From today's London Times:
It’s full steam ahead for new digital-first naval frigates
Versatile, agile and quiet, BAE’s technically advanced Type 26 ship is a rapid export success
Robert Lea, Industrial Editor
It’s only two years since first steel was cut on HMS Glasgow, Britain’s most advanced warship and one of eight Type 26 frigates ordered for the Royal Navy. In that time, the country has gone through four defence secretaries.
The ritual that begins a vessel’s construction process was performed on Glasgow in her home city by Sir Michael Fallon. For a man who cultivated a reputation for being a steady hand on the tiller, Sir Michael was dropped amid allegations that he was a little too handsy. Gavin Williamson, his replacement, was dropped for reportedly being too leaky and Penny Mordaunt for being insufficiently Brexity, leaving Ben Wallace, a former Scots Guard, at the helm.
Yet even Mr Wallace won’t be following in Sir Michael’s footsteps at the Govan shipyard tomorrow. The honours at a ceremonial cutting of steel for HMS Cardiff, the second Type 26 ship, will go to Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the new minister for defence procurement (the fifth such minister in three years and proof, if it were needed, that hers is an equally fast-moving brief).
Pride of place, though, goes to the Type 26 itself. With the 2,100 workers on the Clyde busy on the first batch of frigates, a three-strong order valued at £3.7 billion, and while their bosses at BAE Systems fret over an absence of continuity at the top of the Ministry of Defence, especially as the expected second batch of five more Type 26s has yet to be confirmed, the vessel at the centre of it all is already an export success.
Australia has signed up to BAE’s Type 26 design and will build nine of them as Hunter-class combat ships at BAE’s Adelaide yards. Canada will build 15 of the vessels under licence in Nova Scotia. New Zealand, it is reckoned, will sign up for as many as three. The only blot on the seascape is the Americans, who won’t be ordering despite the pledges of Boris Johnson when he was foreign secretary that he would be able arm-twist President Trump.
As Steve Timms, managing director BAE Naval Ships, acknowledged: “We thought we were only going to build eight and now we have thirty-two.”
The Type 26 is the successor to the Type 23 frigate, which first went into commission 30 years ago. One of those is HMS Montrose, which was deployed to the Strait of Hormuz recently in an attempt to protect UK-flagged shipping in the Persian Gulf.
The transition to the Type 26 will start when HMS Glasgow goes into service in the mid-2020s. Her main tasks will include searching for Russian submarines and defending Britain’s nuclear-armed submarine fleet. She also will sail in flotilla with the navy’s two new aircraft carriers and is designed for use in humanitarian missions.
Mr Timms, a 38-year BAE veteran, has been in charge of Govan’s Type 26 production since the turn of the year. “Type 26 is the most advanced, capable and versatile complex warship ever designed or built,” he said. “We are building a very quiet ship that accelerates, is very agile, which performs at pace.”
In oceans where it doesn’t want to be seen or heard, the 150m frigate claims a sonic footprint equivalent to a small fishing trawler.
It is the first time that BAE has built a boat digitally. In its web-enabled drawing office, costs and issues can be eliminated far earlier and a vessel existing in cyberspace can be redesigned by countries that want to install their own radar and weapons and sold to them before the steel is first cut.
This design technology, Mr Timms conceded, had “not been without its challenges” at a time when Govan had struggled to build on time and on budget the Royal Navy’s order for offshore patrol vehicles. “It has been challenging because capability [people and management] had been lost in the last decade,” Mr Timms said. “We understand that and understand, too, there had been supply chain obsolescence.”
While Govan’s future appears assured, there are greater prizes. Built in 57 modules, the Type 26 is designed to be adaptable all the way up to incorporating the sort of firepower that would make it the blueprint to succeed the Royal Navy Type 45 fleet of destroyers. Conversely, it is a design that can be dumbed-down to the level of a general purpose frigate envisaged by the ministry as the new discount £250 million-a-time Type 31e boats.
“We have a generational opportunity allowing us to take on apprentices with the promise of two decades of work ahead of them,” Mr Timms said. “This is not something we have been able to say for a few years.”
Behind the story
They have been building boats on the Clyde for centuries (Robert Lea writes). When the Industrial Revolution began, Govan helped to make Clydeside a global powerhouse.
As a port facing the Americas, Glasgow was already big in tobacco and cotton when the city fathers dredged the Upper Clyde to bring in the largest ships. With local iron ore and coal aplenty, Glasgow became one of the steelworking fulcrums of the empire.
In the 1850s, John Elder produced the genius of the marine steam compound engine, allowing ships to travel farther on less fuel. He also was the father of the Fairfields yard — Govan as now — pioneering integrated shipbuilding, constructing the fastest ships.
The postwar history of Govan, however, is the story of British shipbuilding. Little work and Far East competition ended up in the near-collapse of the industry, the amalgamation of fellow strugglers, nationalisation in the 1970s and then privatisation in the 1980s. Govan and Scotstoun, its downstream sister yard, found their way into the hands of BAE Systems via Kvaerner and Marconi.
Govan’s latest ships claim to be 80 per cent-built from the UK supply chain, with Rolls-Royce engines, David Brown gearboxes from Huddersfield, GE motors from Rugby and half the steel by value coming from British mills. Of Govan’s possible future building warships for England in a Scotland outside the UK, a spokesman for the yard says: “Critical skills are here in Govan. You cannot just pick this up and drop it somewhere else.”