Here we summarise recent news and developments concerning the Royal Navy’s future frigate programmes.
The Type 26 frigate project will ultimately deliver eight of the finest anti-submarine combatants in the world, but progress is slow. Three ships are on order. HMS Glasgow, Cardiff and Belfast. HMS Glasgow is now nearing structural completion four years after work began, while the first steel was cut for HMS Cardiff and HMS Belfast in August 2019 and June 2021 respectively. Sensibly, some orders for long-lead items for the final five vessels have been placed well in advance in order to sustain the industrial supply chain. The MoD says funds for the second batch of ships have been allocated in future spending plans but will only make the vague commitment to placing orders in the “early 2020s”.
The forward and stern sections of HMS Glasgow were rolled out of the build hall at Govan in April and May respectively and have been joined on the hardstanding. An issue with the propulsion gearboxes meant they were delivered too late to be placed into the hull sections before the compartments were closed and sealed into the hull. This has meant the ship is being cut open on the hardstanding and the gearboxes will be ’skidded’ onto position before being sealed up again. It can be assumed that subsequent ships will have their gearboxes in place before rollout.
Glasgow will be rolled off the hard standing onto a submersible barge in the second half of 2022. As the waters of the Clyde are too shallow to allow the barge to submerge sufficiently to float off a large frigate, it will be towed downriver to Glen Mallan which provides a secure and sheltered location with deep water for this operation. Once floated off, the ship will be towed back up the Clyde to Scotstoun to begin the fitting out phase which will be followed by the test and commissioning phase and builders initial sea trials.
The June 2021 National Audit Office report says that the Type 26 programme team reported in March 2021 that it forecasts achieving the in-service date for HMS Glasgow 12 months sooner than agreed at the time of going on contract. If this is the case and the project remains on track, then the RN can expect the ship to be handed over sometime in 2024, becoming fully operational in 2026.
HMS Glasgow is effectively a prototype for a project to build up to 32 warships, which includes 12 Australian Hunter class and 15 Canadian Surface Combatants (CSC). The export variants are based on the same hull and propulsion design and the RN Type 26 but with significant variations in weapon, sensor and combat systems. The Australian project is reportedly facing a delay of up to 18 months to the start of work on the first vessel, although progress on the industrial facilities for construction are well advanced. This is down to design issues with integration of the US-made combat system, CEAFAR 2 radar, Seahawk helicopter, Australian communications systems and local legislative requirements.
The CSC project is also facing delays and apparently ballooning costs. This is not really the fault of the Type 26 platform design itself, but partly the result of the requirement for a more ambitious air defence weapon and sensor fit as well as serious long-term structural weakness in Canadian industry and defence procurement procedures.
In September 2019, The Babcock Arrowhead 140 design, based on the Danish Iver Huitfeldt class was announced as the winner of the Type 31 frigate competition. The Type 31 is being built to nominal budget of £250M per ship and a taut delivery schedule in an attempt to break the cycle of ever-increasing cost and delay in procurement as well as create a credible UK warship design for export. It was announced in May 2021 that the five ships will be named HMS Active, HMS Bulldog, HMS Campbeltown, HMS Formidable and HMS Venturer. They will be referred to as the ‘Inspiration Class’, a collective nomenclature that has not been greeted with widespread approval, although the individual ship names are seen as solid choices.
The NAO recently clarified the Government Furnished Equipment (GFE) issue, stating that during the competitive design phase, bidders indicated that they would withdraw from the competition unless the MoD excluded £90 million of GFE from the budget. This was subsequently agreed upon and the Type 31 frigate price tag will effectively be £268M per ship. Since the Type 31 will carry weapons and sensors that are almost all new to RN service, the £18M per ship of GFE is proportionally relatively small. As of March 2021, £280M had been spent on the Type 31 project.
The construction of the covered shipbuilding hall at Rosyth is almost complete and the timeline for the Type 31 will see the design phase completed this year and the first steel cut for HMS Venturer in September 2021. The rapid build-up of the Rosyth facility is reflected in the fact that 17% of the workers employed by Babcock on Type 31 are temporary contractors, compared with just 1% of those working for BAE Systems on Type 26.
The first ship will be in the water in 2023, handed over to the RN in 2025 and fully in-service by 2027. A planned production drumbeat will see a ship laid down every 12 months and ship completed in around 28 months. The final vessel is expected to enter service in February 2030. As a ‘turnkey’ contract, once handed to the customer they are entirely responsible for bringing the ships into service. Under current plans, the RN expects to forward-deploy these general-purpose frigates, probably based in the Gulf, Indo-Pacific and Mediterranean.
Babcock continues to seek export opportunities for the Type 31, with Greece and Ukraine as potential buyers. Winning the Hellenic Navy competition will be difficult, faced with experienced competitors from France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and the US. To complicate the bid, the Greeks also urgently need second-hand vessels as an interim replacement their 1980s vintage Elli/Kortenaer-class frigates which cannot run on for much longer. Realistically the only viable frigate that the UK could offer is HMS Montrose. She has been modernised and could possibly be run on for a few years, especially if used at a lower operational tempo than the RN. The only other Type 23 that is being retired early is HMS Monmouth but she has been comprehensively store-robbed and is used as a static training vessel in Devonport. Without a long and expensive LIFEX, she is no longer a viable warship and is likely to be handed over to the Disposal Reserve Ship Organisation (DRSO) to have any remaining useful equipment removed prior to scrapping.
In November 2020 the Type 32 frigate concept was made public for the first time as part of a plan to increase the frigate force from 13 today up to 18 sometime in the next decade. It is very early days and the RN is still working to define its requirement in more detail but official sources say the vessel will primarily be a general-purpose frigate.
The announcement of Type 32 has been greeted with some rather hysterical reactions by some including MPs tabling a series of overly specific questions to ministers. These included: how will it differ from Type 31? how many will be built? who will build it? will it be used on NATO tasks? and will it be forward deployed? Type 32 is in the ‘blank sheet of paper’ concept phase where ideas are explored and many discarded, feasibility studies conducted and before a loose outline specification is drawn up ahead of the Assessment phase. The RN itself does not yet know exactly what Type 32 will look like as it considers the options and it is far too soon to be demanding concrete answers.
If we must speculate, then for reasons of cost, the tight timescale and industrial capacity, then Type 32 is most likely to be a development of Type 31. Utilising the existing construction facility and expertise, commonality of the hull and propulsion could be maintained, simplifying both the design, logistic support and training requirements. Although using a similar platform, crew numbers may be reduced further with automation having a greater role, in combat management, navigation and maintenance management systems. Off-board, uncrewed platforms are likely to be of greater importance with a larger mission bay that can be re-configured to carry a toolkit of autonomous systems. In some quarters there seems to be a perception that Type 32 will be little else but a mothership for mine countermeasures USVs but this will probably be just one of its many capabilities.