George Osborne’s big day out in Portsmouth

On Friday 30th January, the Chancellor of the Exchequer visited Portsmouth Naval base. A high-profile visit by a government minister to make announcements about spending investments is a sure sign there is an election looming. Touring Portsmouth harbour by boat he would have seen 3 visiting German warships which would help disguise the fact that Portsmouth is often virtually empty, with museum ships or decommissioned ships out numbering active Royal Navy warships. George has been seeing a lot of ships this week, visiting Falmouth to announce that A&P have won the contract to complete the fitting out the four Royal Fleet Auxiliary tankers currently being built by DSME in South Korea. The first vessel RFA Tidespring should arrive in Falmouth by December this year – a testament to the speed and efficiency of Korean shipbuilders.

Can his ‘national shipbuilding strategy’ deliver what the navy needs?

While aboard HMS Defender in Portsmouth the Chancellor said “We are looking at a future shipbuilding strategy with the potential for Britain to build complex warship every couple of years”. His office also said this would “renew the Royal Navy every 25 years”. There is much to be unpacked in these very grand statements. No government since WWII has committed to a ‘drumbeat’ of regular orders. Without a stable cycle of procurement it has been ‘feast or famine’ with orders placed when politically and fiscally convenient. Regular orders are something we have long-argued for; it reduces costs and allows the Navy and industry to plan and prepare. The huge flaw in this proposal is that a single new warship every two years will not even sustain the fleet at the existing inadequate levels. Even if he is just talking about surface escorts, if ‘renewed every 25 years’ that would support a force of just 12 ships instead of the 19 we have now.

The broad plan for the Type 26 programme is supposed to produce a new frigate each year between 2022 and 2033. Even if the programme stays on track and delivers a vessel annually, the last Type 23 frigate will have to solider on until at least 32 years old. The Type 23 programme of the 1990s delivered 16 ships between 1990 and 2000. What we actually need is a commitment to deliver around 3 surface ships every 2 years.

Renewing the RN every 25 years is clearly going to be virtually impossible and not even a sensible target as the aircraft carriers for example, are planned to last 50 years. George also said his government was “committed to building the most modern navy in the world”. This too sounds laudable but is also meaningless and hard to measure – a navy with one new rubber dinghy could argue it was the world’s most modern. Besides it is not so much the quality but the quantity of ships, submarines, aircraft and sailors that is the now biggest issue for the RN.

While British politicians talk vaguely about building a single Royal Navy warship every 2 years, back in the real world last week China launched 3 major warships in one day.

Authoritarian regimes like China have the major advantage of not having to worry too much about local politics, decent pay & pensions, health & safety or environmental concerns. Comparisons are slightly unfair as China is an economic superpower but it does demonstrate what can be done when there is the political will and realism.

More ships, less talk

However appealing it may sound, it is hard to take Government talk of a ‘shipbuilding strategy’ seriously having just allowed the Portsmouth shipyard to close and while they continue to delay the ordering of Type 26 Frigates. The MoD did confirm that frigates will continue the ‘split-basing’ practice of the Type 23s with some based in Portsmouth and some in Devonport. The Tory MPs for Plymouth and Portsmouth were quick to trumpet this ‘good news’ but would do better to campaign for a strong navy and a commitment to at least 13 ships, something that has so far not been forthcoming. The ‘triumph’ of split basing will be pretty hollow if that amounts to 4 ships (or less) per base and will simply make closure of one of the bases more likely. It is now obvious the fate of the Type 26 programme will be subject to the inadequate funding and subsequent carnage of the (SDSR) defence review due after the election.

Spinning Portsmouth’s future

There was also the announcement of a £100 Million of infrastructure investment in Portsmouth Naval base, mainly required to support the 2 new aircraft carriers. This is welcome but is not exactly news, indeed some of that money has already been spent as work has already started.

The MoD also announced the options for re-using the site of the former BAE Systems warship building yard in Portsmouth. The end of warship building is deeply regrettable but it is at least positive that the facility will almost certainly continue to be used for marine industry. The 3 companies bidding are:

  • Burgess Marine – a luxury yacht builder that hopes to create 200 new jobs.
  • Magma Structures – an engineering company involved in construction in the marine, oil & gas, defence and construction sectors.
  • BAE Systems – proposes use its old site to support the maintenance of the RN’s Hunt class mine warfare vessels that are going through a programme of upgrades, including fitting of new engines. This work is currently being done within the dockyard so will not create any new jobs but would free up space for BAES to develop commercial ship repair work. The site could also be used to construct the RN’s future minewarfare and hydrographic vessels.

From a naval point of view, BAES option 3 looks most attractive as it would at least maintain the site for the support and possible future construction of naval vessels.

To summarise. Arriving in Portsmouth where the actions of his Treasury were largely responsible for closing the shipyard, George said he is considering a “shipbuilding strategy” that in the long term would actually shrink the navy further. There was confirmation of the basing plan for the Type 26 frigates while refusing to say how many there will be. Plus the ‘announcement’ of an investment in Portsmouth Naval base which already began sometime ago.