Senior Service Needs a Junior Partner

The Royal Navy has prided itself—and not without reason—in having a proud and distinguished tradition, longer even than the British Army. To that end, it continues to have and develop state-of-the-art equipment that will allow it to do its job and sustain that tradition.

The most recent step along that road has been the £127m programme initiated in 2010 by the MoD with BAE Systems to develop the Type 26 frigate Global Combat Ship (GCS), previously known as the Future Surface Combatant. These ships are to be completed from 2021 onward, replacing Type 22 (‘Broadsword’ Class) and Type23 (‘Duke’ Class) frigates, currently in RN service.

Far from their humble WWII origins as cheap, sluggish 1,300 ton convoy escorts, frigates have become the backbone of ‘blue-water’ navies capable of deployment far from friendly bases. To do this, they have developed into 5,400-ton weapons platforms that can touch 30 knots and cruise over 10,000 miles. The Type 26 will use stealth technology and can be configured for several roles, such as Anti-submarine warfare (ASW), each ship costing from £250m to £350m, depending on equipment configuration.

Unionist politicians, led by Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy, have flapped their lips about how imperiled the BAE’s Type 26 programme will be if Scotland threatens to become independent. Conveniently glossing over the fact that four RN support vessels are now being built in Korea and every nuclear system deployed (as well as the F-35s slated for the two aircraft carriers) is of US origin, the bold Jim sees only thousands of lost jobs:

“It’s crystal clear that if we leave Britain then we leave the Royal Navy.  If we lose the Navy we lose the work in the yards.  That would cost thousands of skilled jobs and many more in small companies in the supply chain.” —Jim Murphy, 14th February 2012

But, more practically than that, the decision about where such ships would be built lies as much with BAE as with the MoD. And, anyway, what do they have as alternatives? The BBC’s Scottish Business & Economy editor, Douglas Fraser, has written a sensible piece on this topic, pointing out that the only capable site outside Scotland is BAE Systems other shipyard in Portsmouth.

Whatever differences Scotland and England may feel they have now or in the future, it will be in the interests of both to be close friends—closer even that Eire currently is to the UK because neither would benefit from loss of the currently close levels of co-operation. Unlike Portsmouth, BAE’s Yarrow and Fairfield yards on the Clyde and at Rosyth have been building modern warships for decades.

In any case, a study by Howard Wheedon, senior strategist with City firm BGC Partners, told the Daily Record newspaper that the Clyde yards would continue to operate after Scottish independence:

“If BAE decide to close a shipyard because of uncertainty about future work levels, I think it would be Portsmouth.  It would be natural because Portsmouth is smaller than the Clydeside operations. It’s true that if Portsmouth closed and Scotland went independent, all the yards would be in Scotland.  But that’s not BAE’s concern.  That’s the UK Government’s concern.”

In fact, shipbuilding—especially of warships—has grown on the Clyde, with the workforce doubling to almost 4,000 over the last decade and key companies like engine manufacturers Rolls-Royce and SELEX Galileo, one of Europe’s leading avionics companies based in Edinburgh benefitting from the growth.

It is true that, in an independent Scotland, the MoD would be under no obligation to feed contracts out in a steady stream to allow optimal use of the skilled workforce. But, on the other hand, Turkey, Australia, India, Malaysia, New Zealand and Brazil have all expressed interest in the design and are potential customers. Portsmouth learning all the skills and expanding the capacity to handle all RN and/or export markets makes no economic sense—such overhead can’t be justified in this era of tight budgets.

Perhaps the most ironic element of all this is that Scotland would be unlikely to build any spiffy new frigates for the Scottish Defence Force. Not only do we not need global deployment (their 10,000-mile range is overkill) but the very RN ships that Type 26s are to replace actually fill the role we require far more economically, especially if refurbished with transom flap, Intersleek anti-fouling paint and Type 2087 sonar.

Better yet: the Scottish ‘share’ of the 19 Type 22/23 frigates active with the RN would be two, roughly the naval defence element we would need, especially if operated with the RN. The advantage to Scotland from that would be that both ships would be based and deployed in our waters—unlike at present where the nearest active RN frigate is actually at Gibraltar and poorly placed to intervene in any terrorist attack on, say, North Sea oil.

To sensible minds (that includes those in the MoD and Admiralty), building the Type 26 in Scotland is the best/cheapest solution for England: for the price of two ships they’d pay off anyway, they get England’s Northern flank protected by a stronger force, reliable and friendly as if it were the RN itself (because most personnel would BE ex-RN). They would also get much cheaper unit costs if we were to build Type 26’s for allies as well as RN. Only the Clyde has such capacity. Meantime, Scotland gets the core of its Navy for free.

The best deals are those where both parties win. That should be the independence debate theme—not singing Jim Murphy’s dolorous dirge that matches his long face.

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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