Royal Navy’s Prest on Type 31 Frigate, Capabilities, Next Steps, Balancing Cost & Performance


Capt. Steve Prest, RN, the Royal Navy’s Type 31 frigate program director, discusses what’s next for the program to develop the service’s next-generation warship, capabilities of multi-mission vessel, reliability and forward basing, and balancing cost and capability with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian at the DSEI conference and tradeshow in London. Our coverage is sponsored by L3Harris and Leonardo DRS and in partnership with Clarion Events — DSEI’s organizer — and working with the UK Department of International Trade’s Defence & Security Organisation to bring our audience the best in British defense.

Vago Muradian:  Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report.  I’m Vago Muradian here at the Excel Center in London where we’re covering the 20th Anniversary edition of DSEI, one of the world’s truly great defense and security shows.

Our coverage here is sponsored by L3Harris and Leonardo DRS, and we’re partnered with Clarion Events, the organizer of this great show and many others around the world, and we’re working with the UK Department of International Trade, Defence and Security Organization to bring you the best in British defense.

As part of that charter we’re talking to Captain Steve Prest who is the Program Director of the Type 31 frigate program.

First, congratulations in order.  Your bouncing baby frigate is now official.  Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced that Babcock is going to be the prime contractor on that.  Royals Royce in the enviable position of having won either way, whether BAE won or Babcock won.

Talk to us, sir, a little bit about what’s next for the program.  A very high priority.  First Sea Lord obviously looking forward to filling out the warship portfolio.  Type 26 being seen as too much capability and a little bit too expensive to proceed with a full buy of that, so some of the force are going to be Type 26s, the rest of the force is going to be the Type 31.  A little bit on the lower end, but bigger export potential.  That said, Canada and Australia still bought Type 26.

So talk to us about what’s next on the program.

Capt. Steve Prest:  Thank you.  It’s a really exciting day for us in Type 31.  My colleagues in the Defense Equipment and Support Organization, DE&S, have done an extraordinary job along with the three consortia bidding to bring this program from announcement here two years ago to the Prime Minister today announcing the preferred bidder in two years.  And in terms of defense acquisition for complex major warship programs, that’s simply astonishing.  So I’m really, really pleased with the outcome.

The Navy is really excited by these ships.  They’re going to be fantastic ships for our sailors to serve in and for our commanders to use on operations.  So that’s really important.

What they do, to your point about where they fit into a balanced Navy is they’re going to be absolutely fundamental in underpinning the Royal Navy’s forward presence around the world in the coming decades.  So as we move back to a task group centered Navy with HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, coming to service — HMS Queen Elizabeth is currently off the East Coast of the States; and we’ll be working to integrate the F-35Bs and work those up operationally.  A really exciting time.  And that task group is going to need to be protected by high-end warfighting platforms.  So the Type 45 air defense destroyer, which is world class; and in the future our Type 26 anti-submarine warfare frigate which, as you say, the Australians and Canadians are also buying the design for because it’s world leading.

In order to allow then to do what they’re being bought for and what they have been procured for, which is to defend our high value assets, whether that’s a conventional deterrence in the form of the aircraft carrier, or our strategic nuclear deterrent in the form of the Vanguard Class submarines and in the future the Dreadnought Class submarines, the Type 31s being bought to do all the other stuff.  The forward presence around the world, maritime security, and all those sort of roles that Nelson would understand a frigate doing — scouting, screening, collecting intelligence, protecting our lines of communication.  You know, making sure that trade can get through.  All the stuff that’s really, really important for global Britain and needs a global Navy to deliver, and that’s what Type 31 will do for the Navy in the next decade.

Mr. Muradian:  You are on a very aggressive schedule.  Talk to us about what happens now.  Obviously you’re going to specific contractual negotiations with Babcock and the team.  But talk to us about the countdown to cutting steel and getting the ships in the water.

Capt. Prest:  You’re right.  It’s a really aggressive timeline.  So what we’ve got to do now, we’ve announced our preferred bidder, is work with them to finalize the details of the contract.  The main negotiated points are all done.  So the contract’s there.  It’s the detail of contract schedules we’ve got to work through.  We’ve got to get the [own] internal government approvals process, but we will do that.  That’s just part of the normal due diligence of government procurement.  And we’ll do that with an aim to be on contract, having signed a contract by the end of this year.  As the then Minister for Defence Procurement Stewart Andrews laid before Parliament last year.

So we’re absolutely on track to achieve that ambition, and I know senior politicians want us to go faster than that and we’re working really hard to sign the contract not just by the end of the year, but hopefully well before the end of the year.

