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The Commons Library has published several briefing papers in recent years examining surface ship procurement. This short note provides a brief overview of latest developments.

The Shipbuilding Strategy

The Government’s new Shipbuilding Strategy in 2017 overhauled the way the MOD procured surface ships. No longer would BAE Systems be the default main supplier. Rather, surface ship design and build would be opened to competition. Restrictions apply: navy warships (aircraft carriers, frigates and destroyers) will be built via competition between UK yards; all other vessels should be subject to open (international) competition. The Strategy set out plans to energise the UK’s maritime industry, retain and increase naval engineering skills and sustain jobs.

However, two years on and one commentator suggests “the strategy has failed to work out exactly as planned”, while media report “industry executives and unions say there is a gap between the strategy’s ambition and reality”. Smaller shipyards have not fared well: Babcock’s Appledore yard in Devon closed in March and in August both Harland and Wolff, based in Belfast, and Ferguson Marine, in Glasgow, went into administration and was nationalised.

The Prime Minister appointed Ben Wallace, the Secretary of State for Defence, as the Government’s new Shipbuilding Tsar in September 2019. He has been tasked with working across Government to “enhance the UK’s shipbuilding enterprise”.

Type 31 frigates

The Shipbuilding Strategy laid out plans for a new class of five Type 31e frigates. These would have a price cap of £250m per vessel and the first in class expected in the water in 2023. The design and build will be open to competition amongst UK yards. 

The aggressive timetable laid out in the strategy has slipped slightly. After the competition was briefly suspended in summer 2018, the MOD awarded competition design phase contracts to three consortia. In September 2019 the MOD identified the Babcock-led consortia as its preferred bidder. A formal contract award is expected later in 2019 with manufacture to begin in 2021 and the first ship scheduled for launch in 2023.

The vessels will be assembled at Babcock’s Rosyth yard. Babcock’s shipbuilding plan had originally envisaged manufacture activities being shared out between Babcock at Rosyth, the Harland and Wolff yard in Belfast, and Ferguson Marine Engineering on the Clyde, but this is now in doubt. Babcock identified only its Rosyth yard in the official announcement – this is where the frigates will be assembled. Babcock has since said H&W and Ferguson Marine can bid for work but there is no guarantee they will be awarded a contract. Workers are hoping contracts will give the yards a lifeline. 

The design and build contract is expected to be awarded by the end of 2019, with manufacture to begin in 2021 and the first ship scheduled for launch in 2023.

Fleet Solid Support Ships

The Government also intends to buy two (possibly three) new Fleet Solid Support Ships (FSS). These are for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and are used to supply ships at sea with food, ammunition and spares.

The Government is at odds with Labour, the SNP and the shipbuilding trade unions over the decision to compete the contract internationally. The latter argue the competition should be restricted to UK shipyards – as the Type 31 frigate contract is – to support the UK shipbuilding industry, protect jobs and retain skills.

The Government’ says defence procurement should be subject to open competition except when the UK judges it needs to protect its operational advantages and freedom of action for reasons of national security. The Government argues “there is no national security interest which requires the design and construct of the FSS ships to be limited to UK companies”.

Five firms were shortlisted in November 2018 to submit a tender for the competition, although two have reportedly since pulled out.  

The contract is expected to be awarded in 2020 with the ships delivered from the mid-2020s.

Type 26 frigates

The Government has committed to buying eight Type 26 frigates and signed a contract for the first three in July 2017. The MOD says it expects to sign a contract for the second batch of five Type 26 Frigates in the early 2020. The Type 26s are anti-submarine warfare specialist frigates and will replace the eight ASW Type 23 frigates currently in service. The ships will be built in BAE Systems shipyards on the Clyde. The first in the City-class, HMS Glasgow, has a current in-service date of 2027 with HMS Cardiff and HMS Belfast to follow.

Offshore Patrol Vessels

The second of the Royal Navy’s new River-class Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs), HMS Medway, was commissioned into service on 19 September 2019. BAE Systems is building five OPVs for the Navy, ordered in two batches in 2013 and 2016, at its Clyde shipyards. The Royal Navy expects to have all five by the end of 2020. They are intended for fishery protection, border patrol, counter-piracy, anti-smuggling, counter-terrorism and maritime defence.

Related Library briefing papers

The Royal Navy’s new frigates and the National Shipbuilding Strategy: February 2017 update, 2 February 2017, CBP-7737. First published in October 2016, updated in December 2016 and February 2017, this paper examines the naval shipbuilding sector; an overview of the Navy’s plans for new frigates, offshore patrol vessels and logistics ships; a summary of Sir John Parker’s report on the Strategy and Government response.

The National Shipbuilding Strategy: January 2018, 9 January 2018, CBP-8193. This paper examines the main points of the shipbuilding strategy.

Fleet Solid Support Ships, 6 July 2018, CBP-8351. This paper focuses on the procurement plans for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s new Fleet Solid Support Ships.

In addition, Library paper ‘an introduction to defence procurement’ examines the overarching themes governing the purchase of defence material. The author discussed these in a Commons Library podcast, available from the Commons Library website.

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