Royal Navy Type 31e frigate programme abruptly suspended – but not dead in the water

on 20th July the MoD’s Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S) agency informed UK industry that it has halted the Type 31e frigate programme. Although the objectives were always recognised as being highly challenging, there was growing enthusiasm across UK industry to be involved in the project and this sudden announcement is something of a shock.

An official spokesperson refused to be drawn on the deeper reasons, other than saying there were “insufficient compliant bids for an effective and robust competition”. This seems difficult to reconcile as there are at least two strong industry teams offering alternative options. As recently as 13 July, the Babcock “Team 31” were issuing invites to industry delegates to their Bristol Suppliers’ Conference with the clear assumption that the project was on track. Citing commercial sensitivity, the MoD will not give the specifics behind the failure to meet their requirements.

Building a credible warship for £250M to a very tight timeframe was always going be difficult. On top of this, the bidding consortiums had to agree on complex divisions of work and financing between multiple contractors. There is an alternative explanation, with the suspicion that this could be a delaying tactic as the £1.25Bn for the ships has not yet appeared in the MoD’s funding plan. This could be just another, all too common, procurement mishandling. In the background, Brexit issues are enveloping government and the Modernising Defence Programme review rumbles on but without any substantial decisions being announced.

Fortunately, the Type 31e project does not appear to be dead in the water as the MoD says it will seek a new “streamlined” competition as soon as possible, although they cannot yet give a specific date as to when the new terms will be issued.

In an official statement today the MoD said “There have been no changes in our plans to procure a first batch of five new Type 31e frigates to grow our Royal Navy. We still want the first ship delivered by 2023 and are confident that industry will meet the challenge of providing them for the price tag we’ve set. This is an early contract in a wider procurement process, and we will incorporate the lessons learned and begin again as soon as possible so the programme can continue at pace.”

Five Type 31 frigates will not “grow our Royal Navy” but will only maintain the size of the existing fleet. HMS Argyll is due out of service in 2023 and further delays to an already tight timetable are clearly unhelpful. Let us hope this is merely a problem with paperwork that can be quickly resolved.