With the Government response to the 34 recommendations made within Sir John Parker’s independent National Shipbuilding Strategy report being so neatly timed to appear just two days before the formal naming ceremony of HMS Prince of Wales, the second 65,000 ton aircraft carrier for the Royal Navy that is now entering its final phase of construction by the Aircraft Carrier Alliance at Rosyth (ACA is a partnership that includes BAE Systems, Thales, Babcock International and the MOD) it is worth reminding that both aircraft carriers built by the Aircraft Carrier Alliance are on budget and have been delivered on time or, in the case of the second ship, are well ahead of the original schedule.
Having never been to a ship naming ceremony before I am very much looking forward to being in Rosyth on Friday morning to witness the naming ceremony event of HMS Prince of Wales. Indeed, having eighteen months ago clambered over both the in-build aircraft carriers at Rosyth (HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales) I cannot stress enough the absolute engineering brilliance of what has been achieved by the Aircraft Carrier Alliance in the building of both of these fine ships.
The bottom line for me is that whatever the reasons are that we decided to rebuild ‘carrier strike capability’ for the Royal Navy and whatever doubts remain in respect of whether we can afford to operate two large aircraft carriers and all that they require to defend and support them, the reality is that what has been achieved in the world-leading design, engineering and technology that is HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales and which they possess in abundance, what we are looking at is UK sovereign capability at its absolute best. Well done to all those at the Aircraft Carrier Alliance for what they have achieved. This is a time for the nation to be proud and to remember what we can achieve when we all work together for the self-same ends.
However, reading through the Government response to the National Shipbuilding Strategy report and the announcement this morning that it is favourably disposed to accepting most of Parker’s proposed recommendations has, I am afraid, left me somewhat underwhelmed. I totally understand the need to spread the future load amongst more shipyards if we can and to expand the industry if we believe that the export potential is there. Yes, we need more sovereign navy shipbuilding capability rather than less provided of course that we as a nation can ensure that all the yards can be provided with sufficient levels of work that support the investment required.
My first thought was why are we trying to re-invent the wheel and my second, if it is broke, why change it? By that I mean that as the development of the Aircraft Carrier Alliance demonstrates, much of what the Parker report outlined is already happening.
That the government has concluded that more work on the proposed number of five Type 31(e) General Purpose Frigates should be competed and spread across an increased number of smaller yards is not a surprise but does it really make that much financial sense? You must make up your own mind but my sense is that the system that currently prevails, one that in the case of the Aircraft Carrier Alliance and probably Type 26 as well, has and will continue to see more work being outsourced, works very well.
Based on what I have just said I could easily conclude that Parker’s suggestions are not particularly new. Indeed, BAE Systems as the Governments prime industry partner for naval ships and submarines, has ever since the modular construction phase of building naval warships began and this being agreed as the most cost effective way of building complex warships, has seen the company continually increasing the amount of sub-contracted work to other yards.
Modular ship construction for naval warships began with the Type 45 Destroyer programme following the award of prime contractor status to what is now BAE Systems in 1999. Back then the former VT shipyard at Portsmouth played a similar role to that being predicted by the government today. Portsmouth no longer builds ships or ship blocs but it proved the point of doing both well enough through Type 45 and OPV respectively.
Modular shipbuilding technology and technique has undoubtedly been a great success story and this method of construction continues to be the way forward for naval shipbuilding into the longer term. In the case of the Type 45 and the two new aircraft carriers, the various blocks of the ship or major large component were built at a variety of different shipyards before being ferried to Scotland for the final construction phase at Rosyth. Now the government intends to compete each of these and in doing so making procurement potentially more complicated. And if that is true then potentially more costly as well.
The Government has this morning confirmed that the way forward for construction of the Type 31(e) General Purpose Frigate will continue along the lines of modular construction techniques and that these ships (five in all) will be built within a partnership build structure along similar lines to the Aircraft Carrier Alliance. That’s all very reasonable enough. However, if I get the gist of this correctly, the difference caused as a result of ‘acceptance’ of the National Shipbuilding Strategy recommendations is that the few remaining UK shipyards capable of building blocks and engaging in modular construction will be actively competing against each other.
From a cost point of view it might well appear that opening the build system out to more ‘competition’ is a sensible way forward. Maybe it will be but equally, maybe it could have the opposite effect. It certainly increases the overall risk in my view.
The new Type 31 frigate is stipulated to have a maximum cost of £250 million per vessel. The ‘Alliance’ when it is formed will be responsible for delivery to the MOD but, assuming I am reading this correctly, with each contributor having won on the basis of a competing bid, I am bound to wonder what happens when and if one falls behind and that this impacts on the others?
Perhaps my imagination is running away with me, but having witnessed how superbly well the Aircraft Carrier Alliance has worked throughout and how, despite decisions relating to various changes of design which of necessity raised costs and delayed the programme – one such example being the ridiculous and costly decision taken by the Coalition Government in SDSR 2010 to retrofit an EMALS (electromagnetic aircraft launch system) CATOBAR system on the carriers before then realising, two years later, that the cost of so doing and more importantly, the very high risk involved, necessitated that the 2010 decision needed to be reversed, the programme is fully within revised budgets and being delivered on and even before time.
The other factor that worries me is that rather than assist in the recruiting, training and retaining the many highly skilled workers and engineers needed to build complex warships, unless great care is taken to ensure that there is a sufficient supply of skilled workers available at some of the other shipyards that might be used, this could cause serious delay and a rise in costs. That said, Babcock Marin have been building Offshore Patrol Vessels for the Irish Naval Service and are now engaged building their fourth such ship and Cammell Laird also has experience of the modular block-build process as well.
HMG is calling the Parker’s proposals as being a new way forward in ship procurement and of course, I welcome any strengthening that occurs through spreading the load more. But I am bound to worry about whether those that have little experience in complex warship build take on a too high level of risk in a very cost restricted environment which is what the MOD requires today.
Yes, apart from BAE Systems highly invested Scotstoun and Govan naval shipyards, the submarine yard at Barrow in Furnace, Babcock International’s yard at Rosyth where final assembly construction of both aircraft carriers is still being carried out on HMS Prince of Wales, the two other main yards are those mentioned above at Birkenhead and Appledore. The bottom line for all those who might wish to involve themselves of whatever the Government has implied that it agrees with from Parker’s recommendations, is that they have the availability, capacity, skills and knowledge base to build the ships or bloc’s and that in a very constrained system, that they are able to make a profit.
I am in no position to judge whether any of the other yards could build a Type 31 for the Royal Navy but they could certainly build blocs.
So long as the risks are fully understood by the customer as well as the would be competitors and that the complications caused by potentially widening the supply chain and being tightly constrained on profit then all will no doubt be well. That said, in such a constrained profit environment as navy ships, I am bound to wonder why anyone else would want to take on such a potentially large risk burden.
The present system that has evolved since Type 45 and, through the Aircraft Carrier Alliance, has proved its worth for the Government, the Royal Navy and the nation is an excellent model for future navy shipbuilding and it is one whose success should be built on and shared. Type 31 build provides potential benefits for all of the various shipbuilding activities in the UK and hopefully, even more ships in the longer term for export too.
CHW (London – 6th September 2017)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785