Restoring the Fleet: Naval Procurement and the National Shipbuilding Strategy Contents


The Ministry of Defence (MoD) is embarking on a major modernisation of the Royal Navy’s escort fleet. It has undertaken to replace the thirteen existing Type 23 frigates with eight new Type 26 Global Combat Ships and at least five new General Purpose Frigates, provisionally referred to as the Type 31. At the same time, the Royal Navy’s six Type 45 destroyers are about to undergo a major refit of their engines, after serious and repeated power failures.

The Government’s National Shipbuilding Strategy, to be announced shortly, will set out the framework within which these ships will be delivered. Delays to the construction of the Type 26 have had a negative impact on the skills of the shipbuilding workforce, and could have major implications for costs and availability. The National Shipbuilding Strategy must provide industry with the certainty it needs to plan and develop a stable, sustainable and highly skilled workforce. If it is to be more than a statement of aspirations, the Strategy should set out clear, timed production schedules for the delivery of both classes of frigate.

The MoD recently announced that construction of the Type 26 will commence in the summer of 2017. However, that date remains dependent upon a successful conclusion to negotiations on both the design of the ship and the contract with BAES, the main supplier. The MoD must provide greater clarity and detail on the timing of the construction phase, including a clear statement that it has the necessary funds to deliver the programme expeditiously. The importance of this cannot be overstated. The Type 23 frigates will start to come out of service in 2023 at twelve-monthly intervals. If the new frigates are not delivered to that decommissioning timetable, ship numbers will be reduced further from what is already an historic low. The current total of 19 frigates and destroyers—only 17 of which are usable—is already insufficient: to go below that number, even for a transitional period, would be completely unacceptable.

The development of a new General Purpose Frigate offers the potential both to provide the Royal Navy with a broad range of capabilities and, if sufficiently versatile and economical, to increase the number of frigates in the future Fleet. The General Purpose Frigate also offers the UK the opportunity to re-enter the export market for warships. However, the drive for exports must not come at the cost of those capabilities which the Royal Navy requires. By designing a ‘template’ warship, on a modular basis, with the potential for ‘plug-and-play’ equipment upgrades throughout its working life, the UK has a unique opportunity to halt and reverse the relentless decline in the number of its naval vessels. This opportunity must be seized.

As well as delivering the new frigates, the MoD has been forced to refit the engines of all six Type 45 destroyers. The ships have suffered from serious engine failures as a result of shortcomings in specification, design and testing. Blame for those failures can be attributed both to the MoD and its contractors, but the taxpayer will have to foot the bill. The refit of the Type 45 engines should restore confidence in the reliability of the ship but it must be carried out in a way that minimises disruption to the availability of an already depleted number of destroyers.

At 19 ships, compared with 35 in 1997, the Royal Navy’s frigate and destroyer fleet is way below the critical mass required for the many tasks which could confront it. If the National Shipbuilding Strategy can deliver the Type 26 and Type 31 GPFF to time, the MoD can start to grow the Fleet and return it to an appropriate size. The 2015 SDSR set out the Government’s ambition for a modern, capable Royal Navy. Now is the time for the MoD to deliver on its promises.

17 November 2016