A multi-billion pound project to build 8 warships for the Royal Navy is now well underway on the Clyde. Here we look at the Type 26 frigate project in context, its progress to date and the likely future delivery schedule.
On 25th November HMS Glasgow was rolled onto the submersible barge and a few days later was towed down the Clyde to Glen Mallan. The newly rebuilt ammunition jetty and the deep, sheltered waters of Loch Long provided the ideal location as the upper Clyde is too shallow for the float-off operation.
The days of spectacular dynamic launches down a slipway are now gone – the submersible barge method is a much more controlled way of putting a ship into the water. A slipway launch briefly places great stress on the hull and the confined waters of the river Clyde require the ship to be rapidly slowed after launch to avoid hitting the opposite bank (we’re looking at you RFA Mounts Bay).
The barge sinks slowly allowing the ship to gently float off giving engineers time to check watertight integrity and adjust the distribution of ballast water if required. In a smooth operation, HMS Glasgow was afloat for the first time in the early hours of 3rd December and the following morning was towed back up the Clyde to the Scotstoun yard where she will spend the next few years being completed.
The long road
Assuming there are no further delays, it will be more than 11 years from the time the first steel was cut for HMS Glasgow until she achieves Initial Operating Capability – a performance that compares poorly with first-of-class warships constructed by other major nations. There are a variety of reasons for this lengthy schedule, and the blame does not lie entirely with the contractor. Broadly speaking, several decades of decline and a very uneven flow of naval orders have seen the UK shipbuilding and its industrial base contract. The National Shipbuilding Strategy is now attempting to stabilise and grow the industry but experienced ship designers and engineers are in short supply and this situation will take years to remedy. Despite the generously financed five-ship OPV programme that was supposed to help regenerate skills and workforce ahead of starting Type 26, there have still been issues at Govan and in the wider supply chain.
The original pedestrian pace of delivery for the first three ships was primarily dictated by the client and BAES planned the programme and allocated resources accordingly. The MoD cannot simply write a cheque for £3.7Bn but instead, the costs are spread out as part of annual budgets planned for years in advance with the contractor paid in instalments, subject to meeting agreed milestones. The usual pressures in funding the defence Equipment Plan means balancing in-year budgets forced the MoD to artificially slow down delivery.
Unfortunately having already agreed to this unhurried schedule, it slipped further and IOC date for HMS Glasgow moved out from 2027 to October 2028. There were some technical and production issues converting the design into steel but COVID also slowed productivity and disrupted the global supply chains upon which aspects of the Type 26 depend. Most significantly, an issue with the ultra-quiet propulsion gearboxes developed specifically for the ship and manufactured by David Brown Santaslo, meant they were delivered too late to be placed into the hull sections before the compartments were closed and sealed into the hull. This meant the ship had to be cut open on the hardstanding and the gearboxes ‘skidded’ into position. The gearbox problem has now been resolved and subsequent ships will have them in place before rollout. The gearboxes are a good example of how UK industry will ultimately benefit from the export of the T26 design as these specialist components will be also fitted to the Australian and Canadian ships.Type-26-Frigate-Estimated-Schedule-1
HMS Glasgow is now beginning the second major phase of her construction. With the structural steelwork largely complete, the fitting-out phase begins, likely to last more than two years. Fitting out of any warship is a complex job and is especially challenging for the first-of-class vessel. The T26 frigate has over 800 separate compartments that must be completed. There is an element of learning on the job in terms of how best to sequence the process and finding best access routes for installation. Some of this has been planned by simulation using the Visionary Render 2 (VR2) software which takes CAD files and brings them to life in three-dimensional virtual reality (VR). Inevitably there will still be lessons to learn when done for real.
The propulsion system and some large items of equipment and much of the pipework are in place but nothing is connected up. Hundreds of miles of electrical and optic fibre cabling have to be strung throughout the ship then many thousands of items have to be installed and aligned. Weapons and sensors have to be fitted and integrated with the ship’s systems. While in dry dock the propellors, shafts and bow sonar will be fitted. The ship has to be painted inside and out and made habitable with heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems (HVAC) installed along with furnishing the accommodation areas and fitting out the galleys.
All this has to be done in the correct sequence and there is a major logistics task job to manage the delivery of thousands of parts for the ship from 3rd party suppliers. Different skilled trades working on the ship have to be on-site at the right time and right numbers to ensure they do not conflict with other work going on in compartments with restricted space. The workforce at Scotsoun has been preparing for this for several years and is expanding as the site will become a hive of activity focussed on the delivery of these ships over the next decade or so.
With the fitting out largely complete, the ship will then enter the test and commissioning phase which is the period where systems are gradually brought online. This requires specialist engineers and support from the OEMs to ensure this is done correctly and in the right order. Systems must be tested and checked that they integrate correctly with others and detailed inspections, tests and calibrations must be carried out and signed off before the ship can go to sea. The engines and propulsion will be tested while in the dock using brake wheels fitted instead of propellors that produce resistance but no thrust.
Eventually, the day will come when the ship leaves the yard to begin Contractors Sea Trials (CSTs). Flying the Red Ensign and still property of the builders, the ship’s company will be on board but under the command of a civilian crew that will run the trials. CSTs focus first on propulsion, steering and general seaworthiness. It is possible there may be 2 or 3 rounds of CSTs as the ship is gradually put through more demanding trials with the ship returning to the yard in between for rectification of issues that are discovered.
