There’s a lot of misunderstanding and myth circulating about how many ships the shipyards on the Clyde are expecting to build, but what’s the truth?
The chopping and changing when it comes to the requirements of the Royal Navy in terms of ship classes, numbers and even the building of those ships has caused a great deal of misunderstanding and confusion, not least when discussing Scottish politics.
Shipbuilding on the Clyde became controversial during the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, when the pro-union ‘Better Together’ campaign touted the planned Royal Navy order of 13 Type 26 Frigates to be built on the Clyde as a benefit of Scotland remaining in the United Kingdom.
Essentially, people believe that Scotland was promised 13 warships.
The issue? The future composition of the Royal Navy surface fleet was changed after a defence review in 2015 resulting in five of those frigates being cancelled and replaced with cheaper general purpose vessels, amid cries of ‘betrayal’ but why did this happen?
Why were Type 26 numbers reduced?
The initial Type 26 Frigate order had been cut back from 13 to 8 in order to fund more of the immediate spending outlined in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review. As a result of Type 26 being reduced to 8 ships, it was announced that five cheaper general purpose frigates were to be designed and ordered.
Part of the reason for this is that the MoD is hoping to reduce its reliance on BAE and cut the costs of procurement by spreading shipbuilding work across civil and naval yards around the UK. To this end, the UK Government say they are implementing the results of an independent report into the National Shipbuilding Strategy by Sir John Parker which recommended that the Type 31 Frigate build be spread across the UK, with blocks and components being constructed in yards in both Scotland and England.
The National Shipbuilding Strategy was intended to be a “radical, fundamental re-appraisal of how we undertake the shipbuilding enterprise in the UK, intending to place UK naval shipbuilding on a sustainable long term footing”.
The news that BAE decided not to bid to assemble the Type 31e Frigate on the Clyde due to an apparent lack of interest created a stir in Scotland after earlier expectations that the light frigates would be built there.
However, BAE themselves say that shipbuilding capacity on the Clyde will be maxed out until the mid 2030s while the Ministry of Defence want the first of the new Type 31 Frigates in service by 2023, one of the primary reasons they have decided not to bid as prime contractor for the project, there’s no space at the BAE yards on the Clyde to do so if they are to meet the deadline for the first Type 31e to hit the water.
BAE say the move will allow them to ‘appropriately support the National Shipbuilding Strategy’ whilst ensuring the delivery of the five Offshore Patrol Vessels and the City class Type 26 frigates currently on contract, ‘to time, budget and to the highest quality standards.’
In a press release BAE say:
“BAE Systems is focused on the manufacture and delivery of the two QE Class carriers, the five River Class Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPV) and the first three City class Type 26 warships, as well as continuing to develop and upgrade combat management systems on all Royal Navy ships. Taking account our current and future workload, including Type 26, our shipbuilding capacity on the Clyde will be full until the mid 2030s.”
BAE also signalled their reluctance to bid for the Type 31 Frigate as prime contractor due to concerns of a “race to the bottom” on price. Speaking to The Herald here, BAE managing director Iain Stevenson signalled the defence firms lack of interest on building the vessel:
“We do want to be involved in Type 31. But we have questions. Does it have a budget? What are the timescales. We have not got solid facts. Type 31 could be a race to the bottom. If it is a front price contract people might bid for it to win and it and it might put them out of business. We would not, because we are BAE Systems.”
Could the Type 31e Frigate still come to the Clyde?
Babcock recently announced that it will lead a team of industry partners in a bid for the new £1.25 billion Type 31e Frigate with work to be undertaken in Scotland, England and Northern Ireland.
Babcock say work would be shared across the UK its facilities in Fife and Devon being among the prime locations for building. Ferguson Marine on the Clyde will also be in line for the work, should they still be in business.
The build plan for the Type 31 Frigates could follow a similar pattern to that of the Queen Elizabeth carriers and early Type 45 Destroyers in that blocks will be built in yards around the UK and assembled at one main location.
Modern shipbuilding makes considerable use of prefabricated sections. Entire multi-deck segments of the hull may be built elsewhere around the UK, transported to the building dock or slipway, then lifted into place and assembled into one ship. This is known as block construction and is far more cost effective. Yards pre-install equipment, pipes, electrical cables and any other components within the blocks, to minimise the effort needed to assemble or install components deep within the hull once it is welded together.
A contender in the Type 31e programme, Babcock, says it would act as the overall programme lead for their offering the Arrowhead 140 hull design, whilst Thales would have overall responsibility for the development of the Mission System solution. The make-up of the team, the company say, will ensure that the economic benefits of the programme are shared across the UK.
Babcock CEO Archie Bethel said:
“Team 31 will allow Babcock and Thales to take forward the key lessons from the Aircraft Carrier Alliance and apply them in a new and highly capable team with Harland & Wolff, BMT and Ferguson Marine. We firmly believe that our combined skills can deliver an affordable and effective Type 31e Frigate programme 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 benefits to UK plc.”
Victor Chavez, CEO of Thales UK said:
“Thales UK is delighted to be working with Babcock and our partners as part of Team 31. We recognise the diversity of roles anticipated for Type 31e and, together, we will create and exciting, innovative and flexible capability for the Royal Navy based on the best of UK and international technologies in an open-system architecture that will ensure long term value for money.”
What about other vessels like the new support ships?
