Horizon frigate in jeopardy

Government will look at alternatives to Pan-European vessel unless dispute is solved

The Government will consider alternatives to the pan-European Horizon frigate if efforts to resolve arguments over the warship’s air defence system fail.

The Ministry of Defence said this week that contracts due to be awarded under Horizon’s first phase are on hold until Britain, France and Italy resolve the dispute. The three countries have set themselves an end of March deadline to sort this out.

Such a move would have a knock-on effect on UK companies – led by GEC-Marconi – which have already invested in the Horizon programme. Although the same companies could pick up contracts on an alternative project, the lost money might not be recouped.

The MoD said that it still fully supports Horizon and its Paams air defence system provided they meet the trinational staff requirement. But the MoD confirmed that alternatives are under study.

Alternative ship designs are believed to include an in-house MoD concept and a stretched Type 23 design from Yarrow Shipbuilders.

British defence sources say the Aster missile at the core of Paams is `not a problem’ but there are disputes over the command and battle management systems which are integrated with it.

Italian naval sources disagree and say the British are considering an alternative to Paams. They add that the Horizon joint project office has `privately let the British off the hook’ over the main surveillance radar. They say the MoD will be allowed to opt for its preferred Siemens-Plessey Sampson radar rather than the Empar from Italy’s Alenia.

The only viable alternative to Paams is the American Standard SM-2 missile and the sophisticated Aegis combat system with which it is sometimes supplied. Both have been offered to the British at favourable prices.

Britain needs the Horizon frigates to replace a dozen Royal Navy Type 42 destroyers. It emerged last year that the first British frigate will not enter service until 2004 at the earliest – a delay from 2002.