LONDON – The British government has updated its strategy to revive the maritime industry here by broadening the scope of a potential 30-year order pipeline and targeting more exports, but it failed to give any guarantees that shipbuilding work will actually go to local industry.
The long-awaited publication of a refreshed national shipbuilding strategy, which was originally published in 2017, details a pipeline of potential orders under government control for vessels ranging in scope from logistics ships and destroyers to tugs and pilot vessels.
One of the key changes compared with the original plan to rebuild Britain’s maritime industry has been to widen the aperture of a strategy which previously focused on military requirements to one that now includes commercial shipping, like ferries.
The new strategy estimates that the total number of vessels in the government pipeline could number as many as 150. Vessels likely to be ordered by the devolved governments of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are included in the pipeline.
Defence procurement minister Jeremy Quin said the revised plan radically extends the scope of the existing shipbuilding strategy.
“I may be standing here as a defense minister but, rest assured, this plan is as much about commercial shipbuilding as it is the Royal Navy. Nor are we simply focused on hulls alone but internal systems and sub-systems as well,” Quin told Parliament March 10.
Industry executives Defense News spoke to were generally supportive of the revised strategy.
Not so the unions, though. They were furious the document didn’t offer a guarantee that the work would be done in the U.K.
“Ministers are again sowing uncertainty with their disastrous policy refusing to guarantee work for U.K. yards, Gary Smith, the general-secretary of the GMB union said.
“The government’s scheme of sending potentially every order overseas is killing investment. No other shipbuilding nation would dream of procuring its own vessels in this way,” said Smith.
“The world is becoming less stable and we need a clear industrial strategy for the defense sector that secures our capabilities at home,” added the union boss.
For its part the government committed only to a procurement approach for each class of ship being determined on a case-by-case basis.
A key element in that procurement decision-making process is the government’s social value policy, which applies not just to the maritime industry but many other sectors as well.
One industry executive, who asked not to be named, said the percentage of build work coming to U.K. yards all revolves around whether measuring the social value of a bid really has some weight in government.
“I have to say, I am skeptical. Government departments have great difficulty putting a value on softer things than the bottom line. It’s a brave attempt, but whether it will really shift the needle of bringing more work into the U.K., I think the jury is out on that,” the executive said.
Quin said social value would be a key requirement for shipbuilders. “It ensures we not only deliver the capabilities that each [government] department needs, but that taxpayers’ money is being used to maximum effect. We will establish a new social value minimum for competitions for Royal Navy vessels of 20 percent.”
Defence consultant Howard Wheeldon, of Wheeldon Strategic Advisory, was not so enthusiastic about the strategy update as a whole.
He said the most positive element of the document is that it “provides transparency and elements of clarity on future intended orders across what it describes as a 30-year, cross-government shipbuilding pipeline.”
“Although welcome as an update to the 2017 shipbuilding strategy and while there are some visible potential attractions in regard of cross government shipbuilding, ambitions are still lacking in detail and sufficient levels of financial commitment,” he said.
The argument over preserving work for local yards is likely to run for a while, but the warships Britain may be able to sell overseas is also a key part of the strategy.
After years of being in the doldrums British shipbuilding has hit a bit of a purple patch recently with Australia and Canada purchasing BAE Systems’ Type 26 anti-submarine frigate design being built for the Royal Navy, while Babcock International’s Type 31 general-purpose frigate has been selected by Poland and Indonesia.
The British exported £2.2 billion ($2.9 billion) worth of ships, boats and floating structures in 2020, and they believe they can grow that figure by 45% by 2030.
To make that happen, Quin told Parliament: “We’re opening a new Maritime Capability Campaign Office. Covering all aspects of the shipbuilding enterprise, from platforms, to sub-systems, to the supply chain, it will use robust industry analysis of global markets to help suppliers reach untapped markets.”
Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.