LONDON — An Anglo-Spanish industry team is the Royal Navy’s preferred bidder to build a fleet of logistics ships to support the service’s new aircraft carriers.
Belfast, Northern Ireland-based shipbuilder Harland and Wolff, top British warship designer BMT and Spain’s Navantia, together known as Team Resolute, on Wednesday were announced the winners of a competition to build three large support vessels.
Called Fleet Solid Support ships, construction of the first of the vessels in the £1.6 billion ($1.9 billion) program is scheduled to get underway in 2025, with all three vessels operational by 2032.
Measuring 216 meters in length, the ships will be operated by the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, the Royal Navy’s support arm, providing munitions, stores and provisions to two new aircraft carriers, destroyers and frigates deployed at sea.
The deal remains subject to Treasury and ministerial approval.
The requirement has long been at the center of a row between the government on the one side and unions and the Labour opposition on the other over whether the ships should be subject to open, international competition or reserved for the British shipbuilding industry.
At one point the Conservatives even argued the logistics vessels weren’t warships in order to claim under European Union rules they had to allow foreign bids.
As it turned out the MoD seems to have settled on a compromise whereby foreign bidders were allowed but a significant portion of the ships had to be built locally in order to meet social prosperity requirements.
Team Resolute says it will invest £77 million ($92 million) in shipyard infrastructure, making Harland and Wolff competitive for future domestic and export orders.
Navantia will lead the build program, although the majority of the blocks and modules for the ships will be undertaken at Harland and Wolff’s facilities in Belfast, its smaller southwest England yard at Appledore and two fabrication companies purchased by InfraStrata at Methil and Arnish. Build work will also take place at Navantia’s shipyard in Cadiz, Spain, in a collaboration that allows for key skills and technology transfer to Harland and Wolff.
The Appledore yard had been dormant after it was mothballed by previous owner Babcock but was acquired by Harland and Wolff owner InfraStrata in 2020.
The selection of Harland and Wolff for much of the construction work is a remarkable turnaround for the company that came close to closure in 2019 as commercial repair and offshore work dwindled.
The yard was largely saved by a workers sit-in.
The Belfast yard, made famous by the fact it built the Titanic, has not constructed a warship for decades but will rely on the transfer of Navantia’s industrial skills and capabilities.
The deal is reckoned to create around 2,000 jobs in the British supply chain. Many of those jobs will be based at Harland and Wolff where the company currently only has a small workforce.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, in Belfast for the announcement, said the deal would be a big boost for British shipbuilding capabilities.
“Building on ambitions laid out in the national shipbuilding strategy, this contract will bolster technology transfer and key skills from a world-renowned shipbuilder, crucial in the modernization of British shipyards,”said Wallace.
GMB, the shipbuilding union, welcomed the announcement but said they remain concerned about the government’s pledge over the amount of work coming to Britain.
“Ministers have finally conceded a ‘significant’ amount of the FSS [Fleet Solid Support] work will be done at home,” said the union in a statement. “The problem is that they don’t define ‘significant’ by volume or value and they don’t tell us what guarantees or enforceability there is. Due diligence must be rigorous.”
Announcement of the Navantia-led partnership selection comes just 24 hours after the MoD signed a £4.2 billion ($5 billion) deal with BAE Systems to build five Type 26 anti submarine warfare ships for the Royal Navy.
The spending spree boosting key British maritime assets comes ahead of the government’s autumn budget announcement Nov. 17 which is expected provide bad news for defense in general.
New Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has already made it clear the commitment by the previous government, led by Liz Truss, to grow defense spending to 3% of gross domestic has been abandoned, at least for the foreseeable future.
No extra money is likely to be found for bolstering British defense capabilities in the face of inflation now eating into the budget at over 11%.
Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.