The construction of more affordable and hopefully more exportable ‘budget frigates’ could help revitalise the British shipbuilding industry.
In September 2017, the Government announced the National Shipbuilding Strategy, solidifying the economic rationale for the earlier intention to build a new generation of frigates with the aim of increasing the number of ships the Royal Navy operates and also with the export market in mind.
It is both a rational attempt to steer British shipbuilding into the 21st century, and provide a niche to develop and broaden the mission profile of frigates as both necessary vessels for the Royal Navy and an exportable product for international markets.
The Industrialist Sir John Parker in his review of the shipbuilding sector has argued that we need to build more ‘budget vessels’ which may also prove attractive to foreign investors and buyers. Under the National Shipbuilding strategy, the Royal Navy will procure new frigates in the form of the so called ‘Type 31e’ – General Purpose Frigate design.
One of the key features of UK defence planning has been to craft an economically sound, and resourceful military to face current and future threats. It seems imperative that for our defence needs, and to project power far and wide, we need to have maritime capacity fit for future needs. For years the Royal Navy has consolidated its resources and the Ministry of Defence has cut surface and subsurface combat platforms, in favour of more sophisticated destroyers and other more specialist technologies.
However, with the launch of the HMS Queen Elizabeth and its sister ship the HMS Prince of Wales it brings us to the question as to the future of British shipbuilding and whether there could be a renaissance in our shipbuilding strategy. Thus, the real question is what type of ships should we build for the future?
I believe it is within our national interest to ensure that British shipbuilding remains a key national asset which produces future warships and is responsive and adaptive to changing market needs.
This means the UK shipbuilding strategy has to be tasked with the development of new technologies and methods of ship building, and also encourage new manufacturing bases across the country to meet the orders required. I for one am strong proponent of this initiative, and that these new warships should be built in this country as this will enable the emergence of a naval industrial base. The same shipbuilding techniques of ‘modular design’ which created the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers could be employed for the ‘General Purpose Frigate’.
The Ministry of Defence have said they want to spend £250m per ship. During the last Defence Review the government said it would purchase only eight of the more capable Type 26 frigates. Therefore these ‘budget’ General Purpose Frigates would make up the numbers.
The MoD have said:
“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,” the Defence Secretary said, adding the strategy would “help boost jobs, skills, and growth in shipyards and the supply chain across the UK.”
Our national security needs also mean we need to attract buyers and develop defence co-operation with other countries, while at the same time ensuring we meet the requirements of the Royal Navy.
While there have been arguments as to whether these vessels on a ‘budget’ would match the requirements of modern day warfare, I would content that they could. Our Royal Navy has a variety of operational roles and one of those includes patrolling the seas in counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism. These ships would free up more expensive, and advanced ships to be deployed elsewhere. In essence, the Type 31 would allow the Royal Navy to more properly utilise its vast array of vessels and technologies.
As such the new UK shipbuilding strategy is a shift in naval shipbuilding strategy away from concentrating on our key competitive advantages already in place, and actually advancing an expansionist programme of ship building.
The then Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon said:
“Backed up by a commitment to spend billions on new ships, our plan will help boost jobs, skills, and growth in shipyards and the supply chain across the UK.”
While it may be a challenge to get a Type 31e equipped with all the equipment necessary at the tonnage of 3,500 required for the cost of £250 million, we should not pour cold water and dismiss it.
As we enter into the third decade of the 21st century we need to be cost conscious and be aware that we cannot just consolidate our shipbuilding but expand it to fulfil different types of warship requirements. Therefore, I argue that ‘budget frigates’ are an exciting challenge for naval architects, the defence industry and are a nudge in the right direction for shipbuilding in the UK.