The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) has contracted Thales to provide its sixth additional combat mission system to the Royal Navy for the new Type 31 frigate programme.

The £70m contract was announced 9 May 2023. It is the first contract for Thales in the UK’s new above water systems business line. The system will be installed at the Royal Navy’s shore integration facility in Portsmouth.

This shore-based test and integration facility will be kitted out with the Type 31 mission systems equipment, under a deal placed by the UK department of Defence Equipment and Support with Thales. The facility will ensure the mission systems and equipment, which will be fitted to the five Type-31 frigates, can be safely and effectively used by the Royal Navy personnel on board the highly-capable vessels.

Since being selected to provide the combat systems in 2019 for the new Type 31 frigates, Thales has established a new business line in Crawley. The business was officially established in 2021 and now has over 60 employees in the UK. This contract award has led to the creation and sustainment of 30 roles.

Thales’ sixth ship set of Type 31 mission systems will have simulators added so it can be fully tested and evolve in service both as an individual platform and as an integral part of the Royal Navy fleet.

The project will provide a presence for Thales alongside the Naval Combat Systems Integration Support Services and the MoD’s Maritime Combat Systems teams in Portsmouth as part of the Surface Ships Combat systems enterprise. It is anticipated that the tasking framework will support and cover a mix of integration activities and trials and demonstration activities to bring the platforms to a tested operational level.

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The entire Type 31 fleet is expected to be delivered by the end of 2028 and to enter service with the Royal Navy by the end of 2030.

Industrial relations between Britain and France

Since the Integrated Review Refresh 2023 (IRR), the UK has committed to greater European security through defence co-operation.

“The security and prosperity of the Euro-Atlantic will remain our core priority, bolstered by a reinvigoration of our European relationships,” the IRR states.

In that spirit, the UK has worked alongside France in maritime exercises in the Indo-Pacific region through carrier deployments. The two countries also seek to ensure the interoperability of weapons and platforms across Europe and Nato, such as their Future Cruise and Anti-Ship weapon programme.

As they dip their toes into the UK’s above water systems business line, Thales’ contract with the MoD marks greater defence industrial co-operation.

Financing issues

Curiously, this £70m contract follows a recent financing dispute between the MoD and the Type 31 manufacturer, Babcock. Babcock’s dispute resolution process will determine the liability for increased costs being sustained on the Type 31 frigate programme, with up to £100m in additional funds needed.

Providing a 2023 financial year and Type 31 programme update on 20 April, Babcock said it recognised over £600m in revenue on the Type 31 programme, which remained on schedule. However, the programme’s production plan was described as “demanding”, given the impact felt by UK industry during the Covid-19 pandemic, and had seen an increase in actual and projected costs.

The Type 31 class was born from the realisation by the MoD that it could not afford to acquire 13 Type 26 anti-submarine warfare frigates from UK defence prime BAE Systems, instead constraining that programme to eight hulls.

With a series of financing issues, as well as the need to increase its ship count, the UK continues to allocate £70m to combat systems for the programme. This raises questions about the process of financing the ever-reducing Royal Navy, which is expected to reduce to 15 hulls by the middle of the decade.