The Type 32 frigate frigate program – over before it began?

There are strong indications that the five Type 32 frigates that would follow on from the Type 31 program will be axed due to lack of funding. Here we look at the implications of this decision and its impacts on industry and the future RN fleet.

On a promise

Type 32 program first became public in November 2020 when Boris Johnson made a speech to parliament pledging to “restore Britain’s position as the foremost naval power in Europe”. In the forward to the National Shipbuilding Strategy Refresh document, he added “Shipbuilding touches every part of the Union and a successful shipbuilding sector will play an important role in achieving our leveling up missions across the country, boosting productivity, research and development, and skills. But bringing shipbuilding home is not about a nostalgic or romantic view of the past. It is about looking forward and seizing all the opportunities available to us.” The NSBS also states “using the Type 32 program as a pathfinder, the National Shipbuilding Office and the MoD will work with industry and stakeholders across Government to develop more nuanced and bespoke strategies and plans”.

The RN has said the Type 32 will be a ‘general purpose frigate’, Admiral Radakin said it was too early to be specific but a “Type 31 Batch 2” frigate could be an option. The NSbS also says the frigates would be optimized for hosting and operating autonomous off-board systems, but otherwise, specific details of Type 32, still in the concept phase are not yet available. (Further thoughts on the project in our initial article here). The MoD has said the timetable for the Type 32 frigates would see them enter service over a period of three years, commencing in 2032. This implies they would be a direct follow-on from Type 31 and the 5 ships would also be delivered at a similar pace. It also means that the design needs to be finalized in a fairly short timeframe as the first ship needs to be laid down by mid-2027 at the latest.

On 20th January 2023, MP Kevan Jones asked a Parliamentary question about whether the MoD remains committed to the T32 program. The minister sought to reassure him that T32 is still a thing and “remains a key part of the future fleet… work continues to ensure the program is affordable”. Unfortunately, this official line is rather undermined by the NAO report that stated in November Navy Command withdrew its plans for Type 32 frigates and Multi-Role Support Ships (MRSS) in the summer “because of concerns about unaffordability”. A report in the Sunday Times says Type 32 is unlikely to survive the Integrated Defense Review ‘Refresh’ due to be completed in March.

The Sunday Times article also suggests the T32 would be a £2.5Bn project, this is an estimate that allows for inflation and would imply an average cost of £500M per ship. The preceding Type 31, including Government-Furnished Equipment (GFE) cost £268 per ship (totalling £1.34Bn for the 5 ships) so £2.5Bn could be on the high side, although this very much depends on the requirement for the ship .

Shipbuilding-Schedule-2023

Without a change in funding settlement, the RN has to remain within a finite projected budget and persevering with T32 could jeopardize programs that are seen as higher priority. As the diagram above shows, in the late 2020s, and into the early 2030s, funding will be needed for the initial phases of the Type 83 destroyer project, ongoing Fleet Solid Support Ship construction and replacement of Strategic Sealift vessels. The yet-to-be-funded MRSS that will replace the LPDs, Bay class RFAs and RFA Argus is also likely to be a bigger priority if the RN has any hope of retaining its littoral strike role.

There are some rational arguments to cancel the program, especially on narrow financial grounds and the government can claim the situation has changed since 2020, the cost of providing vital military support to Ukraine, inflation and keeping a lid on spiraling national debt are not small matters. Unfortunately, these near-term issues should be considered against the longer-term strategic context of great power competition that demands increased defense spending and a stronger navy. France has to deal with many of the same challenges faced by the UK but has just announced it will increase its defense budget for the next 7 years by 30% to €413 billion. The French also generally get better value for money from their defense budget because their industrial base has been nurtured with a much steadier flow of orders, greater government backing and protection from foreign competition.

Damage

Although Type 32 is only in the early concept phase it can be seen as already having become a significant part of a government commitment to strengthen the navy, it features in the National Shipbuilding Strategy, was part of the Integrated Review and has been sold as part of the North-South ‘levelling-up’ agenda. If the program is axed, it will obviously affect the RN fleet size, will have negative impacts on the industry and potentially have disproportionately large political ramifications. Even if Type 32 was hurriedly cooked up as another wildly optimistic Boris Johnson pet project, this government will find it much more difficult to row back on the promise than it was to make it.

