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'Woefully low' total of Navy escort vessels could shrink still further

Defence Committee Press Notice – 21 November 2016

The Defence Committee Report says that the Ministry of Defence has yet to explain how it will replace its 13 ageing frigates – due to leave service at the rate of one per year between 2023 and 2035 – whilst maintaining even the "woefully low" number of operational vessels currently available and the skilled workforce to renew them.

Plans to modernise Royal Navy escort fleet

The report examines the MoD's plans to modernise the Royal Navy's escort fleet, including the introduction of two new classes of frigate – the Type 26 Global Combat Ship and the Type 31 General Purpose Frigate – and the enforced refit of the Type 45 destroyers' engines. It also considers this work in the light of the forthcoming National Shipbuilding Strategy, to be published later this week, and how that should deliver a sustainable shipbuilding industry.

The report calls for the National Shipbuilding Strategy to provide the necessary detail on how and when the Royal Navy's new frigates (the Type 26s and the General Purpose Frigates) will be delivered. Without that information, the Strategy can be little more than a collection of aspirations. The building of new ships requires a skilled workforce. Uncertainty over the funding and timing of these programmes undermines the long-term sustainability of the shipbuilding industry.

Therefore the Report recommends that the Strategy should set out:

·        a detailed timeline for the delivery of the Type 26 Global Combat Ships and the Type 31 General Purpose Frigates;

·        a comprehensive assessment of the potential to build a new complex warship every two years;

·        the criteria against which the expansion of the UK's share of the export market in warships will be judged; and

·        the numbers of apprenticeships required in each of the key trades and how it will monitor them to ensure there  are no longer-term skills gaps.

Type 26 frigates

The Royal Navy’s existing frigates – the Type 23s – will be replaced by eight Type 26 and at least five General Purpose frigates. The first Type 23, HMS Argyll, is due out of service in 2023, followed by the other twelve at annual intervals until HMS St Albans is withdrawn in 2035. It is therefore vital that the new frigates are delivered to that timetable. Financial pressures appear to have played a sizeable part in the delays already experienced in the Type 26 programme. If further delays are introduced or funding constraints are allowed to slow down the production schedule, the current total of 13 frigates – already an historic low – will fall even further.

The Committee is not yet convinced that the MoD can deliver to this schedule. It therefore recommends that the MoD should set out:

·        a clear timeline – with costings at each stage – for the Type 26 programme;

·        unambiguous statements that the necessary funds are available in this financial year, and for subsequent financial years, together with details of the amounts spent on the programme as it progresses; and

·        an absolute assurance that short-term financial limitations are not storing up for the future, large cost consequences caused by otherwise avoidable delays in the Type 26 construction programme.

General Purpose Frigates

The Type 31 General Purpose Frigate will complete the Royal Navy's frigate class. It is still in its concept phase but, if successful, the frigate could both provide the Royal Navy with a modern, flexible warship and offer the UK a way back into the highly valuable export market for such vessels. It also has the potential to allow the Royal Navy to grow its escort fleet, after decades of decline from 35 frigates and destroyers in 1998 to just 19 hulls now.

The Defence Committee therefore demands to know:

·        how the construction timetable for the General Purpose Frigate will dovetail with that of the Type 26;

·        how the MoD will fund and achieve its aspiration of increasing frigate numbers by the 2030s; and

·        the minimum capabilities required of the General Purpose Frigate and how they will differ from those delivered by the Type 23s which they will replace.

Type 45 Destroyers

The MoD is being forced to refit the engines of all six Type 45 destroyers following a series of serious engine failures. These resulted from major shortcomings in specification, design and testing for which blame can be attributed both to the MoD and its contractors. The taxpayer will have to foot the bill for this work.

The Defence Committee is demanding from the MoD:

·        costings and timetables for the refit across the entire class of six ships;

·        six-monthly progress reports on the programme;

·        assurances that no funds have been transferred to the refit from other commitments, such as the Type 26 programme.

