A BAE display model shows the new Type 26 frigate proposed for the Royal Navy. (Christopher P. Cavas / Staff)
LONDON — BAE Systems is finishing proposals to build a new generation of frigates for the Royal Navy and has begun delivering details of the bid to the British Defence Ministry ahead of a decision expected by the end of the year, company officials said.
The Royal Navy is looking to acquire 13 of the Type 26 frigates for a total of roughly £4 billion (US $6.6 billion), with the first of the warships expected to be delivered starting late 2021 to provide what will eventually become the backbone of the fleet out to around 2060.
The warships will replace the Royal Navy’s aging Type 23 fleet.
“Initial documents to support the business case for Type 26 have been submitted. The process is underway but not finalized yet. We expect that to be complete by the end of the summer,” a BAE spokeswoman said.
BAE is concluding a four-year, £150 million assessment phase on the Type 26 this year and hopes to get the development and build phase approved in order to start cutting metal in 2016.
The 6,000-ton Type 26 is primarily intended for anti-submarine warfare, but the design gives the Royal Navy the versatility that is essential given its small number of surface combatants — 13 Type 23 frigates and six Type 45 destroyers.
“We are planning for a class of 13 ships, but this will be confirmed at the main investment decision, which is expected towards the end of 2014,” an MoD spokeswoman said.
BAE’s proposals are based on a 13-ship fleet, but Jeff Searle, the company’s program director, told reporters on June 3 that he “expected a phased commitment” by the MoD.
During a parliamentary debate in December, defense procurement minister Philip Dunne said there would be an initial order for eight Type 26s, but the MoD spokeswoman last week would not comment on whether that remained the case.
Dunne told Defense News in a recent interview that getting the Type 26 build program under contract was one of his priorities ahead of the general election in May 2015.
That’s a view BAE would echo, industry executives said.
The Type 26 deal is one of several planned major defense equipment investments that the government is attempting to get approved ahead of the election, a strategic defense review and potentially further defense spending reductions all threatening to impact the sector next year.
More immediately, though, is the question of exactly what effect, if any, an upcoming Scottish independence referendum vote might have on naval construction programs here.
Opinion polls are showing a majority in favor of remaining part of the UK, but a “yes” vote on Sept. 18 can’t be ruled out.
Independence would likely seriously impact the timing of approval and number of hulls for a Type 26 program, which is slated to be built at BAE’s surface warship yards in Glasgow, Scotland.
The British government has consistently said Royal Navy warships have to be built in the UK.
That point was reiterated Aug. 12 when Britain’s new Defence Secretary Micheal Fallon announced that a £348 million deal with BAE for three ocean-going patrol vessels would continue in Scotland only if voters reject independence.
“UK warships are only built in UK shipyards,” Fallon said in a statement.
The government options to build surface warships elsewhere appear somewhat limited. BAE is in the throes of closing its other UK surface warship yard at Portsmouth, southern England, as part of a major downsizing in build capacity.
That leaves BAE’s nuclear submarine building facility at Barrow-in-Furniss and a small yard run by Babcock International as the only two operations working on naval orders south of the border.
Babcock’s Appledore yard in southwest England is building the second of two 90-meter offshore patrol vessels ordered by the Irish Naval Service.
BAE is proposing updating its Scottish shipbuilding capabilities, but that also depends on the outcome of the referendum.
The favored option is a £200 million investment in the Scotstoun yard on the Clyde and closure of the nearby Govan facility, but a dual-yard approach is also on the table.
The BAE spokeswoman said a decision on the investment proposal is expected toward the end of the year, with the update work beginning next year.
The first of the new 90-meter patrol vessels will be delivered to the Royal Navy in 2017, with all three warships handed over by the end of 2018.
The warships are destined to undertake operations in home waters as well as globally in roles conducted by frigates and other larger vessels such as anti-piracy, counterterrorism and anti-smuggling.
The intent to purchase the warships was announced by the British government in November.
In part, the patrol vessels are being constructed to fill the gap in work between completion of two aircraft carriers now being built for the Royal Navy and the start of the Type 26 program.
Under an earlier business agreement with BAE, the government would have had to pay for shipyard workers to effectively sit around doing nothing until the Type 26 program gathered construction momentum later in the decade.
The future of the three relatively new River-class offshore patrol vessels that the new patrol warships will replace will be decided by next year’s strategic defense and security review.
Larger than the River-class vessels deployed by the Royal Navy for fisheries protection and other duties in home waters, the new warships will be capable of landing AgustaWestland’s Merlin helicopters and have more room for embarking personnel.
BAE said the new warships, adapted from a design already in service with the Brazilian and Thai navies, will have a range of 5,500 nautical miles, be globally deployable and capable of ocean patrol. ■