Plans to maintain the size of the British fleet by replacing retiring warships with newly built ones appear to have stalled after the Ministry of Defence suspended the procurement process for a new generation of Frigates.
The size of Britain’s Royal Navy, already at a historic low after significant cuts after the Second World War, and then a further dramatic reduction after the Cold War, may be set to shrink again after the Ministry of Defence procurement process was abruptly and unexpectedly terminated on Friday, reports the respected industry journal IHS JANE’S 360.
Companies bidding for the contract to build the fleet of five new ‘budget’ Type-31 Frigates — intended to complement the more expensive and capable Type-26 submarine hunters already on the way — were preparing to complete their designs for submission.
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The Times reports these companies had been expecting a release of funding from the Ministry of Defence to help pay for development work since May this year, but had heard nor received nothing until the announcement the programme had been cancelled came from the Defence Equipment and Support service.
The Ministry of Defence rejected the claims that the programme had been cancelled over a lack of funds, insisting instead that the bids put forward to date had not been compliant with the government’s requirements for the new class of ship. The government said that a “streamlined” programme would soon be restarted with the hope of attracting better bids — but critics pointed out this would significantly delay the procurement process and make the projected 2023 date for ships entering service difficult to meet.
The statement said: “There have been no changes in our plans to procure a first batch of five new Type 31e frigates to grow our Royal Navy. We still want the first ship delivered by 2023 and are confident that industry will meet the challenge of providing them for the price tag we’ve set.
“This is an early contract in a wider procurement process, and we will incorporate the lessons learned and begin again as soon as possible so the programme can continue at pace.”
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Frigates are part of the layered defence of warships that surround capital ships while on deployment, in this case, Britain’s two new aircraft carriers. In Royal Navy usage, Frigates typically carry specialist anti-submarine warfare equipment and weapons, while the larger Destroyers are tasked with defending the fleet from air attack.
The Times reports claims that the Ministry of Defence may have come to the realisation that without the sophisticated and expensive counter-submarine equipment on board, the so-called budget Type 31 actually served little purpose in the future fleet, which may have been a more significant reason to suspend the procurement process.
Yet a less oblique and widely discussed justification is a simple lack of funding. Defence minister Gavin Williamson has been repeatedly, and in increasingly desperate tones, been making the case for a greater share of the tax take to be spent on defence, an appeal that could have been informed by the knowledge that without an urgent boost, certain key defence projects may have to be scrapped.
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Amid what has been labelled a MOD “funding crisis” as rival departments like the National Health Service receive significant cash boosts and the often-challenged ring-fencing for foreign aid spending established by the Cameron government continues to receive guaranteed cash, a MOD spokesman told press there were no plans to reduce the number of ships being procured.
The news has been reported as a particular blow to the regions where the ships were expected to be built in the Scottish press, with shipyards in Devon and Ulster expecting to build components for final assembly in Scotland under one of the proposed design schemes. The Herald Scotland reports the remarks of SNP Member of Parliament and defence spokesman Stewart McDonald who said the announcement was “utterly shocking”, and implied that the news came on the last day of Parliament sitting before the summer recess was a cynical move by the government.
In effect, the timing means it could be weeks or months before the government makes a statement to Parliament on the ships.
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The orders of the new type 26 Frigates and their budget cousins the Type 31s were intended to replace one-for-one the Type 23 ships, which are nearing the end of their service lives and will start to be withdrawn in 2023. Today, the Royal Navy has less than 80 commissioned ships, less than 30 of which are frontline fighting ships. In 1989, the service had around 200 in commision.
The potentially bad news for British shipbuilders comes just days after celebrations over Britain securing the £20 billion order for Australia’s next generation of nine anti-submarine Frigates. The ships will be built in Australia using British technology.