‘Vicious cycle’ of keeping old warships is depleting the Royal Navy

Welding taking place on the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth.  Picture: Sarah Standing
Welding taking place on the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth. Picture: Sarah Standing
  • Independent report finds it takes too long to build new naval warships
  • The result of this is forcing the navy to rely on ships ‘beyond their sell-by date’
  • Report calls for a radicalisation of the UK’s warship building operation, sparking hopes shipbuilding will return to Portsmouth
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A ‘VICIOUS cycle’ of ageing warships being kept beyond their sell-by date is depleted the Royal Navy’s stretched fleet, an independent report has warned.

A review headed by Sir John Parker found that the procurement of naval ships takes too long from concept to delivery compared with other industries.

He concluded that fewer ships than planned are ordered too late, saying: ‘Old ships are retained in service well beyond their sell-by date with all the attendant high costs of so doing.

‘This vicious cycle is depleting the RN [Royal Navy] fleet and unnecessarily costing the taxpayer. It needs to be broken.’

Sir John, chairman of mining giant Anglo American, said there is a ‘vibrant’ UK shipbuilding, marine and defence supply chain sector which the Ministry of Defence (MoD) should harness.

He called for a ‘sea change’, with ‘pace and grip’ from the government so that shipyards across the UK can win work and create jobs.

He said the government must drive cultural change in defence to inject ‘genuine pace’ into the procurement process and get a clear grip over cost and time.

The MoD should lay out its plans for naval ships over the next 30 years, the report recommended.

Sir John suggested that work on warships should be shared among companies across the UK.

The report has since ignited fresh hopes that naval shipbuilding could once again be brought back to Portsmouth.

Sir John’s work called on the government to look towards constructing ships in a ‘modular’ fashion – building separate parts across the country and then combining them at a centralised hub.

John Ferrett, negotiations officer for The Prospect Union, said Portsmouth could be boosted by such a plan.

‘We have the facility, a modern facility, which has already shown it’s worth in terms of building parts of the carrier and Type 45s and other ships. In terms of naval estates, we have the capability there,’ he said.

‘The concern would be, about the skills capability.’

Mr Ferrett said Portsmouth should have never been stripped of its shipbuilding work force.

He added: ‘This strategy seems to vindicate the arguments we were making in the lead up to Portsmouth’s shiphall being closed.

‘All the eggs were being put in one basket, there is the continuing uncertainty about Scotland and the possibility of another independent referendum, and the position that the UK would not build ships outside of the UK.

‘So we would like to see a return to shipbuilding in Portsmouth.

‘But we also recognise, many of the skills and workers have moved on.

‘I believe it cost some £500m to close the shiphall.’

Sir John’s report said BAE Systems should build the Type 26 series, describing the defence giant as having the breadth of technical and engineering talent and the most recent experience of building sophisticated warships.

But he added that a new fleet of Type 31 naval frigates was urgently needed to maintain the Royal Navy’s fleet numbers and to establish a UK exportable light frigate.

‘There is no precedent for building two ‘first class’ RN frigates in one location,’ he said.

A separate lead shipyard or alliance would appear to be the best way forward for the new frigate to minimise risk, the report said.

The MoD said the report will inform the government’s shipbuilding strategy, to be published next spring.

A statement said: ‘Sir John recognises the skill and experience Scottish shipyards possess. He argues that Scotland’s cutting-edge technology presents an opportunity to implement modular construction more widely, a process in which ship components are produced across the UK before being assembled at a central hub.

‘The build of the Royal Navy’s largest ever warships - the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers - has already demonstrated the success of such an approach, with multiple shipyards and hundreds of companies across the UK working together and benefiting from the aircraft carrier build and final assembly taking place at Rosyth.’

Defence secretary Sir Michael Fallon said: ‘I would like to thank Sir John for providing an ambitious vision of naval shipbuilding in the UK based on a new era of co-operation as part of our modern industrial strategy.

‘This report will inform our national shipbuilding strategy to match the needs of the Royal Navy with the ability to design and build efficiently, maintain skills, and maximise export opportunities.

‘This will ensure a strong naval shipbuilding sector and help deliver an economy that works for everyone.’