There is not too terribly much that can be said on sir Parker’s review of the UK shipbuilding situation, at the moment. His is merely a list of suggestions, an independent report which might or might not generate policy changes. To know whether his recommendations have changed anything, we’ll have to wait for the actual Shipbuilding Strategy which the government has promised to publish sometime in “spring 2017”.
That document is the one we want to read, and the one from which answers should come. We can only hope that something serious comes out of the whole exercise, but skepticism is more than justified.
The single most important recommendation formulated by sir Parker, in my opinion, is this:
The MOD Sponsor should establish a transparent Master Plan for naval shipbuilding that lays out Defence’s procurement plans for each series of naval ships over the next 30 years. This should be backed by “set and assured” capital budgets for each new series of ships. The Master Plan should be reviewed at each SDSR.
The importance of an overarching, long term vision cannot possibly be overstated. What sir Parker denounces in his report is that the Royal Navy’s future is dependent on a series of programmes that almost come out of the blue. There is no master plan, there is no long term vision guiding the succession of studies, assessments and attempts to launch a new shipbuilding programme of any kind.
The result of the short-termism is evident in today’s frankly desperate situation, in which the Royal Navy, at very short notice, has been saddled with 5 OPVs that it didn’t really want nor yet need (the current ones could easily last another decade, as was planned until recently); while at the same time seeing its main frigate programme not only delayed, but broken into two halves, the second of which has no defined shape, role, budget. RFA Diligence is gone without replacement, RFA Argus is very much at risk of ending the same way within the next 4 years, and the future of everything else is still vague and indefinite, subject to the shifting fortunes of yearly budget negotiations.
Ultimately, the current process involves many people and too many ‘hand-offs’. Too many think they have a vote, or even a veto, in the process. Current governance is not sufficiently clear. There is no assured “Capital budget” for a RN project which means programmes are subject to arbitrary intervention and delays adding to cost. Senior Responsible Owners’ objectives and accountability are not always properly aligned. There is a clear system of financial approvals via the Investment Approvals Committee, but the system is not always applied intelligently to ensure that good quality information and early engagement with decision makers results in well evidenced and timely decisions. The result is a lack of empowered project grip.
Sir Parker talks of “set and assured” capital budgets for the 30 year plan, and this would clearly be helpful, but it is also evidently very complicated. Even just a more flexible commitment would help, however, as it would help the Royal Navy’s struggle to preserve what’s left of the fleet.
The navy itself needs to plan that far ahead, not so much in terms of what the singular ship will look like that far away in time, but in terms of how to retain and possibly enhance a capability. There are, in my opinion, two critical cases in which long term planning is long overdue: one has to do with the role of the MCM, Hydrographic Capability (MHC) mothership expected to eventually replace current Hunt, Sandown and Echo classes, beginning in 2028. The MHC mothership plans have taken, this far, a very far back seat, with all MHC attention going to the payload development and test.
There are certainly good reasons for focusing on the new unmanned vehicles and the new kind and breadth of stand-off mine clearing they enable. It is a great innovation, with all the risks that innovation entails, and until the system is proven the Royal Navy cannot take a final decision on whether the future mothership will be a steel-hulled, multi-role vessel or a novel edition of the super-specialized GRP hulls in use today.
The Royal Navy, however, needs to take a decision quickly because as Type 31 drops down the capability ladder to become a “light frigate”, or a General Purpose vessel, the fields of usefulness of Type 31 and of the potential MHC Mothership begin to overlap.
Without a plan, there is a very real risk that the Royal Navy, within a decade, goes from having no “second line” flotilla to having three classes of second rank ships: Type 31, River Batch 2, MHC. It would be an incredibly bad use of money, because it would leave the high end fleet of escorts short of numbers and capability, while overcrowding the lower segment.
Sir Parker mentions that containerized MCM kit could one day be deployed from Type 31, and while this might well be, the point that needs to be made, very quickly, is what overlap exists between Type 31 and MHC – Mothership. Can they become the same programme? If not, how can the RN make sure that the Type 31, while being “light” is an escort oriented towards the high end of warfare, with MHC covering the low end, rather than duplicating a same set of limited capabilities?
This is how wasteful procurement is born: lack of clarity, lack of long term vision.
The Type 26 itself is already suffering from severe lack of long term vision. The Royal Navy arrived to the Type 26 programme after close to two decades of desperate attempts to get a new frigate programme on the move. Countless efforts began and died without ever generating a single ship, and the last of the big studies had eventually come up with a fleet-wide plan for 10 “C1” high-end ASW combatants supported by 8 “C2”, simpler “general purpose” frigates, with a third class, the “C3” for OPV roles and MHC mothershipping.