Once the builders and MoD representatives are happy the ship is performing as required, the ship is handed to the RN and the white ensign is raised. Most likely operating from her base port of Devonport, the ship’s capabilities, weapons and sensors will be tested through further rounds of trials. As first of class, this period can be expected to be a lengthy process as defects and issues emerge and must be overcome while standard operating procedures have to be developed and laid down for the ship and her sisters. Effectively the ship’s company will write the book on how to run and fight a Type 26.
At some point, probably in 2027 the ship will formally commission into the RN. The date of this ceremony is hard to predict and typically does not align with achieving any particular capability milestone. Before HMS Glasgow achieves Initial Operating Capability, there will be further trials culminating in weapons firings. Equipment new to the RN such as the 127mm gun and Mk41 VLS / FOSW will have to undergo their own fleet weapon certifications. The crew will have to conduct at least 2 periods of Fleet Operational Sea Training and FOST staff will have to develop some aspects of training tailored to Type 26.
The ship will have to undergo maintenance periods, despite being brand new ship will have been in the water for several years before achieving IOC. The ship may be declared fully operational and sent on deployment but to achieve FOC there is still much work to be done. Developing an operating doctrine for the mission bay its autonomous systems will pose a new challenge. It is interesting to note that future plans for Devonport Naval Base include a Type 26 mounting base at South Yard, specifically to support the insertion of a variety of mission modules.
A plan to build a new ‘frigate factory’ in Glasgow at Scotstoun was part of BAES’ original planning for the Type 26 programme. However, when the order was reduced from 13 ships to 8 in 2015 this option was discarded. The existing Ship Block Outfit Hall at Govan is limited in size so the first three ships are to be assembled in halves and then joined on the hardstanding outside. The cramped facility is not ideal for constructing large warships and in May 2022 it emerged that BAES had settled on a plan to build a new covered assembly hall that would allow two ships to be worked on side by side. The wet basin adjacent to the yard will be drained and filled in and a new shed 170 metres long, 81 metres wide and 49 metres high will be built. This will free up more space for block fabrication and erection in the old SBOH, potentially allowing blocks to be fitted out more fully before assembly. The hall with overhead gantry cranes and space to assemble the complete vessel undercover will also drive more speed and efficiency in the later part of the T26 programme.
The ‘Shipbuilding Tsar’ and Defence Secretary has made it clear that companies winning large government contracts are expected to invest their own money in facilities to make them more competitive for both future naval work and if possible, to help them expand into the commercial sector. For BAES in Glasgow that is entirely dependent on a single contract, they will need to either diversify, win the Type 32 frigate contract or export orders to sustain the yards as there looks likely to be a gap between completing T26 and the start of Type 83 destroyer programme.
At the time of writing, final approvals from Marine Scotland and Glasgow City Council are still required but the new hall is expected to be available by 2024 to facilitate the assembly of ship 4, HMS Birmingham. This will be Scotland’s second major shipbuilding infrastructure investment in 5 years following the rapid construction of the Venturer building to support Type 31 programme at Rosyth.
The first three ships are being built under a £3.7bn contract (averaging £1.023Bn each) although inevitably the first-of-class ship will be disproportionately more expensive than those that follow. As would be expected when production gets into its stride, the second batch will be cheaper, the 5 ships are costed at £4.2bn (£840M each) which represents a substantial 18% reduction. The delays to HMS Glasgow and other factors such as rising inflation mean the project is now £233M over budget -a cost that will be spread over the life of the programme. The contract includes a ‘pain share’ agreement so that under Target Cost Incentive Fee (TCIF) arrangements, any cost increases will be shared by the contractor and the MoD. The Defence Secretary implied recently that the TCIF agreement for the batch II ships is even more favourable to the MoD than that of the first batch.
At an average of nearly £1Bn each for these frigates, they are seen as expensive but the innovations and complexity that are needed for a high-end warship come at a price. T26 includes 29 pieces of equipment classed as Category A – these are expensive programme-critical items developed especially for the class and manufactured in low numbers. There are a further 54 Category B items which include existing systems that require significant modifications for the programme. To achieve the low noise signature is a particular cost-driver as this demands consideration of how almost every moving part in the vessel can be silenced. The bespoke gearboxes and quiet propulsion system are obvious examples but acoustic hygiene measures have to be applied more widely, including for example, designing pipework with more gentle bends so the noise made by liquids passing through is reduced. In addition to the expensive basic ship costs, the integration of a new combat management system with the weapons and sensors accounts for a large proportion of the expense.
Besides the reduced unit cost, there is cause for optimism that the pace of Batch II delivery will be considerably better. A BAES Spokesperson said: “We expect to see the build schedule accelerate as we move through the construction of each of the remaining ships and invest significantly in our Glasgow shipyards”. Orders for long lead items were placed some time ago and steel will be cut for the first batch II ship (HMS Birmingham) in the first quarter of 2023. The exact schedule for these 5 vessels is a matter of speculation but the MoD has now committed to an in-service date of 2035 for the last ship HMS London. This is an improvement on some earlier projections that suggested it would be 2038 before ship 8 was operational.