is complete, they will look at whether there would be any cost and efficiency benefit of sub-contracting blocks to other yards. Typically building blocks at dispersed locations adds costs to shipbuilding but the timescale and capacity at Rosyth may require Babcock to involve others in fabrication work.

In the early stages of the project spending is in inline with programme assumptions. Despite the MoD pricing the project at £2bn, Babcock insist they have a contract for £1.25bn and the other expenses come from supply of government-furnished equipment and running costs. The £250m average price per ship remains the baseline, although any other potential customer would need to factor in the additional cost of weapons and sensors, depending on what they specified.

Mockups suggest the completed ship will be transported from the hardstanding and out of the basin on a heavy lift ship. (The background does not bear any resemblance to Rosyth)

Type 31 frigate

The timeline for the project will see the design phase completed in 2021 and the first steel cut. The first ship will be in the water in 2023, handed over to the RN in 2025 and fully in-service by 2027. A planned production ‘drumbeat’ will see a ship be laid down every 12 months and each ship completed in around 28 months. The final vessel will be delivered to the RN in 2028, although ship 5 is not officially expected to enter service by the MoD until February 2030. As a ’turnkey’ contract, once handed to the customer they are entirely responsible for bringing the ships into service.