Mr. Muradian:  The ships are going to be built in Scotland, which was I think, there was a little bit of debate whether or not it would be.  I think most people had their money on it going to Scotland.  There are some folks who are a little bit concerned about the investment that will have to go in, but this is part of a national investment in shipbuilding capabilities.  So talk to us a little bit about the broader importance of the program and its role in British industrial capability and sovereign military capability.

Capt. Prest:  Sure.  The Prime Minister, we’re taking a detailed look at what he had to say today.  He was talking a lot about a resurgence in the UK shipbuilding enterprise.  And of course that’s at least in part what the National Shipbuilding Strategy, which was announced a couple of years ago, set out to achieve.

So it’s absolutely right that there will be some investment infrastructure and facilities.  It’s up to the contractor actually, it’s their plan so I’ll let them talk about the details.  But you know, anything that moves forward, the UK shipbuilding industry to be modern and efficient and hard forming and able to export and able to deliver, not only to the Royal Navy’s needs but to those of our allies and partners who may also want to share our ships, it’s fantastic.

So we’ve got Type 26 being built on the Clyde at the moment by BAE Systems; and Prince of Wales who shortly will sail from Rosyth on the East Coast of Scotland.  And then that’s where the primary integration work and the primary assembly for the Type 31 will take place.

So that secures a lot of jobs in that part of Scotland which is great news for shipbuilding in Scotland and it’s great news for the Royal Navy.

Mr. Muradian:  Let’s talk about Capability Improvement Plan.  You guys are being deliberately unambitious in the way — ambitious, but measured perhaps is the best way to put it.  Talk to us about the capability roll-out plan.  Because the ships are not going to be fielded with the maximum, amount of capability, a little bit of what you were doing with Type 26, but to do this sort of stepped, spiral improvement of capability, a little bit as we saw with Type 23, even though it was a highly capable ship when it came in, it’s been continuously upgraded.  The U.S. Navy is looking at that, sort of using the littoral combat ship hull, building up that capability over time.

Talk to us about the Capability Improvement Plan that you have for these ships in their through life.

Capt. Prest:  I think the first thing I’d like to say is the ships we’re ordering will be absolutely fit for their purpose.  So it’s not that we’re going to be getting ships that are going to need to be upgraded before we can use them.  They will absolutely be fit for their intended purpose when we take delivery of them and when they enter service with the Royal Navy.  So that’s a really important point.

Now, because we’re buying, the Arrowhead 140 is quite a big ship.  We’re buying, so it’s open architected, commerce system standards, for example.  There is margin and capacity to rapidly integrate new capabilities when those requirements are merged over time, and that’s really exciting.

It’s not entryism.  What it is, is having the political and military choice in the future to rapidly evolve capabilities to meet the evolving contexts and the evolving threat.

As you know, capability’s a relative term.  The ability to achieve a military effect.  And therefore it’s relative to the adversary, the mission, the environment, the range of operations from home base and so on and so on.  So actually having a class of ship that gives us that flexibility through its life, and also by the way makes it tailorable to the needs of our export customers whose requirements might be different from our own and readily tailorable and therefore accessible to them, is really exciting.  And that’s the right strategy to proceed.

Mr. Muradian:  Just give our audience a rough physical dimension, speed, range, so that folks who are watching the program understand what kind and class of ship that we’re talking about.

Capt. Prest:  She’s just shy of 140 meters long, so it’s quite a big ship.  The fight deck will take a Chinook helicopter.  We won’t quite be able to fit that in the hangar, not least because the blades don’t fold.  But you will be able to get a Merlin helicopter in the hangar which is a big helicopter.

So we’re not talking about a slightly overgrown off-shore patrol vessel here.  This is a proper frigate.  And indeed the parent design which is in service with the Danish Navy, they use it all around the world in an air defense role.  That’s not the role we bought ours for, but it gives you a feel for the sort of scale of the ship.  So these are proper warships that will do proper warship jobs.

Mr. Muradian:  And so that’s like Iver Huitfeldt is the design that we’re talking about in terms of being large and about 7,000, 6,000 tons thereabouts, and long range and speed.

Capt. Prest:  Yeah, exactly.  Those sorts of dimensions and the speeds, you know, well up above 25 knots.  I won’t talk to you about the actual configuration but certainly fast enough to be considered as what you would want out of a frigate. In the late 20s in terms of speed performance and range to allow it to deploy globally and range across the oceans, which is really important, actually.

