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U.K. Next-Generation Type 31e Frigate Program Runs Aground

Arrowhead frigate design for Royal Navy Type 31E competition. Babcock Photo

LONDON — Plans to build five Type 31e frigates for the Royal Navy have been thrown into disarray after Britain’s defense chiefs decided to pause the procurement competition.

At least three industry teams are vying to build the new maritime security-focused platforms, the first of which was supposed to enter service when the late 1980s-era Type 23 frigates start to leave the fleet in 2023.

With a fast-track acquisition contest heating up this summer, the Ministry of Defence has now abruptly halted the $1.64 billion effort due to what officials described as “inadequate competition” in the design phase.

The acquisition process was initiated last year as part of the U.K.’s new National Shipbuilding Strategy, which was intended to put the R.N.’s vessel procurement plans on a long-term sustainable footing and support the export of British warship designs.

With the cash-strapped MoD insisting it would spend no more than $328 million per ship, an industry team led by Babcock proposed its 140m-long Arrowhead design for the Type 31e program while rivals Cammell Laird/BAE Systems offered their 117m Leander hull. A third team was also in the running, understood to consist of Atlas Elektronik U.K. and Thyssenkrup Marine Systems.

The MoD said in a statement: “There have been no changes in our plans to procure a first batch of five new Type 31e frigates to grow our Royal Navy. We still want the first ship delivered by 2023 and are confident that industry will meet the challenge of providing them for the price tag we’ve set. This is an early contract in a wider procurement process, and we will incorporate the lessons learned and begin again as soon as possible so the program can continue at pace.”

A spokesman for Cammell Laird said the company remained “fully committed” to the frigate competition and to the U.K.’s wider defense shipbuilding strategy. Its partner BAE Systems was recently selected as preferred bidder for Australia’s SEA 5000 future frigates program.

“Cammell Laird have continued to develop the exciting Leander proposal with BAE Systems for the Royal Navy T 31e frigate competition. We are particularly encouraged by the emerging BAE Systems export prospects in the international market”, the spokesman said.

“The National Shipbuilding Strategy required a new approach from the Ministry of Defence and industry. Cammell Laird remains fully committed to achieving those aims by bringing forward its entrepreneurship and commercial shipyard capabilities. Cammell Laird will deliver a world-class frigate if we win the T 31e competition in due course.”

Expert commentators responded quickly to news of the pause, with some suggesting it is a delaying tactic by an MoD that has yet to secure the required $1.65 billion from the U.K. Treasury.

The Save The Royal Navy website argued that “building a credible warship for [$328] million to a very tight timeframe was always going to be difficult”, especially as the bidding teams “had to agree on complex divisions of work and financing between multiple contractors.”

An article published Monday by Jane’s stated that at least two of the potential bidders regarded the terms and conditions set by the MoD as unworkable, citing both commercial aspects and intellectual property rights.

Even if the MoD achieves its stated intention of ‘delivering’ the Type 31e lead ship in 2023, the subsequent sea trials, crew training and work-up could see entry into operational service slipping a year or two.

It is also worth pointing out that the MoD’s claim that the Type 31e frigates will ‘grow’ the Royal Navy is patently false, as the ships will merely replace five existing Type 23 frigates on a one-for-one basis.

Eight higher-specification Type 23s equipped with comprehensive anti-submarine warfare suites are due to be replaced by BAE Systems’ new City class (Type 26) Global Combat Ship, which will be a larger and much more expensive platform than the Type 31e.