Tobias Ellwood: Royal Navy should buy modular warships – exclusive

Harry Lye 13 February 2020 (Last Updated February 13th, 2020 16:02)

In an exclusive interview for Naval Technology’s sister magazine Global Defence Technology, MP and Chair of the Commons Defence Select Committee Tobias Ellwood said there was not nearly enough investment in the Royal Navy and that it should look to procure more modular equipment to better fill capabilities.

Tobias Ellwood: Royal Navy should buy modular warships – exclusive
Tobias Ellwood speaks in the House of Commons.

In an exclusive interview for Naval Technology’s sister magazine Global Defence Technology, MP and Chair of the Commons Defence Select Committee Tobias Ellwood said there was not nearly enough investment in the Royal Navy and that it should look to procure more modular equipment to better fill capabilities.

In a wide-ranging interview to be published in April, the MP said that often Royal Navy procurement is dictated by ministers ‘who do not necessarily have the experience of what is required’ to effectively make the most of procurement projects.

When asked by Naval Technology if enough was being invested in the Royal Navy, Ellwood said: “No, not at all. For the very reasons that we overcomplicate the equipment. Our ships, it is often the case that the procurement processes are advanced by admirals who, from their own experience, tell ministers who do not necessarily have the experience, what is required.”

In light of this, Ellwood said that the Ministry of Defence (MOD) could look to simpler modular platforms as a means of delivering more ships into the navy that can then be tailored to the different missions they are tasked with.

Ellwood went on to say: “For the last four years [I have been] promoting the idea that like your mobile phone is a basic vessel for which you yourself introduce apps that are bespoke to you. Why don’t we create a ship which uses ISO container-sized ‘apps’ that you then if you want a big gun on the front, it comes in a plug and play capability, if you want desalination units, if you want missile silos, whatever you want, there are 25 compartments on, and in, and under the ship that can be interchanged which will then allow SMEs to create [systems] in the same way that apps for the phone have flourished.”

Ellwood said this approach would allow the Navy to complete a multitude of missions including policing the Gulf, interdiction, escort duties or work with the Department for International development with a single, cheaper platform that could be tailored for different missions where appropriate.

This approach would mean more hulls can be built more cheaply, onto which navies from the world could develop systems to give their vessels the bespoke capabilities they need for their particular theatre of operations.

Ellwood explained: “If you want to do interdiction, if you want to do police patrolling off the shores of the Gulf, if you want to do escort duties, if you want to do anti-submarine warfare, maritime protection. Or even, if you want to do DfID [Department for International Development] based work, you could interchange these assets, which would allow the basic ship to be a far simpler price, and then, of course, you would sell more, because you’re not creating a bespoke thing where everything’s welded down.”

Ellwood said that the Type 31, due to be built by Babcock, was an example of the Royal Navy taking a step in the right direction by procuring a cheaper ship based on an existing hull. However, he said this did not go far enough as the vessel was ‘still too fixed for what it’s going to do’.

Further commenting on the Type 31, Ellwood said that the vessel would be unlikely to stand out against similarly-sized Frigates from across the world when it eventually enters service. The ship’s design is based on the Iver Huitfeldt class Frigate in service with the Royal Danish. The ships have a relatively cheap price tag as a result of this with the construction of five vessels carrying a price tag of £1.25bn.

Each Type 31 will cost £250m, in comparison to the £1bn price tag for each of the Royal Navy’s newer, more bespoke, Type 26 frigates. The cheaper price tag is seen as a bonus of the navy allowing it to achieve its goal of replacing ageing Type 23 Frigates on a hull-for-hull basis.

There are hopes that the Type 31 will be a lucrative export opportunity for British shipbuilding and attract interest from navies overseas.

Tobias Ellwood is MP for Bournemouth East and Chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, having previously served in government as a defence minister and as a foreign minister.

Type 31 concept image. Credits: Thales/ Babcock.