Rejoice, but bad news awaits for Type 26?
Seemingly timing the release to coincide with the Sunday papers, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced on 2 July that it had awarded BAE Systems a £3.7 billion contract for the manufacture of three Type 26 frigates.
Typically, industry has reacted positively for the most part, with prime contractor and employment unions scrabbling over themselves to issue embargoed releases days in advance.
In a statement BAE Systems said that steel for the first vessel is due to be cut in Glasgow in the coming weeks and that the contract ‘provides a strong foundation for the next two decades of shipbuilding in Scotland’ while ‘securing more than 3,400 jobs across BAE Systems and the wider UK maritime supply chain’.
Charles Woodburn, chief executive BAE Systems, said: ‘We are extremely proud to be chosen to design and manufacture vessels that will give the Royal Navy an essential, next generation capability and be a vital addition to its fleet.
‘Today we have five River-class offshore patrol vessels at varying stages of construction for the Royal Navy across our shipyards in Glasgow and we look forward to starting manufacture on the first Type 26 ship in the coming weeks.’
Meanwhile the GMB shipbuilders union ‘welcomed the announcement’ that a contract for the Type 26 build phase had been signed. The union stated that the deal will secure around 1,700 shipbuilding jobs in Scotland and 1,700 further jobs across the UK until 2035.
Ross Murdoch, GMB National Officer, called it 'fantastic news' but also commented on the desire to see 'future confirmation' on the other five ships planned.
Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon also met this tide of optimism with the standard line of rising defence budgets and the eponymous £178 billion ‘equipment plan’.
‘The Type 26 frigate is a cutting-edge warship, combining the expertise of the British shipbuilding industry with the excellence of the Royal Navy. We will cut steel on the first ship later this month – a hugely significant milestone that delivers on our commitment to maintain our global naval power.'
Eight of the near 8,000t frigates are expected to be built for the UK Royal Navy but with the usual practice of batch-buying, there is room for the Government to manoeuvre should it require the MoD to make some inroads into a growing financial black hole in the ministry’s finances.
Saving will be made in manpower when the crews begin switching across from the ageing T23 frigates to the new T26’s, however a move by European NATO countries to pool resources and capabilities could see a further reduction in surface fleet numbers.
Recall that it was decided that six T45 air defence destroyers could do the job where 12 had been planned for, with the powers-that-be claiming that a class twice as capable as its predecessor needed only half the numbers.
That said, at least frigates are going to be built.
However the spectre of a further hollowing out of the navy raises another ephemeral digit as it is not clear that the current build programme is going to be able to meet the schedule for the planned out-of-service dates for the Type 23’s. All the Type 23’s at the date of their departure will have endured over 30 years of hard service.
And questions remain as well over what arms will equip the Type 26 as any delays to industry programmes could, again, see the billion pound warships greatly reduced in firepower. The current frigate fleet has seen its Harpoon ASuW weapon system mostly removed, with only one of two Type 23's currently escorting the HMS Queen Elizabeth in its sea trials equipped with a ship-to-ship missile capability.
Industry watchers are also awaiting the MoD's long-awaited response to Sir John Parker's National Shipbuilding Strategy document released last year which urged Government to diversify its industrial base and produce a vessel capable for export.
The vessel intended to bulk up the number of the frigate fleet post Type 26, the so-called Type 31 light frigate, is in its infancy in terms of design. And while the UK industry and purse-holders procrastinate, export rivals such Naval Group (formerly DCNS) and its Bellharra light frigate are already ahead of the curve, and aiming for dozens of vessels produced for the international market as well as domestic customers.
So while this latest announcement in the long-running saga should be welcomed it remains to be seen what cuts, nicks and salami slices are hiding just around the bend.
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