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Future Royal Navy Shipbuilding Procurement and Restoring Fleet Capacity By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.

type23That publication of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee (HCDC) report entitled ‘Restoring the Fleet: Naval Procurement and the National Shipbuilding Strategy’ today would appear likely to coincide with the anticipated public release of Sir John Parker’s National Shipbuilding Strategy (NSS) report perhaps as early as later today. Both are very timely and while at this stage and having not yet seen Sir John’s much anticipated report, I am only comment on speculation and maybe leaked views of what the NSS report might recommend, I can say that should it contain suggestions that other UK commercial shipbuilders should be encouraged to compete on military shipbuilding projects alongside BAE Systems, I will be left scratching my head.

Whilst I will not dwell too much on Sir John’s much anticipated report, other than perhaps to remind that a considerable amount of work on military vessels being built for the Royal Navy has already and continues to be shared around other UK shipyards, the HCDC Appendix Report which I include at the end of this commentary reminds of how Royal Navy has contracted in size and scale over the years. This is bad enough in its own right but the point in relation to National Shipbuilding Strategy is to remember that cost availability is often governed by scale and with fewer ships being ordered it is perfectly obvious that, despite considerable efforts to reduce costs by those involved in the large Royal Navy shipbuilding programmes such as BAE Systems, Babcock International and others, scope for efficiency and cost savings has also reduced. Worth remembering too that way before BAE Systems involvement is shipbuilding began in the late 1990’s with its acquisition of Marconi Defence, it was competition from the then GEC owned Marconi Defence that almost killed off VSEL, the former independent owner of the now hugely successful Barrow-in-Furnace submarine building facilities that are now owned by BAE Systems.

As I am sure the vast majority of other countries who build ships for their own Navy’s would confirm, it is not only imperative but hugely cost efficient to have one national champion and one centre of excellence to build complex projects such as military ships and submarines. It is also worth reminding that although BAE Systems shipyards at Govan and Scotstoun on the Clyde represent the centre of excellence of naval shipbuilding in the UK, that partnership in complex warship building is nothing new.

The ‘Carrier Alliance’ for example, is an entity comprising Babcock International, BAE Systems, Thales and the Ministry of Defence as partners and that has been responsible for the building of both HMS Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers has worked superbly well – producing both ships on time and, particularly given that the programme was delayed by various political and MOD specification changes and that in 2010 witnessed later, in 2010 reversal of decisions made in 2008 were reversed in 2010 only to be reversed back to the original plan 2012 and that caused major problems in relation to cost and potential delay, are coming in both on time and budget.

Partnership, as the building of the two aircraft carriers has shown, has proved to be a success and is clearly a way forward. So too is ensuring that other commercial shipbuilding can also be involved on projects is also right. But to suggest that companies that have not had any experience in building complex Royal Navy ships even those deemed less capable than the programme of eight Type 26 ships that BAE Systems will begin to build from sometime next year is fraught with risk. To imagine anything other than that Royal Navy ships are complex and that the commercial sector would have the necessary skills base and experience to be given responsibility of military shipbuilding is as far as I am concerned inviting considerable procurement risk in a field in which the demands from the customer require ever increasing efficiency. Involvement in future programmes such as Type 31 and on a maybe larger basis than now maybe, but not at the expense of increased procurement risk.

Whilst the House of Commons Defence Select Committee makes reference and expectation hopes for the National Shipbuilding Strategy it was of course written before the publication of Sir John’s report. However, while the HCDC report concentrates on primarily on delays to the Type 26 Frigate programme procurement, the unfortunate operational problems that subsequently emanated from the original MOD decision to go ahead with a Type 45 Destroyer propulsion system that was originally based on a US/UK/French partnership programme and one that left Rolls-Royce to attempt to pick up the pieces only to find recommendations in respect of an ultimate requirement for more testing were to be declined by the MOD and of what the HCDC clearly view as an acute shortage of Royal Navy frigate capability. The HCDC conclusions speak for themselves and I for one completely concur with the recommendations made. Again, if a reminder was needed of how weak the Royal Navy is today compared to the past in capability terms, I would draw attention to the second paragraph in the HCDC conclusions set out below and also, to Appendix 1 of the report which I also copy further down.

There were of course warnings aplenty that the importance of frigates in the Royal Navy was somehow being lost in the race for rebuilding ‘Carrier Power’ in the late 1990’s and the early part of the current decade. While I absolutely support the concept of ‘Carrier Power’ and the building of the two new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers together with the wider   strengths that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft and maritime combination brings to UK maritime defence, to defence diplomacy and other factors such as innovation and the prosperity agenda, I cannot forgive past governments, the MOD and the Royal Navy for failing to sufficiently recognise and prioritise the importance of the Frigate in the work that the Royal Navy will be required to do. Bad enough that we only have 6 or the originally planned 12 Type 45 Destroyers today but to have just 13 Royal Navy Frigates Frigates as opposed to the 24 we had twenty years ago is a serious undermining of UK defence.

