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The British government this week launched a national shipbuilding strategy with an order for five new vessels for the Royal Navy to be designed and built across English shipyards.
The core design of these new ships is called the Type 31 export (T31e) frigate, although there are already questions as to whether the type is a frigate or a corvette. Either way, the proposed price tag (£250 million/$325 million per vessel) makes them attractive to the Treasury, but 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. Customers all have specific national requirements, all balancing promised capabilities against price tags.
The global market has shifted requirements back to a demand for sheer 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.
The global market has shifted requirements back to a demand for sheer fighting capabilities, as opposed to ships designed for constabulary missions, such as anti-piracy, counter narcotics and migration missions
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: whether Houthis armed with cruise missiles being fired from Yemen, suicide boats in the Mediterranean or mines and submarines in Asia.
So what are the international competitors to Britain’s proposed T31e?
In France, DCNS – now called the Naval Group – will provide a basic frigate (the FREMM class) for around $450 million, as it has done to Morocco. This high-spec warship includes land-attack missiles as well as anti-shipping 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 6,000 tons 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 $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, 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 2,000 tons are available at around $250 million.
The higher-cost end of the European export market comes from Spain and the highly capable, long-range F100 Alvaro de Bazan Class Frigate from the world renowned Navantia shipbuilders. 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 6,000 tons it has the range and space to meet the challenging requirements of the Royal Australian Navy’s SEA5000 replacement frigate programme. But the price tag of $834 million per unit does not make it cheap, and Britain’s new T31e will certainly undercut it.
More comparable with the T31e is Korea’s FFX/F2000/Incheon class. For around $230 million, the buyer will get a 3,000-ton, 30-knot 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.
The T31e enters a well-established warship export market that the UK has failed to penetrate in the past 40 years
A 5-inch 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).
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) frigate was launched this year.
At a reported $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 130 mm 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.
China also has a modern offering for the international market at around the same price as the Gorshkov and the proposed T31e. The first Type 054A frigate of the People’s Liberation Army Navy entered service in 2008, with 25 vessels operational.
British companies should beware of offering a competitor platform that is under-armed, under-manned or lightweight.
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 $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 T31e enters a well-established warship export market that the UK has failed to penetrate in the past 40 years. 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 T31e will be encountering from potential adversaries might not have the pedigree of Cammel Laird or Harlan 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 at disadvantaged in the coming decades.
Banner image: The Venator-110 Frigate is one of the contenders for the Type-31e. Courtesy of BMT Defence Services.
The views expressed in this Commentary are those of the author, and do not reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.