Originally published at the UK Defence Journal. Link here.
The Type 45 destroyer is often regarded as the most advanced guided missile destroyer in the world.
‘To operate safely at sea, the Royal Navy must protect its ships from attacks from the air’
National Audit Office, March 2009
Indeed, during an ‘intensive attack’, a single Type 45 could simultaneously track, engage, and destroy more targets than 5 Type 42s, its predecessor, could.
Despite it’s extraordinary capability, the Type 45 has as I’m sure most reading this are aware, a fairly substantial problem.
A brief history lesson
The Type 45 began with the imaginatively named NFR-90 (NATO Frigate Replacement for 90s). The project intended to take advantage of economies of scale and provide nations including the UK, US, Canada, and Spain (full list here) with a frigate.
The project ultimately collapsed when the UK and US withdrew, both worried that the new frigate didn’t have the capabilities they required.
The UK then joined France and Italy in a new programme: the Horizon-class frigate. This also collapsed in 1999 due to disagreements regarding workshare.
Finally, the UK began development of their own programme, with the first ship planned to enter service in 2007 (Daring was in reality commissioned in 2009).
The Type 45 is powered by the Rolls-Royce WR-21. The engine can interestingly no longer be found on the Rolls-Royce website, likely due to its issues (it can however be found using a web archive here).
‘The WR-21 engine incorporates revolutionary enhancements in gas turbine technology to reshape the traditional gas turbine performance curves and produce long term fuel savings’
Archive of Rolls-Royce website
The WR-21 was designed alongside Northrop Grumman. I’ve also been told by a defence source that the engine ‘was meant to be a UK-US joint programme (the W stands for Westinghouse) but the US then didn’t use it in the ships they were going to’.
The issue with the engine is the ‘intercooler-recuperator’. This should in theory recover heat, making the engine more efficient and crucially, reducing the ship’s thermal signature.
Unfortunately, and there’s no better way of saying this, it doesn’t work properly. When it fails, the diesel generators can ‘trip out’, leaving the ship with no electrical power or prolusion.
How did this happen?
Back in 2000, the then Secretary of State for Defence Geoff Hoon had to select the engine that would power the Type 45. BAE Systems ran a competition, with Rolls-Royce putting forward their WR-21, and General Electric their LM2500.
‘The LM2500 family of aeroderivative gas turbines boasts more than five times the operating experience of its competitors combined, and its flexibility and reliability are unsurpassed’
General Electric website
The LM2500 is derived from the General Electric CF6, an aircraft engine used on the Boeing 747 and Airbus A330 among many others.
More than 2,200 units of the marine version have been sold, with 15m hours in marine operation. Over 30 world navies using the engine.
To see the full scale of this lunacy, visit the Wikipedia page to see the list of ships that use the engine.
Rolls-Royce on the other hand are rather less vocal about engine numbers. We know no other ship in the world uses the Rolls-Royce WR-21. We also know there are six Type 45 destroyers, each with two engines. Assuming there are a few spare, there are at most 20 of the WR-21 engine.
When Geoff Hoon announced the government had selected the WR-21, he conceded that it posed “a greater degree of risk to the programme” than the LM2500. Ultimately however, he credited “a range of other factors” as favouring Rolls-Royce; it is widely accepted that the decision was taken to support UK jobs.
The Type 45 was presented with two potential engines. The General Electric engine was ‘tried and tested’ at the time, and in the decade since, has proven remarkably reliable for the world’s navies. Had BAE Systems or the Royal Navy been allowed to choose, I see it as highly likely they would have chosen this engine.
The Rolls-Royce engine was untested, and had been hastily designed to be ready in time for the competition deadline. No other world navies showed any interest in it.
And yet, the politician chose the Rolls-Royce. I hate to scapegoat individuals, and indeed it is hard to know how much of the decision was his. However, to choose the engine for a naval destroyer based on supporting UK jobs, rather than reliability and capability, seems extraordinarily short sighted.
The decision was out of the Royal Navy’s hands. Industry level decisions on UK procurement tend to be made politically. Nonetheless, it is the Royal Navy who are suffering as a result.
‘Replacing the existing two diesel generators, fitting an additional diesel generator and modifying the high voltage system on each ship’
BAE Systems on the what the PIP entails
In March this year, the MoD announced a ‘multi-million-pound contract to enhance [the] Royal Navy Type 45 fleet resilience’. It seems in this context, the MoD are treating ‘fix’ as synonymous with ‘enhance’.
The Power Improvement Project (PIP) is classed as a ‘major conversion project’, and all ships should be ‘improved’ ‘by the early 2020s’.
Over two decades after the programme began, the Type 45 destroyer will be fit to project and protect the UK’s interests. The problem the ship has faced is rooted in a political decision, and is in no way indicative of any Royal Navy incompetence.
Despite the problems, one mustn’t lose sight of the fact that the platform is remarkable in a its capability. Within the next 5 years we’ll see each Type 45 repaired and returned to operations, hopefully in time for HMS Queen Elizabeth’s first operational deployment early next decade.