When the RN escort fleet was reduced to 19 in the 2010 Defense Review this was sold as the “absolute minimum acceptable number” and the RN always retained the aspiration to increase this. (For various reasons by the end of 2023 we will be down to a total of just 17). If the Type 32 program does go ahead and follows directly on from T31, then escort numbers could reach 24 by about 2034-35 (depending on the delivery speed of Type 26). In simple terms, if the government wants a fleet capable of defeating our enemies, warship numbers matter. We will not rehearse all these common-sense arguments again here but historical analysis shows that broadly speaking numerically superior navies generally defeat technically superior opponents, something the RN clearly understood while it maintained a vast fleet until the end of WWII. As the RN now has a Carrier Strike Group held at high readiness and also aspires to field two Littoral Strike groups, the current figure of 19 mandated escorts is totally inadequate. Five T32s would provide a 24% increase in mass which would help reduce this over-stretch and be more in line with the RN’s global ambition.

If the NSbS has one overriding theme, it is that a drumbeat of orders will drive efficiency and reduce long-term costs. Canceling the T32 project would be a return to the ruinous feast and famine policy that has been so damaging to UK defense procurement. Most assume that T32 will be awarded to Babcock and be a modified Type 31, taking advantage of an open production line and commonality with an existing platform. This would ensure the workforce is retained and would drive costs down. Throwing away the frigate manufacturing capability that Babcock has managed to build almost from scratch at Rosyth would be negligent and destructive from an economic, employment and strategic perspective.

To complicate matters BAE Systems may also be interested in participating in T32 in order to maintain work continuity at their shipyards on the Clyde. If the Type 83 destroyer project is not started promptly, there is now potentially a gap in workflow as the Type 26 program winds down in the mid-2030s. Besides the shipbuilders, there are also warship designers that need work so as to nurture and maintain this specialist skills base. Much of the design work for T26 and T31 has already been completed and T32 would be next in line. The Adaptable Strike Frigate concept recently unveiled by BAE Systems demonstrates warship designers already considering options for Type 32.

Scotland benefits hugely from being the location of the vast majority of surface ship construction for the Royal Navy. The nationalists almost completely ignore this fact which is counter to their claim that they have been ‘short-changed’ over shipbuilding by politicians in Westminster. The award of Type 31 and recent Type 26 batch II contracts to Scottish yards were ignored by the nationalists. However, as soon as the rumors surrounding cancellation of the Type 32 project emerged, the SNP were quick to jump in calling it “Catastrophic… it would represent a gross betrayal of Scotland”.

Axing the Type 32 may indeed be damaging to the interests of Scotland and more importantly, the Union as a whole but it has the potential to become another grievance than can be grossly exaggerated by those that seek to break up the United Kingdom – something that really would be catastrophic. When the Type 26 order was reduced from the promised 13 down to 8 in 2015, nationalists portrayed this as another ‘betrayal of Scotland’. This trope continues to permeate their narrative today, despite the fact that 13 frigates are now under contract with Scottish yards and there has been investment in facilities at Rosyth and in Glasgow. Whatever the broader context of the situation, either way, ending T32 has the potential to further damage the fragile Union.

From a Tory perspective, canceling T32 would provide an open goal for Labor it can use as evidence that ‘levelling up’ is not a serious commitment and there is no coherent defense-industrial policy. The loss of jobs in Scotland may not have much impact on Tory election success, but there is a wider UK supply chain involved and a small section of voters that actually care about the state of the Royal Navy.

In addition to the major investment in modern panel lines and automated fabrication facilities, the newly constructed Venturer Building at Rosyth has space to assemble two frigates side by side.

Alternatives

If a ‘higher-end’ £500M frigate is unaffordable then there are some compromises that could be made to mitigate the issue. T32 could be de-scoped to make its price comparable or even lower than Type 31, pending funding to properly equip the ships in the future. Alternatively, T31 production could simply be extended and further identical ships could be added to the existing program, Babcock would be in a good position to build these ships at a very competitive price. Even if this was just two or three vessels delivered at a slower pace, this would keep the production line alive and grow the fleet slightly.

If the RN must be forced to choose between the T31 and the Type 83 destroyer / ‘Future Anti-Air Warfare capability’ then the T83 has to be the priority. Countering future hypersonic and ballistic missile threats is non-negotiable if the RN wants to remain a first-rank navy. Analyzes suggest the Type 83 project will inevitably be very expensive and if cut, T32 could be seen as a casualty of escalating and complex new threats.

Type 32s would actually add mass to the fleet and are not just a replacement for ships already in service. In the bizarre world of UK defense thinking, T32 might therefore be considered a ‘luxury project’, a rare outlier going against the permanent trend of numbers reduction. While plenty of other procurement projects across UK defense could be seen as expensive or even profligate, building on the success of the T31 model, T32 would deliver relatively good value for money. Cutting it would have disproportionately negative impacts in comparison with the cash saved in the near-term.

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