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November 2013 has seen two significant announcements from the UK government that will have major implications for the projection of force and the protection of sovereign capability, both of which would appear to be important to Britain’s fortunes within a contingent and uncertain geopolitical system.
First, it has been confirmed by the Defence Secretary that British maritime defence industrial manufacturing capabilities are to be significantly rationalised and re-ordered by BAE Systems across its sites at Govan, Scotstoun and Portsmouth. This will lead to the complete elimination of a maritime construction presence in Portsmouth, effectively ending English surface-shipbuilding for the Royal Navy and a tradition of excellence that stretches back to Richard the Lion-heart. For once, the description of a decision as being ‘historic’ does not seem overblown.
The decision itself will see British naval manufacturing clustered on the Clyde in Scotland and the loss of over 1,700 jobs: 940 in Portsmouth, 800 in Glasgow and a small number of ship design and specialist engineering posts will also be lost from sites in Bristol and Edinburgh. These roles represent hard-won national defence capabilities and capacity, born from decades of governmental and industrial investment. Once removed, it will not be easy (or even possible) to grow back these core competencies, so this is a major strategic decision for the UK. But it is too simplistic to talk glibly about strategic shrinkage or the demise of British maritime capabilities: politicians and industrialists have to live in the real world of budgets, order books, scarcity and tough choices and play the hand their dealt.
Once manufacturing has been centred around Glasgow, Portsmouth will be the home and maintenance/refit base for the two ordered Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers, the first of which is due for delivery in 2017, and a major base of the Royal Navy’s surface fleet. So a maritime, as distinct from manufacturing, presence in Portsmouth is assured well into the second part of this century.
Two Aircraft Carriers Operated from Portsmouth
This is where the importance of a second significant announcement from government can be distilled. With his strongest hint to date, the Defence Secretary has told Parliament of the utility that operating both aircraft carriers would bring to UK forces in future operations. This is different from a current common argument across government and in defence circles that one of the two ships should be kept as some kind of forward reserve, to be up-skilled at moments of crises only. Both carriers being operated at the centre of future British defence capabilities would offer real force utility and points to the significance of Portsmouth as a major operating base for many years to come.
Of course, both the carrier programme and the rationalisation of maritime surface-ship manufacturing are not without real risks and concerns. In relation to the former, the Public Accounts Committee will inevitably conduct another inquiry into the programme after it was announced this week that costs had grown by another £800 million to £6.2 billion, significantly above the original 2007 estimate of £3.7 billion.
This will be the fourth such exercise in six years. Whilst narratives of cost overruns and inefficiency will invariably dominate the debate, and understandably so, the substantive issue is one of effective requirements setting, cost forecasting and budgeting by government rather than runaway costs. A taste for champagne but a budget for rough cider usually means that something has to give; in the case of the carrier programme it has been the budget.
Moreover, the decision to anchor surface-ship manufacturing to Glasgow prior to a referendum on Scottish independence, due in 2014, could prove problematic if the Scottish people vote to leave the Union. It seems less than certain that a UK (less Scotland) with an historical commitment to sovereignty over its warship design and production would import warships from a foreign power residing just north of the border at Hadrian’s Wall. Of course, it is equally fanciful that a youthful and reforming independent Scotland would have a demand for any warships it was manufacturing on the Clyde.
Scottish independence would probably see a return of shipbuilding to Portsmouth as contracts with BAE Systems and others were revisited as part of the constitutional de-coupling. Indeed, across defence, Scottish independence is a major issue within boardrooms with mitigation plans, investment decisions and migration options all part of the mix: it would be naive to assume that the maritime sector would be immune to such a major political, economic and structural event no matter what decisions are taken now.
To conclude, November 2013 is a significant moment in Britain’s naval history and tradition. A centre of excellence on the Clyde for shipbuilding centred on concluding the carrier programme and the Royal Navy’s demand for a new frigate, the Type 26, is a major rationalisation of skills and competencies, unfortunately at Portsmouth’s expense. The latter will continue as a major operational centre for the surface fleet and the home of the new carriers. Both, perhaps, could be fully operational and the centre-point of future British military capabilities across a wide spectrum of operational scenarios.
This seems a sensible, rational solution for the UK as a whole, re-balancing core-competencies and capacity within the industrial sector to a shrinking order book from the UK government. But as a solution it only stays intact, I suspect, if the UK polity itself stays intact. Those risks registers, in London, Edinburgh and elsewhere, both in government and in commerce, will see some action between now and the end of next year.