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COMMENT: The Dilemma Behind The Navy's Type 26 And Type 31 Frigates

The RN needs to decide if it wants to be a high platform and low capability navy or if it wants to have a smaller number of very expensive...

Type 31e BAE design

Forces Network's columnist section Lima Charlie features unattributed contributions from experts and insiders providing opinion, insight and analysis on today’s Armed Forces, the wider politics of the military and observations on military life.

Our contributors aim to explore the issues facing today’s military and their comment remains unattributed to allow our writers to present their analysis candidly and under one editorial voice. 

The Royal Navy has been in the business of constructing warships for centuries, adapting the most advanced technologies available at the time and harnessing them to put highly advanced and complex warships to sea, to defend the nations interests.

Today the RN is on the cusp of introducing two entirely new classes of Frigate into service, and in doing so launching a step change in the way it uses its warships operationally. 

Since the Cold War, the RN has traditionally classed its surface combatants by the roles they are intended to fill – cruisers were large platforms intended to operate independently or command operations.

Destroyers became optimised for ‘Anti-Air Warfare’ (AAW), namely the protection of other ships from air attack by using long range Surface to Air Missiles (such as the Type 42 and Type 45 destroyers) and finally Frigates were used for Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), tracking hostile submarines and being ready to sink them to protect convoys and task forces.

After the end of the Second World War, the Royal Navy focused on providing forces able to tackle Soviet ships in the North Atlantic, and a wider ‘general purpose’ role more globally. 

After UK forces withdrew from East of Suez in the late 1960s the surface fleet became intended to primarily provide ASW capabilities to NATO, to protect friendly merchant convoys that would be carrying the units sailing across the Atlantic that were intended to reinforce NATO forces in Germany. 

To meet these needs a wide range of ship classes were developed from the 1950s onwards capable of different roles from convoy escorts to ASW.

The most successful design was known as the ‘Type 12’ Whitby class, a relatively simple vessel that progressively evolved into various successor classes including the ‘Rothesay’ and ‘Leander’ classes of ASW and general-purpose frigates.

These ships were relatively small (around 2500 tonnes and about 110m long) and quite lightly armed but proved capable of significant modernisation.

More than 40 ships were built, serving from the mid-1950s until the last Leander paid off in the mid-1990s.

In the 1970s the RN introduced two new frigate designs, an expensive purpose-built ASW frigate known as the ‘Type 22’ (Broadsword) class, which was intended to use a range of sensors and helicopters to track and sink Soviet submarines.

The smaller Type 21 ‘Amazon’ class was designed as a general-purpose design to patrol globally, carrying out the myriad of duties that the RN performed.

The Type 21 was notable for being privately designed by industry, and the hull formed the basis for a variety of export orders overseas. 

HMS Arrow

By the early 1980s the RN was struggling to maintain the demands of both focusing on specialising in extremely expensive ASW frigates and carrying out wider lower intensity patrols.

It looked to try and introduce a highly austere design, lightly armed and intended to operate in task groups in the North Atlantic that would be known as the Type 23 Frigate. 

The lessons identified in the Falklands War in 1982 changed the Type 23 design significantly, moving it from an austere platform into one more capable of operating independently and more heavily armed (for instance adding a main gun and anti-ship missiles).

The ship was intended for a life of approximately 18 years in the North Atlantic, and the first of these entered service in 1989, with the last arriving in 2002. 

The end of the Cold War led to the RN reappraising its frigate requirements and trying to work out what role they needed to play in a world where the submarine threat had significantly reduced, away from large numbers of Soviet nuclear submarines in the North Atlantic into one or two conventionally powered submarines operated by rogue nations. 

In the early 1990s work began on a design known as the ‘Future Surface Combatant’, which was originally scheduled to enter service in the late 2000s to replace both the remaining Type 22 and 23 fleets (a total then of about 26 escorts).

A combination of budget cuts, requirement changes and reduction in the number of escort ships saw plans change repeatedly.

The numbers were cut to a planned purchase of 16 hulls, and the MOD also looked to see how their wider replacement plans for patrol vessels and hydrographic ships could be included in the programme too.

This included studying an option for a so-called ‘Corvette’ (a very small austere class of ship not traditionally used by the RN since WW2 that would operate in coastal waters)

This led to a series of concept studies looking at different designs to meet the needs of the fleet, ranging from providing ASW against peer competitors through to low-level patrol duties.

The result was further delays in ordering, as the programme was stretched out, and used as a carrot to help persuade the UK shipbuilding industry to reform to support the Government's national shipbuilding strategy.

Planned order dates came and went, and nothing seemed to happen. 

By 2010 the MOD had abandoned prior work on the FSC design and instead contracted BAE Systems to design the Type 26 frigate, intended to carry out ASW and patrol duties.

The resultant design was for a ship that was nearly 150m long and displaced 7000 tonnes – by all accounts an exceptionally capable, large and expensive design that would meet the RN’s needs for decades to come. 

The problem was that delivering the design in the numbers required was simply unaffordable within the MODs budget.

