The much-delayed National Shipbuilding Strategy ‘refresh’ document was finally published on 10th March. Here we examine the plan in the context of the future Royal Navy fleet.
The headlines of the program comprise 150 vessels to be built over the next 30 years, a ‘£4 billion investment’ and a National Shipbuilding Office (NSO) to oversee government interests in the sector. There are also efforts to encourage the development of ‘green ship’ technology with a Shipping Office for Reducing Emissions (SHORE), financial support for exports and the establishment of a shipbuilding skills task force.
There is plenty to be critical of, but overall this is a very positive step, a coherent attempt to plan and coordinate workloads while regenerating UK shipbuilding and marine industries. Besides the obvious economic benefits, a revived commercial shipbuilding industry would clearly be good for the Royal Navy, in the long term, it would drive down costs and reduce delivery times. Following the original UK Shipbuilding Strategy written by John Parker and published in September 2017, there has been an acknowledgment that much more needed to be done. The new document makes a stronger commitment to a regular stream of work and broadens the scope to include the complete maritime enterprise and industrial supply chain.
The 2017 report had many shortcomings but it can be argued that there has been some modest progress. Notably, the Type 31 frigates are now under construction (although not at the blistering and unachievable pace originally envisaged in 2017) and the “Type 31e” design has been exported to Indonesia and Poland, on top of the Type 26 design exported to Australia and Canada. Babcock has built a new frigate factory in Rosyth. BAE Systems are looking to expand their covered building facility in Govan. Mainly based on forecast future workload, Harland & Wolff have saved the Appledore shipyard and have big plans for reviving ship construction in Belfast. Cammell Laird completed the RRS Sir David Attenborough, (although with considerable difficulty and have struggled with the Type 45 PIP work) but are probably well placed for the National Flagship competition and would appear to have a bright future.
It would be a mistake to confuse the new strategy document with a fully dependable forecast of the Royal Navy’s future ORBAT but it does provide some insight. The published plan appears to be deliberately vague about timescales, accurate in most cases only to about two years. Although roughly in line with the promises of the Integrated Review, this is primarily a document aimed at industry showing potential opportunities for the future. The chart below is an attempt to make some sense of the forecast for naval construction contained within the NSbS.Shipbuilding-Schedule-2023
What is immediately obvious is the amount of construction work that will be underway in the late 2020 and early 30s (dark grey) in particular. Also, the significant number of capability gaps (pale blue) will be endured, as hull numbers decrease, at least in the medium term. Despite the apparent ambition of the plan, it does not “grow” the Navy, rather it replaces obsolete vessels, in many cases delayed, requiring older ships to stagger on or leaving capability gaps. (The trend toward larger ships may see an overall increase in tonnage by the late 2030s but not hull numbers). Submarines are not considered within the scope of the NSbS as there is a settled programme of Astute and Dreadnought boat construction but they do utilise much of the same supply chain and also need highly skilled engineers.
In many ways, the surface escort aspects of the plan are the most predictable and of least concern, with the facilities at Govan and Rosyth building Type 26 and Type 31. There may be debates about the timescales but these 13 frigates are going to get built. The Defence Secretary has also confirmed that Type 32 will follow on from Type 31 and be constructed at Rosyth as we predicted. The Type 83 destroyer project will be complex and there has been discussion of not building a dedicated ship, just a “future anti-air warfare capability” distributed across various platforms. However one suspects that once the ‘blue sky thinking’ phase is over, a large cruiser-sized combatant built by BAE Systems will emerge as the only credible solution.
For the rest of the programme, there is much more uncertainty about which shipyards and where these vessels will be constructed. There is a firm commitment to build mothership(s) for autonomous mine warfare boats but the much-vaunted Multi-Role Ocean Surveillance vessel has disappeared from the construction plan. ‘MROS capability’ is still mentioned in the document but will almost certainly be delivered by a very lean-manned commercial vessel on charter, at least initially. The failure to prioritise funding for MROS is surprising, given its personal backing by the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak. Increased measures to protect undersea infrastructure are urgent and from a PR perspective, a mission the public can relate to directly.
A lot of ship
As ever, finance will be the main issue that divides aspiration from reality. The vast majority of the program is for projects that have yet to be funded and is a series of placeholders to show industry what to expect in the future. But an analysis of the document indicates that the MoD and other government departments actually require a diverse range of vessels with a huge combined tonnage that far outstrips the current capacity of UK shipbuilding.
A significant point of contention in the news NSbS is that there is no blanket commitment to building all govt-funded vessels in the UK and each procurement will be determined on a case-by-case basis. The Unions and the other usual suspects immediately trashed the plan, claiming it implies that hundreds of jobs could be lost overseas.
Assuming funding flows as promised, the problem will not be the loss of job opportunities, rather the opposite. The question is how can the limited capacity of British shipbuilding today possibly be scaled up to meet demand. Taking the naval programme alone, even not counting surface combatants, there is a need for vessels approaching 3 times the combined tonnage of the aircraft carrier project. (Multi-Role Support Ships: 24,000 x 6 = 144,000, Fleet Solid Support Ships: 35,000 x 3 = 105,000, Strategic Sealift ships: 25,000 x 4 = 100,000. An approximate total of 349,000 tonnes). This is besides various other ocean-going ships for Trinity House, Research Vessels, Border Force vessels and ferries to be built in the same time frame.
Tonnage is a crude measurement and the complexity of the vessels will vary considerably but building ships of this size will need large facilities and a skilled workforce. Investment to enhance the shipyards at Belfast, Birkenhead or at other sites is perfectly possible but it is far more difficult to rapidly build up naval architecture, marine engineering and shipbuilding expertise. The new Shipbuilding Skills Task Force is going to have its work cut out over the next few years or lack of staff will mean many of the contracts will simply have to go overseas. The FSS is the most pressing requirement and is likely to require foreign involvement in some form if the three large and complex ships are to be delivered by 2033.
It is understandable why the option to build overseas has been left on the table. There will also have to be some tricky value for money decisions to make. For example, new tugs and support vessels for the naval bases are needed to replace many of those currently operated by Serco under a PFI which is about to expire. Between 2007-2010 a new fleet of harbor support vessels and tugs were ordered by Serco from Damen in the Netherlands, specialists who can deliver such vessels quickly and affordably. There are few viable British competitors to Damen in this sector. Deciding to build these vessels in the UK would inevitably take longer and cost more.
Overall the NSbS ‘refresh’ is positive but to make these dreams a reality over a 30 year period, industry leaders must navigate rapid technological developments, the ever-changing political climate, economic uncertainties and a war on the continent of Europe. For shipbuilding and allied maritime industries, there are potentially huge opportunities but plenty of pitfalls.