‘Industrially illiterate’ to not build Fleet Solid Support ships in the UK, says union leader

Harry Lye 14 September 2020 (Last Updated September 14th, 2020 11:19)

Prospect Union Deputy General Secretary Garry Graham warned that it would be ‘economically and industrially illiterate’ to build the Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s (RFA) new Fleet Solid Support ships abroad.

‘Industrially illiterate’ to not build Fleet Solid Support ships in the UK, says union leader
Navantia, Infrastrata and BMT have formed a consortium to bid for the FSS contract. Image: Navantia.

The union leader made the comments during a Defence Select committee hearing on the UK’s defence industrial policy, which focused on the much-debated procurement of new Fleet Solid Support (FSS) ships worth an expected £1.5bn.

During the hearing, Graham said: “The issue of FSS has become – quite rightly – totemic in people’s eyes. Certainly, I cannot imagine other European nations and other major defence nations around the world making a similar decision.

“The potential decision to send FSS construction abroad is economically and industrially illiterate.”

The ships were not classified as warships as they will be operated by the RFA and only carry defensive weapons. The vessels are seen as vital to the UK’s plans for Carrier Strike groups and will keep the UK’s two Queen-Elizabeth aircraft carriers stocked with stores while at sea.

Graham added that ‘European competitors’ as a result of Covid-19 have been bringing forward defence contracts to be ‘fulfilled in their domestic markets’ in a bid to boost their economies.

During the same session, Plymouth City Council Leader Councillor Tudor Evans OBE said the local council were ‘surprised’ at the decision not to classify the vessels as warships. Evans added: “Had they been, they could already have been finding their way to UK yards. We find that puzzling. We would be happy to see those FSS ships done here.”

Plymouth is home to HMNB Devonport, the largest naval base in Western Europe, the base of the UK’s Amphibious Assault Ship fleet, and half of the Royal Navy’s Type 23 Frigates. Evans added that FSS work would provide the local area with ‘well-paid’ design jobs.

GMB Shipbuilding national officer Ross Murdoch told the committee that work on the three FSS ships was ‘the only game in town at the moment’ for UK shipbuilding outside of work on Type 26 and Type 31 Frigates.

Murdoch added: “We have heard talk about hospital ships, fishery protection vessels and littoral strike support ships, but they are all at some point in the future.

“The orders themselves are uncertain, and it appears that no one is planning on the assumption that they will definitely be required, so FSS really is the big-ticket item for the members we represent.”

Murdoch said that the FSS vessels had the potential to be built in a modular style similar to the Queen-Elizabeth class aircraft carriers which would allow work to be split across a number of shipyards in the UK. Murdoch said that taking this approach would ‘spread the prosperity impact across a number of yards and secure their medium-term future.’

MPs were also warned that international bidders had an advantage over UK shipbuilders on cost due to subsidies from their governments. Unite Aerospace and Shipbuilding national officer Rhys McCarthy said: “One of the favoured international bidders is a Spanish state-owned company receiving Spanish state aid, and it has an unfair advantage.

“We have seen this previously with other shipbuilding that has gone on, with South Korea for example. I think it is not a fair playing field. It is something that must change, and we have really got to have a situation where the prosperity dividend is in contracts.”

South Korean shipbuilder Daewoo manufactured the RFA’s Tide-class tankers following an order in 2012. A number of British companies participated in the competition for the ships, but ultimately none submitted a final bid for vessel’s tender.

In August the UK Labour Party renewed a plea for the ships to built in the UK by a British shipbuilding consortium, the party called for a “Built in Britain” test for defence and security spending in a bid to ensure work on the vessels stays in the UK.

At the time, Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey told Naval Technology in a statement: “For five years, Defence ministers have dithered over this decision when it’s a no-brainer to build these vital new ships in Britain.

“They are selling Britain short by not putting the work into UK shipyards. No other major military nation has ordered naval support ships from overseas.”

In the same month, Unions raised concern Fleet Solid Support Ship work could leave the UK following the publication of a Ministry of Defence ‘Prior Information Notice’.

Naval Technology understands that the ‘Prior Information Notice’ issued by the MOD is aimed at beginning an intelligence-gathering exercise that will be used by the department to make a better decision on the direction of the programme.

A clearer update on the direction of the procurement could be due in the Autumn of this year.

Research from Oxford Economics has shown that for every £1 million spent in UK manufacturing there is a further £1.5 million benefit for the wider economy.

It is also estimated that for every job created in the manufacturing sector 1.8 are created in the wider economy and supply chain.