It has been widely expected that the preferred bidder for the Type 31e frigate programme for the RN will be officially named at DSEI in London this week. Industry representatives are unsure if, and exactly when the announcement will be made with contradictory rumours abounding.
With political deadlock in Westminster, there is more uncertainty than usual. It is possible that government may want to delay the decision until just before a general election is confirmed. Alternatively, Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, may make the announcement this week. There is a measure of frustration and feeling of suspense for the bidders and the wider supply chain.
Speaking to a wide variety of sources at DSEI in London today, most seem to be convinced that Babcock has won the competition. BAE Systems has a considerable presence at the exhibition but there was a marked reluctance to talk about Type 31, although Cammell Laird did have a model of Leander on their stand.
Babcock are certainly not claiming victory yet, although were noticeably bullish about their plans to build Arrowhead and say they have teams ready to start work the day after the contract is awarded. The company says they are planning to construct a brand new covered shipbuilding hall at Rosyth capable of building two of the 5,700-tonne frigates simultaneously. This seems extremely ambitious and such an investment would perhaps require confidence there is export construction work in addition to the five vessels for the RN.
It was revealed that the timescale for the project has been moved to the right by about a year beyond the original 2023 deadline. Part of the reason was the temporary suspension and restart from scratch of the tendering process in August 2018 resulting in a 4-month delay to the process. The MoD timetable now calls for the first ship to be “in the water” by 2023.
The basic design has to pass through several stages of the Lloyds Ship Rules certification process before detailed design work can begin. Babcock say the first steel would be cut in 2021 and hull blocks would then be outfitted to an advanced level. When the ship is put in the water the fitting out and commissioning phase would be rapid, probably allowing the first ship to be delivered in 2024.
Should the British consortium win the Fleet Solid Support ship competition (due to be decided in 2020), then the Rosyth facilities could be better suited to building the much larger ships. It might then make sense for Babcock to involve Cammell Laird in the Type 31 project. This would represent a joined-up approach to best utilise national assets, although Babcock would naturally want to maximise its workshare. The CL yard and their covered hall would be well suited to constructing blocks for the frigate. If Babcock is confirmed as the preferred bidder, then BAE could perhaps come under pressure to cancel their exclusive relationship with CL so the latter could negotiate to build sections of Arrowhead. For now, this remains speculation and just how the construction programme will develop remains as unknown as the precise weapon and sensor fit for this critical frigate project.
(Main image: Babcock Arrowhead 140 model on display at DSEI today)