Thursday, 29 June 2017

The Type 26 vs the Type 31

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.


  1. No one knows what the T31 is for, but partly, thats because no one really knows what the T26 is for either.
    The earlier 20's frigates were ASW ships, designed to close the GIUK gaps and protect reforger from soviet hunter killers.

    Today, there are no soviets, few Russian subs and little chance of a "Reforger" exercise never mind reality.

    The class has been variously messed about, but giving it a land attack capacity has just confused the issue.

    Its probably too late to expect the RN to reverse course and build an asw ship that's just an asw ship, so yeah...
    Im expecting the 31s to turn in to a variant of the lcs, 8000 tonnes and armed with a pop gun, a brimstone battery and a manpad battery.
    Utterly pointless as anything but hugely oversized coastguard vessels.

    1. @Domo

      The T26 is more of a Cruiser than a Frigate. And if you believe the time of needing a large fleet of ASW frigates to guard (and close) the GIUK gap, then that is surely the way to proceed? If you want a global Royal Navy, you need GP vessels. The argument of building ships that are just ASW ships is sensible if they are expected to patrol GIUK and nothing much else.

      Personally I'd prefer A) UK buying the full complement of T26 and double down on exporting the ship or design. Or B) going for a high low fleet. Maintain enough DD and FF to guard the Carriers and build a second larger fleet of simpler vessels. In this scenario, the T31 would look like the bastard of a T23 and an Absalon/Iver Huitfeldt Frigate.

  2. Chris,

    Having reached a keyboard proper, I can offer this view. I think T31 is misunderstood as to what it is meant to be - and that the reason for it's existence is in fact the abortion that is Type 26. But it's really interesting to note that you mention the Type 23 only once, and that in reference to it simply being 'that which went before'.

    Type 23 is the ideal GP frigate. Conceived from a very basic ASW design, it has evolved into a fine combatant and has great potential yet with the advent of SeaCeptor and Wildcat. It is basic, yet in my view meets the minimum criteria for a frigate. As an aside, I have a view on those classifications which is below. But T23 is what we want as a GP frigate - it has to be able to operate alone.

    Corvette - a small, ocean-going platform capable of basic C2 but unable to operate in a hostile environment without escort. It is little more than a large gunboat.

    Frigate - a platform capable of operating independently in a moderately hostile environment, with one or more general skill sets (viewed as close ASW, local AAW defence or ASuW weapon carrier).

    Destroyer - a platform able to operate one highly specialist function (e.g. area AAW) over and above a frigate's general functions. T45 is a good example.

    Cruiser - a platform able to operate two or more specialist functions (area AAW, ASW, ASuW, land attack). Arguably the Arleigh Burke should be viewed more as a cruiser than as a destroyer.

    Type 26 was conceived as a Type 23 replacement, like for like. In principle it is elegant and ideal, building on the maxim 'steel is cheap and air is free'. Equipment was to be COTS or MOTS, and the primary sensor and weapons systems would finally be separated from the platform they were conceived for and would become independent spiralling developments. With extra space and a clever mission bay, they would be simple and attractive to the export market.


  3. 2/2

    In reality this has fallen flat on its face because the Navy has largely forgotten how to build warships. Any hope of lessons being learned from the Type 45 abortion is dead. Whilst the details are not widely available, interference by committee and lack of experience has seen multiple redesigns and amendments, all before steel has even been cut. As a result the design has exploded in cost - and for what? A vessel that is in theory as quiet and as efficient as a Type 23, with a few more weapons and more space, at an astronomical cost - it is still a frigate. It is a design failure - and thus it is the genesis of Type 31.

    Type 31, as a concept at least, is an attempt to return to the Type 23 philosophy of a frigate. It will do this by cutting out the Naval design process (which is fairly dead anyway) and leave the design to industry. In many ways it is a repeat of the Type 21 experiment - and I would argue that the Type 21's were largely a success story with the exception of their damage resilience.

    But as the NSS points out, industry needs to build to some sort of standard, and Naval design standards have been found wanting ("Industry and the Government should invest in a small, specialised virtual Innovation Centre to challenge existing naval standards" - not the best quote I could find). Thus Type 31 represents also an opportunity to shift thinking into a less bureaucratic, more agile design process that can be built upon iteratively. BAE Systems has shown with the River OPVs and the Khareef corvettes that it needs Naval inputs to continue the evolution of a platform, to still less than satisfactory results but nonetheless showing the right pattern. Whoever wins the contract, build three and test them. Build the next three to an updated design and continue the evolution - the 911 of the warship world.

    Anyway, I've rambled. But to summarise, Type 31 is not and should not be seen as a corvette with a pop-gun. It should be seen for what it should be - the replacement for the Type 23's that no longer specialise in deep-water ASW. And it should be seen as the success that Type 26 utterly failed to be.

    1. @AdamR

      Lots to agree on there. Indeed most it. Type 26 when it originally appeared in CGI form looked very much like just a sleeker Type 23. Since then it's started taking on cruiser level proportions and would probably fit your definition of a cruiser. Sadly that's what we have now and have been committed to. Type 26 is the best game in town so to speak. In fact it's the only real game in town.

      My concern looking at Type 31 is that it seems to be headed very much into your definition of a Corvette. While it might nudge into your definition of a Frigate I'm not optimistic and I think there's a real danger we'll be pouring money down the drain into a glorified fisheries ship.

      While there's still time to switch course and deliver something more along the lines of the Type 23, which I agree has a brilliant track record, I have little faith in either the government or industry to do this at any kind of acceptable cost, and once the total program cost is taken into account I suspect additional Type 26 will end up being comparable or even better value than a Type 31 GP.

      Final note: agree that Type 21 was a good idea that just needed a bit of refinement in the execution.

    2. I'm less pessimistic - given that we already have the SeaCeptor, 997, ESM, ASCG 30mm gun, decoys and S2050 development spirals, adding that to the T31 makes it a) survivable and b) a frigate. Those systems don't go on corvettes, as much for unit cost reasons as anything else. As a good comparison for those vessels either side of the corvette/frigate line, the Khareef is definitely a corvette whilst the Type 21 was clearly a frigate. Yet the tonnage difference was less than 1000t. It's about equipment as much as tonnage, and that is separate to the T31 development line anyway.

    3. See I can't imagine the MoD going for much of that on Type 31 because it requires money. Maybe a handful of SeaCeptor (12-16) but scrimping just about everywhere else they can. I'd be more reassured if the RN and MoD came out and said "these are the systems we want it to carry and these are the capabilities we're looking for. Design the vessel that will carry said items and achieve set objectives. If you disagree with any of them and have an alternative suggestion/solution then submit your reasoning. Go"

      It's the exports bits that I think is important. This whole thing smells of a stitch up where the RN capital budget will be used to fund the development and testing of a frigate that it doesn't really want because it's lacking in capability, but can be pitched towards the lower end of the export market.

  4. I did not think they have ruled out the type 31 being a cut down cheaper version of the type 26 with systems removed and a bit slower. It would make sense as a nice big hull with bags of space makes a real diffence and would give commonality.

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  6. As this site is "defence with a c" , perhaps it should read frigate-light ( not frigate-lite ).

    Dave Wolfy.