Saturday, 11 March 2017

The Lighter Frigate Debate: A Look "Under the Hood"


"Was I to die this moment, 'Want of Frigates' would be found stamped on my heart. No words of mine can express what I have, and am suffering for want of them."
-Horatio Nelson, August 1798

As those who have read my musings on the "lighter frigate" in the past may already know my views on the British government's plan, laid down in the 2015 strategic defence and security review, have been mixed. To some extent I continue to blow hot and cold on the issue. It is now apparent, to me at least, that there is risk inherent in all courses of action when it comes to replacing the Royal Navy's thirteen aging Type 23 frigates. The earlier plan, to build thirteen Type 26 frigates, appears to have fallen afoul of cost and potentially timescale issues. We can criticise the decision to cap the Type 26 build run at the eight anti-submarine configured hulls all we like, but the reality appears to be that BAE's construction yards on the Clyde could not deliver Type 26 at the required tempo without very significant investment (the "frigate factory"). One shipbuild per year was needed to replace the Type 23s as they leave service, without a significant decline in RN escort numbers, whereas the yard currently appears to be scaled for one Type 26 scale shipbuild per 1.5 years.

Presuming that BAE could have delivered at the specified rate of one Type 26 build every 1.5 years it would have resulted in a dramatic decline in the RN's number of escorts, with no realistic chance of recovery until the early 2040s. It would also have likely resulted in a concurrent construction programme, using the same yards, with the Type 45's replacement in the mid-late 2030s. This would have required the Clyde yards to at least double their output of complex warships, a hard ask indeed.


The 13 Type 26 option clearly had some significant problems of its own. It was by no means an "easy" option, requiring a 33% higher build rate than BAE were required to provide under their Terms of Business Agreement with the government, significant investment in new facilities to achieve that higher build rate. Coupled with a higher rate of orders than the MoD was likely capable of funding, without compromising other programmes and we've probably explained the majority of the "witches' brew" that produced the 2015 decision to cap Type 26 at eight hulls and build five or more "lighter frigates".

It's fair to say that this decision has caused more than its fair share of controversy amongst defence commentators. During these early stages hard facts have been very thin on the ground. Most of what we have to go on is based on a few "powerpoint" design concepts put out by BAE, BMT Defence Services and Stellar Systems and Sir John Parker's recommendations for reforming the UK military shipbuilding sector. Bluntly, it isn't a lot and until the government releases its "National Shipbuilding Strategy" at some point soon(ish) we will continue to speculate about the "Lighter Frigate/General Purpose Frigate/Type 31/Type 31e", mostly in the dark. 

It's been suggested that the Lighter Frigate essentially amounts to the "anyone but BAE" option and is a means of undermining their near-monopolistic position in UK military shipbuilding. For some commentators this prospect is deeply worrying, having the potential to fatally undermine the two remaining complex military shipbuilding sites in the country by starving them of orders. For others BAE's monopoly is painted as "the problem" and one of the key reasons why UK-built warships are more expensive than their overseas equivalents. I'm, personally, more inclined to agree with the former position. However, I also see the need for the Lighter Frigate and recognise that it isn't an entirely bad idea from several standpoints.


Firstly, even with a 25% slower build tempo, one Lighter Frigate every two years, escort numbers remain relatively stable; dipping to lows of only 18. 

Secondly, 8 Type 26 at 1.5 year intervals dovetail neatly with the projected start of the Type 45 replacement programme without the need for concurrency. This indicates to me that the "Lighter Frigate undermines BAE" argument may be too harsh. There is a steady stream of the sort of high-end complex warship building work that BAE provides on the Clyde available for those yards well into the future. 

Thirdly, one of the most astute criticisms is that bringing the Lighter Frigate from the concept stage, where we are at present, to a full-fledged design able to be built is going to take time and cost money. This is absolutely the case and where much of the risk lies. However, it is not impossible to design and develop a surface escort to a constrained timescale. Doing so may actually help avoid the problems which emerge when a steady stream of additions and amendemnts are made to a design specification the longer it takes to bring it to fruition. A process that, as Type 26 demonstrates, can add significantly to development costs. It may also limit the scope for bespoke or "revolutionary" components, with designers forced to turn to off the shelf equipment and machinery. A more constrained timescale for designing the Lighter Frigate may actually prove beneficial if it produces a well-executed, but conservative, design.

