Like every aspect of life in the UK, the industry that supports the Royal Navy has been impacted by the effects of COVID-19. We spoke to BAE Systems, the Ministry of Defence’s largest supplier, about how they have adapted to the new conditions.
At the start of lockdown on March 23rd, all BAES staff were sent home but within 2 weeks around 10,000 production employees had returned to their adapted workplaces. Around 24,000 management, technical and administration staff remained working from home. BAES and many defence companies were initially involved in a focussed effort to meet immediate medical needs, participating in the Ventilator Challenge and produced thousands of ventilators for the NHS. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), including face shields, aprons and surgical gloves were also donated by these industries to health and social care staff. Specialist products for use in hospitals, such as hooks for isolation cubicles and isolation cockpit shields for air ambulance pilots, have also been manufactured.
For those working at home, there are new challenges such as ensuring secure internet access, adjusting to virtual team management and children appearing in the background during video calls. BAES already had a strong culture of health and safety in place and say this provided a good foundation when adapting workplaces to be COVID-secure. In co-operation with trade unions, spacing out of people in office areas and hygiene measures have been implemented. Returning staff are given an extensive induction about the new working practices. There are now strict limits on the number of people who can work in a single compartment on a ship or submarine and where close proximity cannot be avoided, workers are issued with additional PPE.
In the last 3 months, BAES has delivered a ship and a submarine to the RN. Although much-delayed prior to lockdown, HMS Audacious finally left Barrow for Faslane on 4th April although it may be some time before she is ready to commission. The 4th River-class batch II OPV, HMS Tamar was accepted by the RN on 25th Feb and her ship’s company had already moved on board when lockdown started. She sailed from the Clyde on 27 March, slightly ahead of the original plan. Her accelerated entry into service culminated in her being commissioned into the RN with a ceremony held while moored on the river Tamar on 4th June.
HMS Glasgow is being constructed in two halves at Govan and the bow section is due to be rolled out of the Shipbuilding Outfit Hall in late 2020. The stern section will be rolled out a couple of weeks later and the two halves joined on the hardstanding outside.
The mast and funnels will be lifted onto the structurally complete hull before she is placed onto the barge that will lower the ship into the water. The float-out date of the structurally-complete vessel has not yet been fixed, but is expected to be in the last quarter of 2021. The ship will then be towed down the Clyde to the Scotstoun yard for several years of fitting out. The unhurried schedule dictated by the MoD will see HMS Glasgow handed-over to the RN in 2025 then undergoing lengthy trials before entering service in 2027. Manufacture of blocks for the second Type 26, HMS Cardiff began last year.
In Portsmouth, BAES have continued fleet support activities, despite new working restrictions. HMS Prince of Wale continues to undergo a Capability Insertion Period. Like HMS Queen Elizabeth, she did not leave the builders fully complete and more equipment is being added incrementally. Planned work packages on HMS Queen Elizabeth, Dauntless, Westminster and Lancaster have all been completed, allowing them to sail as planned. Refits of HMS Daring, and Duncan are ongoing while HMS Dragon is completing a Fleet Time maintenance period.
Three more F-35B jets (BK-19, 20 and 21) were due to be delivered to the UK in early October. Lockheed Martin says their arrival will be held up by about a month due to the effects of the pandemic in the United States.
BAE Systems is just one of a very few large prime contractors that build and maintain the fleet but they could not function without a large supply chain of SMEs. For the smaller companies that supply critical components and services, the lockdown has inevitably harder on them. Nigel Whitehead, Director External Relations, BAE Systems plc, told the Commons Defence Committee this week that, out of around 500 key suppliers, 10 of them are in financial difficulty and BAES is actively supporting them through this difficult period. 120 of the suppliers say they are going to run into delivery difficulties and planning is going on to understand and mitigate the impacts. BAES receive around 75 shipping containers each month of equipment and materials from overseas and issues around quarantine means more local suppliers are being sought where possible.
Avril Jolliffe, Director Strategic Business Development at Thales UK, another defence prime said: “Some of our suppliers did actually stop working, they are all now open. We’ve had a couple of suppliers come to us in financial distress, and we have helped them out.” Overall Jolliffe was pretty positive and said they were in a good position, considering all that has happened, noting their preparation work with supply chains for leaving the EU has helped with the pandemic response. “Defence has been pretty resilient really” she added.
Historically UK defence procurement and industry was not exactly known for its agility but seems to have adapted well so far. There will inevitably be some delays to programmes and companies are still in a phase of understanding the impacts, learning lessons and adapting. There is still uncertainty as government rules continue to change on weekly basis and there is still the spectre of a ‘second spike’ in cases. For major programmes such as the Type 26 frigates and Dreadnought class submarines which will run over decades, BAES are confident that the disruption of 2020 will not affect delivery dates and time can be made up later.
Despite the positive response from industry, there can be little room for complacency and there is widespread concern that the financial fallout from the pandemic will see big defence cuts following the Integrated Review next year. In order to stimulate the economy and protect sovereign manufacturing, the MoD should instead be funded to bring forward orders and commit to more technology demonstrator and research programmes. Not only does the global situation demand greater investment in defence but the industrial base can provide secure, high-skilled jobs needed for economic revival.