On 30th May the Cabinet Office formally announced that a new National Flagship would be built. In this article, we can exclusively provide more depth and detail about the project.
The decision to invest in a Flagship vessel has been greeted with considerable controversy and scepticism in some quarters. Much of the complaint arises from a misunderstanding of the vessel’s purpose. This is not a decorative bauble or a yacht for the Royal Family but will be a platform to promote Britain abroad. The vessel will showcase UK design and engineering while hosting conferences, trade fairs, political summits and diplomatic talks. Far from being the “expensive gimmick” that its critics claim, the project has the potential to go well beyond just paying for itself by securing trade deals, but also create jobs and a legacy of opportunities in British shipbuilding. This concept has been in development by National Flagship Project Board for more than a year and has the full backing of the cabinet and interest from UK industry.
The 2010 SDSR was a low point but subsequently, there has been a revived understanding across government of the importance of the RN, the maritime industries and the nation’s dependence on the sea. There is still a very long way to go but the National Shipbuilding Strategy (next iteration to be published soon) is evidence of this improvement and the Flagship is completely in line with its objectives. Other nations may not have an equivalent but the project is entirely appropriate to the UK’s history and future as a maritime trading nation.
Royal Navy onboard
From the Royal Navy’s perspective, the concern about this concept has always been that it might come at the expense of its own budget and create additional crewing pressures. Although she will be commissioned into the RN and managed by the MoD, the ship and her running costs will be funded completely separately. The vessel will take full advantage of modern automation and have a very low core crew requirement. The navy itself is now supportive of the plan and recognises the unique experiences serving on board will offer a select number of sailors.
On occasions, the QEC aircraft carriers will continue to be used to host visitors in their defence diplomacy ‘soft power’ role but this is very much a secondary priority to naval operations. Their large hangars make for an impressive conference venue but these are warships and not purpose-built with the facilities and level of comfort that the National Flagship will possess.
Accepting the need for a ‘slimmed down’ monarchy, the Royal Family has not been pressing for a new yacht or had involvement in the new National Flagship project. They may host occasional events on board but the vessel is not intended for their use.
It had been rumoured that the flagship would be named “HMS Prince Philip”. Making this official was felt to be too soon after the Duke’s passing and perhaps would add to the false perception of the vessel being a Royal yacht. A decision on the name may not be taken for some time. HMY Britannia was not publicly named until the day of her launch and it’s possible the same protocol could be followed again. This is somewhat ironic when the RN has already announced the names of ships and submarines that will not be in service until the mid-late 2030s.
The main image above provides an approximate guide to how the vessel will appear but it will be refined further in the detailed design phase. The outline specification had been agreed, she will displace around 7,500 tonnes and be about 125m in length. A spacious flight deck will accommodate helicopters and provide a large open space, although there will be no hangar. She will be built to commercial, not warship standards, essentially a small cruise ship with some bespoke enhancements specific to her role.
The Flagship will have diesel-electric propulsion and every effort will be made to minimise emissions and be as efficient and environmentally friendly as possible. She is intended to showcase the best in green marine engineering and could be retro-fitted with LNG, hydrogen or biofuel propulsion as these technologies mature.
The ship will be designed from the keel up to provide the best possible experience for delegates and visitors. She will be equipped with a conference centre, press briefing room, VIP suites and a reception room for up to 200 people. There will be plenty of living accommodation for staff, guests and VIPs along with appropriate food preparation, and storage arrangements. To make arrival and departure as easy as possible, careful consideration will be given to access, using best practice from the cruise ship industry with airport-style security arrangements.
Security and protection for such a high-profile vessel is a concern. Back in the days when the RN had a much larger surface fleet, HMY Britannia was often accompanied by a guard ship but the new Flagship will not always have this luxury. However, the RN has considerable expertise in force protection, especially important when entering and in harbour. Demountable light weapons are likely to be used for self-defence purposes and a small team of Royal Marines may sometimes be embarked. While based on commercial ship standards, the flagship will be enhanced with an NBCD citadel and other classified and defensive and security equipment. Although an attractive terrorist target, a ship can arguably be made more secure than a government building, hotel or country retreat typically used to host high profile events.
Fund, build and deliver
The £200M budget for the project has been approved by Cabinet but it has not been decided whether this will be by direct grant from the Treasury or shared across Whitehall. The Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office, The Department for International Trade, The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and the MoD all share interests in the project.
The procurement process will be managed by DE&S and is intended to be rapid. An initial design competition will be started soon with the winner decided by September. A competition to build the ship will select the winning yard/s by the end of 2021, the first steel cut in 2022 with the ship in service by 2025. By recent UK naval standards, this is an exceptionally aggressive time schedule but is normal in the cruise ship industry.
The ship will be built in the UK and utilise as much domestically manufactured content as possible, although the supply chain will inevitably involve some foreign components. There is construction capacity currently available in shipyards but virtually no experience of building cruise ships in living memory. One of the objectives of the project is to revive this capability in the UK, if necessary seconding expertise to contribute best practice from overseas yards. Despite the ravages of the pandemic, the demand for small cruise ships is likely to grow in the next decade and this project would help with upskilling, potentially making British shipbuilding more competitive in this market again.
The UK does have relevant strengths it can draw upon in a thriving small-medium size yacht building sector as well as many talented naval architects, interior designers and artists. The competition will decide which yard builds the vessel but Cammell Laird in Birkenhead would be the most obvious candidate, having recently completed a complex government-funded vessel, the RRS Sir David Attenborough.
Critics will posit an array of alternative priorities for spending £200M of public money, depending on their areas of concern, health, education, social care, transport etc. But in the grand scheme of things, the cost is modest, the equivalent of 0.03% of the defence budget or enough to keep the NHS going for 12 hours. The National Flagship should create new jobs, promote Britain aboard and more than repay the return on investment by acting as a catalyst for international trade and exports.
Update – 28 June 2021
Firstly apologies and humble pie on an important point: We were assured by a reliable source close to the project that the MoD would be given additional funds for the ship. However, in Cabinet, it was decided the Defence Secretary must find the money from his budget. Having just increased defence spending by £16Bn, the Prime Minister won this argument. £50M over 4 years is pretty minor but it will mean a cut to something. Understandably this is not being well received by the defence community at a time when the NAO reports there is still a £7Bn shortfall in the Defence Equipment Plan to 2030.
There have been a few other valid criticisms of the project worth addressing:
“Trade deals are not done this way anymore – why have a ship?” Not true. Even post-COVID much deal-making is done in person, the venues and making an impression still matters. For example, the UK would spend around £10M on the pavilion at the 2025 World Expo in Osaka – the ship could replace this.
“The construction timeline is wildly optimistic, given industry capacity” There are certainly questions around this as UK shipbuilding has not built cruise ships for a long time. Typically European yards are can deliver a large cruise ship in 3 years. The flagship is a small vessel (much simpler than a warship) and will second experts from abroad if needed. The contractors will be decided by competition
“The outline design is uninspiring – the bridge, in particular, looks awful” The render issued shows an approximate layout, but the design competition should eventually produce something with more flowing lines and better proportions. As a ‘source of national pride,’ we certainly need something visually stunning that this early concept.
It is perhaps best to view National Flagship more like an infrastructure project with big upfront costs that will be recuperated over its lifetime by deals that benefit the UK economy and Treasury. Everyone can propose ‘better’ ways to spend the money right now but this is a long game.
(The estimated crewing requirement at this early stage is “about 70” RN sailors).