LONDON ― Initial details on how Britain plans to build the first batch of new Type 31e general purpose frigates for the Royal Navy will be unveiled as the centerpiece of a national shipbuilding strategy scheduled to be released by the government on Sept. 6.
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon will outline to Parliament on Wednesday a strategy that could see the frigate block built by several yards around Britain ahead of being assembled at a yet-to-be-determined facility.
At present, Royal Navy destroyers, frigates and offshore patrol vessels are built by BAE Systems at two yards in Glasgow, Scotland.
“This new approach will lead to more cutting-edge ships for the growing Royal Navy that will be designed to maximise exports and be attractive to navies around the world. Backed up by a commitment to spend billions [of pounds] on new ships, our plan will help boost jobs, skills, and growth in shipyards and the supply chain across the UK,” Fallon said in a statement.
The Ministry of Defence statement, provided ahead of the strategy unveiling, said that a batch of five general purpose frigates would be built at a cost capped at no more than £250 million (U.S. $324 million) each.
Industry executives , who asked not to be named, said MoD officials believe lower cost commercial yards around the country can undercut BAE on warships like light frigates.
In line with a long-standing policy in the U.K., the warships will be constructed in the country but could be “built in a way which could see them shared between yards and assembled at a central hub,” according to the statement.
The British already have experience assembling warships from blocks.
The Royal Navy’s two new 65,000-ton aircraft carriers were built in large blocks at six yards around the U.K. and floated around the coast to be assembled at the Babcock International yard at Rosyth, Scotland, by a BAE Systems-led industry and MoD alliance.
Cammell Laird is also using the block build process on the £150 million polar research ship being built for the U.K. at its Birkenhead, England, yard.
‘These should unlock our potential’
The strategy content drew a positive response from Sarah Kenny, the chief executive at BMT, Britain’s leading naval design house.
“I am delighted that the strategy sets out an agenda which challenges the U.K. to raise standards and drives us to become more competitive, whilst also creating an environment that better enables success,” Kenny said.
“There are positive socioeconomic benefits to be reaped from cultivating the U.K.’s excellence in naval design and engineering, to deliver on our own ship design and shipbuilding demands. Developed properly, these should unlock our potential giving us a competitive edge in export to other navies around the world,” she added.
The option to block-build the Type 31e could end BAE System’s monopoly on building frigates and other complex warships for the Royal Navy at its Scotstoun and Govan yards.
The company currently has five offshore patrol vessels and three Type 26 anti-submarine warfare frigates for the Royal Navy on its order book for the Scottish yards.
A further five of the Type 26 frigates are scheduled to be ordered from BAE sometime in the early 2020s in a build program expected to run until 2035.
The MoD originally planned to build 13 of the Type 26 frigates to replace the Type 23 fleet on a one-for-one basis, but cut the number to eight in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review, replacing the axed ships with the lighter, cheaper and less capable Type 31e.
The SDSR said that by the 2030s the size of the Type 31 fleet could be increased beyond five warships, helping to rebuild a Royal Navy destroyer and frigate fleet that has shrunk to just 19 vessels.
BAE declined to comment on the shipbuilding strategy.
Aside from Babcock International ― which is building the last of four 90-meter-long offshore patrol vessels for the Irish Naval Service at its Appledore Shipbuilders facility in Devon, southwest England ― no one other than BAE has built a warship for a generation or more.
Unveiling of the national shipbuilding strategy follows recommendations to the government by industrialist John Parker last November regarding how Britain could revive its maritime industry. He said in a statement issued ahead of the parliamentary announcement that the recommendations would “change the shape of naval shipbuilding over the country in the future.”
“The next challenge is to come up with a world-leading design; one that can satisfy the needs of the Royal Navy and the export market. We have the capability to do that, the will is there and it is a tremendous opportunity for UK shipbuilding,” he said.
Release of the strategy is set to trigger the competition to select the light-frigate design.
Maritime industry bosses and other executives have been invited to a Sept. 7 meeting in central London to be briefed on the broad outline of the Type 31e program by Defence Procurement Minister Harriet Baldwin and other senior government officials.
Further details are likely to emerge at an industry-briefing day scheduled toward the end of this month.
The MoD says it wants the first Type 31e in service to replace the Type 23 HMS Argyll in 2023. Analysts in Britain reckon that could be an unrealistic timeline.
The competition to design and build the Type 31e is restricted to British companies, according to an MoD spokesman.
Babcock International, BAE Systems, BMT Defence Services and a small design consultancy known as Stellar Systems are among the companies likely to submit designs when the competition opens.
The MoD is calling the light frigate the Type 31e to emphasize the importance of the warship’s appeal in export markets to future shipbuilding capabilities in the U.K.
Foreign navies have already been canvassed about their capability needs, and some of these have been built into the Royal Navy’s requirements to make the warship attractive in an export market where it will face tough competition from the recently launched French intermediate frigate program and others.
BMT’s Kenny said the shipbuilding strategy’s “endorsement of the [Type 31e] goes some way to promoting indigenous design capability. It is great to see the U.K. government following European counterparts and opening doors for U.K. ship design and shipbuilding in overseas frigate programs. Greater volume of U.K.-designed vessels and the resulting increased collaboration between industry partners and the U.K. enterprise can only result in a more superior solution for any naval customer,” she said.
An MoD spokesman said that while the build in U.K. policy remains for complex warships, that wouldn’t extend to three large logistics-support ships scheduled to be acquired for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.
That requirement will be opened to international shipbuilders in the same fashion as the four large oilers ordered for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary from the company Daewoo in South Korea.
Two of the ships have been delivered to the U.K., where they undergo fitting of sensitive equipment at A&P Falmouth, in southwest England, ahead of being handed over to the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.
Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.