LONDON — Britain has chosen a Danish design to equip the Royal Navy with a new fleet of general-purpose frigates in a deal with Babcock International.
The deal, announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Sept. 12, gives Britain a second naval shipbuilder and ends BAE Systems’ monopoly on surface combatant shipbuilding in the country.
The winning bid by Babcock will see the Danish Navy’s Iver Huitfeldt-class frigate modified to meet Royal Navy requirements. It will be the first non-British-designed frigate or destroyer to be used by the Royal Navy in decades.
The announcement of Babcock as the preferred contractor was expected to occur at the DSEI defense show in London, but it was hijacked by Johnson who was anxious to talk up jobs and a revival of British shipbuilding industry as the government heads for a possible general election against the backdrop of Britain’s exit from the European Union.
Senior Royal Navy officers expressed excitement at the prospect of getting their hands on such a well-regarded warship. Royal Danish Navy ships performed with distinction when they passed stringent an assessment by the British Royal Navy’s Flag Officer Sea Training organization in recent years, the officers said.
Completion of contract discussions between the Ministry of Defence and Babcock are targeted for the end of the year, but the challenging timelines on delivery of the warships has seen the contractor ramping up design work ahead of the completion of what will likely be challenging negotiations.
Some industry members think Babcock will be hard-pressed to meet its assigned deadlines, particularly on the budget. The contractor, however, is confident it will meet the challenge on both counts.
Cutting steal is set to get underway in 2021, with the first ship scheduled for launch in 2023 and the final ship delivered by the end of 2028. The sticker price for the five ships has been set at £1.25 billion (U.S. $1.54 billion).
MoD officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the first warship will not be fully completed when it is launched, and it could be 2025 before the frigate will be ready for service. The deal will see five Type 23 frigates operating in the general-purpose role replaced by 2028. The remainder of the Type 23 fleet is being replaced by eight BAE-built Type 26 anti-submarine warfare warships. Three are currently on order, the first two of which are under construction at its Glasgow, Scotland, shipyards.
Both companies’ surface shipbuilding centers are concentrated in Scotland — a fact that might concern some in England if the growing pressure from the Scottish government for a second independence referendum becomes a reality.
BAE and Atlas Elektronik were the losing bidders for the Type 31 competition. The award breaks a stranglehold that BAE has had on frigate and destroyer business in the U.K. since it first merged and then in 2009 acquired VT Shipbuilding.
Sections of the ships are expected to be built by several shipbuilders around Britain and integrated at Babcocks Rosyth facility, which has been home to Britain’s 65,000-ton aircraft carrier assembly program for the last few years.
That work is effectively done, with the second of the two 65,000-ton carriers being built by an alliance of BAE, Babcock, Thales and others scheduled to leave Rosyth in the next few days.
Rosyth is also being touted as a possible site to build up to three fleet solid support ships if a British bid led by BAE secures the deal against Spanish and Japanese competition.
A spokeswoman for Babcock said the company is not currently locked into a build strategy for the Type 31 and that the firm could construct the entire frigate at Rosyth if that’s what was required to meet the governments £1.25 billion price tag.
“We will only outsource if it makes sense,” the spokeswoman said.
However, a statement from the prime minister’s office suggests the government has other ideas. “The Type 31 program will support over 2,500 jobs across the UK, with different elements of the frigates being assembled and built at British shipyards,” it said.
Harland & Wolff in Northern Ireland and Ferguson Marine Engineering in Scotland have previously been named by Babcock as potential partners in Team 31, the name of the industry group bidding for the Type 31 deal.
The problem is though that Harland & Wolff went into administration last month, and Ferguson is set to be nationalized by the Scottish government after running into trouble in August.
The Babcock spokeswoman said the company has a flexible build strategy. That will include engaging with Liverpool shipbuilder "Cammell Laird and others.” Cammell Laird would have built the BAE ships had its bid succeeded.
The warship being purchased by Britain is known as the Arrowhead 140 and differs in its design to the Royal Danish Navy vessels, mainly by the inclusion of two additional boat bays and a different weapons fit.
MoD officials said about 75 percent of the program will come from the domestic supply chain.
Thales will supply it’s TACTICOS combat management systems, and Raytheon Anschutz was quick out of the blocks announcing its warship-integrated bridge and navigation system would be supplied to the Type 31 program and built in Britain. The latter company supplies the equipment to the Type 45 destroyer and Type 26 frigate programs.
Aside from announcing the Type 31 deal, the prime minister said he was committed to reinvigorate the British shipbuilding industry. To help realize his maritime growth ambitions, Johnson has appointed Defence Secretary Ben Wallace to act as the government’s shipbuilding czar with the task of enhancing industrial maritime capabilities.
Whether Johnson and Wallace will be around to deliver on their ambitions is a moot point, given the fragile state of the government.