Like most warship building projects, the Batch II River class OPVs being built for the Royal Navy have proved to be politically sensitive and controversial. In this article, we will provide some more context and an update on the progress of the five ships.
As many have noted, the RN is paying top dollar for five ships that it could probably manage without. This is the result of a Terms of Business Agreement (TOBA) signed by the government of Gordon Brown in 2009 which guaranteed a flow of work for BAES in order to maintain the primary UK warship construction capability. HMS Forth, Medway and Trent are costing a total of £348m, while a second batch consisting of HMS Tamar and HMS Spey are costing £287m. An average cost of £127M per ship does not compare well with the three similar vessels (Amazonas Class) built by BAES and sold to Brazil in 2012 for around £44M each. The RN vessels are built to a significantly higher specification in many areas and the price also includes some initial through-life support but the TOBA is the main reason for almost tripling the price per ship.
The TOBA may appear to be overly-generous but the OPV orders have allowed BAES to retain its workforce and invest in training, new equipment and prepare for the much greater challenges of Type 26 construction. Although the taxpayer is being hit hard, this solution is preferable to what happened in Barrow when the Vanguard submarine project was completed. A long period with no new submarine orders or a plan to retain the workforce resulted in a haemorrhage of experienced engineers. When the Astute class project was started, there were not nearly enough skilled submarine builders available and the programme is still suffering the knock-on consequences today. Government mis-handling of industrial strategy at Barrow has resulted in extra costs that run into £Billions and delays to the arrival of critically important new SSNs. Had the Type 26 programme been started earlier, the need to build the OPVs would have been avoided, but we have at least averted another expensive crisis in surface ship construction.
Construction on HMS Forth began in October 2014 and she was accepted into the Royal Navy in February 2018. As we have reported on, soon after commissioning in April serious faults were discovered with here electrical system and sheared bolts were discovered with heads that had been glued back on. The ship has was quickly handed back to the care and maintenance of BAES and she has remained alongside the South West Wall in Portsmouth since. A thorough assessment of her material state and a plan for rectifications took a considerable time. 12,000 separate checks of systems had to be made but repairs are now nearly complete and she is on track to be handed back to the RN in November. Sea trials and then operational training will take place in the new year before she is permanently deployed to the Falklands to relieve HMS Clyde. Fortunately, the delays to HMS Forth have not had a huge impact on the RN as HMS Clyde has simply had her service extended by a few months.
Commenting on the issues with HMS Forth, Anderson Smith, BAES Commercial Director – Naval Ships, told Shephard Media, “There were a lot of minor defects and we hold our hands up to that… the OPV programme was about the regeneration of shipbuilding capability on the Clyde… In due course we can look back at it the positives, although it doesn’t feel like it at the minute if I’m looking at it from either a customer or a sales perspective, it found we had some shortfalls in some of our processes. We have now fixed them”
The problems with HMS Forth were a serious embarrassment for BAES, especially in the latter stages of its drive to sell the Type 26 design to Australia and Canada (fortunately ultimately successful). The quality control failures can be explained in part by the recent history of the Govan yard where she was built. HMS Forth was the first whole ship completed since HMS Duncan in 2012. In the intervening period, the yard worked on hull blocks for the QEC aircraft carriers. Although the blocks were complex in themselves, the systems integration, setting to work, testing and ultimate quality control was carried out in Rosyth where the ships were assembled. BAES has worked hard to introduce a greater focus on quality control and adjust to building complete ships again. The failures constructing HMS Forth are not easy to forgive but there is a definite benefit of sorts. Mistakes with an OPV are far easier to remedy than mistakes with Type 26 frigate construction. Lessons learned working on the OPVs will benefit the same workers who are moving straight on to the much more complex frigates.
Construction on HMS Medway was started in June 2015 and she was named at a ceremony in Scotstoun where she has been fitting out since. After the problems emerged with HMS Forth, the ship was also very thoroughly checked. A single glued bolt head was discovered and other minor issues have been addressed. She will very shortly begin sea trials with a mixed Royal Navy and civilian crew off the west coast of Scotland.
HMS Trent was laid down in Sept 2015. In March 2018 she was formally named in a unique ceremony while the ship was still out of the water outside the construction hall in Govan. She was subsequently floated out and towed to Scotstoun where she is currently being fitted out.
Work began on HMS Tamar in Dec 2016 and she was floated out in early October 2018. With Medway and Trent already at Scotstoun, Tamar is being fitted out in the dock adjacent to the Govan yard. (Main image above) Her naming ceremony will probably take place in March 2019. It is interesting to note that by selecting the name “Tamar” it seems unlikely the RN would then name one of the Type 26 frigates “HMS Plymouth”, as many have called for.
Construction of the final ship, HMS Spey began in Apr 2017. She is structurally complete and currently in the build hall at Govan under wraps undergoing the paint process which involves the application of five separate coats. She is scheduled to follow close behind Tamar with her naming ceremony planned for mid 2019.
The ‘Batch II’ Batch IIs
Tamar and Spey were ordered after the first three ships and incorporate some modifications. They are fitted with catalytic converters in the funnel uptakes which significantly reduce CO2 emissions meet the latest environmental standards. This is the first time a system of this size has been installed on any UK-built vessel. An internal wireless communications system is being fitted to enable more flexible and efficient manning on board and there are other modifications to comply with the latest construction regulations and marine standards.
During a recent visit to HMS Tamar in the fitting out basin it was immediately apparent that even building these relatively “simple” OPVs is not straightforward. They are still warships, although lightly armed, they have a basic combat management system and a high level of automation. As an example of complexity, there are 50,000 cable terminations within the ship, with 6,000 on the bridge alone to all be completed and tested. Each ship is being constructed faster than the last as the lessons are learned from the previous ships. From rubber tiles on the upper deck to cardboard covering furniture, much of the ship is shrouded in temporary coverings to protect it from damage during the build process. This is routine practice to ensure the ship can be handed over in best possible condition to the customer.
The RN needs more ASW platforms and it is interesting to consider if the OPVs could be adapted for this role in an emergency. The flight deck is advertised as “Merlin-capable” although landing one is theoretically possible, it would take a brave and skilled pilot to get down safely within such fine space margins. Providing Helicopter In-Flight Refuelling (HIFR) might be a more likely role for the OPVs when supporting Merlin operations. A Wildcat would fit more comfortably on the deck, although a far less capable ASW asset than the Merlin. The lack of a hangar for protection and servicing a helicopter is one of the major drawbacks of these OPVs. The Flight deck officer does at least benefit from an economically-designed flyco which is a better facility than that of current frigates. There is space for 2 ISO containers on the waist of the vessels which might potentially house unmanned systems for use in the ASW role. As the steering gear fully occupies the aftermost compartment and there would not be space to fit even small-footprint towed array sonars, such as the Thales CAPTAS 1 or 2, without placing it on the flight deck.
The Batch II OPVs inherit the spacious accommodation and good sea keeping qualities found on the Batch I vessels but have a flight deck and much more modern systems. Their genesis has served a useful purpose and they are likely to be kept very busy in Royal Navy service.