Earlier this week our embattled Prime Minister, speaking at the Lord Mayor’s banquet in the capital announced the 8th and final Type 26 frigate will bear the name HMS London. The government may be desperate for some good news stories, but this is scraping the bottom of the PR barrel. The MoD is unable to say when she will be ordered or even approximately which year she will be in service. Projecting from the current glacial rate of construction, this ship could be at least 18 years away from joining the fleet.
The contract for the second batch of ships is still under negotiation and the exact schedule is subject to conjecture. It is possible that these ships will be laid down and constructed faster, but if the rate of production for the first 3 ships is maintained HMS London may not be operational until sometime between 2036 and 2038. Some of the first members of her ship’s company may not even have been born yet.
As a fascinating sideshow, there was some consternation when it appeared from the First Sea Lord’s announcement that God had been removed from HMS London’s Latin motto “Domine Dirige Nos” (God guide us) and shortened to “Dirige Nos” (Guide us). The Navy maintains ships of this name have officially used the shorter version of the motto since 1926 but there is dispute amongst historians and examples of recent ships using the full-length version, possibly unofficially or in error. We believe God should take His rightful place, but you can disappear further down this particular rabbit hole by reading the UKDJ article and comments here.
The naming of the City class Type 26 frigates was done in a strange sequence, with announcements made by politicians at what the MoD has described as ‘appropriate occasions’. Currently, ships 5, 6 and 7 have yet to be assigned names. The first three vessels HMS Glasgow, Cardiff and Belfast have been named and contracts signed for their construction. The Defence Secretary revealed in October that the 4th ship would be named HMS Birmingham, at the Tory Conference held in the city. It is extraordinary to be announcing names for ships that have not even been ordered.
The naming of HMS Dreadnought, a decade in advance of her expected commissioning in 2028, makes more sense. She is the lead ship of her class, from which the convenient nomenclature “Dreadnought” is derived for the whole programme. Furthermore, Dreadnought has actually been ordered her construction is underway. The winning bid to build the five Type 31e frigates will be decided next year and construction should start soon after. None of these ships has yet been named, despite the fact they are all supposed to be in service before HMS Glasgow.
The Navy itself is not especially concerned about the naming sequencing or when and where they are announced. Naming ships that are only pencilled into the programme may actually be seen as reassuring, making them harder for a future government to cancel. As we have discussed before, the real concern is the construction timetable. The RN needs frigates delivered on time to replace the Type 23s, one of which is scheduled to go out of service every year from 2023.
Besides the obvious absence of badly needed new frigates, stretching out the Type 26 programme will create a variety of other issues. As night follows day, delays incur additional costs. There may be greater logistical and support complications that come with an increased diversity of age and equipment fit for ships of the same class. As a light cruiser-sized vessel, the Type 26 comes with space and power generation facilities to support future upgrades but the £3.7Bn build contract for the first three ships does not allow for major changes during their construction. A design that is cutting edge in the early 2020s will have to be considerably evolved to avoid ships entering service in the mid-2030s being obsolete. The nature of warfare is changing fast and it is likely the equipment that goes to sea on HMS London will need to be quite different to that originally fitted to her much oldest sister, HMS Glasgow.
Any ‘feel good’ benefit derived from announcing the names of vessels so very far in advance seems rather hollow. If the government was to commit to a much quicker drumbeat of deliveries and make public a target In-Service Date (ISD) for HMS London that would be something to celebrate.