In its Shipbuiling Strategy, the MOD claims to have accepted all of the recommendations put forwards by sir Parker, and this is a welcome surprise, although on several points their acceptance is tied to too many exceptions.
With a courageous decision, the MOD opens the gates to the possibility of building frigates away from the Clyde. This of course opens their flank to SNP complaints about “betrayals” of workers in Govan and Scotstoun, but having a workable shipbuilding alternative to the yards in Scotland is not just a political weapon, but a strategic must. The UK cannot possibly depend entirely on Scottish yards as long as nationalistic nonsense about independence remains such a real danger.
In addition, breaking the BAE Systems monopoly is pretty much the only thing left to attempt in order to reduce the cost of building ships in the UK. The pricetag for the Type 26 frigates is simply monstrous and the Royal Navy desperately needs a way out of the death spiral.
In an earlier article I argued that working to a 30 years horizon when defining future plans for entire capabilities (and thus entire classes of ships) was the single most important factor. I remain of this opinion: short termism and insufficient joined up thinking has ended up forcing a premature order for OPVs that are being paid an absurd amount of money to bridge an occupation gap and keep the workforce going. Further to that, it has generated the Type 31 itself, a ship that risks to be an extremely low-capability constabulary worker which in some ways overlaps with River B2s and arguably with what the MHC mothership should have been (and could still be).
I did not expect the government would accept the 30 years plan recommendation. The inclusion of this element in the strategy is a very welcome development, and in some ways a surprise. However, it is clear that the MOD “Master Plan” is not and will never be the kind of outlook that is necessary and that sir Parker argued for.
The Master Plan will not be public. It will be an internal document, guiding the actions of the “Client Board” chaired by the 1st Sea Lord. The details will not be released. Industry should get some visibility on it, but the secrecy will ensure that the plan never translates in a commitment with any sort of assurance attached to it. Just like the Equipment Plan at large, it will remain subject to endless and stealth change. This negates much of its usefulness: I’m sure the Navy already compiles long-term plans of its own, after all. What was needed was a clearer direction, with a substantial degree of “certainty” attached to it. Something like the US Navy’s own 30 years ships master plan, in other words.
The UK’s Master Plan offers no real assurance. Where Parker argued for a “set and assured” outlook for budgets, the MOD responded by saying that the budget for a programme is set at Main Gate. And even then it remains subject to successive reviews. In practice, there is no real change from the current arrangement. The stability of funding lines, even at programme approved and underway, will be down to common sense and good will, with no additional assurance provided by “the strategy”. While no government is ever going to set definitive budget levels for such a long horizon, it is essential that the Navy and Industry have a good idea of what kind of budgets they’ll have to work with, well before the project reaches the technical maturity requested by Main Gate.
The Client Board chaired by the 1st Sea Lord will produce the Naval Ship Acquisition Master Plan and seek the endorsement of the “Sponsor Group”, chaired by the Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (Military Capability), which will own the actual shipbuilding strategy and refresh it periodically. The Sponson Group includes the Treasury, so the budget battles will be fought at this level. The Client Board will have to juggle the priorities within the Master Plan and allocate the budget to the various programmes, holding them to account. Project Teams will deliver the actual programmes.
The shipbuilding strategy reaffirms the intention to build all “complex” combat ships in the UK, but effectively throws everything else open for international competition. This includes the amphibious shipping as well as survey and MCM vessels, and all RFAs. This does not necessarily mean that the UK shipyards will not be selected for major programmes in this area, but it introduces a very big risk. It is difficult to win competitions with foreign yards that build more, more often and, were applicable, count on cheaper manpower. For the Navy this might not be bad news (the 4 Tide class tankers bring a lot of capability for a very good price), but it is hardly a welcome proposition for british shipyards. Clearly, the hope is that british yards will be able to benefit from Type 31 modular construction and become more competitive, but a return “to greatness” from the current condition of the sector is not going to be easy. Building 5 Type 31s in blocks is highly unlikely to suffice. Building large blocks for the carriers was one thing; the Type 31 is unlikely to have a comparable effect.