Type 26 came out of the killing blow dealt to that tentative long term plan: C1 and C2 were merged into Type 26 and their cumulative total was reduced to 13, with any C3 equivalent deferred to a vague future.
Then, just a few years into the Type 26 programme, the Royal Navy has been effectively kicked back to a C1 and C2 situation, where 8 Type 26 are supposed to be the C1 element and the Type 31 the C2.
This is an example of catastrophic long term planning failure, and the Type 26 now arguably suffers of design imbalances caused by having to be the “one and only”. The Type 26 has been designed with extremely long logistic endurance, a vast defensive armament spread in two different areas of the ship, a very large mission bay and a Chinook-capable flight deck, and thanks to the MK41 it has the potential to be very well armed as well (overlooking for a moment the fact that right now she is far more likely to have empty cells than filled cells, again for lack of clarity on the future and cash shortage). Was all this necessary in an ASW-roled escort which, by virtue of its role, would spend most of its time in task group? They are all very helpful attributes, but being in task group means having relatively easy access to extra firepower from the other vessels; access to fuel and stores replenishment; aviation support.
Currently, the RN is facing the prospect of having a large, multi-role ASW vessel inside the task group and a cheap, light frigate doing solo deployments. One is left to wonder if it wouldn’t make more sense to have built a somewhat simpler ASW escort, more rationally thought out for Task Group roles, and a capable “global combat ship” as supporting element, designed to be a capable “solo player”.
Imbalances caused by lack of long term clarity, again.
Another area that needs long-term clarity is the amphibious capability, left in disarray by the loss of HMS Ocean without replacement, which damages very badly the UK’s capability in the sector and imposes a hybrid use of the new aircraft carriers, under the acronym CEPP, for Carrier Enabled Power Projection.
The long term solution, if a realistic amphibious capability is to be retained, is to replace the current LPDs with LHDs, combining aviation spaces with well dock and large landing crafts. But this will be extremely complex unless a coherent plan is worked out well beforehand and the government endorses the requirement. As of now, would you be willing to bet any money on the LPDs being replaced at all…? I would be very torn.
The lack of a long term plan inexorably makes it almost impossible to sustain the shipbuilding sector. How can a serious industrial and infrastructural project be put together if there is not a realistic idea of what it is that the Navy will buy, how it will do so and when? Who could ever seriously invest in shipbuilding if the only thing somewhat assured is that a few frigates will, indeed, one day be built again, while everything else might simply be replaced by vessels built abroad, if not by nothing at all?
A long term plan is desperately necessary. Everything depends on such a plan, and on decisions to be made. If we look ahead, we see that a shipbuilding plan for the surface fleet includes:
- 3 large Solid Support Ships, probably close to 40.000 tons each, to be built between 2020 and 2025
- 8 Type 26, between 2017 (hopefully) and the 2030s
- N Type 31 between X and the 2030s
- N MHC ships, to be defined, from the late 2020s onwards
The LPDs should enter “replacement age” around 2030 – 2032. Now that they alternate in and out of service in 5 year intervals their useful life might be effectively stretched out, but their lack of aviation facilities and overall insufficient troops and vehicles capacity, in light of the loss of Ocean, suggests that a replacement is needed sooner rather than later, so the carriers can eventually concentrate on being carriers, rather than LHAs. Depending on the choices that will be made, building the LHDs would also help sustain the whole shipbuilding sector.
By 2039, the Type 45 will all have gone out of service too, unless their 25-years life is extended. The Royal Navy is currently planning to have them gone by 2039, taking the last MK8 Mod 1 guns with them (there is currently no money for ever retrofitting the 127mm gun on Type 45).
Depending on how the government wanted / was financially able to proceed, there is no real shortage of work: these programmes often overlap, suggesting that for many years there could be a relative abundance of orders. Assuming all programmes eventually start and that ships are not procured abroad. And this is what the strategy needs to say.
In the early 2020s, the RFA Argus question will resurface as well, and a successor to RFA Diligence is highly desirable, so there is in theory a need for a couple of large civilian ship conversions or new builds, if the government is willing to endorse the requirement.
|The Venator 110 is sir Parker's idea of what a Type 31 base design could be. Hard not to agree with him, especially since the two BAE alternatives seen so far, the Avenger and Cutlass, have little good to offer, particularly the former.|
|The Royal Navy desperately needs a long term plan for weapons, too. VL or canister? Type 23/45 would need the latter, Type 26 the former, Type 31? Land attack? Anti-ship? Currently, only confusion is apparent.|
All decisions about the future of the shipyards can only be taken if there is a long term master plan upon which assumptions and plans can be built.