Chair's comments

Dr Julian Lewis, Defence Committee Chairman, said:

“For decades, the numbers of Royal Navy escort vessels have been severely in decline. The Fleet is now way below the critical mass required for the many tasks which could confront it, if the international scene continues to deteriorate. What remains of our surface Fleet now faces a prolonged period of uncertainty, as the frigate class is replaced in its entirety and all our destroyers undergo urgent, major remedial work on their unreliable engines.

The National Shipbuilding Strategy offers the potential not just to manage this work efficiently and effectively, but also to reverse the trend of ever-decreasing numbers. To do this, however, it has to contain the degree of detail and scheduling for which we have asked.

The Ministry of Defence must deliver this programme of modernisation on time. If it fails to do so, the Government will break its categorical pledge to maintain at least 19 frigates and destroyers – already a pathetically low total. The United Kingdom will then lack the maritime strength to deal with the threats we face right now, let alone in the future. We are putting the MoD on notice that it must not let this happen.”

[To read the full report, click here.]

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The Ministry of Defence (MoD) is embarking on a major modernisation of the Royal Navy’s escort fleet. It has undertaken to replace the thirteen existing Type 23 frigates with eight new Type 26 Global Combat Ships and at least five new General Purpose Frigates, provisionally referred to as the Type 31. At the same time, the Royal Navy’s six Type 45 destroyers are about to undergo a major refit of their engines, after serious and repeated power failures.

The Government’s National Shipbuilding Strategy, to be announced shortly, will set out the framework within which these ships will be delivered. Delays to the construction of the Type 26 have had a negative impact on the skills of the shipbuilding workforce, and could have major implications for costs and availability. The National Shipbuilding Strategy must provide industry with the certainty it needs to plan and develop a stable, sustainable and highly skilled workforce. If it is to be more than a statement of aspirations, the Strategy should set out clear, timed production schedules for the delivery of both classes of frigate.

The MoD recently announced that construction of the Type 26 will commence in the summer of 2017. However, that date remains dependent upon a successful conclusion to negotiations on both the design of the ship and the contract with BAES, the main supplier. The MoD must provide greater clarity and detail on the timing of the construction phase, including a clear statement that it has the necessary funds to deliver the programme expeditiously. The importance of this cannot be overstated. The Type 23 frigates will start to come out of service in 2023 at twelve-monthly intervals. If the new frigates are not delivered to that decommissioning timetable, ship numbers will be reduced further from what is already an historic low. The current total of 19 frigates and destroyers – only 17 of which are usable – is already insufficient: to go below that number, even for a transitional period, would be completely unacceptable.

The development of a new General Purpose Frigate offers the potential both to provide the Royal Navy with a broad range of capabilities and, if sufficiently versatile and economical, to increase the number of frigates in the future Fleet. The General Purpose Frigate also offers the UK the opportunity to re-enter the export market for warships. However, the drive for exports must not come at the cost of those capabilities which the Royal Navy requires. By designing a ‘template’ warship, on a modular basis, with the potential for ‘plug-and-play’ equipment upgrades throughout its working life, the UK has a unique opportunity to halt and reverse the relentless decline in the number of its naval vessels. This opportunity must be seized.

As well as delivering the new frigates, the MoD has been forced to refit the engines of all six Type 45 destroyers. The ships have suffered from serious engine failures as a result of shortcomings in specification, design and testing. Blame for those failures can be attributed both to the MoD and its contractors, but the taxpayer will have to foot the bill. The refit of the Type 45 engines should restore confidence in the reliability of the ship but it must be carried out in a way that minimises disruption to the availability of an already depleted number of destroyers.

At 19 ships, compared with 35 in 1997, the Royal Navy’s frigate and destroyer fleet is way below the critical mass required for the many tasks which could confront it. If the National Shipbuilding Strategy can deliver the Type 26 and Type 31 GPFF to time, the MoD can start to grow the Fleet and return it to an appropriate size. The 2015 SDSR set out the Government’s ambition for a modern, capable Royal Navy. Now is the time for the MoD to deliver on its promises.