When will the first Royal Navy Type 31 frigate enter service?

The schedule to build five Type 31 frigates for the Royal Navy by the mid-2020s has been described as ‘aggressive’. Here we examine the timeline for the delivery these ships and the challenges that have to be overcome

In November 2015 as part of the Defence Review, the Type 31 frigate project was officially launched, initially called the General Purpose Light Frigate (GPFF). The intention was these ships would replace the first five Type 23 frigates, scheduled to leave service at a rate of one every year from 2023. As recently as 2017 the government’s National Shipbuilding Strategy document promised: “The first will be in service by 2023 and we require each new ship to come in at 12-month intervals”.

In-service or In the water?

Although it has largely gone unnoticed, the Type 31 delivery schedule has been subtly moved to the right. When Babcock were announced as the Type 31 competition winners in September 2019, the contractor was now promising steel cutting would begin in 2021 and the first vessel would be “in the water” by 2023. There is a big difference between the launch of the structurally complete hull and a fully functioning warship that is actually in service. Typically for the first of class this could be 2-3 years. In the case of the clearly-defined but leisurely plan for first Type 26 frigate HMS Glasgow, this is even longer, she will be “in the water” by late 2021 but will not be operational before 2027.

The first of class is effectively a prototype warship and usually has 3 rounds of trials before she can be described as ‘in-service’. Initial Sea Trials (IST) concentrate on the propulsion, steering and seaworthiness of the platform. The next phase is to test combat systems, sensors and communications. The final phase involves test-firing weapons. The ship’s company then needs to pass Operational Sea Training (which may be extended for the first of class as many operating procedures may still need to be defined) before she can be declared ready for deployment.

It looks increasingly likely that either frigate numbers will dip further or several of the aeging Type 23 frigates will have to soldier on for about two years beyond their intended out of service date

Pace and grip?

If we are optimistic it is likely the first Type 31 will be operational between 2025-26. Given that the starting gun was fired back in 2015, the project will still have taken more than a decade to deliver the first ship. Although a big improvement on many other contemporary glacial naval procurements, perhaps progress has not been rapid as advertised. It took nearly 2 years for the RN to publish its outline specification for the vessel (September 2017) at the same time the National Shipbuilding Strategy was adopted as government policy. It then took more than a year to select the three concepts shortlisted for the competitive design phase. The final part of the processes was stalled for a few weeks in July/August 2018 as the competition was suspended due to ‘lack of compliant bids’, although the winner was actually chosen a couple of months ahead of schedule.

Government is not supposed to announce the awarding of major contracts during an election campaign. The MoD was intending to finalise the construction contract with Babcock before the end of this year, but the timing of the December general election casts doubt on whether this will happen before 2020. (Subsequent to publishing this article the MoD formally signed the contract with Babcock to build the 5 Type 31 frigates on 19 November.)

Constructing the five RN ships on a taut schedule will not be easy. An Iver Huitfeldt class ship has not been built for 10 years but the original Danish naval architects OMT, understand the process and are embedded in the Babcock team. Thales integration experience with its TACTICOS combat management system, currently at sea in more than 160 different warships, will be vitally important for Type 31. The integration of sensors and weapon systems if often the most demanding aspect of a warship project. In particular, the MBDA Sea Ceptor missile system will have to be made to work with TACTICOS and the NS110 radar for the first time. BAE Systems have some painful memories of trying to integrate the MBDA MICA-M VLS missiles fitted to the Omani Khareef class corvettes, one of several problems that delayed the delivery of these apparently relatively simple warships.

Arrowhead is the right ship for the Royal Navy but does its size count against the possibility of other ships actually being constructed in the UK for export?

The great hope expressed by the NSbS is that ultimately orders to build Type 31 frigates in the UK for export overseas will be forthcoming. The price point looks appealing and you get a lot of ship for the money (especially if the Pound remains weak). Critics suggest that the design for Arrowhead might attract foreign interest but it is too large for the majority of its target market. ‘Tier 1’ navies want to build warships entirely in their own facilities, although may seek foreign designs and technology transfer (eg. Australia). ‘Tier 2’ navies (eg. Chile or Gulf States) might accept overseas construction for the first vessel and perhaps technology transfer for domestically-built subsequent vessels. Unfortunately, they don’t have the facilities to build or support a 6,000+ tonne frigate, even if they were willing to consider operating such a large platform.

The frigate factory

There is a certain irony around Babcock’s plan to build a £50 million covered construction facility at Rosyth. It has been a treasured grievance of Scottish Nationalists that BAE Systems never built the planned £200M ‘frigate factory’ at Scotstoun in Glasgow when the promised 13 Type 26 frigate order was reduced to 8 ships. The result of the Type 31 competition means 13 frigates are to be built in Scotland and there will be a new frigate factory after all.

The different approach of the two companies and the two projects is perhaps reflected by Babcock’s proposed facility having a price tag a quarter the cost of what its competitor planned to spend 5 years previously. No details of the plans for Rosyth are public yet apart from the fact it will be able to construct two Type 31s side by side. It must be assumed this is either a pretty basic shed or one of the existing dry docks could be covered over. The ’state of the art’ Scotstoun facility would have been a covered dry dock with space for two Type 26 frigates with adjacent workshops. Building on an old industrial site such as Rosyth dockyard which began life in 1909 can be unpredictable. It is not uncommon to uncover toxic materials during groundworks, adding time and cost to construction. Babcock are in a hurry and need their facility ready less than two years from now.

The decision to award the Type 31 project to Babcock and the likelihood that the Fleet Solid Support Ships will now almost certainly be constructed in the UK leaves some complicated interdependent decisions to be made about naval construction and support facilities. The goliath crane and number 1 dock at Rosyth would be an ideal place to assemble the FSS but this facility is currently the only site where the aircraft carriers can be dry-docked. HMS Prince of Wales will be due to have her first hull inspection in late 2023 and HMS Queen Elizabeth will need to be docked again by 2025 – these are just the planned dates and assumes there is no urgent or unexpected requirement for dry docking. It is unclear if the Type 31 project will impact on the availability of number 1 dock at Rosyth and potentially Cammell Laird on Merseyside could be the assembly yard for the FSS. Either way, a wholistic strategic approach is needed to ensure the people and facilities for these crucial projects are available at the right time.

Despite the obvious challenges, Babcock has a great deal of goodwill behind them from politicians, the Navy, wider industry, Danish interests and many others who really want to see the Arrowhead and Type 31 succeed. For the RN, the real prize for success would be what the 2015 SDSR said of the GPFF “…so that by the 2030s we can further increase the total number of frigates and destroyers”.