Building large ships, such as the incoming MARS Fleet Solid Support, would inject more energy into the yards. The government is promising to evaluate with favor the effects of building in Britain over building abroad, but there is no assurance that british bids for the FSS project will be successful. It is my opinion that a firm decision to assemble the large FSS vessels in Rosyth, using the No 1 dock and the Goliath crane to receive and weld together modules coming from other yards would have had an infinitely more tangible effect on the growth of british capabilities in the sector in the near future.
It is down to industry, now, to propose something similar and do it in a way that convinces the government. The FSS are likely to be ships of 40.000 tons or more, the largest by far in the fleet after the carriers themselves, and the nature of their mission dictates that they will be relatively complex systems. In turn, that means valuable and consistent work for thousands of people.
Similarly, future large amphibious ships would have a key role to play in keeping the yards going.
From a Royal Navy point of view, the draft master plan enables a series of observations. First of all, Type 26 is expected to take a long time to reach operational capability. According to the Master Plan, it’ll be 2026/27 before HMS Glasgow achieves IOC. According to a different table within the document, HMS Glasgow won’t even be delivered before 2026. That is a pretty incredibly slow pace, and does not suggest a great level of confidence in what the Clyde shipyards can do. In part, this is the fault of government which did not authorize and fund the development of the single site “frigate factory” development. The build of Type 26, a large and complex ship, inside infrastructure which is clearly inadequate is clearly not of any help. On the other hand, government is faced with the horrible risk of investing into a world-class shipbuilding facility which it might lose to a nationalistic pipe-dream; not to mention that going down from two yards to one, albeit more capable, would generate its own amount of moaning and bad press. It is not a problem of easy resolution, and we ought to accord government at least this one extenuating circumstance. Substantial investment in Faslane, in Lossiemouth and the building of the Type 26s themselves is already more than enough of a risk that they are taking. The consequences of losing all those investments to a future referendum would be nothing short of devastating for defence, first of all for the navy.
The schedule for the Type 31e is, instead, extremely ambitious. After a swift competition phase, the aim is to achieve Main Gate in the fourth quarter of 2018 and commence building in early 2019, with the first ship entering service in 2023 to replace HMS Argyll. The other four would follow at 12 months intervals, while Type 26s will only arrive every 15 to 18 months. The second Type 26 will be laid down in 2019, the third only in 2021. The timings work out acceptably due to the fact that the ASW Type 23s hit their OSDs later than the 5 tail-less General Purpose ones.
The Type 31, however, exposes even more the overall diffidence that government and navy feel for the shipbuilding industry: the Core Requirements outlined by the Royal Navy for the ship, which has a cost cap of 250 million pounds, are humiliatingly basic. The service didn’t even dare asking for a Merlin-sized hangar, or a gun of more than 76mm caliber, or a CAMM installation in its core requirements. This suggests that very few believe that british yards will be able to deliver any kind of meaningful capability within the price boundaries. Certainly the navy is hoping with all its forces that industry will be able to accommodate some of the extras (or “adaptable” features, in the document released at the industry day) within the RN design, but it seems like nobody dared putting it on paper.
Nobody will be able to complain about the requirements being too ambitious or gold plated: the list of core requests makes the Type 31e equally or less capable than some of the OPVs in service around the world. They could not possibly be any humbler and vaguer.
For the first time in many years, the MOD is doing what was done at the time of the Type 24 and 25 “Future Light Frigates” in the 70s (without generating any actual build, however) when the designers were given maximum freedom: “all you want if it does not cost more than 100 million”, write David K. Brown and George Moore in their “Rebuilding the Royal Navy – warship design since 1945”.
The Draft Master Plan shows that the MCM and Hydrographic Capability (MHC) programme is still moving roughly on the same path as before, anticipating the IOC of a new ships for the period 2028 – 2032. The Capability Decision Point is expected before 2022: by that point the joint MCM programme with France should have been extensively trialed and the UK-only unmanned sweeping capability should also be (finally) mature. The expectation is that a number of Hunt-class ships will be modified to turn their “open” sterns into mission areas equipped for carrying, deploying and recovering the unmanned vehicles employed by the new MCM solutions. The Sandowns are not suitable for the same kind of conversion, on the other hand they are key, with their Type 2093 sonars, to mine hunting in deeper waters.