A few years ago under the command of the then Captain Nick Hine, who’s now of course Vice Admiral Nick Hine, the Second Sea Lord, we were out in the Indian Ocean chasing pirates and intercepting drug smugglers and that sort of thing.  To do those sorts of missions you need long legs on a ship.  Type 31 will have long legs and be absolutely suited with the combination of speed and endurance and the mission fit and the ability to operate manned rotor wing aviation or unmanned aviation in the future to pursue, to prosecute exactly those sorts of mission sets.

Mr. Muradian:  Type 23s are so popular for task force commanders because you guys don’t have to razz off and you can go two weeks between razzings because you guys can operate effectively on the diesels.

Let me ask you two important questions.  One, how do you execute what First Sea Lord wants?  We talked to Admiral Tony Radakin about his forward deployment plan, obviously pioneered with minesweepers out of Bahrain where Royal Navy crews fall in on the ships that exist there over prolonged periods of time.  But that shapes the hull, electrical, mechanical components of the ship because most surface combatants aren’t designed as ballistic missile submarines or to simply go blue, gold crew and stay underway long periods of time.

Talk to us about how you’re going to get that piece of the equation right so that you have that robust reliability out of all of these systems so that they don’t become a nightmare for the sailors sailing.

Capt. Prest:  Part of our evaluation criteria was about the reliability and maintainability of the equipment.  Sustainability, if you like.  And as you say, if we want these globally deployed and delivering forward presence all over the world, they’re going to have to go there and stay there and operate.

So in terms of driving equipment choices, what that means is reliability.  So we want reliable, straightforward equipment that engineers at sea can maintain and keep going, and also we want to use data intelligently.

So one of the features of the Arrowhead 140 design, it will come with an I-frigate fit to allow some of that maintenance.  So intelligent use of data to maximize the availability, which is absolutely the sort of thing that the First Sea Lord will talk about when he talks about the adoption of technology to really drive performance and availability into a modern Navy.

Mr. Muradian:  How do you get this right?  You have a very aggressive cost target.  Three hundred million pounds was the upper limit of it as I recall when it originally was discussed.  Have I got that about right?

Capt. Prest:  What we said is we want an average production cost for the ships of 250 million pounds; and you know, that’s what we are driving towards and that’s what we’re going to contract for.  So average production cost.

Now as you well know, bringing a new capability into service with any measure involves more than just building the equipment.  So there are other costs in the program.  But in terms of the production cost, the challenge we were set in Sir John Parker’s National Shipbuilding Strategy Report was 250 million pounds price for the construction of the ships.  And that acts as a forcing function and it’s driven real value into what we’re delivering and it’s enabled us to be really aggressive about the nature of the deal that we’ve done.  And I have to say, we had a really vibrant competition and industry throughout the competition really stepped up to the mark to challenge both themselves and us over delivering the capability the Royal Navy needs for that price point.

Mr. Muradian:  A last question which is how do you get this right?  Because at that price point it sometimes forces compromises that sailors end up paying for over the long term.  HMS Ocean was an incredible amount of capability for the money, but I think anybody who ever served in Ocean would tell you that she was not exactly a maintenance cupcake at the end of the day.  How od you get this right to make sure that you didn’t make some mistakes in the execution of it that end up actually costing you more money over the long term and more headaches?

Capt. Prest:  As I say, I’m an engineer officer so I get exactly the point you’re talking about.  But as I say, throughout our evaluation criteria we had elements of that that spoke to the through life costs, and maintenance is one of those things.  So it incentivized, amongst a number of other things that we had to balance because it’s a complex thing to evaluate, balance exactly that need that you describe which is the need for these to be reliable and maintainable, and the goodness of the designs in those regards were assessed and evaluated by a very experienced and capable technical team.

Mr. Muradian:  And actually last question, what’s the class going to be named?  Has that been decided yet?

Capt. Prest:  I don’t know.

Mr. Muradian:  I don’t know either, actually.  I was thinking that you would know that, because ordinarily it follows around these kind of announcements.

Capt. Prest:  No doubt in due course, but that’s not actually a question for me as the program director.  The First Sea Lord will propose some names to the Secretary of State.  The Secretary of State will propose them to Her Majesty. And if it pleases Her Majesty, she will approve them and then in due course there will be an announcement.  But I’m not in that decision-making chain, and no one will ask my opinion, quite rightly.

Mr. Muradian:  Well, I have to say Royal Navy has an incredible track record for really, really great ship names so I have no doubt that you guys will get it right.  Dreadnought, you pretty much can’t beat that one.  Captain Steve Prest, Program Director for the Type 31, fair winds, following seas on the program.  Really, it’s just extraordinary what you guys have even achieved in two years, to have it almost under contract and certainly selected.  And all the best with the program and whatever you udo in the future.  Thanks very much.

Capt. Prest:  Thank you.


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