The second iteration of the National Shipbuilding Strategy (NSbS) is due to be published soon. Here we consider the ambitions for the long-term naval construction programme and revival of the maritime enterprise.
NSbS – the sequel
on 16th March the Defence Secretary announced that the National Shipbuilding Strategy authored by Sir John Parker and published in 2017 would be ‘refreshed’. The government is currently conducting its 2021 Spending Review, which will conclude on 27 October alongside the Autumn Budget. The details of the revised NSbS should be announced soon after.
The Johnson government has already made a commitment to double spending on shipbuilding in the next 10 years, averaging £1.7Bn a year. NSbS II looks set to be expanded with a programme that outlines work for the next 30-years. The ‘steel bashing’ is only a small part of the picture and much of the economic benefit lies in the supply chain and integration of complex systems into ships. It is rather unfair to dismiss the specialist steel working and precision engineering involved in the installation of ships propulsion and plant as mere ‘steel bashing’ but the maritime enterprise extends far beyond the shipyards.
At the core of the NSbS is the intention to build ships to a regular drumbeat, breaking the disastrous boom and bust cycle that has plagued the industry in the last few decades. The graphic below (based on an MoD presentation) outlines approximately the naval surface ships that are expected to be ordered in the next two decades (The submarine enterprise may be considered separately but benefits from a fairly predictable build schedule for Astute, Dreadnought and SSN(R)).
The next 30 years will inevitably see changes in government and political direction, financial ups and downs and well as potential conflicts that could stretch the navy. Assuming the funds for the 30-year plan keep coming from the Treasury, then delivering on the promises of the NSbS will only be possible with the recruitment and training of a new generation of skilled workers. A disproportionate number of those employed in shipbuilding are over 40 years old. Further investment in, tooling, digital technology and facilities will also be needed in the shipyards themselves if they are going to be globally competitive. The likelihood that building the Fleet Solid Support ship will involve foreign involvement, demonstrates that ambition currently outstrips industrial capacity.UK-shipbuilding-plan
The programme is divided into 3 streams based on complexity. The core complex warship programme is the most demanding but valuable stream. Currently dominated by BAE Systems and likely to remain so, the challenge is to control costs, but above all deliver warships faster that can be enhanced to meet rapidly evolving threats.
A second stream of vessels is built to a mix of naval and commercial ship rules. The NSbS aims to add greater competition into the procurement of warships and this ambition was arguably achieved through the Type 31 project – a warship of reduced complexity. The competition to build the FSS – a sophisticated auxiliary vessel is currently underway.
The commercial vessel stream perhaps has the greatest potential for sustained economic benefit in the long term. One of the objectives of the National Flagship project is to help industry invest and improve performance to a point where it may be competitive in the international market for small cruise ships. UK shipbuilding is a long way from being able to compete with Asian industry for typical merchant ships but there are other opportunities in the market for more specialist vessels.
The mission statement of DE&S, the MoD department which manages naval ship contracts and the wider defence procurement portfolio is “to be recognised as a leader in the delivery of military equipment in the information age”. DE&S is continually subject to strong criticism by those who say procurement is broken. While the MoD rejects the idea it needs complete reform, there is recognition that it is far behind the commercial sector and reliant on outdated information systems. To be effective in the information age it needs to exploit digitisation and make greater use of digital twin technology. DE&S needs to end the optimism bias seen at the start of so many projects, understand the cost base better and be more disciplined about adhering to schedules.
There are obviously many unknowns about many of the vessels shown in the future programme and in the 2020s plan, only the Type 31s and the batch 1 Type 26s have actually been ordered so far. Officials have said: “The Multi-Role Ocean Surveillance Ship (MROSS) remains a capability not a platform at this stage” (IR press conference, March 21). However subsequent statements say it has a planned in-service date of 2024 and “may have a crew of just 15”. There is not time to build a brand new ship in this timeframe and MROSS capability looks likely to be delivered, at least initially, by an existing commercial vessel under charter. It is unclear if MROSS will be used in the hydrography role hand have a high-end Multi-Beam Sonar System (MBSS) to replace the capabilities of HMS Scott – due to decommission in 2022. Potentially both survey and underwater infrastructure surveillance could be delivered by UUVs with MROSS being a relatively simple ‘mothership’.
The Mine Countermeasures Logistic Support Vessel (MCMLSV) shown on the plan is the first and very welcome mention of this requirement. Like, MROSS this could be a relatively simple platform or a converted merchant vessel to support autonomous MCM boats, probably based in the Gulf.
Initial discussions about the Type 83 destroyer, the replacement for the Type 45 are underway ahead of the formal start of the concept phase. Both industry and naval sources say it may not necessarily look anything like a Type 45 and radical ideas are being considered. For example, this could include a ‘distributed lethality’ approach, possibly placing weapon silos onto several platforms (such as the FSS) with a modest-sized Type 83 as the sensor and control ship.
Onward with Type 26
BAES representatives and a senior Royal Navy source say that the in-service date for HMS Glasgow remains late 2027 and they do not recognise the 2026 date reported by NAO in June 2021. The first sailors that will make up HMS Glasgow’s Ship’s Company joined the ship last week. The video above shows CGI of the completed interiors overlaid with the actual state of the compartments in September. The operations room is currently being painted and the installation of hundreds of miles of cabling in the ship has begun. The gearboxes that were delivered late have now been skidded into place through holes cut in the hull. This will not be required by subsequent ships which will be fitted with gearboxes before the compartments are closed and the hull rolled out of the hall.
Type 26 is the first warship to fully utilise digital twin technology which will save on through-life costs, aid in-service training, and simplify maintenance and upgrades. (Although twinning’s obvious benefits do not seem to have reduced the construction time noticeably). The Type 26 Platform Management System (PMS) will monitor 250,000 data points on board the ship and securely transmit its health to shoreside support to speed up maintenance and improve availability.
The naval construction programme will be the bedrock of the UK maritime enterprise for the foreseeable future. While high-end complex warships like Type 26 continue to provide the core workload, to fulfil the ambition of the NSbS, industry will have to diversify and upskill if it is to go beyond total reliance on domestic government contracts. Get this right, and the outlook for the RN would improve dramatically, backed by an increasingly efficient industry ready to build new generations of more affordable vessels.