If the three MARS SSS ships were built in the UK, in Blocks and Super Blocks, even Rosyth could have a future as the yard of assembly. As of now, Rosyth does not have much of a post-carriers future, with the Goliath crane already expected to be sold once the work on the flagships is over and all that remains is nuclear submarine dismantling and, maybe, the carrier refits over their service life.
A decision to have the SSS built in the UK could change the situation entirely, and the LPD replacement could slot on the back of the three ships (with a bit of a gap in the middle, admittedly, but probably manageable).
The recommendation to assemble the Type 31 away from the Clyde is a political hot potato. In some ways it is highly desirable, in others it is a problem. The SNP will be given something to moan about if the Clyde does not assembly the new frigate. On the other hand, if a yard down south does the job, the SNP can be told, much more credibly, that if they play their independence stunt, the flow of work for the yards will dry up and construction will move south.
It is also evident that trying to built two different frigate types at the same time in the same yard could cause all sorts of problems, including the transmission of delays from one programme to the other whenever something does not work as intended. It might be reasonable to assume that BAE systems will attempt to craft out a plan to use Govan and Scotstoun differently, perhaps assigning a frigate type to each site. What will happen with the Type 31 is, at this moment in time, anyone’s guess.
The exportability bit is the one that leaves me shaking my head. It is hard to imagine that Type 31 will turn out a great export success. The market is already quite saturated with “cheap” warships which come with extremely good capability and a very heavy load of weaponry. If the Royal Navy insists on its usual trend of trying to contain cost by shredding sensors and weapons rather than adjusting building standards and other areas, the Type 31 will never sell. Look at the ships that are being sold, or seriously considered by this nation or that: they are capable vessels. They have probably cut corners somewhere, otherwise they would cost more, but they carry sensors, they tipically have an ASW capability, perhaps not always exploited by the customer, but present. They are heavily armed. The MEKOs sold to Algeria, for example. Or the Aster-armed ships recently sold in the Gulf.
Extremely well armed and cheap vessels from Russia and China are an increasingly attractive proposition.
And there is now a strong political pressure on the US Navy calling for the design of a new “small” surface combatant to build in place of the LCS-derived Fast Frigates in the 2020s. If such a ship was to emerge, it could deal the killing blow to any Type 31 export hope before Type 31 even becomes a thing.
For a variety of good reasons, it is very hard to imagine the Type 31 actually selling, especially if it is built as something which is little more than an OPV.
The Royal Navy needs to get a Type 31 which is actually useful at escorting. It also needs, possibly, to reconsider exactly how Type 26 and Type 31 will be used to cover future requirements. Perhaps it makes more sense to have Type 31s with variable depth towed sonars doing Task Group escort work and Type 26 in solo deployments.
The Royal Navy needs escorts that are credible and that respond to the two greatest dangers out there: air and sub-surface attacks. Type 31 must focus first of all on this simple truth, like the French FTI “intermediate” frigate is doing. The lower end constabulary tasks should not be a design driver, nor, arguably, should they be the Type 31’s concern. What kind of role will the MHC mothership be able to play in that area? Knowing it in good time is fundamental.
Two other recommendations stand out to my eyes: that the MOD and Navy should be more intelligent buyers of ships; and that a marine design centre of excellence is missing from the picture.
There is a bond between the two things, I feel: the Royal Navy needs to be part of such a design centre of excellence, and it must probably have its own design office inside the organization. Much, if not all, of the Royal Navy’s internal know how and capability in designing warships was lost years ago, leaving the service more or less completely in the hands of industry. This was supposed to save money, but it has probably generated more trouble than benefit.
A Navy able to design its own solutions is a more capable and intelligent customer by default. It will not need to buy the solution to every problem: it can design it and then have it realized. The Italian navy is currently kicking off a major shipbuilding programme building 7 PPA, “light frigates” that will complement the FREMMs and replace everything from two of the old Destroyers down to the current OPVs. The programme also includes a massive and very capable LHD and a supply ship. The cost of the entire programme is lower than the Type 26 alone is expected to cost, and this is extraordinary.
One of the “secrets” of the current Italian shipbuilding programme is that the new ships have largely come out of the work of the Navy’s own design office. Industry is involved, of course, but in a very good way: the new ships introduce a large number of new systems (a new CIWS 76mm turret, new IRST, new radars, new towed sonar, a modular and multi-mission design, an innovative wave piercing bow for very high speeds (PPA is meant for 35 knots speeds) and others) designed by the nation’s industries. Why the UK can’t put together something as ambitious? Why has the Type 31 to be affordable only through being a depressingly low capability hull?
The long-term shipbuilding strategy for the UK must include a real centre of excellence in shipbuilding design, and the Royal Navy probably needs to have its own office inside. Shoulder to shoulder with industry, but with doors that can be locked when the moment calls for it.