A Cheap and Cheerful Royal Navy?

Main Image Credit BAE Systems' Govan shipyard. Courtesy of bjmullan/Wikimedia.

An independent, government-commissioned report to inform Britain’s national shipbuilding strategy makes very pertinent recommendations, but it fails to bridge the divide between economic considerations and operational requirements.

The shortest British government-commissioned reports often also prove to be the most difficult. And that may well turn out to be the case with the recently published report of Sir John Parker - a noted British industrialist, former Babcock chairman and current chairman of Anglo American – into the future of Britain’s national shipbuilding strategy. Crisply-written and only 23 pages-long, the report concludes that the Royal Navy fleet has been depleted by a ‘vicious cycle’ of chaotic planning, and – no pun intended – calls for a ‘sea change’ in shipbuilding policy.

But despite its assured tone, the report will have disappointed everyone, from industry and ship workers to the government, the MoD and the Royal Navy. For the problem remains that it is neither feasible nor viable to accept all of the report’s recommendations, and its broad suggestion – to build saleable ships that do not prioritise the needs of the Royal Navy or UK national security – ignores some critical considerations about the requirements of combat at sea.

For British industry, the idea of opening the military shipbuilding market to competition is, on the face of it, attractive. Ending BAE Systems’ monopoly in supplying warships for the Royal Navy through the Govan shipyard and providing work to other UK shipyards across the country certainly feels attractive, and in line with the best commercial practice for driving economic efficiencies. Yet those shipyards that are now doing well in the commercial sector might just find the MoD a more difficult customer than those they are used to dealing with.

Sir John Parker’s report identifies the key differences between commercial and government timelines in delivering vessels from design to build. According to Sir John’s research, a commercial mega-cruise ship takes just five years from concept to delivery. The Type 26 frigate project, however, will end up taking more than two decades, having started in 1997. For a commercial firm to commit resources over that period to a ‘difficult’ customer that constantly changes design and cost parameters will be a real challenge.

The government will also find the report difficult to accept in full. While opening competition is certainly in keeping with the business ethos of the current administration, it has already angered Scottish political leaders and union chiefs.

Sir John also advocated purchasing more commercially designed ships overseas instead of in the UK. Yet this would fly in the face of an objective to stimulate the British supply and manufacturing sectors in order to further a UK prosperity agenda.

The MoD might welcome the organisational changes advocated in the report, specifically those related to the delegated responsibilities of decision-makers (Senior Responsible Owners, or SROs, as they are known). This has long been recognised as an issue within the MoD, where the ponderous procurement process causes real frustrations. However, other elements of the report are much less likely to be acceptable. A proposal that the MoD should ring-fence all the resources necessary for a 30-year platform replacement programme would constrain the defence budget unnecessarily and remove all the flexibility that the department needs to reprioritise cash as the nature of requirements change. The defence budget is already significantly constrained by an overloaded equipment programme with little flexibility in the annual allocation to meet the requirements for training and force development. It is not an exaggeration to say that accepting such a recommendation would be ruinous for the British Armed Forces.

Similarly for the Royal Navy, the plan might appear attractive but, if implemented, would have significant implications on war-fighting capabilities. Sir John recommends that the Type 31 frigates are not designed as complex warships, but rather as a ‘cheap and profitable’ vessel. These ships will replace the Duke-class frigates, that were designed for war-fighting based on the lessons of the Falklands War in 1982.

The hull forms themselves were specialised for submarine hunting in the Atlantic ocean, as well as for extreme deep-sea conditions around the world. Few other states have designed ships with the levels of survivability, damage control, exposed working and redundancy that are necessary during combat and for a globally capable navy. Those nations that do have such requirements tend to build ships themselves to their own specific requirements and design. To remove these aspects simply to make the ships more saleable would be difficult to justify; could the procurement of a cheap and cheerful airliner to replace the fighters and bombers in the air force be justified?

The very idea that design and procurement of platforms for the Royal Navy should be based on what is exportable might be financially attractive, but actual combat pays no heed to how good the national balance of accounts is. The risk that will be imposed on sailors, and thus national security, from such decisions does not appear to have been addressed, but must be a very real consideration for the government when determining what action to take in future.

Sir John’s report is excellent from a commercial point of view, and it is certainly cognisant of affordability and MoD perspectives. Yet it is the government’s reaction to the report in formulating the policy position and subsequent national shipbuilding strategy that will be key. Changing processes and behaviour in the MoD must be addressed before considering how best to harness a UK shipbuilding enterprise through a more dispersed manufacturing ethos.

However, there is a middle ground between wholesale acceptance of the report and fudging the existing status quo. Decisions over the design of affordable platforms will be key, but the insertion of clear military judgement and the lessons of naval combat – and not just from the Royal Navy – must be prioritised over short-term considerations of economic desirability.


Professor Peter Roberts

Director, Military Sciences

Military Sciences

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