LONDON — With a near £1 billion (US $1.4 billion) demonstration phase contract on a new anti-submarine warfare frigate almost at an end, BAE Systems is in discussions with the British Ministry of Defence to agree to the next tranche of work and establish a revised production schedule that could delay the start of building a fleet of new warships.
“We are working with the MoD to agree a revised program baseline following the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), including the next contracting phases for the Type 26 program,” BAE said in a statement March 2.
After a five-year assessment phase ended early last year, BAE signed a 12-month, £859 million demonstration deal with the MoD to continue to mature detailed design work on the Type 26 program. Building shore-based testing facilities and funding for long-lead item procurement on the first three frigates was also part of the arrangement, which runs to the end of the first quarter this year.
Originally the Type 26 program involved building 13 anti-submarine warfare/general purpose frigates. That plan went out the window last November when the SDSR cut the program to eight ships.
To fill the gap left in the Royal Navy’s already under-strength surface combatant fleet, the Conservative government said it would build at least five smaller, cheaper, general purpose frigates, as well as a further two offshore patrol vessels to add to the three already under construction at BAE’s two shipyards on the Clyde, Scotland.
“We committed in the SDSR 2015 to building eight Type 26 ships and are carrying out detailed work to take forward the program. We will announce our plans for progressing the program in due course,” said an MoD spokeswoman.
One of the key elements in adopting a new production schedule is exactly how quickly the MoD wants to introduce the new Type 31 light general purpose frigate that the government announced in the SDSR.
One school of thought is that the Type 31s could be on the slipway sooner rather than later. For budget and other reasons, building the Type 31s is not going to be just tacked on the end of the Type 26 program, some of which could come very early in the next decade, said industry executives who asked not to be named.
A joint MoD/industry team is already conducting early work on the Type 31 program, including looking at potential designs to fulfill the likely requirement as well as possible production schedules. One option could be a cut-down version of the 7,200-ton Type 26.
Other British designs being considered could include modified versions of the Khareef corvette already built by BAE for Oman and an offshore patrol vessel built for the Irish Navy by the Babcock International-owned Appledore shipyard in southwest England.
British naval architects like BMT Defence also have light frigate designs available.
The government and BAE are now in discussions to set the next phases of the Type 26 program as well as hammer out what the Type 31 program might look like. It may be early autumn before the revised build schedule for the Type 26 and plans for a new general purpose frigate, become clearer.
The government could publish their new national shipbuilding strategy around the September/October time and ministers have already said the two warship types will form the core of the plan to sustain and grow Britain’s maritime industry.
Whatever the outcome of the deliberations over the national shipbuilding strategy, BAE maintains there is still good momentum behind the Type 26 program.
“We continue work with the MoD and our partners to mature the design and build strategy for the ships. Our joint focus is to deliver a well-founded program that ensures the Royal Navy has the capability it needs, while ensuring the best value for UK taxpayers and sustaining our strategic national shipbuilding industry in the UK,” the company said.
About this time last year, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told Parliament the manufacturing phase for the Type 26 would start in 2016 with delivery of the new capability to the Royal Navy in 2022.
Late last year though in the wake of the SDSR announcement, Defence Minister Earl Howe told the House of Lords that construction of the Type 26 program would be “preceded” by the addition of the two additional OPVs .
“We have begun detailed work to take forward the program outlined by the prime minister [in his SDSR announcement]. The impact of building the two additional OPVs on the Type 26 program schedule, including the timing of the award of the contract to build the ships and their build schedule, will be central to this work. In due course, a revised program will be produced and be considered through the normal investment approvals process,” said Howe.
A deal between BAE and the MoD to start building the two new OPVs has yet to be announced. All three of the OPVs ordered in 2014 in a £348 million deal are under construction on the Clyde. The first of the vessels is scheduled for delivery in 2017 with the final ship being handed over the following year.
Few in the Royal Navy will be cheering their arrival too loudly.
The key reason for building all five of the 2,000-ton ships is not because they are on the RN’s capability priority list; far from it. It’s more to do with helping retain shipbuilding skills on the Clyde to bridge the gap between the fast-completing aircraft carrier build program and the ramp up of frigate construction. Where all of this leaves a revised delivery schedule for the Type 26 is unclear.
Responding to a question about the level of MoD support for British steelmakers hit by Chinese dumping, Defence Procurement minister Philip Dunne admitted to parliamentarians on March 3 that the MoD had not yet selected a steel supplier for the Type 26.
Royal Navy officers and industry executives have previously said the delivery schedule for the Type 26 was dictated by the pressing need to start taking aging Type 23 frigates out of service starting in 2023. The early warships in the class have already been extended in service well beyond their original intended design life.
The National Audit Office, the government financial watchdog, reported last year there was no further scope to extend the platform's life without expensive work. Nevertheless, a second industry executive said work has been undertaken looking at how a bit more life could be squeezed out of some of the warships.
A parliamentary answer from the MoD on March 2 stuck to the longstanding schedule for standing down the Type 23 fleet.
The current planning assumption is that the drawdown would start with HMS Argyll in 2023 and finish with HMS St Albans, the newest of 13 Type 23s currently in Royal Navy service, being pensioned off in 2035.