The acquisition of anti-ship missiles for the RN took another twist yesterday when it was revealed that the project to procure the weapons has been resurrected after it was cancelled in November 2021. A wide-ranging and unusually candid Commons Defence Select Committee hearing on 5th July also covered a range of UK shipbuilding and procurement issues.
It was only briefly touched upon during the 2-hour hearing but the Defence Secretary said: “there is an interim plan to replace Harpoon in between what we might settle upon in the long term. I can’t provide details yet as I’m not sure when it will be put out to tender but there is a plan to do so.” Asked when it would enter service, Rear Admiral Paul Marshall interjected: “We are in negotiation now so it would be inappropriate to comment further”.
The I-SSGW project was originally initiated in March 2019 – a plan to purchase a small stock of weapons to replace the RN’s obsolete Harpoon Block IC when it went goes out of service. The £200M budget was expected to provide enough weapons to equip a few of the Type 23 frigates until the Future Cruise and Anti-Ship Weapon (FCASW) becomes available, supposedly in 2028 although most believe this timeframe is unrealistic. In late 2021, the then First Sea Lord, said the RN had abandoned I-SSGW as a “sticking paster” approach in favour of waiting and investing the money in FCASW. The subsequent war in Ukraine has laid the RN’s lack of offensive firepower increasingly bare and undoubtedly led to further reconsideration. The decision will be broadly welcomed but the issue is now how quickly the missile can be brought into service, especially at a time when global demand for complex weapons is rising rapidly.
The potential candidates are discussed in our previous article here. The Kongsberg/Raytheon Naval Strike Missile is thought to be the favourite but the Saab Gungnir RBS 15 Mk 4, IAI Sea Serpent Mk V or even the Lockheed Martin LRASM are contenders. A modern variant of Harpoon is a possibility but was excluded, at least from initial consideration, as it did not meet the RN’s requirement for land-attack capability.
Vice-Admiral Sir Chris Gardner, Director General (Ships) at DE&S confirmed the first Type 26 frigate, HMS Glasgow was 12 months behind schedule. This has been caused by three main issues: COVID, “Inadequate engineering maturity” and problems with the supply chain.
While the impact of COVID was unavoidable, the engineering issues are harder for BAE Systems to explain. The five OPVs built in Glasgow at an inflated price were supposed to subsidise the yard to re-baseline its shipbuilding skills. After the serious construction mistakes with HMS Forth, promises were made that “lessons would be learned” and BAES were also very keen to highlight how its digital shipyard technologies would drive efficiency. The 10-year construction plan for HMS Glasgow was already pretty leisurely. An optimist might hope that if the integration work at Scotstoun goes more smoothly than the construction phase, the ship could still meet the 2026/7 delivery schedule.
The supply chain issue mainly relates to the late delivery of the gearboxes built by David Brown Santasalo in Huddersfield. As long-lead items, the development of these sophisticated and ultra-quiet gearboxes has been underway for many years, including constructing a land-based test rig. Late delivery meant HMS Glasgow was rolled out of the build hall without the gearboxes which had to be fitted by cutting the hull open and skidding them into place on the hard standing. The Defence Secretary said they had been in touch with the supplier [David Brown] and “read them the riot act” as their products are fundamental to the whole Type 26 project, including in Australia and Canada.
The MoD will contribute to the cost of the new covered build hall at the Govan shipyard, although BAES is expected to make the main investment. The new facility is intended to allow the construction of 2 complete ships side by side, negating the need for outside working and speeding up the delivery of the second batch of Type 26. Plans to extend the Shipbuilding Outfit Hall to the rear were thwarted by planning restrictions relating to historic buildings. A second option to drain the adjacent wet basin and build a separate larger hall on the site are in an early stage of planning and approvals.
Rr Adml Marshall, the Senior Responsible Officer for the Fleet Solid Support ship project re-affirmed that the contract will be worth £1.617 Bn for 3 ships and there will be some additional funding to allow for inflation. The bids for the 4 consortia are due to be received for evaluation by end of this month. The winner will be awarded the manufacturing contract by the end of March 2023. The first ship is expected to be in service and replace RFA Fort Victoria by 2028 and all three vessels delivered by 2032.
A 5-year construction schedule for a complex c35,000 tonne ship, of a type not constructed in the UK for a long time, is not unreasonable. We can likely look forward to political fireworks when unavoidable foreign participation in the project is announced.
The Minister also revealed that the plan to convert a Bay class ship into a Littoral Strike Ship is in flux while the navy looks further at all the options. It is unclear why this may be and confusingly he hinted that RFA Argus or one of the LPDs is also being considered for conversion. Argus is old, lacking a well dock and has been retained primarily for her afloat medical capabilities. Adding aviation capability to the LPDs would appear to be a very expensive option requiring a major reconfiguration of the superstructure.
Despite the deepening state of chaos enveloping the government even as he was speaking, Ben Wallace should take credit for a quite brilliant performance in front of the committee. Rarely have ministers been so passionate about the job and so honest about the failings that must be addressed. Wallace has an exceptional grip on the complex defence brief at a very difficult time. Should there be a change of Prime Minister, they would be wise to keep him in a role to which he is supremely suited.