An earlier and much more modest iteration of Type 26

Fourth, there is justified concern about the viability of the proposed "block build" approach that is intended to spread work to other, smaller, yards around the UK. There are evidently issues with this approach related to the shortage of yards with the necessary skilled workforce, equipment and facilities to efficiently build blocks for a complex surface combatant. While work on blocks for the carriers appears to be a positive indication of their skills and capacity to deliver, it remains to be seen if a similar model can be made to work for the Lighter Frigate. The other issue with this approach is the apparent lack of a suitable "integration yard" (where the blocks are assembled into a functioning warship).

"The vessel should be assembled in a shipyard, backed by a company or alliance with sufficient financial and industrial capacity and capability to construct and commission and enter into the key sub-contracts."
-Parker Report, 2016

There are a very limited set of options on this front. While Sir John Parker's report suggests that BAE should concentrate their efforts on Type 26 their yards on the Clyde would be an obvious option, provided that the risk of concurrently building Type 26 and integrating blocks for the Lighter Frigate could be mitigated. Unfortunately viable alternatives are very thin on the ground. Babcock international's Appledore yard is too small and their Rosyth yard, where the carriers have been constructed, is soon to become the hub for UK nuclear submarine decommissioning. Cammel Laird on Merseyside have the facilities but likely lack the skilled workforce necessary to integrate a complex warship. Their performance constructing the UK polar research ship RRS David Attenborough may give some indication of just how capable they are in this regard. Harland and Wolff's yard in Belfast is large enough, but the company hasn't built ships (let alone anything as complex as a warship) for years, having diversified heavily into the offshore wind sector. Other "options", such as re-opening the Portsmouth construction yard, are little more than fantasy.

The options for the integration yard are extremely limited, realistically boiling down to BAE on the Clyde and Cammel Laird. The latter being a much more risky option that would almost certainly require a consortium that included BAE, to bring their skills and experience to bear, in order to make it work. It would also likely require an expansion and upskilling of Cammel Laird's modestly-sized workforce. Ultimately it might be better to focus efforts on a single complex builder, BAE on the Clyde. However, this could introduce risks to the Type 26 programme. The optimal means of mitigating those risks might be to use BAE as an assembly yard only for the Lighter Frigate, keeping all fabrication activities seperate by farming them out to the smaller yards.

Cammel Laird's yard in Merseyside
If the UK government is serious about building up a second complex military shipbuilder, it needs to consider the implications on continued investment in the Royal Navy and Fleet Auxiliary that will be necessary to sustain two yards. In shipbuilding consistent investment and orders are critical. It will be no different in this case than it is with BAE.

Overall, the Lighter Frigate is simultaneously necessary and difficult to realise. Contrary to some commentators' views, I'm firm in my belief that 13 Type 26 isn't the "magic wand" answer to this problem. A long-term failure to invest in military shipbuilding has led us to a place where there are no easy options. Blaming all of our woes on BAE's monopoly is unhelpful and disguises systematic failures in the government's military industrial strategy. "Competition" isn't a magic wand either, undermining BAE with no real alternative would be the height of irresponsibility. The only way to make a semi-competitive military shipbuilding system work would be to build a significantly larger Royal Navy, able to naturally support more than one major yard. In the author's opinion, the optimum solution would be to use BAE's Clyde yards as the integrator for the Lighter Frigate. Accepting the risk to Type 26 by giving BAE the confidence to invest seriously in their yards and expand the workforce to cope with concurrent builds. The alternative, Cammel Laird, is probably just too much of a leap in the dark at this stage. 

In the end this is about providing the navy with the number of ships it needs to carry out its duties while maintaining a sustainable military shipbuilding sector. 

Oh, and the idea that the UK will export loads of these things is probably bollocks.

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