Babcock recently unveiled how their Arrowhead 140 product, the parent design for the Type 31 frigate, could be significantly adapted to meet the RN’s Type 32 frigate requirement or modified for export customers.
From the outset, the Arrowhead 140 has always been intended as a baseline design that could be outfitted with a variety of weapons and sensors to meet a wide set of customer needs and budgets. Last year BAE Systems launched their Adaptable Strike Frigate (ASF) concept, designed from scratch with the Type 32 frigate competition in mind and to demonstrate a more flexible and modular approach to warship design. Babcock have matched the BAES proposal, with their Arrowhead 140 Multi-Role Naval Platform (A140 MNP) concept mirroring some of the same thinking but with the advantage of an existing platform already selected by three navies.
Using the AH140 hull provides platform commonality with other navies, potentially reducing supply chain, training and maintenance costs. The RN-chaired AH140 user group is also on offer for customers who would benefit from the sharing experience of the UK, Polish, Indonesian and Danish (Iver Huitfeldt class) operators.
The MNP has had some substantial modifications including increasing the length by 2m and reducing the size of the flight deck to provide increased hangar space for up to two Merlin-sized helicopters. Internally the enlarged hangar connects to the mission bay which now occupies the entire width of the vessel with a similar layout to the Type 26 frigate. Under the flight deck, the existing mission bay (a feature of the original Arrowhead and Type 31) has been expanded into a mission deck with access to a stern ramp for the launch and recovery of small boats.
The enlarged mission bay means the VLS cells have been moved forward, replacing the gun in the B turret position. Space is limited and would only allow for 16 Mk41 cells instead of up to 32 that can be carried in the central position. Ease of access has been emphasised and an additional starboard side access door and hydraulic ramp allows the embarkation of equipment in port or even offloading via mexeflote/pontoon at sea. Babcock says that outline stability and structural strength calculations have been done to ensure the new version meets naval rules. It was found that despite the new stern mission deck, an extra transverse bulkhead was not required as the ship still met damage control standards.
This is designed to be a multi-role platform and is only a starting point for discussion with potential customers and the weapons and sensors could be customised as required. Babcock continues to explore ways Arrowhead can be developed and are working on an anti-submarine variant with self-noise mitigation and an ice-strengthened version for high north operations. Norway is looking to invest in a new generation of frigates and is deepening defence cooperation with the UK. A version of Arrowhead-140 adapted for Norwegian requirements could be an option.
The original OMT design could come full circle as the Danish Navy is looking at options to replace their Absalon class frigates and an Arrowhead 140-based design could be an ideal solution. The Danes have also decided to discontinue their modular STANFEX system and standardise on TEU containers as the basis for future warship modules. The SH Defence Cube™ system which utilises rails to move containerised modules around a warship has been selected for the new MPV80 Danish patrol ship project. Similar to the RN PODS concept, Cube modules may be used to embark uncrewed systems, and additional boats, weapons, additional sensors, mine warfare equipment or supplies for HADR missions. Babcock is in conversation with SH Defence about integrating the Cube system into Arrowhead.
For now at least, the Type 32 frigate programme (and the implied aspiration for more than 13 frigates) is something of a Cinderella project with its future and funding far from assured. The Multi-Role Support Ship (MRSS) programme to replace the two LPDs, Three Bays-class LSD(A)s and RFA Argus is also unfunded but is considered a higher priority by Navy Command and T32 may have to be abandoned if there is a hard choice to make.
Defining the requirement for MRSS is still a live discussion within the navy about whether these will be purely amphibious platforms or have wider utility in replenishment, logistics and mothership roles. It should also be noted that the Dutch Navy are considering replacement options for similar capabilities (HNLMS Rotterdam, Johan de Witt and Karel Doorman) so a joint MRSS programme with the UK might be a possibility.
As we have previously observed, it would be negligent and politically destructive not to keep the frigate production facility at Rosyth open, even if Type 32s were built at a reduced pace and Type 31s had to be sold off while they were still youthful enough to generate a decent price. Until the future is more clear, A140 MNP offers the RN another pathway toward Type 32 while options are being explored in the concept phase as well as demonstrating its flexibility to an expanding list of potential export customers.