The Royal Navy Downselects the Arrowhead 140: Upgradeability, Platforms and the Way Ahead in Shipbuilding

By Robbin Laird

Recently, the Royal Navy has downselected a variant of a time proven Danish frigate design.

As Jon Rosamond noted in an USNI news story published on September 23, 2019:

The victory of the Babcock/Thales Arrowhead 140 design in Britain’s bargain-basement Type 31 frigate competition will give the Royal Navy a heavyweight fighter in the maritime security arena.

Displacing around 5,700 tons and measuring 456 feet in length, the new platform is much larger than both the light frigate originally envisioned and the aging Type 23s it will replace in service.

The rival contenders proposed by BAE Systems/Cammell Laird (an enlarged Khareef-class corvette) and Atlas Elektronik/TKMS (MEKO A-200 frigate) came in at about 3,700 tons and 393 feet.

By acquiring five Arrowheads for just $1.6 billion for all the hulls, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and Royal Navy are getting a lot of more tonnage for their money. The payoff, however, is a comparatively lightweight weapons and sensor fit intended for constabulary operations rather than high-end offensive warfare.

Babcock’s win was announced by the British government during this month’s DSEI defense industry expo in London. Having secured preferred bidder status, the company will now enter detailed discussions with the MoD and supply chain partners before contracts are signed later this year.

It will be an exceptionally rapid procurement program by recent U.K. standards, with construction expected to start in 2021, launch of the lead-ship planned for 2023 and completion of the final vessel in 2027 or 2028.

The timings are being driven by the retirement schedule for the Royal Navy’s five Type 23 general purpose frigates: the first of the existing ships (HMS Argyll) was due to decommission in 2023 but delays in the Type 31 competition mean it will have to stay in service for another year or so.

Based on the Danish navy’s successful Iver Huitfeldt-class frigates, the Arrowhead 140, “is engineered to minimize through-life costs whilst delivering a truly leading-edge ship, featuring an established, proven and exportable combat management system [CMS]”, according to Babcock.

 The Brits are not acquiring the Flex Ship but a smaller variant based on the Flex Ship design.

For the Danes, the construction of the ship as well as its core modularity have allowed them to buy cost effective ships that could be modernized over time within the context of the existing platform.

Or put another way, the platform provided the infrastructure for significant reshaping, redesign, and upgradeability of what would be operated from the ship and how that ship might be reimagined in terms of technology and the threat environment.

During a visit to Denmark last Fall, I had a chance to talk with Rear Admiral (Retired) Nils Wang. He is now managing director of Naval Team Denmark  We specifically discussed the  offering which the Danes are participating in with regard to a new build frigate for the Royal Navy.

The candidate in the Type 31 competition in the UK, the Arrowhead 140, is a copy more of less of the Iver Huitfeldt class, the Danish frigate, and it’s a consortium consisting OMT, the Odense Maritime Technology, that is the design company that designed the Iver Huitfeldt class, Babcock and Thales as well as other UK firms.

“The approach is modular which allows different parts of the UK to build the modules.

 “We did this with our own frigates, and clearly this can be utilized in the Arrowhead 140 project.

 “This is important for today’s UK for sure.

 “One can actually create jobs in different parts of the country using this method, and nowadays that is a big thing.

 “Maintaining a shipbuilding industry and the related blue collar workspaces is a political priority in many countries.

 “Spreading the work load to several constituencies allowing everybody a part of the cake, is obviously an attractive ship building approach.

 “With the Arrowhead 140, the British also would buy a proven design and build approach. It is a fixed price tender, so you will have to stay within the budget.

 “That is exactly the same way as we build our ships. It is what we call “design to cost,” so if steel prices suddenly increase during the building process, the shipyard and the Navy together have to find solutions to actually reduce costs in other areas of the ship construction so that the budget would not be exceeded.

 “The ship itself is a proven concept because the Iver Huitfeldt class has been on several real-world deployments. It was participating in moving chemicals out of Syria. It has been participating in counter-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa and been NATO Flag Ship in the Baltic.

 “It has been an integrated part of a United States Carrier Battle Group and next year it will integrate in a French Carrier Group.

 “Also, it has been tested several times at Flag Officer Sea Training in the UK, so the ship has shown it’s worth there as well”.