The First Minister of Scotland previously stated that the international tendering for auxiliary vessel contracts, specifically the Fleet Solid Support Ship contracts, is a betrayal of the Clyde. This is however despite the yards having no interest in them, having never been promised them and the fact the vessels couldn’t physically fit on the slipway.
Sturgeon said the move was an “absolute betrayal” in light of promises made in the run-up to 2014’s independence vote. In fact, what was “promised” before the referendum was work on complex warships, like frigates and destroyers.
There are three key problems with this:
- The Clyde is at capacity with the River class and Type 26 Frigate builds and has no intention of bidding for this work.
- The 40,000 tonne support vessels wouldn’t physically fit on the slip alongside the Type 26 Frigate builds.
- The only vessels “promised” were warships, such as frigates and destroyers.
We spoke to a contact at the yard who told us:
“This is the second time this news has popped up and I have no idea why the government in Edinburgh are making these claims, these vessels were not promised to us and they’re not warships.
We’re busy with the last batch of River class ships and the first batch of the City class ships. If I had one message for them, it would be to stop using us a political football, we’re sick of it.”
We also spoke to Stuart Crawford, a retired regular officer in the Royal Tank Regiment and a former SNP defence spokesman. Crawford said:
“Nicola Sturgeon declared that the international tendering process was “a blatant betrayal of Scottish shipyards” and a reneging of promises made to the Clyde shipyards at the time of the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. Other SNP politicians have been quick to jump on the bandwagon, including Humza Yousaf MSP, Minister for Transport and representing a Glasgow constituency. The problem with the ‘Clyde betrayal theme’ is that it is just not based on the evidence. As outlined in the UK Defence Journal, three main facts undermine the argument.
First, the Clyde is already at capacity building the Offshore Patrol Boats and Type 26 frigates that will keep it busy until at least 2030. There is no intention by the Clyde yards to bid for the work in any case. Second, the FSS ships, at a projected size of 40,000 tonnes each, just wouldn’t fit into the existing Clyde facilities. And third, the only ‘promise’ that might possibly have been made relates to complex warships only, of which the Clyde currently has it fill.”
What’s actually happening on the Clyde, is it a ‘betrayal’?
We asked Paul Sweeney, the Member of Parliament for Glasgow North East and a former yard worker at the BAE facilities on the Clyde.
“It is frankly bizarre that Scottish nationalists insist on trying to exploit a line of argument that Clyde shipyard workers have been somehow betrayed when they have job security until the 2030s with the current naval shipbuilding programme. Yes the Type 26 programme was rescoped from thirteen vessels to eight, but that change fails to take into account the additional order of five River Class Batch 2 Offshore Patrol Vessels that were placed on the Clyde to bridge work from the Queen Elizabeth Aircraft Carrier build – the largest naval ships ever built on the Clyde – and the commencement of the Type 26 Frigates, the second of which – Cardiff – will cut steel at Govan this week.
It also doesn’t take into account the significant overseas success of Type 26, with both Australia and Canada selecting the Type 26 for their own domestic frigate programmes against Spanish, Italian and Dutch rivals. This means the Glasgow-based Type 26 is now a global design, with significant involvement of the over one thousand engineering staff in Glasgow on those projects, as well as common purchasing from UK-based suppliers, even though the ships will be constructed in Adelaide and Halifax respectively, as is the norm for any advanced industrial country building ships for its navy.
It also doesn’t take into account that the pace of the Type 26 programme has been slowed from a 12 month drumbeat to an 18 month drumbeat, this extending the overall duration of the shipbuilding programme well into the 2030s. It also doesn’t factor in the opportunity of the five planned Type 31e lighter frigates, which will involve Glasgow-based BAE engineers and also construction and assembly at either Ferguson Marine or Rosyth in Fife, with BAE workers likely seconded to support those builds as happened with the aircraft carrier assembly.”
Let’s get to the point, what has been built on the Clyde since 2014 and what are the yards planning on building in future?
So, what does the prospective order-book BAE are talking about actually look like for the next few decades? We’ve included the contracted and non-contracted work the Clyde is expected to build to give an idea of the scale of work already present as BAE cite this as a reason for not bidding for the Type 31e to be assembled on the Clyde.
Ordering in batches is common for projects of this size around the world and was last seen with the Royal Navy for the Type 45 Destroyers and recent Offshore Patrol Vessels. The Type 45s first batch order was for three vessels. Ordering this way allows for changes to specifications and allows for refinements to contracts as working practices evolve and efficiencies are learned.
Eight Type 26 Frigates are to be built in total by their designers BAE, the contract for the second batch will be negotiated very soon.
Why have we included it despite this?
There are no other yards in the UK to build the Type 26, it’s a BAE product and their only surface shipyards are in Glasgow. The ships are not going anywhere unless the Royal Navy take the incredibly unlikely decision not to replace their frigate fleet.
The UK Government committed to eight advanced anti-submarine warfare ships in its 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). The Type 26 programme currently employs more than 1,200 people in the UK supply chain, with a number of contracts already in place for the manufacture of major equipment for the first three ships. In total, there are already 33 UK and international companies working in the supply chain to deliver the Type 26 ships.
The only way the Type 26 wouldn’t go to the Clyde is if the Royal Navy decided not to replace its frigate fleet. When it comes to the Clyde, overall numbers didn’t change with the reduction in the number of Type 26 Frigates planned.