Why will the Royal Navy not have its first Type 26 frigate operational until 2027?
The Type 26 promises to be a superb submarine hunter and, if adequate investment is made in equipping them with the right weapon fit, they have the potential to be one of best surface combatants in the world. They will be the backbone of our anti-submarine capability and escort for the QEC aircraft carriers, in a world that everyone agrees is becoming more dangerous.
For the Royal Navy, obtaining replacements for the venerable Type 23 frigates has been like chasing a mirage. Successive governments, the RN and the MoD dispensed with concept after concept, for more than 23 years, (spending £millions in the process) before steel was finally cut for HMS Glasgow in July 2017. You can read the 14,000-word Think Defence account of the absurdly convoluted history of the Type 26 which started with the ‘Future Escort’ as far back as 1994. From early concept studies to HMS Glasgow commencing sea trials will be half a lifetime – 31 years.
A lack of urgency
Not only should these vessels have been ordered at least 5 years ago, we now find that an extraordinarily leisurely build schedule has been agreed upon. Since the 2015 SDSR, the in-service date for the first T26 has been officially described as in the “mid-2020s”. Using historical precedent, many had assumed a construction time of around 5-6 years, expecting HMS Glasgow would probably begin sea trials in 2023. A comparable complex warship HMS Daring, the first Type 45 destroyer, was laid down March 2003 and accepted by RN in December 2008, a build time of 5 years and 9 months. The Type 45 was arguably more complex and innovative than the T26, with 80% of its equipment new to RN service. T26 is a sophisticated design but relatively low risk. The ‘mission bay’ concept and Mk 41 VLS are new to the RN but already in use with other navies. Significant de-risking work on the design and major components has already been conducted using virtual reality and land-based test rigs. There will be some challenging systems integration work and a bespoke propulsion system but the majority of its key weapons, sensors, decoys, combat system and engines are already proven, and in many cases, already in service on other platforms.
The 8-year build time makes for an unfavourable comparison with foreign equivalents. The first Franco-Italian FREMM frigates were constructed in about 5 years and the programme is delivering ships to a consistent drumbeat of about one vessel every 12 months. The Royal Navy’s preceding first-of-class Type 22 and Type 23 frigates also took around 5 years to build. Whatever the reason for the slow construction, it does not look good in the brochure for the T26 Global Combat Ship design that BAE Systems is looking to export to Australia and Canada. As a light cruiser-sized vessel, T26 comes with space and power generation facilities to support future upgrades but the £3.7Bn build contract for the first three ships certainly does not allow for major changes during construction.
Why won’t these frigates be built faster?
There are no problems with the available space or manufacturing facilities in Glasgow, neither are there issues with the supply chain or the overall complexity of the ship. It is not BAE Systems dragging their feet, rather the MoD is deliberately slowing delivery. The shipbuilding facility and workforce has therefore been sized and scaled to meet the requirements of the customer. The reality is that constricted annual budgets force the MoD to make short-term savings by spreading the cost over a longer time period. Stretching out procurement programmes with artificially-induced delays may reduce the annual expenditure, but over the lifetime of the project always adds significant additional costs.
If the RN’s frigate force is not to shrink further, the Type 23s must be expensively maintained to keep them going until replacements are available. Not only is the RN not getting the ships it needs fast enough, but the total cost of the project is needlessly inflated. Economies of scale could surely have been achieved by ordering all 8 T26 together but the government has used the excuse that there was a “risk of long-items becoming obsolete”.
Ship 2, HMS Cardiff will be laid down in the second half of 2019 and ship 3, HMS Belfast will commence manufacture in the first half of 2021. This indicates the overall programme schedule is also disappointingly slow, and will probably only deliver a new ship every 18-24 months. The schedule and contract for the remaining 5 ships is still under negotiation and the timings are completely unknown at present. If the Treasury would allow the MoD to write bigger cheques each year, sources say BAE Systems are quite capable of building the later ships in around 5 years.
As a consequence of reducing the T26 programme from 13 ships to 8, stretching out the build programme may be necessary to provide continuity of work for the Clyde. BAES need to keep their workforce employed and ready for the next major project, probably the replacement for Type 45 which should start in the mid-2030s.
Enter the Type 31e
Assuming the Type 23 frigate fleet survives the MDP 2018 intact (and subsequent defence reviews), HMS Argyll is scheduled to leave service in 2023, followed by another ship of the class, every year for the subsequent 12 years. It is clear that the first three T26s (HMS Glasgow, Cardiff and Belfast) will not ready in time to replace the first ships to decommission. Another motive for the creation of the cheaper/simpler Type 31e Frigate now emerges. The first T31e is supposed to begin construction in 2019, with a Planning Assumption for Service Entry (PASE) date of 2023, theoretically just in time to replace HMS Argyll.
We are in the extraordinary situation that the T31e design has not even been finalised but the first of class is scheduled to be at sea, at least 2 years before HMS Glasgow, which is already under construction.
The Type 31e project aims to hold a competition, design, build and deliver a credible warship in the space of 8 years (since it first became a thing in 2015). This kind of pace is what we should expect to be the norm in defence procurement. It is not unreasonable when compared with some foreign warship projects, (especially the Chinese) but by recent UK standards, is the blink of an eye. T31e is a much simpler vessel but the schedule demands the first ship is constructed in half the time required to manufacture a T26.
MPs asking the wrong questions
The brief Parliamentary debate about the Type 26 included a routine question from an MP, the type of which are tabled on a regular basis. Paul Bloomfield, (MP for Sheffield) requested a T26 be named HMS Sheffield. In this instance, he may have a good chance of success, but MPs are constantly asking for warships to named after their town, city or county. Other recent requests by MPs include an HMS Plymouth, HMS Exeter, HMS Colchester and HMS Goole. Perhaps the solution would be to build an RN fleet of 650 vessels so every MP can have a name of their choice! Civic affiliations with RN vessels are a very positive way of linking communities to the navy but the naming committee need to ensure the names selected are consistent with the class convention and have historical resonance.
Instead of focussing on purely local interests, we would be better served if more MPs were asking penetrating questions about the state of the Royal Navy. “Can the minister please explain why it will take at least 8 years to build the first Type 26 frigate and what steps are you going to take to accelerate delivery of these warships, critical to our national defence?”
- Questions on Type 26 – House of Commons Defence debate 23/4/18 (TheyWorkforYou.com)
- Will the Type 26 frigate deliver a punch commensurate with its price tag? (Save the Royal Navy)
- The Type 26 could be the most capable RN warship in decades if funded properly (UK Defence Journal)