Why the UK Royal Navy needs the Type 31 frigate

Harry Lye 24 September 2019 (Last Updated January 23rd, 2020 14:16)

Designed to be built cheaper and faster than ships of the past, when the Type 31 frigate enters service in 2023 it will replace the UK Royal Navy’s fleet of 13 Type 23 frigates. But why does the Royal Navy need the Type 31?

Why the UK Royal Navy needs the Type 31 frigate
Babcock is building the five Type 31 frigates. Credits: Babcock.

Babcock submitted the winning design for the Type 31 – formerly called the Type 31e, with e standing for export – which UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said will be: “Fast, agile and versatile warships, projecting power and influence across the globe.”  Once in commission, it will play a central role in the Royal Navy’s frigate power alongside the Type 26.

Strengthening the fleet

With the long-serving fleet of Type 23s set to start decommissioning in 2023, beginning with the HMS Argyll, the expected delivery of the first Type 31 could not come at a more opportune time. The ships, alongside the Type 26, are due to replace the outgoing, ageing vessels and will enter service as its predecessors leave, ensuring the continued presence of the Navy where it is needed.

Not only will the ships provide fleet continuity, but importantly they will do it cost-effectively. The total cost of the five Type 31s, barring overruns and delays, will be around £1.25bn, or around £250m each, a fraction of the £8bn, or £1bn each, being spent for the Royal Navy’s eight Type 26 frigates.

International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) senior fellow for naval forces and maritime security Nick Childs told Naval Technology: “The Type 31 programme grew out of the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review, when it was concluded that the Royal Navy wouldn’t be able to afford enough of the planned high-end Type 26 frigates to replace its current ageing Type-23 fleet of 13 frigates on a one-for-one basis.”

As Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Research Fellow, Sea Power Dr ​Sidharth Kaushal explains: “The Type 31 serves two primary roles within the navy. First, as a relatively cheap frigate, as compared to the Type 26, it has allowed the Royal Navy to replace its 13 Type 23 Frigates on a one-for-one basis despite the budgetary cuts which ruled out buying 13 Type 26 frigates as was initially intended.”

The multi-role Type 31 will be smaller than the Type 26 but makes up for this with what Babcock’s Type 31 team calls a ‘space-rich design’. According to Royal Navy documents, the ships will be crewed by around 80-100 personnel with space for a further 40 ‘task-specific’ staff when needed, enhancing the ship’s range of potential missions.

The cheaper price of Type 31 will enable it to carry out tasks beyond standard warfare. The Strait of Hormuz has proven the need for a fleet capable of safeguarding global trade as it transits through flashpoint areas. In this capacity, Type 31 presents an interesting prospect.

As Kaushal explains: “Truly strengthening the Royal Navy’s hand would require more than just replacing existing frigates on a one-for-one basis.

“Given that many missions the navy will face are not high-end warfighting against a peer competitor, cheaper vessels that can, in theory, be built in larger numbers may help make up for the UK’s shortfall in ships.”

Childs also highlighted the importance of the Type 31 to fill Royal Navy capability gaps, adding: “The idea was for a more affordable, and potentially exportable, general-purpose design to fulfil the Royal Navy’s requirement for lower-end forward presence and patrolling missions, to maintain and possibly even grow frigate numbers again, leaving a smaller number of more capable Type-26s to concentrate on carrier task force missions and supporting and protecting the UK nuclear deterrent.”

Supporting shipbuilding

Royal Navy Type 31 frigate

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the five, as yet unnamed, Type 31s with a pledge to bolster UK shipbuilding. Built exclusively in the UK, the vessels are all expected to be completed before 2030, with the first ship in the series expected to hit the water by 2023.

Construction of the five ships is expected to support around 2,500 jobs in shipyards across the UK. According to Johnson, the ships will restore ‘British influence and excellence across the world’s oceans’.

Following the roadmap laid out by the success of the Aircraft Carrier Alliance’s Queen Elizabeth Class ships, the Type 31 will be built in segments and then assembled at Babcock’s Rosyth shipyard. Babcock’s design for the ship during its concept phase was called the Arrowhead 140. The company’s website says: “This technique allows for improved speed and efficiency in manufacture and assembly, de-risking the delivery programme and securing wider national prosperity.”

Childs explained how the Type 31 could also signal a change in Royal Navy thinking when it comes to shipbuilding and expanding the fleet. In the past, the navy favoured exquisite platforms, whereas now ‘the Type-31 programme clearly signals a move to a more mixed fleet.’ This mixed fleet will help with the expansion of the Royal Navy and allow it to maintain its reach.

BAE Systems is currently undertaking the UK’s other fleet programme to deliver the eight Type 26 vessels ordered by the Royal Navy. A formal contract has yet to be issued by the Ministry of Defence to Babcock, with further details on the supply chain yet to be finalised. The ship’s designed in based on the Iver Huitfeldt class Frigate in service with the Royal Danish Navy, with Babcock and Thales basing the Arrowhead 140 on the hull of the Danish vessels.

Kaushal added: “There are hopes that the Type 31 can support broader aspects of the UK’s maritime strategy. A vessel that is cheap enough to be exported to emerging navies was considered a key component of the national shipbuilding strategy outlined by Sir John Parker in 2016 as a means of maintaining the level of orders necessary to sustain domestic shipbuilding industry on which the navy ultimately relies.”

With the Royal Navy making orders as and when it needs, and not on a continual basis, the hope is that the export of Type 31 will form the backbone of UK military shipbuilding, and help pay back the costs of initial development.

Reach and fire-power

Royal Navy Type 31 frigate

The ship will use Thales TACTICOS for combat management. The system is already used on several foreign naval vessels and allows for modularity of Type 31’s mission be it from anti-air, anti-submarine or anti-ship warfare. Thales will also provide the ships’ electronic warfare and anti-submarine capabilities using systems already developed by the company’s UK wing and allowing the Type 31 to go or do whatever the Royal Navy needs it to.

Thales UK chief executive Victor Chavez said: “With the announcement today that Arrowhead 140 has been selected as the preferred bidder for the new Type 31e frigate, the Royal Navy will join the global community of 26 navies utilising the Thales TACTICOS combat management system.

“Thales already provides the eyes and ears of the Royal Navy and will now provide the digital heart of the UK’s next-generation frigates.” This Thales system will also allow for the Royal Navy to boost its interoperability with NATO allies, helping to ensure security in contested waterways.

Kaushal added: “Despite being a cheaper vessel, it does have certain interesting niche capabilities. The most notable of these is its 3 Bofors cannons – two 40mm and one 57mm – which provides some very substantial rapid-fire capabilities against small boat swarms. As such, the ship is quite a capable vessel in low to mid-intensity environments- for example, the sort of grey zone provocations we’ve seen in Hormuz.”

Childs highlighted how the Type 31 will come into its own in contested waterways like the Strait of Hormuz: “The Type 31s will be employed more in individual or small patrolling missions, and will be particularly suited to being forward-based in places like the Gulf and Pacific to maintain a presence there.”

However, Childs said an important question remains: “With a very tight budget of £250 million per ship, will the Type 31 deliver the level of capability that the Royal Navy will need in the future even for more limited presence missions, given the increasingly challenging maritime security environment?”