 “But as importantly the construction method of keeping the building process to budget is proven as well. I think the Arrrowhead 140 would be a low-risk option given our experience in Denmark with our version of the frigate.”

Recently, I discussed the UK decision with our Danish partner, Hans Tino Hansen, the CEO of Risk Intelligence.

How important is the UK decision from the Danish point of view?

Hans Tino Hansen: Very. The decision validates the Danish experience and approach with regard to the design and operational approach of our frigate. The UK variant will be smaller than ours but will follow the modular approach with regard to upgradeability.

And this is important in two key ways.

First, you can build the core platform capable of significant adaptation and redesign of missions over time, but you do not have to front-load the investment. You build the core platform and then can add new technologies, combat modules and alter the mission set as money becomes available.

Second, an over time upgrading approach where modularity is built in allows you to adapt to the technological dynamics affecting ships, and ships in the broader evolution of an integrated warfighting approach as well.

The basic approach is quite different from the German MEKO class, for example. We have built not different sizes of organic vessels, but we are focused on building different ship types from common general design approaches.

We are focused on building a core platform and then shaping different solutions for the future to how the ship becomes configured.

How important has been the impact of the Danish operational experience for the British?

 Hans Tino Hansen: “The ship has operated with allies for a number of years, and it operational force has been demonstrated.

“And the Royal Navy has been involved in those operations, exercises and training like the Royal Navy FOST (Flag Officer Sea Training) and involving our frigate and have gained first hand knowledge of its basic performance as well as how were addressing modernization.

“Notably, the ship was built with the Mark-41 launcher. The command system and related support systems were included in the original ships, but we did initially not buy the missiles because of financial constraints.

“We are now buying SM-2 missiles with SM-6s to follow later to create a true Area Air Defence frigate. In addition, there is a plan about a shooter and/or sensor role for BMD, but nothing is agreed yet.

“Finally, there is discussion about a TLAM strike role.

“The approach is to not build the final product at the launch, but rather we can accommodate budget and technology challenges with the modularity of the ship built in.”

“There is also the question of exportability.

“Babcock is getting a ship that is very cost effective and will be attractive to a broader global market as a result. And with Brits facing Brexit, there is a clear concern for global exports in its wake, and such a design gives it a leg up in the export market.”

The modularity approach inherent in the design of the Danish frigates was well explained by Rear Admiral (Retired) Wang in the interview last Fall.

The core concept of modularity as practiced by Danish industry is to build in ways to modernize the ship over time. 

The Danes invented LEGO and have applied it to shipbuilding.

According to Nils Wang there are two types of modularity in the Danish ships.

“The first type is modularity provided by the digital shipbuilding process.

“You can actually construct the ship by building it in different places, and then get the modules together, weld them together, and then you have a ship.

“The ship was built on the old Maersk-Line shipyard here in Denmark before it closed.

“The last thing that they did on that shipyard was building the three frigates for the Danish Navy, and the way of thinking about ship construction came from their experience in building large container ships in great numbers.

“This also affected the degree of automation in the new combatants. If you’re building a 350 meter container ship that should be run by eleven people, you have to think about how to monitor doors, windows, valves and hatches automatically.

“Here you find one of the keys to the 110 crew basis manning of new Danish frigates and Danish flexible support ships..”

But there is a second meaning to modularity with regard to how the Danes approached building their frigates.

“The second meaning of modularity refers to the built-in enablement of cost-effective modernization. The ship is built with standard modules for weapons.

“The whole idea of having your weaponry containerized provides you with a tactical flexibility where you can change a broken gun within hours but also an operational flexibility where you within a day or two can fit your ships for the mission and give it the weaponry that is dictated by the situation”.

“This provides you with a strategic flexibility where you can transfer an important part of your investments in modern updated weaponry from your old decommissioned platforms to the new platforms through the modular inserts.

“It is plug-and-play approach to upgrading weapons.”

This is a building block for the Royal Navy with regard to the next generation revolution where platforms will be built to subsume the changes in C2, ISR, and defense and strike weapons for the integrated distributed force, rather than being designed with proprietary organic integration of exquisite platforms seen isolation from their contribution to and ability to leverage the kill web.

The featured graphic: Type-31 frigate design concept. Babcock Image