This is important because the UK restricts the building of vessels classified as warships to British shipyards.
The £1.5bn competition to build up to three Fleet Solid Support Ships was suspended last year and an update was due this autumn.
Speculation mounted regarding the status of these ships (and whether or not calling them warships was a slip of the tongue) after Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told the Commons:
“I intend to announce the procurement timetable for the warships in due course, after market testing has completed. We intend to encourage international partners to work alongside UK firms for the bid, which will build on the success of Type 31.”
This was notable as it seemed to go in the face of earlier statements and comments that stated these vessels were not warships and as such, able to be tendered for build outside the UK.
Well, it wasn’t a slip of the tongue. It was confirmed again.
Stephen Morgan, the Shadow Minister for Defence, asked via a written parliamentary question:
“To ask the Secretary of State for Defence, whether the Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s planned Fleet Solid Support Ships are classified by his Department as warships.”
Jeremy Quin The Minister of State at the Ministry of Defence, responded with confirmation:
“As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence said during Defence Oral Questions on Monday 21 September 2020, the procurement timetable for the warships will be announced in due course, after market testing has completed. We are open to the principle of international partners working alongside UK firms for the bid.”
Previously the Government had argued that the new Fleet Solid Support Ships were not warships and as such, were eligible for international tendering rather than being restricted to British shipyards.
The definition of warship used by the Government had been previously challenged by people from all sides of the political spectrum. For perspective, according to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea article 29:
“For the purposes of this Convention, “warship” means a ship belonging to the armed forces of a State bearing the external marks distinguishing such ships of its nationality, under the command of an officer duly commissioned by the government of the State and whose name appears in the appropriate service list or its equivalent, and manned by a crew which is under regular armed forces discipline.”
However, the National Shipbuilding Strategy defines warships as solely destroyers, frigates and aircraft carriers.
This definition was also highlighted during a debate on the topic in Parliament last year with Stuart Andrew, then Minister for Defence Procurement, saying the following about the Fleet Solid Support Ships:
“It is not a warship by definition, for the simple reason that the definition is based on the UK’s requirement to retain the ability to design, build and integrate frigates, destroyers and aircraft carriers for reasons of national security, ensuring that the complex nature of the construct is an important part of it from the very beginning. We will continue to have this argument—unions are coming to meet me very soon to discuss it.”
This position appears to have changed.
Ross Murdoch, GMB National Officer and CSEU Chair, said:
“It looks like the Government has finally acknowledged what GMB has always said – these are warships. There is no reason to now hide behind any treaty – they must be built in UK.”
The UK Defence Journal, SavetheRoyalNavy.org and other commentators as well as GMB and other shipbuilding unions long campaigned for the £1billion FSS contract to be given to UK shipyards – producing a report highlighting the estimated 6,700 jobs created or secured if the orders were kept in the UK.
Due to the aforementioned delays, the MoD expects that there will be a delay of between 18 and 36 months to the first new Fleet Solid Support Ship entering service. You can read more about this here.