The MCM flotilla badly needs the unmanned systems to progress: the unmanned sweeping system is more than a decade late, considering that it was meant to replace the conventional sweeping capability of the Hunts, last deployed at sea in October 2005. The unmanned sweeping capability, born as FAST (Flexible Agile Sweeping Technology) became a rolling programme of demonstration and experimentation, but while it allowed to advance the future of MCM ops this prevented the Navy from re-generating a deployable sweeping capability in the times once planned.
Both Hunt and Sandown class MCM ships are receiving updates and life-extension interventions in their refits, but the two fleets are in the crosshair of budget cutting: the SDSR 2015 made clear that 3 ships would be removed from service by 2025, and the Times now report that 2 ships will leave service already next year. According to Deborah Haynes, defence correspondent for The Times, those two ships would be in addition to the 3 already earmarked for dismission, signaling a cut of 5 hulls.
It is clear that the entry in service of the novel systems cannot happen soon enough, and that shaping a way forward for the Mothership segment is a matter of increasing urgency. Removing the need for specialized, expensive GRP hulls for MCM ops opens the door to the adoption of larger, steel-hulled vessels with far greater sea legs and utility across a wider range of constabulary tasks.
Unfortunately, the Type 31 and the River Batch 2 have invaded the “patrol” sector and the P has been shaven off by MHPC. It would be a grave mistake, however, to not exploit the MHC mothership as a way to enhance the global presence of the Navy.
I never made any mystery about my opinion on the Type 31 / MHC matter: if the “Light Frigate” ends up being an extremely low-key patrol ship for constabulary tasks, the only sensible thing is to merge Type 31 and MHC and build a single class of self-escorting motherships for constabulary tasks.
Interestingly, a capability decision point for the post-Type 45 world is expected as soon as 2022, with the aim of achieving IOC with a future AAW solution in the 2033 – 2037 time window. Assuming that a new ship is implied, this would mean decommissioning the Type 45 at the end of its intended service life, without extension. The 25 years service life of HMS Daring would expire in 2034, in theory, and by 2039 the whole class would be gone. Replacing, rather than life-extending, is a key recommendation of the Parker report that the government, at least for now, seems to embrace.
There is every reason to doubt about the long term commitment to the approach, but that is another story. It is also going to look pretty weird to begin decommissioning the Type 45s before the last of the Type 23s is replaced!
Very vague indications come about Future Maritime Security UK and Overseas Territories. The Draft master plan doesn’t help in understanding whether the idea of losing all River Batch 1s in the next two or three years is still the plan, or if there have been changes. It also offers no clue as to what comes after the P2000s or the Gibraltar patrol boats, the latter supposedly due for replacement within two years.
By 2022 the Navy expects to decide on the future of the Amphibious flotilla, which will reach the end of its service life in the early 2030s. Jane’s reported recently that a pre-concept study, expected to report in early 2018, is evaluating a Multi Role Support Ship concept which could cover amphibious, forward repair and medical capabilities.
It seems too wide a spread of roles to be covered with the same hull. Clearly, medical capabilities would benefit from a ship with ample aviation facilities and a well dock for boats and crafts, but the Forward Repair capabilities offered by RFA Diligence until its untimely demise seem far harder to conciliate with the rest. It is at least comforting to know that something is moving.
Before 2022 is over the Navy also expect to have to take decisions about the replacement for the Auxiliary Oilers, also known as “Fast Fleet Tankers”, RFA Wave Ruler and Wave Knight. The replacements should achieve IOC around 2030, according to the table.
