In a bid to help industry win export contracts, the UK has adopted a new naval shipbuilding strategy that includes construction for the Royal Navy of a cost-effective combatant, the Type 31 Export or Type 31e. However, as Dr Peter Roberts, director of military sciences at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) explained in a recent article, the Type 31e faces stiff competition from overseas and naval customers’ requirements are changing.
The launch of the national shipbuilding strategy, order for five Type 26 vessels to be designed and built in British shipyards with its successor, the Type 31 Export or ‘Type 31e, sees the UK’s aspiration to compete in the global warship export market.
The Type 26 is purpose-designed for the UK Royal Navy to meet its needs for a replacement for the anti-submarine version of the Type 23, but another lower cost design, the Type 31e frigate, has been proposed that would be built for the Royal Navy at a later date, but with export in mind.
In a September 2017 comment, Roberts noted that, although there are already questions as to whether the type is a frigate or a corvette, either way, the proposed price tag (£250 million/US$325 million per vessel) makes them attractive to the Treasury, but there are still questions remain over the international market.
“The market competition is tight and the British design is going to have fight against an established group of exporters that have proven designs at a critically-attractive price point,” said Roberts. “Customers all have specific national requirements, all balancing promised capabilities against price tags.
“The global market has shifted requirements back to a demand for fighting capabilities, as opposed to ships designed for constabulary missions (anti-piracy, counter narcotics and migration missions), as has arguably been the dominant requirement on the global market between the start of this century and 2015. States are now demanding ships that can defend themselves even on those missions, as the accessibility of sophisticated weapons puts scarce national assets at risk.”
So what are the international competitors to Britain’s proposed Type 31e? In France, DCNS – now called Naval Group – will provide a basic frigate (derived from the FREMM class) for around US$450 million, as it has done to Morocco. This high-spec warship includes land-attack missiles as well as anti-ship missiles, plus medium-range air defence capability linked to its modern phased-array radar, passive electronics suite, electronic attack, towed and hull-mounted sonars and submarine attack weapons.
The FREMM has space for one or two helicopters in the hangar. At 6,000tonnes it is not a small vessel and the price tag reflects that, yet it is also available on a leasing arrangement (for Greece). There is a lot of capability for a relatively small price, which has made it attractive to the export market: Australia and Canada have shown an interest for their own requirements.
The Germans can float a similarly capable vessel for around US$650 million (the F125 Baden-Württemberg class frigate), but given the lack of any sonar systems, theirs has not been an attractive proposition to the export market.
“For those with a cheaper palate,” Roberts argued, “German shipyards Thyssen-Krupp Marine Systems will also build a Sa’ar 6 corvette as they are doing for the Israeli Navy.” The Sa’ar classes have been proven in combat, have a comprehensive all-round sensor and weapon fit (including its own helicopter) and at only 2,000tonnes are available at around US$250 million.
The higher-cost end of the European export market comes from Spain and the capable, long-range F100 Alvaro de Bazan class frigate from Navantia. Providing air, surface, undersea and land-attack capabilities, a sophisticated sensor suite and built-in US (and NATO) compatible combat system, the F100 is a big ship. At 6,000tonnes it has the range and space to meet the challenging requirements of the Royal Australian Navy’s SEA5000 replacement frigate programme. However, the price tag of US$834 million per unit does not make it cheap, and Britain’s new Type 31e will certainly undercut it.
“More comparable with the Type 31e is Korea’s FFX/F2000/Incheon class,” Roberts noted. For around US$230 million, the buyer will get a 3,000tonne, 30knot ship designed for modern combat against near-peer adversaries. The Incheon has a modern suite of radar and sonar (hull mounted and towed array), weapons for land attack, surface strike, air defence, and submarine attack as well as countermeasures against weapons fired from above and below the surface. A 5inch gun and a helicopter complement the capability. This is a mighty vessel designed for warfighting and not constabulary roles, all with the Korean shipbuilding stamp on them (meaning they are delivered on budget and on time).
As Roberts also noted, there are there are, of course, two other alternative exporters with established designs: Russia and China. The lead ship of the Russian Navy’s new Project 22350 (Admiral Gorshkov class) frigate was launched this year.
At a reported US$250 million per unit, these heavy frigates are among the most potent warfighting surface ships at sea. The phased-array radar, towed and hull mounted sonars, a sophisticated electronic warfare suite are matched to proven and capable, long-range attack weapons.
The naval version of the S350 air defence missile, alongside a 130mm main gun, torpedoes and anti-submarine missiles, are complemented with the supersonic land/naval strike capability provided by either the Bramos or Yakhont cruise missiles.
“As with all Russian surface ships, the lead platform is sure to have some engineering problems, and may not meet with the strict crew accommodation requirements of some Western navies, but so, too, does Britain’s T45 destroyer,” said Roberts.
China also has a modern offering for the international market at around the same price as the Gorshkov and the proposed Type 31e. The first Type 054A frigate of the People’s Liberation Army Navy entered service in 2008, with 25 vessels operational.
With a similar weapon and sensor fit to the Gorshkov, it was also designed to be stealthy in terms of the radar returns that are reflected from the hull and the acoustic signature it emits. At an estimated US$300 million per unit, the Type 045A failed to win an order in 2013 in Thailand, but three were sold, delivered and are in commission with the Royal Malaysian Navy.
“Thus, the Type 31e enters a well-established warship export market that the UK has failed to penetrate in the past 40 years,” Roberts concluded. “For the same money, a state can purchase proven designs, build them off- or on shore, fitted for combat as well as constabulary duties, and interoperable with either US, Russia or China.
“British companies should beware of offering a competitor platform that is under-armed, under-manned or lightweight. The US Navy has encountered similar issues with its own Littoral Combat Ship and is moving towards a more capable (and expensive) fully fledged frigate instead of the cheap and cheerful designs once imagined as cost-effective. The LCS simply could not defend a carrier or carry out the multitude of missions expected of it.
“Admittedly, the ships a Type 31e will be encountering from potential adversaries might not have the pedigree of Cammell Laird or Harland and Wolff, but they will be able to fight at range and with a powerful punch. International buyers, as well as – one hopes – the Royal Navy, would not want to be disadvantaged in the coming decades.”