New horizons

Despite the scrapping of the pan-European frigate project, the UK will continue with plans to build its own version of Horizon, writes George Paloczi-Horvath

The Ministry of Defence put a brave face on the cancellation of the £8bn European Horizon frigate project last week, showing that the Government wanted to extract something `European’ from Britain’s longest-running, most difficult warship programme. The MoD statement avoided the word `cancellation’ and any humiliation of Britain’s Horizon partners, France and Italy.

They had blocked the `robust management structure’ demanded by the UK for Horizon. The UK wanted to put Marconi Electronic Systems in the warship project’s driving seat. Instead it was offered an unacceptable Horizon solution some 20% over budget.

Now the UK will go it alone in building a replacement for the Royal Navy’s Type 42 destroyers.

The MoD said last week: `Nothing’s been decided on the UK frigate. We will be building on work done on the Horizon project, working with our French and Italian partners’ to seek savings from common systems.’

The cancellation compromise involved keeping Horizon’s main weapon. The Principal Anti-Air Missile System (Paams), built by the UK-French-Italian Eurosam consortium, will now equip the future UK frigate and its French and Italian counterparts.

Eurosam links Anglo-French missile venture Matra-BAe Dynamics with France’s Aerospatiale, Thomson-CSF and Italy’s Alenia. The Italian firm is linked in a venture with Marconi Electronic Systems, which is being sold by GEC to British Aerospace.

A £700m `Paams UK Variant’ will be supplied by Matra BAe Dynamics under a subcontract to Eurosam. This package is part of the £1.2bn Paams full-scale development and initial production contract.

It will include the Eurosam Aster 15 and 30 missiles, which make up Paams, and BAe Defence Systems’ very advanced Sampson S-band active-array multi-function radar. BAe has a £100m development and production contract for this. Also included is the Type 1850M L-band long-range radar, which will be supplied by Marconi and Dutch company Signaal.

The first UKfrigate should enter service in about 2007, five years late. The project’s £6bn cost is for 12 ships equipped with Paams, to replace 12 Type 42 destroyers.

The new ship’s requirement is the same as for Horizon: a frigate to provide area air defence against aircraft and anti-ship missiles, and a radar powerful enough to identify targets hundreds of miles away. It will probably displace about 6,000 tonnes and, besides Paams, will have a main gun (probably 114mm or 127mm calibre), plus anti-submarine torpedoes and a helicopter.

The main gun will probably be Marconi’s Barrow-in-Furness plant (the former VSEL site). Marconi will probably also supply its 324mm Stingray anti-submarine torpedo and Thomson-Marconi Sonar the hull sonar. The helicopter is likely to be GKN-Westland’s Merlin.

Britain may also opt for the Eurocombat management system, which it preferred for Horizon. The frigate’s powerplant could be the advanced WR-21 turbine being developed by Rolls-Royce and Westinghouse.

It is not clear if an open competition will be held for construction of the frigates. Given Britain’s demands for a strong management role for Marconi Electronic Systems on Horizon, the company might reasonably expect to be made prime contractor for the alternative UK frigate project. If the MoD adopts this course, it could be on a `no acceptable price, no contract’ arrangement, as with Marconi-built submarines today.

Even if the company is appointed prime contractor, it is not clear where the frigate would be built. The UK builder of the first Horizon frigate would have been the Scotstoun yard on Clydeside (formerly Yarrow shipbuilders), owned by Marconi Electronic Systems subsidiary Marconi Marine.

However, there is nothing automatic about this yard building the first new British frigate, according to one industry insider. The work could go to Marconi’s Barrow-in-Furness yard. When GEC bought the yard in 1996, Yarrow extracted a commitment for sufficient work only until 2003. This will cover the completion of the last three Type 23 frigates for the Royal Navy, the delivery this year of two completed frigates for Malaysia, and other work on Barrow-built ships.

Whatever the outcome, Vosper Thornycroft in Southampton, the last major warship builder outside BAe and Marconi’s hands, says it expects `to be heavily involved’ in the design, construction and support of these vessels. Vosper hopes to build one of the first new frigates and compete for the others.

Given the uncertainty over whether the frigate contract will be competitively procured, there is still everything to play for.