Britain to build warships for Ukraine?

Reports in local media suggest the British government has offered to provide a loan to Ukraine so their navy can purchase 8 fast attack craft, with the first two vessels being built in the UK. Here we take a speculative look at this proposal and developments in the shipbuilding industry.

Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace visited Kyiv on 18th August and discussed “areas of mutual interest and cooperation” with Ukrainian defence minister, Andriy Taran and commander-in-chief, Colonel-General Ruslan Khomchak. As a result of the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 by Russia, Ukraine lost much of its naval capability and faces a growing menace from its giant neighbour in the Black Sea and Sea of Azov. Wallace promised the RN would send more ships to the region this year and assist in delivering an international maritime training package for the Ukrainian navy.

The unconfirmed report says he also offered a loan of £1.2 billion, to be repaid over about 10 years, in order to finance the construction of 8 missile boats based on the Vosper Thornycroft-designed Barzan class vessels built for Qatar in the 1990s. The first two ships would be constructed in the UK with a technology and skills transfer to allow the remaining 6 vessels to be completed in Ukraine. If this project is agreed, the UK is apparently ready to finance other similar projects for the Ukrainian Navy.

Fulfilling the promises of the Minister, HMS Enterprise transited East through the Bosphorus on 16th September and HMS Dragon is likely to visit later in the year as part of the LRG(X) Deployment. (The Montreux Convention governs access to the Black Sea and warships may only stay for 21 days and HMS Albion exceeds the 15,000-ton treaty limit for warships).

In 1992 Qatar ordered four Barzan (Vita) Class fast strike craft for the Qatar Emiri Navy from Vosper Thornycroft which were built at their Woolston yard in Southampton. The four ships; QENS Barzan, Huwar, Al Udeid and Al Deebel were delivered between 1996-98. These vessels are unlike anything found in the RN inventory, being heavily armed for their size, designed for short-range operations to defend littoral waters. The Barzan is driven by 4 MTU 20V 538 TB93 diesels and has a maximum speed of 35 knots. The French-supplied missile armament consists of two quadruple launchers for MM40 Exocets AShM and a sextuple Sadral launcher for Mistral point defence SAM. Gun armament consists of Oto Melara 76mm and a Goalkeeper CIWS mount.

The Barzan displaces 380 tonnes and is 56m in length. A stretched 62m ’Super-Vita’ version of the same design was used for the domestically-built Roussen class for the Greek Navy in a very protracted programme that delivered 7 ships between 2002 – 2020.

Although based on the Barzan platform, any new vessels would need modern weapons, sensors and combat systems – the original design is almost 30 years old. The steelwork may be the more visible element, but the main value of warship building lies in the equipment fit and integration, typically 70% of the contract. Just how much UK, other Western or Ukrainian equipment will be selected remains an important point and could be a factor in the small print of the loan deal. The Neptune anti-ship cruise missile in development by Ukraine would likely comprise as the main armament.

QENS Barzan and Al Wusail seen from HMS Brocklesby in the Gulf during bilateral exercises with the Qatari Navy. (Sept 2018).

A fantastic time for shipbuilding?

On 17 September The Prime Minister, speaking before the Commons Liaison Committee, said “On shipbuilding alone, you should look at the ambitions of the Defence Secretary and what we are doing with the Fleet Solid Support ships, the investments we are making in frigates, the Type 31s, the Type 26s. This is going to be a fantastic time for investment in shipbuilding.” While public confidence in government promises is pretty low at present, it is unlikely Johnson would make such firm statements unless there we definite orders in the pipeline. This is encouraging as it would suggest the FSS project will survive the defence review and be built in the UK. Rumours that the Type 26 frigate programme could be capped at just 3 ships, instead of the planned 8, always seemed very unlikely from a political, industrial and naval perspective.

Following their purchase of the closed Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast in December 2019, Infrastrata purchased the Appledore shipyard that was closed by Babcock in March 2019. Infrastrata have been surprisingly bullish about reviving the prospects of defunct yards. Their Team Resolute bid to build the FSS ships would rely heavily on Spanish shipbuilders Navantia but would be the key to reviving the Belfast facility.

The North Devon yard reopened in August and has been rebranded Harland & Wolff Appledore, although it will be run as a separate business to the Belfast yard. Infrastrata have said they are looking to recruit up to 350 people at Appledore in the next 18 months, with the ‘potential for another 1,000’. Applicants have been invited to attend a series of open days being held in for prospective workers. They have been told there could be work starting as soon as January 2021 and maintenance on the dock gates and other key parts of the facility has begun.

On 25th August Boris Johnson paid a visit to the Appledore yard and said: “This exciting new chapter for Appledore will create hundreds of new jobs in the South West and beyond, and will drive forward our ambitions to become a shipbuilding superpower”. The PM would not comment on work lined up for Appledore, citing commercial confidentiality and the procurement process but a Prime Ministerial visit would also suggest that a future workload is assured and this is supported by the investment being made by Infrastrata.

Construction of fast attack craft would be the ideal kind of project for the Appledore yard. Its unique covered dry dock can accommodate vessels up to 119m in length. Although it is pure speculation that the proposed warships for Ukraine might be built at the site, they would very much suit the capabilities of the Appledore, provided it can re-hire experienced people and recruit the right team. If Team Resolute is successful in its bid for FSS, then Appledore could potentially build small sections of hull or superstructure to send to Spain or Belfast for assembly. It is possible that Harland & Wolff may remain primarily focussed on offshore energy and general engineering work but the mood music seems to suggest a future based around shipbuilding.