Glasgow’s Govan shipyard was not where BAE Systems wanted to build the Royal Navy’s new generation of frigates. And the UK’s largest defence contractor wanted to build many more than the eight already ordered or under discussion. 

But Steve Timms, BAE managing director for naval ships, is not complaining. Though smaller than originally hoped, the Type 26 frigate programme has given BAE’s Glasgow yards on the River Clyde a degree of security unusual in the UK’s battered shipbuilding sector.

The bright outlook contrasts with the gloom hanging over the country’s civilian shipyards. In the last few weeks Harland and Wolff in Belfast has collapsed and Ferguson Marine, the last civilian shipbuilder on the Clyde, has announced plans to go into administration

Mr Timms said the Type 26 would provide work for BAE’s warship building arm well into the 2030s. Australia and Canada are planning to build versions of the frigate, which the government bills as the world’s most advanced anti-submarine warship, even before the first in the class is finished, he said.

“We can see two decades of capability as a result of the Type 26 programme,” he said. “It’s more surety than we’ve had for many years.”

Steve Timms: ‘We can see two decades of capability as a result of the Type 26 programme’ © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/FT

Anne-Marie Trevelyan, UK defence minister, on Wednesday cut the first steel for the second Type 26, HMS Cardiff. The third, HMS Belfast, is to follow in the first half of 2021. 

BAE’s confidence has implications well beyond the high red brick walls of the sprawling Govan yard on the south bank of the Clyde. The frigate programme has been one of the most contentious UK procurement sagas of recent years and the future of BAE’s Clyde yards — and the 3,000 people employed at them — is politically sensitive in Scotland. 

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In the run-up to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, BAE announced it would focus its warship building operations on the Clyde and drew up plans for a £200m “frigate factory” at its Scotstoun yard on the river’s north bank.

The frigate factory was abandoned over cost worries, however, so the ships have to be started at the Govan yard before moving 3km to Scotstoun for completion. And the UK government’s decision to cut the number of Type 26 frigates it will buy from 13 to eight prompted accusations of betrayal from the pro-independence Scottish National party that governs Scotland. 

But now the first Type 26, HMS Glasgow, is taking shape in a hulking Govan shed, and BAE, which has invested £100m in the Type 26 programme in Glasgow, insists the project is going smoothly after a long and fraught genesis. 

HMS Glasgow, 150m long and with a top speed of more than 26 knots, is set to be delivered by the mid-2020s as required by the £3.7bn 2017 contract for the first three Type 26s, said Nadia Savage, BAE programme director. “We are absolutely on track to deliver our commitments to the Royal Navy,” said Ms Savage. 

The foreign, multibillion pound deals, include nine ships for Australia, to be built there by a BAE subsidiary, and up to 15 for Canada, to be built under contract. Mr Timms said New Zealand was “clearly interested” in acquiring two or three.

Ms Savage said the success in selling an unproven warship was aided by BAE’s use of a detailed electronic design model. The virtual ship, on view in 3D in a Govan “visualisation suite”, allows more efficient design of the separate modules from which the frigate is assembled and a highly detailed view of how it will eventually appear. 

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Nadia Savage: ‘We are absolutely on track to deliver our commitments to the Royal Navy’ © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/FT

“This technology has enabled the customers to really appreciate how mature the design actually is,” she said. 

While BAE’s yards are busy with work, concerns are rife about the health of the rest of Britain’s shipyards, particularly since the government has cut the number of Royal Navy warships over the years.

No new construction orders have been placed since a national shipbuilding strategy was launched in September 2017 with the aim of ending the industry’s boom-and-bust cycle. And a competition to build new support ships for the Royal Navy has been put out to international tender, stoking fears of an uneven playing field against foreign yards backed by their governments.

Francis Tusa of Defence Analysis, an industry newsletter, said the strategy “failed to understand the economics of the naval industry”. With only a limited number of orders, the ambition to sustain “a shipyard on every estuary in Britain is simply not a reality”, he said, adding: “If you want more than one warship yard, you would need to double the amount of spend.”

How the Type 26 frigate will look © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/FT

Limited capacity at the Glasgow yards also means BAE would not be able to use them to build the five cut-price Type 31e frigates that the UK government plans to order instead of the five further Type 26s. BAE has partnered with Liverpool-based Cammell Laird to bid to build the Type 31e and is one of three teams shortlisted.

But the Type 31e competition has been threatened by the collapse of Harland and Wolff, which is part of a consortium bidding to build the frigates that also includes Ferguson Marine.

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Despite the industry’s woes, Govan managers said morale at the yard was high. Patrick Cairns, a BAE engineering apprentice whose father and grandfather worked in shipbuilding, said he was unconcerned about joining an industry that is notorious for cycles of boom and bust. “I’m confident there’s going to be a lot of work going into the future,” he said.