Kevan Jones: Fallon’s confusion over Navy boats shows Treasury takeover of MoD

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After two years of delay the defence secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, yesterday finally announced the government’s national shipbuilding strategy, rubber-stamping recommendations made by the industrialist Sir John Parker to reintroduce competition into Britain’s naval shipbuilding industry.

Since the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) in 2015, which announced that 13 planned Type 26 frigates were to be cut to just eight, the shipbuilding industry and its suppliers have been left in a state of limbo.  

Rather than pursuing a defence industrial strategy, as Labour did whilst in office, the government has instead tried to plug the Ministry of Defence’s budget black hole by trying to procure vital defence capabilities on the cheap.

Central to the defence secretary’s announcement was the planned procurement of five lighter and cheaper Type 31e frigates which, in the government’s view, are more exportable, but crucially are also less capable, than the Type 26. The Type 31e will be built using modular construction and individual companies will in turn bid for each of these modules.

As chair of the new APPG for shipbuilding and ship repair I welcome new orders for British shipbuilding industry, but the secretary of state needs to address several fundamental issues that complicate the government’s approach.

Firstly, a basic question needs to be asked about shipbuilding: do we want sovereign capability to produce complex warships in this country—yes or no? It is a very simple question that the government must answer to give reassurance about the future of the jobs and the technical expertise on which the shipbuilding industry here depends.

Introducing competition into the shipbuilding sector opens up a market for foreign manufacturers to undercut British firms, particularly for individual modules. And yet the defence secretary gave no reassurance of how the government will work towards ensuring that British defence companies maintain an advantage.  

Secondly, the defence secretary admitted that the new Type 31e, due to be in service from 2023, will be unable to undertake Nato standing maritime commitments performed by the Royal Navy’s current warships.

In the run up to the 2015 SDSR, it was reported that the higher echelons of the Royal Navy were resolute in their opposition to the idea of less-capable “second tier” warships.  Speaking to IHS Janes in early 2015, the then first sea lord and chief of the Naval staff admiral Sir George Zambellas said “one of the siren calls I completely resist is to try and produce something that is not a credible platform, something that is smaller, cheaper and less effective.” Zambellas’ comments echo concerns that the Type 31e could not actually participate in naval warfare.

By refusing to answer questions over how the Type 31e will be armed and by capping the price of each ship now, the defence secretary is sending out confusing messages about the utility of these vessels.

Finally, questions remain over just how big the market will be for the Type 31e. It is entering a market where countries such as France and Italy are years ahead of Britain in producing light frigates.  The last successful British new-build export warship was the Rothesay-class frigate built in the early 1960s so clearly our warship exports will have to start from scratch.

The national shipbuilding strategy appears to be anything but strategic. It seems that the Ministry of Defence has been taken over by Treasury officials unfamiliar with the complexities of international security and whose decisions today will have serious consequences in years to come.

Kevan Jones is Labour MP for North Durham and chair of the APPG for shipbuilding and ship repair.

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