The navy is aiming to hit Main Gate for the MARS Fleet Solid Support programme in December 2019, with contract award by March 2020. The Draft plan confirms that the 3 vessels are meant to replace the “Auxiliary Fleet Support – Helicopters”, aka Fort Austin and Fort Rosalie as well as the Auxiliary Oiler Replenishment Fort Victoria. IOC is indicated in the late 2020s, while delivery was repeatedly promised “around the middle of the 2020s”. The two things are not incompatible, but the current OSDs for the three Forts will have to be extended if a colossal capability gap is to be avoided: Austin would bow out in 2023, Rosalie in 2024 according to earlier plans.
The future of RFA Argus remains a huge concern as well. The Draft plan puts the Medical Ship decision point in 2028 at the earliest, while the last OSD given for RFA Argus is 2024. IOC for the future medical capability is given close to 2040: frankly, the most puzzling element in the entire table.
The Type 31e
The document revealing the requirements for the Type 31e design distinguishes between “Core” and “Adaptable” features. Core is described as what is designed, integrated and assembled in the UK and represents what the Royal Navy absolutely wants to have.
The Adaptable features are described as “available for build under license overseas”.
As a consequence, it is to be assumed that at least a part of the “adaptable” features will not be available for the Royal Navy, not even as “fitted for but not with”. Even FFBNW has a cost, after all, and whatever doesn’t fit in the 250 million simply won’t be included.
The Core requirements include:
- a crew of 80 to 100 with some room for augmentees and specialists.
- Capable of fitting a hull-mounted sonar
- 6500 nautical miles at economic speed and 28 days logistic endurance
- armour in key areas for the protection of personnel
- hangar for a Wildcat and Rotary Wing UAS system, or alternatively for a single medium helicopter such as NH-90
- Seaboats and ability to carry and operate unmanned vehicles
- Interoperable with allies as well as joint forces and civil authorities
- Sensors for operating area situational awareness
- Medium gun and light guns for anti-FIAC use and maritime interdiction
- Point Defence Missile System or CIWS and FFBNW point defence missiles
- Ability to replenish at sea
- Commercial shipbuilding standards are the default, with enhancements only where a clear need or benefit exist
Everything else falls in the “Adaptable” bracket, beginning with:
- Flight deck and hangar suitable for Merlin operations
- CBRN citadel
- Command and Control for Maritime Task Unit and up to Task Force
- Active hull mounted sonar for ASW
- Towed array sonar and ASW weapons
- Anti-ship missiles
- Space of an embarked force of 40
- Mission bay or deck space for 2 containers
- A gun of caliber superior to 76mm, fit for Naval Gunfire Support
It is immediately evident just how basic the Core requirements are. The hull mounted sonar is not requested specifically; there just has to be the ability to install it.
CAMM is not mentioned, even though the Royal Navy will be able to recoup it from decommissioning Type 23s: while Sea Ceptor has local area air defence capability, the requirement specifically talks about point defence only.
Merlin operations are not envisaged. ASW is completely left out, as is anti-ship firepower. The RN is apparently fine with a main gun of max 76mm caliber, even though this means introducing a new gun system into service. In theory a DS30M 30mm gun, a 57mm MK110 as on LCS or a 76mm would all be accepted.
Dimensions are left to be driven solely by seakeeping considerations, and the RN does not detail what the “wide range of sea conditions” exactly entails. Industry is given pretty much complete freedom: it is almost impossible to write a requirement list any poorer and vaguer than this one.
In the run up to the Type 31e announcement, industry has revealed a number of designs for “affordable” frigates. Notably, BAE has proposed AVENGER and CUTLASS; BMT its VENATOR 110, Team Stellar its SPARTAN and Babcock its ARROWHEAD.
The brochures are impressive and show flexible ships with a good spread of capability, with the bottom represented by the BAE designs, CUTLASS and AVENGER, which also happen to be the least detailed offerings. The news of a very demanding price cap being placed on Type 31 have generated comments from BAE about the competition being a dangerous race to the bottom in which industry could end up making promises it can’t keep and end “out of business”. Nobody believes they won’t file an offer but they might actually elect to put very little effort in it. The MOD in recent years has been, at least in the Land sector, apparently following a “anyone but BAE” policy, and BAE might be about to sit this one out as a sort of revenge, letting the other yards bet their future on this dangerous race.