This meant that when the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) was held, difficult choices had to be made.

From a MOD perspective, it was clear that a surface fleet of at least 19 escorts was needed to meet all the operational tasks required of the RN.

This had been planned to comprise 6 Type 45 destroyers and 13 Type 23 / 26 frigates. 

Faced with the reality that a force of 19 ships was unaffordable, and with no additional funding, the RN instead turned to a compromise that it has done several times since WW2 for its frigate force.

It turned one design into two and decided to reduce the numbers of Type 26 frigates to 8 while developing plans for an affordable force of at least five smaller ships to be known as the Type 31 Frigate. 

This compromise reflected a view that the RN needed at least 8 ASW frigates to deliver its mission to counter Russian and other submarine activity that could pose a threat to the nuclear deterrent and UK / allied shipping.

It also reflected that there were a wide number of other tasks that the RN felt it needed a frigate for that probably didn’t need a specialist ASW frigate on hand to carry out (for instance patrols to protect UK and Overseas Territories territorial waters, low-level exercises and defence engagement and counter-piracy duties).

The result is that the RN is continuing to plan for a force of 19 ships, but the fleet will be very different in capability and appearance to the original plan.

type 31e frigate

Why is this contentious?

The Type 31 design appears to be contentious for two main reasons – firstly the process of building it, and secondly the capability of the actual design itself and how it will be employed. 

From an industrial perspective, the UK military shipbuilding industry is in a challenging place now.

For much of the last 15 years there has been significant work on offer from two main programmes – the completion of the Type 45 destroyers (all built in Scotland), and the construction of the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers.

The latter were such large vessels that they were built in a modular manner across the country, with several different shipyards building them in ‘blocks’ and then the final construction occurring in Rosyth where all the parts came together as one complete ship. 

This enormous project has helped support many different yards and kept the UK military shipbuilding industry afloat.

At one point there was so much work going on in the UK that no UK yard bid to build a contract for four tankers for the MOD here, because there was simply no spare capacity in the system to build them on time and the order ended up seeing the ships built in Korea instead. 

The challenge though has been what follows this – the intention was always to build the Type 26 force in Scotland at the BAE Systems facilities on the Clyde, but this, in turn, reduced the potential orders for other yards elsewhere.

The planned projects like the Fleet Support Ship (a very large stores ship intended to support the Royal Navy) and replacement survey and mine hunting vessels have been delayed while the RN tries to ensure it has the right levels of funding in place to order them. 

The proposed Type 31 project offers both a lifeline to smaller companies and a source of frustration to the Clyde.

From a Scottish perspective, the loss of five ships worth of work is doubtless frustrating, even though the programme will see work guaranteed well into the 2030s when a follow-on successor class will almost certainly enter construction.

But for smaller UK shipbuilding companies, the chance to bid for Type 31 work offers a real chance to bid for work in yards that have proven unable to compete for Type 26 work.

This helps preserve skills and jobs nationally, and not just on the Clyde – a potentially wise move rather than putting all the shipbuilding jobs in a location which may yet vote for independence from the UK. 

Type 31 offers a real chance for UK shipbuilding to show what it can design and deliver to meet the needs of the Royal Navy.

There is a potentially significant long-term opportunity here as both the Type 26 and 31 designs will be optimised for exporting to overseas customers.

Already Australia has confirmed it will be building the Type 26 for their future surface ship requirement, whilst the design is also seen as a front-runner for the Royal Canadian Navy’s future needs too.

The Type 31 design may potentially be a credible platform for smaller navies looking for a ship that can meet their needs, but which does not necessarily need to be a ‘high end’ frigate.

As such, there are navies like New Zealand and other nations that over the next 5-10 years may be looking for a frigate platform, for which the Type 31 design could suit their needs. 

The reason being able to sell designs overseas is so important is because of the long-term savings benefits, and opportunities for industry.

While the ships themselves may undergo final assembly abroad, the supply chain will be made up of parts from hundreds of companies, many UK based, who will gain significant extra work, as a result, helping keep them in business.

The potential savings from ordering in bulk will reduce the costs for Governments and make it easier to save money in mid-life updates.

This will benefit both UK industry and the taxpayer, making every export order of real significance throughout the UK industrial supply chain. 

The question though is whether the Type 31 is the right design for the Royal Navy, or if it is potentially both too capable and too limited in what it is intended to do.

Traditionally the RN has steered clear of the use of Corvettes, trying instead to maintain a capability gap between the so-called ‘Offshore Patrol Vessels’ which are very simple warships, usually with little more than a small calibre gun and space for a helicopter to land (but not be supported), and frigates which possess more weapon systems,  helicopters and the complex electronic combat systems, radars and countermeasures needed to fight in a highly challenging operational environment while deploying away from home for up to 9 months at a time. 

Offshore Patrol Vessels used to be very small craft, but they have now grown in size and complexity to the point where the newest RN ones (the ‘Batch 2 River Class) are almost as big as an old Type 12 frigate.

