LONDON — Engineering specialist Babcock International has named the industry team it hopes will secure a contract to build at least five Type 31e general purpose frigates for the British Royal Navy. The announcement coincided with the visit of the new British defense secretary, Gavin Williamson, to the company’s shipyard at Applefore, southwest England, on Jan 8.

The Team 31 industry partnership led by Babcock includes warship designer BMT, mission systems developer Thales, and shipbuilding companies Ferguson Marine and Harland & Wolff.

A Babcock spokesman said Team 31 would be bidding “a blend” of the warship designs available from itself and BMT.

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Babcock launched its Arrowhead design at the DSEI defense show in London last September, while BMT has had its Venator-110 frigate on the drawing board for a while.

Apart from the Arrowhead and Venator-110, Team 31 has other options open to it. The final choice of platform it will propose likely depends on the outcome of a value-management process — now entering its final phase — where the MoD and the rival bidders are exploring the possible trade-offs between cost and capability of the Type 31e.

Babcock, BMT and Thales have all been involved in the design and assembly of the £6.2 billion (U.S. $8.4 billion) program to build two 65,000-ton aircraft carriers for the Navy. The warships have been assembled at Babcock’s Rosyth dockyard from modules built at facilities around the U.K.

Babcock’s CEO Archie Bethel said the Team 31 partnership will allow the key lessons from the aircraft carrier program to move forward.

“We firmly believe that our combined skills can deliver an affordable and effective Type 31e frigate program for the Royal Navy and offer something new and exciting in the export market. With a high degree of UK content and the use of innovative technologies, we believe that our approach will deliver real benefit,” Bethel said.

Williamson’s tour of the Appledore yard, where Babcock is building an offshore patrol vessel for Ireland’s naval force, is the latest in a series of visits — made first by then-Defence Secretary Michael Fallon and now his successor — to potential contenders for the Type 31e deal.

Fallon, who was forced to resign in November over an alleged sex scandal, was a champion of the Type 31e program. Industry executives in Britain say Williamson’s visit could signal continued top-level ministerial support, even though it seems the government will delay a decision on whether to provide additional funding so the MoD can avert a series of damaging capability and program cuts and to bring the defense budget under control.

One executive, who spoke to Defense News on condition of anonymity, said he’d like to see Williamson be “explicit” in his support for the Type 31e. “Everything is up for grabs with the current budget pressures, but so far I have been impressed by the way the MoD is holding to the Type 31e schedule,” he said.

The prize for the winning team is a contract to build five frigates for the Royal Navy, with the first warship scheduled to be handed over as soon as 2023, when the first of the Type 23 warships it replaces is due to be pensioned off.

Type 31e and the more complex Type 26 anti-submarine warfare frigate are to replace the 13-strong Type 23 fleet. A £3.7 billion deal for the first three Type 26 frigates was awarded to BAE Systems in June.

If the Royal Navy is to stand a chance of getting its first Type 31e on schedule, there is no room for program slippage.

The MoD has capped the cost of the contract at £250 million per ship.

The Conservative government has made a vague promise of additional Type 31e frigates for the Royal Navy in the 2030s, dependent upon the program’s success, and it also hopes to secure a foothold in what is already a crowded export market for light frigates as part of the national shipbuilding strategy launched in late 2016.

The MoD issued a request for information to industry last year and received 20 expressions of interest, including one from a Cammell Laird team involving but not led by BAE Systems.

The MoD launched the frigate program last September and is currently in its pre-procurement phase.

Defense procurement minister Harriett Baldwin told Parliament on Nov. 29: “We plan to formally start the competitive process in 2018 and award a single design and build contract in 2019, allowing us to trial and accept the first ship into service in 2023.”

Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.

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