I listened with great interest to comments made by Sir John Parker on the Radio 4 ‘Today Programme’ this morning in respect of his National Shipbuilding Strategy – and that included some recommendations on how future building of Royal Navy surface ships should be best achieved and that will be formally published later today.
Sir John Parker is highly respected industrialist and I well know from conversations that I have had that in the process of collecting evidence Sir John has spoken to a great many senior people and industrial companies that are directly and indirectly involved in military surface shipbuilding activities.
It was good to hear Sir John commend the excellent work done and the huge investment that has and continues to be made at BAE Systems shipyards on the Clyde and that have a long record of success in building surface ships for the Royal Navy.
Sir Johns work in producing this report did not involve submarine building and which BAE Systems Barrow-in-Furnace facility remains the centre of excellence. His remit has been to look at other potential ways of building surface ships for the Royal Navy that could perhaps be more cost effective, efficient and competitive.
It is right that we should have had this review and important that the need to ensure that the UK maintains its skills base and places itself in a better position to grow exports have been taken into account.
One thing is certain. BAE Systems two adjacent yards at Scotstoun and Govan on the Clyde are and will remain the centre of excellence for Royal Navy shipbuilding capability. These yards are highly invested and there has from a technology and efficiency standpoint been no let-up in the manner in which BAE Systems has continued to develop the yards in order to maximise efficiency and benefits for the ultimate government customer – the MOD.
Clearly, one intention behind the Shipbuilding Review is to ensure that, if practical, Britain’s other commercial shipbuilding facilities can be better used to assist in military shipbuilding. Clearly they can be and indeed, they have and continue to be involved particularly in supporting the Carrier Alliance. Capacity is not necessarily a central issue here but competition and finding ways to build ships cheaper have no doubt occupied the mind of the author of this report.
We can I believe be aware that Sir John has in his report attempted to identify ways in which the cutting edge technology established by BAE Systems in Scotland and that have been used with such success by the ‘Carrier Alliance’ to build the two Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers can be translated for construction of future ships such as the Type 31 frigate. Primarily this process involves ‘Modular Construction’ in which larger component ship parts can be produced across the UK at several shipyards before being transported for final assembly at a central hub – in the case of the QE2 carriers at Rosyth. This method has already proved to be extremely successful and efficient.
Sir John Parker appears to have recommended that for the proposed Royal Navy Type 31 ‘frigate’ more work needs to be passed through commercial shipbuilding facilities in England. From a competition point of view such ideas may appear to be attractive but if they are to work for the benefit of the end user and potential export customer we need first to ensure that there is a will on the part of the commercial yards to involve themselves in the complicated and complex work of military shipbuilding, whether there is sufficient available work from the MOD in terms of requirement and timing, whether there are sufficient skills available. Building ships for the MOD is not for the feint hearted and dealing directly with organisations such as DE&S requires courage and strength.
If competing commercial shipyards in the UK do have the necessary skills to take on more MOD work then this is all to the good. As I have said, they are each and every one already involved and I suggest, they always would be in the future. I suggest that the real issue here is deciding on the level of work and whether this is cost efficient from a tight programme point of view and that is driven by the need for even greater efficiencies.
If the underlying message from this report is that more sub-contracted work needs to be provided to shipyards outside Scotland I have no issue with this provided that there is a willingness on the part of main contractor and subcontractor and that sufficient allowance is made to ensure that a proper level of profitability is maintained. Clearly there are potentially huge risks involved in forcing unnecessary change to an existing system of Royal Navy shipbuilding that has evolved over many years and that is today hugely efficient. Neither should we forget that part of the problem here is the difficulty that the MOD customer and Government has in guaranteeing timing of military shipbuilding requirements and one only has to look at the prevarication and delays on Type 26 to recognise that.
As I have said, we should not underestimate the amount of involvement in building Royal navy ships that other shipyards including those at Cammell Laird in Birkenhead and Babcock International’s shipbuilding facility in Appledore, North Devon already achieve. That we should ensure that the capability exists to build more ships for the Royal Navy is strengthened is clearly wise provided of course that rules of engagement are properly agreed.
The build of the Royal Navy’s largest ever warships, the Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carriers, has not only established that modular construction of Royal Navy surface fleet vessels across multiple shipyards and making use of many hundreds of different sub-contracting companies working together is the way forward but also that it provides a route for cost efficiency. Rightly the Government has decided that all eight Type 26 Frigates will be built by BAE Systems at Scotstoun and Govan on the Clyde but it has yet to decide how and where ships of the Type 31 class ships that will have a much reduced level of capability will be built. It must do so soon and it must also begin the urgently needed Type 26 programme without further delay.
Interestingly, BAE Systems and Babcock International have and continue to be involved in building Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPV’s) – in the case of the former, for the Royal Navy and in the case of the latter, for Ireland’s Department of Defence. These vessels along with the proposed Type 31 ships for the Royal Navy provided huge export potential and this in part reasons why the Government has sought to review future surface shipbuilding activity in the UK.
CHW (London – 29th November 2016)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785