The other designs are well detailed in the brochures released by the respective owners:
All the proposals pre-date the announcement of the 250 million pounds price cap. The reasonably capable ships proposed by BMT, Stellar and Babcock will no doubt need a considerable strip-down to meet the cost target. The key question is just how much will have to be stripped out of the design. Even BAE’s AVENGER, effectively a stretched River OPV, a sort of “Batch 3” with helicopter hangar, a stack containing CAMM cells and a 127mm on the bow, exceeds the core requirements detailed by the Navy. The CUTLASS, which is a 117m extended Khareef corvette, itself a development of the River class, is also overspecced compared to the Core demands, as it includes a CBRN citadel, a 127mm and CAMM.
What price did BAE have in mind when it formulated those proposals? What kind of money do the other proposals require?
The decommissioning Type 23s could supply a number of systems (CAMM, most notably, but also 30mm guns, decoys and radars, from Artisan to the new Sharpeye navigation radars) for transfer, but that would negate entry in service of the first ship in 2023. HMS Argyll would necessarily need to bow out early and be stripped to enable the migration of the systems to the first Type 31.
In the long term, it seems the Navy will even have 3 precious Type 2087 sonar tails in excess, as 3 are being ordered for the first Type 26s exactly to avoid the need for early Type 23 decommissionings.
In theory, the Navy will have enough sonars, radars and guns for 16 frigates as a result.
As of now, it does not seem like the Type 31e programme is meant to take full advantage of this fact. Timelines negate the feasibility of the migration.
Considering that the Navy is effectively already one Type 23 down, due to manpower issues, I see no reason why the timelines could not and would not be adjusted to make the transfer possible. If such expensive equipment can be moved across, as is the plan for the later Type 26 units as well, the Type 31 will have a bit more of a chance to come together with some kind of capability. A temporary reduction to 12 or even 11 frigates is surely to be preferred over a reduction to 8 plus 5 “large OPVs”, surely…?
The Medium Gun passage is particularly interesting. All designs proposed by industry include the 127mm MK45 Mod 4, as planned for the Type 26. This system, however, is a new buy and requires a significant amount of money. BAE might now be tempted to offer its Bofors MK110 in the 57 mm caliber. Others might include the Oto Melara 76mm, which in its Strales incarnation doubles up as a very capable CIWS thanks to radar-guided ammunition meant to explode in the path of incoming missiles.
The 76mm, in theory, would cover two requirements at once, that for a medium gun and that for a CIWS. It still comes with a non insignificant cost, however.
CAMM, one would think, will be one of the first things industry will try to maintain in the design, and this will probably generate wider discussions with the Navy about transfer of equipment from the Type 23s.
Merlin hangar should also, one hope, be high on the list of priorities, together with the EMF accommodation and extra spaces for boats and unmanned vehicles. ASW will sadly but unsurprisingly come dead last, despite the mission being back in full force on the international scene.
The only hope is that designers will include enough space in the stern to enable the installation of a towed array… giving the navy a chance to later on install the extra 2087 tails.
All of these, however, remain just that: hopes.
Type 31e starts off as literally the most depressing list of requirements available worldwide. Bad news for the Royal Navy, and for the export hopes for this vessel. Hopes that I consider pretty laughable, since there is an overabundance of good corvette and light frigate designs, already well established, that a customer can select. Just why anyone would want to explore Type 31e territory when there are MEKO, Gowind, Belharra, PPA and South Korea, or Chinese, or Russian alternatives on the market which come with far greater capabilities and not necessarily greater prices? A depressingly incapable Type 31e is not going to export anywhere.
Literally everything now depends on what the british shipbuilding sector can come up with. “All you want, as long as it fits in 250 million”. The one bit of hope comes from the impressive RRS SirDavid Attenborough that Cammel Laird is building, in blocks, under the terms of a 200 million contract. The ship comes with impressive specifications and sits on the opposite end of the cost scale than the Type 26, at a hefty 1 billion pounds. We are left to hope that something good can still fit within a 250 million Type 31e.