LONDON — Confronted with the dilemma of maintaining a naval industrial base after the completion of two 65,000-ton aircraft carriers for the Royal Navy, the British government two years ago launched a national shipbuilding strategy aimed at building an efficient sector, and thus keeping skills and capacity alive.

But the strategy has failed to work out exactly as planned. Two yards closed this year and a third was rescued by nationalization. Meanwhile in the supply chain, the Ministry of Defence had to act quickly on ordering the motor for the Type 26 frigate to prevent the contractor from moving its capabilities to France.

Former shipyard boss Peter Parker, who authored the original shipbuilding strategy, delivered a review of the strategy’s status to the MoD, but the update remains under wraps, with no firm timing announced for its publication.

One key element of the strategy included procurement of five general-purpose frigates for the Royal Navy to be competed for by local shipyards in an effort to end BAE Systems’ maritime monopoly in Britain. Another included an international competition for up to three 40,000-ton fleet solid support ships. Both programs have subsequently run into stormy waters.

Paul Everitt, the chief executive of ADS, the lobby group that represents British defense, aerospace and security companies, said it’s important to continue to support the strategy, even as some of the impetus has been lost.

“We need to stick with the national shipbuilding strategy. It marks a significant shift in the MoD’s approach to procurement. The area that has been challenging, though, is that progress has been hindered by the political uncertainty around Brexit and the future size of MoD budgets,” Everitt said, referring to Britain’s exit from the European Union.

“Some of the decisions that would help to give industry the longer-term certainty they require to invest or hang in there aren’t being made,” he added. “Where do we go next ? It is really about the MoD creating certainty around a pipeline of work from all the key programs, all of which should offer significant amounts of work to U.K. industry over the next 15 years.”

Shipyard survival

Not everyone remains signed up to the shipbuilding strategy, however.

Defense commentator Howard Wheeldon, of Wheeldon Strategic Advisory, is unsure about the relevance of the strategy.

“It’s no longer fit for purpose. We have moved on. More shipyards have closed due to lack of work, and we should not kid ourselves that a commercial shipyard that has little or no expertise in building Navy ships can take on the responsibility and risk that the government requires,” Wheeldon said.

“If the government has any belief in the strategy, it will ensure that contracts for the fleet [solid] support ships will be placed in U.K. shipyards. If it fails, then we must conclude that it has neither belief in its own strategy or in ensuring that we retain the sovereign capability that a nation such as the U.K. needs,” he added.

An international competition to build two or three fleet solid support ships has been underway for months, with the bidders narrowed down to Navantia of Spain, Japan Marine United Corp., and a homemade consortium made up of BAE Systems, Babcock International, Cammell Laird and Rolls-Royce, known as Team UK.

The MoD opened the deal to foreign bidders, reasoning that the vessels were not warships and therefore, under European Union regulations, the competition must be open to all.

Now, though, the tide seems to be turning in favor of British yards taking a bigger share of the work than just the fitting of locally made sensitive kit.

One senior industry executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the “current fleet solid support [ship] procurement plan is not really tenable with the current government team and a shipbuilding strategy which is in danger of becoming unstitched.”

“The government will have come under huge pressure on this issue at every political level. You have a new procurement minister, [Marie-Anne Trevelyn], who only a couple of months ago put her name to a parliamentary report supporting building the ships in the U.K.; you have a Brexiter defense secretary in Ben Wallace; and [Prime Minister Boris] Johnson himself,” the industry executive said. “Is that trio likely to award a contract to a Spanish yard?”

Royal Navy servicemen march past HMS Prince of Wales before a naming ceremony for the aircraft carrier at Rosyth Dockyard in September 2017 in Rosyth, Scotland. Completion of the ship raises questions about what's next for the British shipbuilding industry. (Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images)
Royal Navy servicemen march past HMS Prince of Wales before a naming ceremony for the aircraft carrier at Rosyth Dockyard in September 2017 in Rosyth, Scotland. Completion of the ship raises questions about what's next for the British shipbuilding industry. (Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images)

Whatever the outcome, it’s too late for two of the yards. Babcock’s Appledore yard in southwest England closed in early 2019 after the completion of an offshore patrol boat for the Irish Naval Service. Additionally, Harland & Wolff recently went into insolvency proceedings with its Belfast, Northern Ireland, yard that famously built the Titanic — although there remains a chance a buyer could be found for the facility.

In Glasgow, shipbuilder Ferguson’s nationalization by the Scottish government was announced Aug. 16 after the yard went over time and over budget with a commercial ferry contract it won.

Harland & Wolff was the lead U.K. yard in a proposal by German-based Atlas Elektronik to build Type 31e frigates for the Royal Navy. The yard’s demise could scuttle the German company’s bid, although parent company Thyssenkrupp has a history of reviving cold yards.

Atlas isn’t the only company with Harland & Wolff on its team. Babcock also listed the Northern Ireland yard in its Type 31e proposal at one stage and also named Ferguson as a subcontractor.

Britain has shortlisted three contenders for the Type 31e requirement: Atlas, Babcock and BAE Systems. A decision on a winner is expected this year, although there has been speculation it could come during or soon after the DSEI trade show in September.

Second-order effects

The supply chain has not been immune from difficulties either.

GE Power, which provides power-conversion systems for Royal Navy warships, announced it was closing its Rugby site in Central England and relocating the work to France. In response, the MoD ordered motors for a second batch of Type 26s to prevent the move, even though BAE does not yet have a deal to build the warships.

The industry executive said the GE Power episode highlighted a weakness in Britain’s shipbuilding strategy.

“GE proved the point: It [the strategy] didn’t really address the criticality of the supply chain. It assumed the criticality was all about shipyards,” he said. “The other fundamental flaw with it was you were never going to keep all the U.K. yards in business if you were going to put the fleet solid support ship deal offshore.”

The situation certainly isn’t improved by the political turmoil at the MoD and in wider government.

Defense and procurement leaders have been coming and going with alarming regularity for years , particularly since the government adopted the shipbuilding strategy in September 2017.

Penny Mordaunt, the pro-Navy, pro-buy-British defense secretary, lasted just more than 60 days before she found herself backing the wrong candidate in a Conservative Party leadership contest, which resulted in Johnson becoming prime minister on July 24.

Given the current political uncertainties, there is no guarantee how long the new administration will last.

With the Brexit debate occupying the government nearly 24/7, defense has barely rated a mention by the Johnson government; that is, other than during the furor caused by the Royal Navy’s inability to stop the seizure of a British-registered tanker by Iran on July 19.

The uncertainties have come at a time of mixed fortunes for the British maritime sector.

Yards may be closing, but set against that is the Type 26 anti-submarine frigate design scoring major export successes in Australia and Canada — successes that could put Britain back on the maritime export map in a big way.

Neither of the export customers will have their frigates built in the U.K., but the deals open the door to potentially billions of pounds of orders for the British supply chain.