Give BAE a kicking and flog off new UK warships, says review

Buy them, run them in and then sell them, says Sir John Parker

The Type 26 Global Combat Ship. Image: BAE Systems
The Type 26 Global Combat Ship for the Royal Navy. File picture by BAE Systems

A government-commissioned review into naval shipbuilding has torn into BAE Systems – while hinting that the number of British fighting warships should be increased, albeit with a sting in the tail.

Sir John Parker’s review into Royal Naval shipbuilding was predictably critical of BAE, whose Naval Ships division has built virtually all new RN vessels over the last decade.

Parker also tore into the Ministry of Defence’s chaotic internal organisation, which he said led to the “vicious cycle of fewer and much more expensive ships being ordered late and entering service years later than first planned.”

“Had project planning and execution been undertaken with pace and with a grip on project time and cost that should have prevailed, this situation could have been avoided,” the former chairman of Belfast’s Harland and Wolff shipyard wrote.

The review recommended that British naval shipbuilding be split up between regional shipyards, such as Devon’s Appledore and Cammell Laird at Birkenhead, to avoid over-concentration of skills (and lucrative naval contracts) at BAE Systems’ Govan and Devonport (Plymouth) yards.

In addition, it also calls for more use of modular construction, where yards build discrete chunks of ships rather than the entire hull. This method was used on the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers – and also on helicopter carrier HMS Ocean, which has some very noticeable ramps in the middle of her decks where the different sections meet.

Type 31: A bigger navy – so we can sell it off later

Parker devoted a fair part of his report to the proposed Type 31 general purpose frigate and its construction. So far all the public knows about the Type 31 is that there will be five of them.

Flibbertifrigate

Britain has one type of frigate (multi-purpose warship mounting guns and missiles and able to carry a helicopter) in service at present: the Type 23, of which we have 13. They will be replaced by two new types:

  • Type 26 Global Combat Ship. Built by BAE Systems, these eight ships will be the main replacement for the Type 23s. The Type 26 will be a general purpose complex warship with a focus on anti-submarine warfare.
  • Type 31 general purpose frigate. These were supposed to replace the last five Type 23s to leave service. No detailed design work has been done on the Type 31 so far: the MoD concept is for a fleet of five cheap and cheerful new warships capable of carrying out non-specialised warship tasks. However, those plans may change following the Parker Review.

Parker recommended that the Type 31s be “rapidly procured and placed into service as early as possible in the 2020s”. This would mean a step change in the planned programme of one-for-one replacements of the existing Type 23s frigates, where it was generally understood that the last five Type 23s to leave service in the Thirties would be replaced by the Type 31s.

Potentially, if Parker’s advice were implemented, the Royal Navy could see a temporary increase in the number of escort warships beyond the bare 19 the UK has at present.

Under the heading “exports”, however, Parker is blunt:

On occasion, if there is an urgent requirement for a new ship for an overseas naval customer which is key to the sale of a series, the RN should be willing to support the Export drive by releasing a ship for sale, earlier in the cycle than they normally would.

Writing of the urgent requirement for a “UK exportable light frigate”, Parker calls for the “Type 31e” – e for export – to be sold off early from RN service if required to boost sales, raising the spectre of the Royal Navy introducing new ships into service for just long enough to iron out the bugs before handing them over to foreign navies.

Rumours started by the BBC indicate that the RN could receive up to eight Type 31s. Against a bare minimum requirement of five, in order to fully replace the Type 23s, this suggests at least three Type 31s could be sold off prematurely in order to kick-start a revival in UK warship exporting.

Parker’s report can be read in full on the GOV.UK website (PDF). ®


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