This week the Royal Navy proudly heralded the first sailing of its latest warship, the impressive Queen Elizabeth class carrier. And yet as this promising new era in the Royal Navy's history begins, the questions are already starting to turn to the future of the ships that will escort her onto the high seas, as well as carrying out the sundry other security and assurance tasks demanded of the Royal Navy by the government.
The next ship in line for construction is the Type 26 frigate, designed primarily for anti-submarine warfare but also slated to be able to carry weapons like the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM). I don't think anyone would argue against the need for Type 26. Rather the question is how many, and if the answer to that question is only 8 then what is going to fill the gap to keep frigate numbers at 13, which would represent a like for like replacement of the outgoing Type 23s?
The answer at the minute seems to be the elusive Type 31. I say elusive because it seems it's been given a type number despite the fact that there is no selected design, just a bunch of PowerPoints and aspirations. And frankly I'm a little worried about what those aspirations might be.
The theory behind Type 31 is that it will be a general purpose frigate. But to me the term "general purpose" implies a ship that will be capable of doing a little bit of everything; a bit of anti-submarine work even if it's not up to the standards of Type 26, and a bit of anti-air work, even if it's not up to the standards of the Type 45. Yet the CGI impressions that we're seeing at the minute represent a ship that is anything but a general purpose frigate.
Early design proposals seem to lack any kind of anti-submarine capability beyond being able to carry a helicopter and seem to lack any anti-air capability beyond a handful of short range, self defence weapons. In short, none of the proposed designs seem capable of standing in for either the Type 45 or Type 26 fleets. Rather it seems Type 31 is more of a design aimed at relieving the pressure to deploy higher value escort assets elsewhere, allowing them to concentrate on the more important tasks such as escorting the carriers or providing individual ships to support allies in the most volatile and important theatres.
Far then from being a general purpose frigate, the Type 31 seems more like it's designed to be a frigate-lite. On a quick side note, does anyone else find they end up typing the word "firgate" more often than they actually type the word "frigate" or is that just me and my clumsy fingers?
Back on track, the Type 31 has the risk in my eyes of being something of a white elephant. Not individually, but as a program overall. Because if it's not going to be able to help hunt submarines and it's not going to be able to contribute to protecting high value assets from air attack, then just what are we buying and why does it have to be frigate shaped in the first place?
Without a serious air defence capability for example, beyond a basic self defence system, it's unlikely to be sent anywhere alone where it might face a serious air threat. In one fell swoop this basically relegates Type 31 to being a fisheries protection and maritime security vessel. And if that's the case, does it even really need a capability like sea-ceptor to protect it? Would it not just basically become a river class vessel? And if so, why don't we just build more of the batch-2 Rivers, albeit it at an alternative site than they are now in order to make way for Type 26 production?
If it were really deemed necessary you could I guess turn these into River batch 3s, replacing the main gun for example with something that has a bit more beef to it as past variants sold overseas to the likes of Oman have, though I suspect the addition of anti-air and anti-ship missiles might be going a little overboard, if you'll excuse the nautical pun.
And having reached this point you have to start asking some fundamental questions, questions like why you wouldn't just go out and buy a ready built commercial vessel, bodge a radar and some light weaponry onto it, a medical facility, some storage space for humanitarian supplies and engineering equipment, and probably a very basic hangar facility and flight deck for something like a Wildcat, thus saving the expense on the construction phase and probably getting something with a little bit more space and flexibility, albeit with trade offs in survival in the sort of high intensity scenarios that you have no intention of sending this thing into anyway.
Or, here are two slightly less radical ideas.
1) If we just want something for fishery protection and the like, especially with the impending expansion of British influence over British waters after leaving the EU, then build something more in-line with that ambition instead of being a frigate-lite. If necessary use this opportunity to develop a future mine warfare and/or survey vessel, something which will have an equally less demanding specification in terms of offensive and defensive capabilities, merging the programs together. Or,
2) Just build more bloody Type 26s.
Back in the 2011/12 time frame the Type 26 was being pegged in the £350 million price range. Oh how we laughed! And I do mean that literally. Me and @ThinkDefence were having discussions back then that put the price more around £500 million per ship as a minimum, and that was back when the design was a lot more modest than it is today, missing the 24x mark 41 VLS silos for example, and back when 13 ships were still expected to be ordered which would have amortised the program costs somewhat.