The premature scrapping of the four Type 22 frigates by the 2010 Coalition Government was as bad as it was also dangerous in terms of weakening the Royal Navy’s ability to do its job. It beggars belief how accountability of decision making that led to some of the SDFSR 2010 was missing albeit that there were those charged with running the Royal Navy in 1997 and beyond over the next eight years that must bear the burden of real responsibility for the week position that the Royal Navy finds itself in today.

HCDC ‘Restoring the Fleet’ Conclusions:                 

The MoD is embarking on a major modernisation of the Royal Navy surface fleet. Notwithstanding the Committee’s concerns that the number of ships is at a dangerous and an historic low, it is a programme which has the potential to deliver a modern navy with a broad range of capabilities, especially if the GPFF design proves versatile and sufficiently economical to increase the number of frigates in the Fleet. However, there are serious concerns about the funding available for the programme and the timetable to which the MoD is working. The delay to the construction of the Type 26 has had a negative impact on the skills of the shipbuilding workforce. If this situation is allowed to continue, it risks undermining the ability of the shipbuilding industry to deliver the Type 26s to the necessary timetable. The MoD must also demonstrate that it has learnt from the extraordinary mistakes in the design of the Type 45.

The introduction of the Type 26 represents only part of the modernisation of the Royal Navy’s frigates. Five of its existing Type 23 frigates will need to be replaced by the new General Purpose Frigate, the design of which is only in its infancy. The MoD must not allow this programme to experience the delays to previous Royal Navy procurement programmes. It also has to ensure that the General Purpose Frigate provides the Royal Navy with the capabilities it requires and is not a less capable ship which is there merely to meet the Government’s commitment to 19 frigates and destroyers, and possibly to be suitable for export. Modular design and “plug and play” incremental acquisition could and should enable this to be achieved. Hulls can be designed and constructed to enable an increase in the number of platforms and subsequent augmentation of their equipment. Furthermore, the refit programme and associated costs for the Type 45 must not result in further delays to the frigate programmes.

The National Shipbuilding Strategy offers the MoD the opportunity to put its plans for the modernisation of the frigate fleet back on track. For this to happen, the MoD has to ensure that the Strategy includes a timed production schedule for the delivery of both the Type 26 and GPFF, in close co-ordination with the withdrawal from service of the Type 23s, and that both programmes are fully funded to proceed to that timetable.

At nineteen ships, the Royal Navy’s frigate and destroyer fleet is at a dangerous and an historic low. By giving a commitment to build “at least” five General Purpose Frigates, the SDSR implicitly acknowledged the need to increase this woefully inadequate total. The Government has now set itself a target date for the start of construction of Type 26. It now has to demonstrate that it can deliver these ships, and the GPFF/Type 31 frigates to the timetable set by the out-of-service timetable for the Type 23s. If the MoD does not, it will put at even greater risk our frigate numbers and the capabilities they provide. The SDSR 2015 undertook to modernise the Royal Navy, it is now time for the MoD to deliver on its promises.

See Below for Appendix 1

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS 

Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,

M: +44 7710 779785

Skype: chwheeldon




Restoring the Fleet: Naval Procurement and the National Shipbuilding Strategy Contents



Appendix 1: Numbers of ships in the surface fleet

Year Aircraft Carriers Assault ships/Landing Platform Frigates Destroyers Cruisers Patrol ships and craft Mine countermeasures vessels
1975 3 2 60 10 2 14 43
1980 3 2 53 13 1 22 36
1985 4 2 41 15 0 32 45
1990 3 2 35 14 0 34 41
1991 3 2 35 13 0 30 37
1992 3 2 32 12 0 25 34
1993 3 2 28 12 0 25 35
1994 3 2 25 12 0 34 18
1995 3 2 23 12 0 32 18
1996 3 2 24 12 0 32 18
1997 3 2 23 12 0 34 19
1998 3 2 23 12 0 28 19
1999 3 3 23 12 0 24 20
2000 3 3 21 11 0 23 21
2001 3 3 21 11 0 23 23
2002 3 1 21 11 0 23 22
2003 3 1 20 11 0 22 22
2004 3 2 20 11 0 26 19
2005 3 3 19 9 0 26 16
2006 2 3 17 8 0 22 16
2007 2 3 17 8 0 22 16
2008 2 3 17 8 0 22 16
2009 2 3 17 7 0 22 16
2010 2 3 17 6 0 22 16
2011 0 4 15 6 0 22 15
2012 0 4 13 5 0 22 15
2013 0 4 13 6 0 22 15
2014 0 4 13 6 0 22 15
2015 0 4 13 6 0 22 15
2016 0 3 13 6 0 22 15

Source: Defence Statistics

Note: The term Assault ship was renamed Landing platform during the 2000s.

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