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Refreshed UK shipbuilding strategy to come after government spending review

18th August 2021 - 09:00 GMT | by Harry Lye in London

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Type 26 frigate, HMS Glasgow, seen here under construction at BAE Systems’ shipyard in Govan on the River Clyde. (Photo: MoD/ Crown Copyright.)

UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace first announced the Refreshed National Shipbuilding Strategy on 16 March at the Society of Maritime Industries Annual Conference, adding it would include a 30-year pipeline of all government vessels over 150t.

Shephard understands that the UK will likely publish its much-anticipated refreshed National Shipbuilding Strategy after the UK government's comprehensive spending review this Autumn.

Publishing the strategy after the spending plans improves the likelihood its aims will receive proper funding.

Asked about the timeline for publishing the refreshed shipbuilding strategy, an MoD spokesperson said: 'We are currently refreshing our National Shipbuilding Strategy which will outline the government's commitment to the UK shipbuilding enterprise and rich supply chain that underpins it.

'The refresh will focus on how we work with Industry across a range of programmes to drive forward the Renaissance in UK shipbuilding. We will set out further details in due course.'

Shephard understands the document will outline how the government hopes to create the necessary conditions for an innovative, sustainable shipbuilding sector that can see global commercial success.

In its 22 March Defence Command Paper, the UK reiterated a promise from Wallace, who also has the role of shipbuilding tsar, to publish a 30-year plan for naval and government-owned vessels.

Babcock told Shephard the company welcomed the 30-year plan of shipbuilding opportunities but added it was vital that the 'procurement approach' gives Industry the confidence to focus investment. The company added the pipeline would let shipbuilders' train and retain' quality skills and 'pay back' considerable investments safe in the knowledge there is a continuous pipeline of opportunities.

From a military shipbuilding perspective, that pipeline includes work on future submarines, destroyers, frigates and fleet auxiliaries.

BMT, Harland & Wolff, Navantia have partnered to bid for the Fleet Solid Support Ship programme. (Photo: BMT)

Ian Waddell, General Secretary of the Confederation of Engineering and Shipbuilding Unions, claimed the 'solution' to naval procurement would come through the government working in partnership with Industry to create a 'drumbeat of orders' that would provide the shipyards and their workforces with certainty.

Waddell added this would allow yards to invest in facilities and recruitment to maintain the UK's 'world-class workforce'.

The UK has plans to acquire three new Fleet Solid Support Ships for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA). The competition for the three vessels has come under repeated criticism from some sectors of the UK shipbuilding establishment over the MoD's willingness to let foreign firms work on the project.

Waddell told Shephard: 'This is the approach that was taken with the Aircraft Carrier Alliance which delivered best value and two state-of-art aircraft carriers. Following this route, and by building the Future Solid Support ships in the UK, will form the bridge into the next tranche of naval procurement.

'This will guarantee jobs for a generation and has the potential to allow the UK to successfully compete in the global market for auxiliary ships.'

Existing programmes in the pipeline include eight Type 26 City-class frigates, five Type 31 Inspiration-class frigates and the three remaining boats of the Astute-class submarine programme.

Babcock is building the RN's Type 31 frigates, and success in export campaigns could see some Type 31-design ships for foreign navies constructed in the UK. BAE Systems is building the eight Type 26 frigates and remaining Astute-class boats.

Babcock said the RN Type 31 was a 'key pathfinder' programme for the National Shipbuilding Strategy and an opportunity for the company to demonstrate an 'innovative approach to warship procurement'.

The company said it had 'fully engaged' in supporting work to refresh the National Shipbuilding Strategy. It also believes the strategy will help deliver a more sustainable UK shipbuilding enterprise. 

Babcock believes that the UK Government has an opportunity to collaborative with Industry on implementing a strategy that can drive social value and prosperity post-Brexit and the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Government and Industry working together would also support the UK's 'Global Britain' initiatives, with Babcock telling Shephard: 'The Government must exploit the positive impact of buying British in order to secure the future of high-skilled British jobs in the Maritime sector and support UK Industry to compete with international (often state-owned or sponsored) naval shipbuilders.'

Babcock aims to cut steel on the first Inspiration-class frigate for the UK RN in September 2021. (Photo: Babcock)

In future, the shipbuilding pipeline will also include up to five Type 32 frigates, which could begin entering service towards the end of this decade or in the 2030s. Scant details have been revealed about the Type 32 as the programme is still in its infancy; however, it will likely be a host platform for autonomous systems.

Up to six Multi-Role Support Ships (MRSS) designed to support littoral strike and maritime special operations will enter service in the 2030s.

The pipeline will probably also include the future Type 83 destroyer that will replace the existing Type 45 Daring-class destroyers in the late 2030s.

Shephard can reveal the RN is working on Type 83 under the Future Air Defence system (FADs) programme. FADs work covers the Type 83 ship, as well as the development of sensors and weapons systems.

The UK is also looking to procure a new 'National Flagship' that will not be a military vessel but crewed by RN personnel.

Commenting on the pipeline, the Defence Command Paper reads: 'A continuous pipeline will provide the sector with the confidence needed to encourage innovation, rapid adoption of technology, and investment within the supply chain to improve productivity and delivery.'

Labour MP Kevan Jones, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Shipbuilding and Ship Repair, has called for a 'landmark' study of shortages in the UK maritime skills base as part of the refresh work.

Jones said: 'In many historical cases and through many governments, shipyards and skills have been allowed to atrophy at the conclusion of contracts, under the misguided assumption that the gates can be reopened and the skills base reformed after periods of famine.

'Time and time again, this has proven to be a false option which the government has nonetheless taken despite the immense difficulties in reforming a skills base prone to exodus at the conclusion of contracts, the huge regenerative outlay for industry in restarting programmes, and the delay all this causes to handing over crucial equipment to the Royal Navy.'

A detailed study of the maritime skills base in the UK has not been conducted since 2008.

Like Waddell, the APPG for Shipbuilding and Ship Repair also calls on the Government to deliver a 'steady drumbeat' of work to UK shipyards.

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