They are used in UK waters for sovereignty protection, inspection of fishing boats, counter-terrorism duties and have deployed as far as the West Indies to protect UK interests in the region. 

The new Type 31 frigate will occupy a curious space in the RN force. Intended to cost no more than £250m each, they will potentially carry a variety of reasonably complex weapon systems, including a main gun, surface to air missiles and a hangar to operate helicopters.

The challenge in building them though is the compromises required to make the design affordable and meet the user requirements.

Superficially it is easy to put various weapon systems onto a hull and say that you have a frigate. 

Operationally though the risk is that the trade-offs required to deliver this are potentially highly risky.

While all large warships look similar, beneath the skin of the hull lies very different design philosophies.

The Royal Navy is well known for having highly demanding standards for construction which mandate what the ship must be capable of doing or surviving under certain conditions (for example levels of watertight bulkheads, or survivability of key equipment).

This adds to the overall cost of a design but significantly increases its ability to survive in high-intensity combat and minimise the risk to sailors lives.

The question for the Type 31 design is what trade-offs will need to be made internally to make the ship cost no more than £250m? 

More widely, what constraints in operation will this impose on the Type 31 force and how will it impact on the RNs ability to deploy globally?

While it may make relatively little sense to send a hugely expensive and capable Type 45 destroyer to the West Indies as a ‘guardship’, that vessel offers planners a huge amount of versatility to meet wider operational demands as they emerge, and the ship can quickly be retasked to go elsewhere if another vessel has problems.

For instance, in late 2017 the RN moved to send a Type 45 to replace another scheduled to deploy to the Gulf for a deployment following maintenance issues that required an unexpected return to the UK.

This could be done partly because the Type 45 had the right level of capability, design standards and survivability to enter a highly challenging operational environment, knowing it could fight as part of a coalition force if required. 

Royal Navy Type 45 destroyer

By contrast, the Type 31 as a more austere platform does not offer the same level of assurance or capability.

This means that the Type 31 cannot easily be programmed to cover the same roles as the Type 26 – the two designs are very different in terms of overall capability.

While most of the time this will not prove a problem, in a small force of just 13 Frigates, it will make it more difficult to juggle the various commitments around should ships experience issues. 

In the medium term, the aspiration with the Type 31 appears to be to build them in enough numbers to enlarge the RN surface fleet beyond 19 hulls, but a quick glance at the building timeline indicates that this will not happen until the 2030s at the earliest, and a lot can happen in 10 years.

In the interim the RN will face three difficult challenges of introducing two entirely new surface ship classes at roughly the same time, while also keeping the increasingly elderly and fragile Type 23 force running on until the mid-2030s, giving them a life expectancy of nearly double that which was originally planned.

For the RN then the Type 31 frigate does offer potentially significant opportunities to provide a mid-range platform that can do a lot of the work that the more capable Type 26 frigate will otherwise be employed to do, while also coming in at a lower cost that helps to protect jobs across the UK shipbuilding industry.

The challenge though is to meet the demanding timescale that calls for the first ship to enter service in 2023, which is barely four years away. 

At present, the competition has been restarted, with the MOD calling for revised bids from interested parties with the aim of placing an order in early 2019.

It must be asked whether this timeline is realistic, or affordable, particularly given the likelihood of the latest Defence Review reporting back before Christmas.

Whether this decides to delay, cancel or expand the Type 31 project isn’t yet clear, but it remains in a risky position.

Not yet ordered and potentially not as capable as the military or politicians would like it to be, the design would represent a significant cash saving if scrapped, perhaps with a compensating buy of one or two additional Type 26 and River class hulls instead to meet the needs of the RN. 

The Type 31 represents an intriguing stage in the story of frigate building in the UK. It represents real opportunities, particularly if built in enough numbers to keep the UK shipbuilding industry credible, while also potentially providing the RN with more ships to meet its multitude of global tasks.

This must be balanced with the RNs aim of being able to operate as a global navy capable of fighting peer opponents – which the Type 31 will not realistically be able to do. 

Instead, the RN finds itself in a challenging position – it will be given a frigate that can do some of the work it needs to do, but which cannot do everything. Is it better to have some frigates available for these jobs, or instead build more OPVs like the River class, and settle on an escort fleet of 14 first rate ships, and accept the tradeoff that the UK won’t try to fill the gap that the Type 31 is being designed to fill. The risk is that decision-makers will view the Type 31 as the long-term ‘affordable’ solution to the RNs needs, making it harder to explain and justify the need for the extremely expensive Type 26 & 45s and their eventual replacements. 

There is a positive story to be told today about the state of UK shipbuilding, with many major projects on the go, and literally tens of billions of pounds and decades of work planned across different ship classes.

The question though is whether the current plans are the right combination of capability, numbers and affordability, or if it is better to do things differently – the RN needs to decide if it wants to be a high platform and low capability navy that can do most of the work but not be able to fight and survive in complex operations, or if it wants to have a smaller number of very expensive and capable platforms that can operate alongside its peers, at the cost of significantly reduced numbers and global presence.

It is an almost impossible decision to have to make.