Now we're staring down the barrel of eight ships priced at around £1 billion per ship. Given the current expected £2 billion cost of the Type 31 program, that would only buy an additional two Type 26, taking the final tally for the program to 10. It's debatable whether additional ships after this would actually cost £1 billion each given that a lot of the up front costs would have already been absorbed by this point, but they'd still cost a pretty penny.
Might that be worth it though? Type 26 has the makings of being quite a capable and versatile vessel providing all the promises come good. A bit extra cost wise versus the Type 31 option might prove to be money exceptionally well spent if we get an anti-submarine vessel that also has a significant land attack capability and the potential for a decent anti-air capability (just think what you could put in those VLS, especially if you can link them to other ships).
I do wonder if this rush to support the Type 31 has left people blind to what we would be missing out on by allowing the Type 26 fleet to end at just eight. Yes, they're a bit pricey. Indeed, they're very pricey, But they're very pricey for a reason. I can't help but think that by comparison Type 31 is a bit like paying half the price for a quarter of the capability.
And I do say half the price - implying £500 million per ship - quite deliberately. If the saga of British ship building has taught us anything, it's that the first target price released by the government is almost certainly an underestimate. In fact that rule could be applied to just about every major capital program by the MoD.
One wonders in fact (for one is in posh mode) whether the rush to back the Type 31 and indeed the development of the Type 31 itself has more to do with non-defence concerns than it does with that of the health of our nation's navy. I say this because there always seems to be this one word that accompanies any mention of the Type 31, like a faithful caddy following his master up and down the golf courses of the country.
That word is exports.
Everything about the Type 31 seems to hinge on the program becoming a bit of a hit overseas, leading to export orders that will drive down the price of individual vessels and spark something a ship building renaissance in the UK. Two claims which I find highly questionable, the first because UK orders will have already been met by that point as such price decreases are unlikely to be realised in RN orders, and the second because the UK already exports some designs but hasn't had a great deal of luck overall in the military ship market.
As mentioned earlier a number of what are essentially River-class variants have already been sold abroad, often with upgrades in terms of the weaponry and systems, but the UK isn't exactly beating off the export orders with a stick. There are many reasons for this, prime among which has been the long identified problem of the UK "gold plating" its equipment, which is sometimes true and sometimes just a bitter analogy for "putting necessary equipment and systems on that some other countries just can't afford".
A similar but slightly different issue was the nature of the equipment itself. UK ships tend to carry UK specific weapon systems, while many countries around the world rely on US based systems such as the evolved sea sparrow, making UK designs unattractive if they lack the flexibility to be adapted cheaply and quickly to these systems.
Other problems include the desire for other countries to build up their own domestic ship building capacity, which means they're not as interested in buying off the shelf ships as they are buying a basic design which they can then build for themselves, and the prior strength of the UK currency, which might not seem that bad until you consider that historically two similarly priced ships - one priced in Euros and the other in pounds - would at times have been as far as 20% or more from each other in terms of their real price to customers, especially those buying in dollars.
And that is one of the things that makes this sudden lurch towards the Type 31 all the more odd to me. The Type 26 is poised to be in quite a good position by the time it begins construction. The currently lower value of the pound is likely to continue for some time and it could drop even further if the UK leaves the EU without a deal in place, or with a deal seen by the markets as being unfavourable.
If the current exchange rate holds then it could make Type 26 much more desirable on the global stage. Countries such as Canada and Brazil might even be tempted by the lower cost to take a punt on a very capable British product. By comparison if other British companies wish to challenge the dominance of BAE Systems by building a more "exportable" design then they can do that, but I see no reason why the government should essentially fund their ambitions and in doing so hobble the Royal Navy with a frigate that isn't anywhere near meeting the modern definition of that word.
While I can see the advantages in the UK finding ways to fill less intensive operational roles around the globe in order to free up the prime escorts for the more important ones, I'm not sure sacrificing frigate numbers for a class of glorified offshore patrol vessels is the best way to do it. If they were being built in addition to the full requirement of Type 26s then I might be on board, but for now I fear the Type 31 is a huge mistake in the making.