The current situation faced by the RN is reminiscent to that when King William III ascended the throne; neglected and underfunded. His ambition was to rebuild the Navy to a position of pre-eminence; his problem was the lack of funds. His solution was to borrow the money and thereby created the Bank of England and the National Debt, which are still with us. It has been mooted that our current Debt is the equivalent of the cost of all the wars fought since. There was a consequence arising from the building programme, the oak forests of Britain and Ireland were laid waste. The construction of ships was a massive enterprise that stimulated the economy and did lead to the industrial revolution. Britannia really did rule the waves as the RN won control of the seas. Control of the seas resulted in control of the world and the British Empire. Our modern desires for the RN are less ambitious and relatively less costly. We merely want to save the RN.
Money is the persistent problem. The Treasury has been frustrated with many years of delays and cost increases to warship construction. They maintain that the problem is not lack of funds but mismanagement by the Ministry of Defence. They would say that wouldn’t they, but there may be an element of truth to it. They commissioned Sir John Parker to prepare a report making recommendations for a UK National Shipbuilding Strategy. Sir John is a naval architect and has held senior positions in various shipbuilding companies. His report, published in November last year, makes thirty-four recommendations and has been welcomed by the Treasury, the Defence Secretary and the First Sea Lord. It was expected that the NSS would be announced by the government this Spring. We are still waiting and it has been reported that the government is conducting a review of the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review. That must be the shortest SDSR in history.
Perhaps there has been some lobbying. The news media focused on the threat to BAe Systems monopoly on shipbuilding for the RN. The construction of the new aircraft-carriers has been undertaken using a modular method, with all the component sections constructed in various shipyards around the UK before being matched up at Rosyth. Sir John favours this method for future RN ships, particularly the future Type 31 frigate as it would allow for variations in design depending on the intended use of the vessel. It could also prove attractive to foreign navies and restart the building of ships for export. To that end he wants to rebrand it as the Type 31e. This would mean more work going out to other shipyards around the UK.
Sir John is risk averse and does not consider it advisable for BAe Systems to be the lead company for the simultaneous construction of the Type 26 and the Type 31 frigates. Also, the Type 45 destroyers will require refitting of their new propulsion systems by BAe on the Clyde. That raises the question of whether other shipbuilders have the technical expertise and resources to undertake complex warship projects. There is also the matter of renewal of vessels for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, being of a commercial nature they would likely be built at those other shipyards and thereby have limited capacity. He also wants to continue the trend towards reducing crew manning levels by the use of automation. This together with greater fuel efficiency, the use of off-the-shelf technology and open-architecture combat systems will appeal to the cost-conscious Treasury. Cheap as chips may create exports and jobs, but will it produce future-proof warships to meet the technological threats evolving over the next twenty years?
Just as in the Williamite times, a new and expanded shipbuilding programme could work wonders for the whole economy. Renewing the industrial and manufacturing sectors, especially the steel industry, would be beneficial but require a long-term commitment by government to place an uninterrupted flow of orders; and that might not appeal to the Treasury. He wants to increase certainty with a thirty year master plan that features set and assured budgets. Budgets would be fixed and specifications frozen to eliminate alterations after exchange of contracts, as these create delays and increase costs. He also wants to stop the over-specification of vessels with features that are not always needed.
He is critical of the way warships are procured in terms of strategy, management, financing and accountability. He highlights short-term appointments of personnel to project teams for type builds that may run over decades. He urges the appointment of Civil Service and industry expertise to project teams through long-term planning and a regular drumbeat of orders. This would avoid the current situation of fewer more expensive ships than planned being ordered too late. He recommends that ships should be replaced rather than refitted. “Old ships are retained in service well beyond their sell-by date with all the attendant high costs of doing so. This vicious cycle is depleting the Royal Navy fleet and unnecessarily costing the taxpayer.” It is a valid point. Replacing a warship with a newer model means the fleet is not reduced while a ship is out of service being refitted. There is also a second-hand market for well maintained warships from counties that cannot afford a new build.
Sir John’s report pulls no punches, with the hardest hits aimed at Whitehall. For that reason there is cynicism that his recommendations will be implemented. Most of the deficiencies have long been known about, but nothing has been done to remedy them. The Civil Service is renowned for its ability to resist radical structural changes. It remains to be seen if there is the political will to grasp the nettle. BAe Systems is also rebuked, being told to improve its efficiency and become globally competitive instead of being subsidised by the taxpayer.
The report is a good primer for formulating a NSS, with much commonsense and many recommendations that are indisputable. In some respects there is room for a counter view, especially in the way we get from where we are – to where we want to be. Some of this was outside Sir John’s remit. Such as, how large should the fleet be? That is determined by what is expected from the RN; and that is a consequence of the foreign policy pursued by the UK Government.