It’s early days in the construction of the first ‘city class’ Type 26 frigate, HMS Glasgow. Here we take an overview of her manufacture and the Clyde shipyards where she is being built.
With work on the aircraft carriers in its final phase, Type 26 will become the UK’s core shipbuilding programme for at least the next 18 years, supporting 3,400 shipyard and supply chain jobs. A joint MoD and BAE Systems Maritime (Naval Ships) project team was established in 2010 to deliver what is a complex and very long-term endeavour. The last RN ship of the class, HMS London could still be in service in the 2060s. Although still called frigates due to their primary anti-submarine role, the 6,900-tonne displacement of these large vessels is more in line with light cruisers of the past.
The £3.7 billion order for the first 3 ships was placed on 2nd July 2017 and over £1.1Bn worth of subcontracts have been placed with supply chain companies. This year the Defence Secretary had a great time at events in different cities up and down the nation announcing the names of these ships. The names selected for all eight ships are now public; HMS Glasgow, HMS Cardiff, HMS Belfast, HMS Birmingham, HMS Sheffield, HMS Newcastle, HMS Edinburgh and HMS London. It is quite normal to place orders for warships in batches, but unusual to announce names before the contracts have even been signed.
The first steel for HMS Glasgow was cut on 20 July 2017 and by October 2018, 14 units were at various stages of fabrication with 3 of the lower hull blocks erected in the SBOH at Govan. BAES says it expects to have a total of 21 units in production by the end of 2018. The hull blocks will be brought together to make a fore and aft section and then the two pieces joined together on the hard stand to make the hull structurally complete by the end of 2020. The bridge, mast and funnels will be lifted onto the hull before it is rolled onto the barge that will lower the ship into the water. The float-out date has not yet been fixed, but is expected to be in the last quarter of 2021. The ship will then be towed down the Clyde to the Scotstoun yard for fitting out.Type-26-frigate-construction-progress-2020
The schedule announced to Parliament earlier this year calls for HMS Glasgow to be accepted by the Royal Navy in the Summer of 2025 then conduct 18 months of trials and work up, before becoming fully operational by 2027. This means the fitting out, test-commissioning and initial sea trial phase will take more than 4 years. The lead ship of the last surface combatant class built for the RN, HMS Daring took just 2 and a half years from launch to commissioning.
Investment on the Clyde
BAES is investing around £100 million in facilities at Govan and Scotstoun to support the manufacture of Type 26. In 2014 one of the options being considered was a proposal to construct a large outfit hall and paint cell at Govan but it has been decided that the money would be better invested in improving the design, build, test and commission process using existing facilities. There is ongoing new investment in the design process, procurement, new tooling and equipment. Further money has gone into in staff training and upgrading and repurposing some of the existing buildings across both sites. There will be no major new buildings and the latter two-thirds of the frigate’s time under construction will have to be done outdoors.
Paul Sweeney, Glasgow Labour MP and former shipyard employee, still has faint hopes that government may be willing to take a (very) long-term view of the Clyde Shipbuilding facilities. If the successor to the Type 45 was guaranteed to be built on the Clyde, potentially using the same hull as the Type 26, then BAES could make the bigger investment in the Scotstoun “frigate factory” proposed in 2014. The design for a purpose-built facility at Scotstoun would have included a 330m covered dock hall, steelwork preparation and fabrication facilities and a paint cell. Brand new offices, recreational areas and a canteen would further improve conditions for the workforce. The Govan yard would have been closed and all work located on the same site. The efficiencies of the single site had the potential to cut construction time by up to 30% and reduce costs by overcoming the restrictions on space at Govan.
Mr Sweeney is probably the most well-informed advocate for shipbuilding in Parliament, although he worked on the frigate factory development, he left the business before the decision was made to utilise the existing facilities. If government was to grasp the real urgency of new warships for the RN and ask BAES to speed up the deliveries then the frigate factory might be needed. This is a forlorn hope. Considerable investment has already started at Govan and there is little chance the MoD would bring forward a large planned expenditure when financial pressures usually result in doing the exact opposite.
BAES will understandably not comment on Sweeney’s suggestions, guaranteeing a shipyard work so far into the future seems a remote possibility and also at odds with the National Shipbuilding Strategy (NSbS). There is an inherent tension in the NSbS between promoting greater competition and diversity amongst warship builders and the recognised efficiencies of concentrating skills and facilities on a single ‘super site’. It is an enshrined Scottish Nationalist grievance that the reduction in the frigate order and the abandonment of the frigate factory plan was a “great betrayal of pre-referendum promises by Westminster”. There is an element of truth in this but it should be remembered the Clyde still has the richest surface warship building contract in Europe and its future secured for the next two decades, something few industries in England could boast of.