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

4General Purpose Frigate


62.As discussed earlier in this Report, the original programme for the Type 26 envisaged 13 ships of the same class, of which eight would be anti-submarine frigates and five general purpose frigates. In SDSR 2015, the Government announced that the five general purpose frigates would no longer come from the Type 26 class but would developed as a new class of lighter frigate, provisionally known as Type 31.

Design and capabilities

63.The General Purpose Frigate (GPFF) is in its concept phase but concerns have already been raised about a potential downgrading of its capabilities, and its role in the Royal Navy’s fleet has been questioned. Speaking to IHS Jane’s in early 2015, Admiral Sir George Zambellas, the then First Sea Lord, was unequivocal in his belief that the high-end capability envisaged for the Type 26 frigates should not be downgraded for the GPFF:

One of the siren calls I completely resist is to try and produce something that is not a credible platform, something that is smaller, cheaper, and less effective.

He further argued:

The other thing is you don’t have less credible platforms trying to protect major assets, nor do you try to put them into partnership with senior alliance partners. So if you’re protecting an American carrier or a French carrier it’s got to be credible. If you’re doing air defence, it’s got to be credible. And if you’re doing anti-submarine warfare, it’s got to be credible.82

64.The Secretary of State wrote to us stating that the GPFF programme was in its concept phase, and that “a range of capability requirements” were being considered. That work would cover “the ship’s role, operating environment and the likely threats it will face”.83 In response to a Written Parliamentary Question, Harriett Baldwin MP explained that this work was “in the very early stages” and therefore it was too soon to set in any detail the build strategy for the ship.84

65.In oral evidence Admiral Jones, the current First Sea Lord, explained the general thinking which underpinned the GPFF. He said that it would operate at “a slightly lower end of Royal Navy operations” but that it would still be able to operate globally as a reliable, dependable and independent frigate.85 However, he acknowledged that GPFF would be a “much less high-end ship” than the Type 26.86

66.Within these parameters, Admiral Jones emphasised that the GPFF would be a “complex warship” with the capability to “protect and defend and to exert influence around the world”.87 However, as a recent House of Commons Library Paper highlighted, the MoD’s definition of a “complex warship” is open to interpretation:

A warship is generally defined as a surface ship or submarine armed and equipped for military use. In the context of warships, the word “complex” is used commonly as a relative rather than an absolute, defined term. It enables us to differentiate between vessels across a broad spectrum of capability depending on their size, form, function and scale of integration between the on-board systems required to fulfil their role.88

67.Neither Lord West nor Sir Mark Stanhope was convinced that the GPFF would deliver the capabilities required by the Royal Navy. Lord West described the GPFF as “jam tomorrow” and saw the development of a less capable ship as being a retrograde step:

In the Falklands war, HMS Exeter was doing drug patrols in the Caribbean. She sailed straight to the South Atlantic and killed more Argentinian aircraft with her Sea Dart than any other ship there. That was the high-end capability, and we will have lost that.89

68.Sir Mark Stanhope agreed and highlighted anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and close range sonar as two capabilities which he believed would be absent. He said that:

Modern day ASW is about silent platforms. Silent platforms cost and, quite clearly, in cost terms, the general purpose frigate will be nothing like that”.90

69.In response, Admiral Jones asserted that the GPFF frigates would “not only fill in the gaps but do more”.91 He also highlighted the fact that “at the heart of the SDSR” was the ambition to increase the size of the Royal Navy and explained that the National Shipbuilding Strategy should allow the Royal Navy to “start growing in its destroyer and frigate numbers in the 2030s”.92

Potential for export

70.The SDSR made clear that a key aspect of the design and development of the GPFF would be to build a warship which could be successful in the export market. In answer to a Written Parliamentary Question, Harriett Baldwin MP stated that the National Shipbuilding Strategy would consider “how to balance the GPFF requirement against export opportunities and industrial capacity”.93 Admiral Jones confirmed to us that the trade-off therefore required the development of a frigate which would be at “a slightly lower end of Royal Navy operations” in order to make it an attractive proposition for a “much wider set of our international partners” and help the UK to re-enter the world of “very credible and effective surface ship exports”.94 That said, Admiral Jones did not underestimate the difficulties in designing a frigate with both the capabilities required by the Royal Navy and export potential:

Very many [other countries] are in the game for general purpose frigates that have an ocean-going, deployable, sustainable capability, and that can conduct maritime security operations, [but] are not going to get into the game of high-end protection of a carrier strike group or a deterrent submarine.95

71.This difficulty is not new. PA Consulting, in its recent paper Developing a sustainable export market for UK defence, highlighted the challenge facing the UK in developing its export market:

Despite the UK being the world’s second largest defence exporter after the US (with sales of over £56 billion in the last ten years), it is difficult to identify a UK-developed platform in recent decades that has sold to a number of countries. Much of the commercial export success is attributable to one-off, albeit substantial, Tornado and Typhoon sales to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Fundamentally, many UK-built products (for example Type 45 destroyers) are so specific to UK requirements that they are not suitable for export.96

Furthermore, the export market for a new generation of frigates is already a crowded one, with several larger European states already building frigates, such as the Franco-Italian FREMM Frigate already being built for export.

72.The production of the GPFF must be aligned so that it fits seamlessly into the Type 23 replacement programme both in terms of timing but more importantly in terms of capability. We recommend that the MoD sets out how the construction timetable for the GPFF will dovetail with that of the Type 26. We will also expect more detail on how the MoD will fund and deliver on its aspiration to increase frigate numbers by the 2030s.

73.The GPFF has the potential to provide the Royal Navy with a modern, flexible frigate. It also offers the UK the opportunity to re-enter the highly valuable export market for warships. However, there is a balance to be struck between these two ambitions. On the one hand, the GPFF must be designed to provide the Royal Navy with the capabilities it requires. Yet, on the other hand, it may be that modular design of a “template” warship, will enable a greater number of basic hulls to enter service, with additional “plug and play” capacity being added incrementally at later stages. We recommend that the MoD should set out the minimum capabilities required of the GPFF and how they differ from those Type 23s which they will replace.

74.In addition, it is vital to know which European examples, whether it be the French Aquitaine-class, or the Danish Absalon-class frigates, the MoD has considered as being suitable templates for the GPFF.

82 IHS Janes (4 March 2015)

83 Ministry of Defence (RNT0003)

84 HC Deb, 7 September 2016, (43692)

85 Q196 [Admiral Jones]

86 Q149 [Admiral Jones]

87 Q149 [Admiral Jones]

88 The Royal Navy’s new frigates and the National Shipbuilding Strategy, Briefing Paper No. 7737, House of Commons Library, October 2016

89 Q3 [Lord West]

90 Q3 [Sir Mark Stanhope]

91 Q178 [Admiral Jones]

92 Q168 [Admiral Jones]

93 HC Deb, 7 September 2016 (43692)

94 Q168 [Admiral Jones]

95 Q196 [Admiral Jones]

17 November 2016