With the issue of Scottish independence again being discussed, the issue of Royal Navy shipbuilding on the Clyde has become controversial once again.
One side, the Scottish government, say that naval shipbuilding would continue on the Clyde if Scotland left the UK. The other side, the UK government, say it would not.
“No warships would have been built on the Clyde, because the United Kingdom Government would not have chosen to build them there.”
The issue of UK naval contracts on the Clyde has been a hot topic both before and after the 2014 Independence Referendum and even more so recently when several groups indicated that the work on complex warships for the Royal Navy would not go to an independent country.
Nicola Sturgeon earlier insisted that it would be a betrayal to go back on its promise to build the frigate fleet on the Clyde. Sturgeon said:
“Promises were made about orders to these yards and promises were made about jobs at these yards, and I think it is absolutely vital now these contracts are delivered.
These yards have been through some really difficult times with a reduction in the workforce, and they thought that that was all part of the process of getting themselves into shape for the Type 26 and securing a level of employment here.
This is about jobs and securing jobs in an industry. It would be a complete betrayal of these yards if there was any U-turn or going back on on promises made.”
The original plan for the Type 26 had been eight anti-submarine warfare variants and five general purpose variants, this remains largely unchanged except for the design of the later five vessels, which are now referred to as Type 31. Two additional Offshore Patrol Vessels, making a total of five vessels of the type, were announced as part of the last Strategic Defence & Security Review.
Doesn’t the UK build ships overseas anyway?
Before the referendum, many were accused of exaggerating how secure the shipbuilding industry would be after independence. This came about due to comments made by Geoff Searle, director of the Type 26 Global Combat programme indicating that they had no back–up plan to the Clyde if a ‘Yes’ vote was returned. However, the Ministry of Defence, the shipbuilding union and BAE themselves all claim that major warship builds would be reconsidered if Scotland left the UK.
Many in industry rejected this interpretation, advocating the position that no alternative plan did not rule out the possibility of the UK Government rethinking investment in the Clyde in the event of independence, something which was later confirmed by ministers.
“The Government is not making contingency plans because we are confident that the Scottish people will vote to remain part of the UK. No Royal Navy warships have been built outside the UK since the Second World War for national security reasons and we have no intention of doing so in future.”
Many have also misconstrued the building of a naval tanker in South Korea for the RFA as a break in this policy, that is not the case. Support vessels like this are eligible to be constructed outside the UK as only ‘complex warship’ construction (such as frigates) must stay within UK borders. Besides, no UK yard bid for the work.
Other than procurement activity undertaken during the World Wars, the UK has not had a complex warship built outside of the UK since the start of the 20th century at least. All of the Royal Navy’s new complex warships are being built in UK shipyards and the UK Government says it remains committed to utilising the strengths of UK industry in this specialist and complex area.
There is also the matter that companies based in an independent Scottish state would no longer be eligible for contracts that the UK chose to place or compete domestically for national security reasons as this would be protected under Article 346 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union which allows states to declare contracts related to defence or national security exempt from external tendering. Where they could continue to compete, they would be pitching for business in an international market dominated by major economic powers.
There’s also the matter of contracts using US technology, defence contractors that work with items or technology of US origin are also covered by undertakings given in accordance with the US International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), under which any change to an existing US export licence requires US State Department approval. An independent Scottish state would be a third-party country, not covered by existing UK-US ITAR agreements.
UK companies would not have authority to transfer items and information that is subject to ITAR licence to their subsidiaries or other companies in an independent Scottish state or to a Scottish national, without US approval, anymore than it could transfer such material to organisations or individuals in other foreign states. Every licence held by companies in Scotland working on ITAR-controlled items would have to be re-approved if Scotland became independent.
Isn’t Scotland the only location in the UK capable of building warships?
Claims at the time of the referendum that the only option for BAE on the event of independence was to continue to build the ships in Glasgow were refuted at the time by John Dolan, GMB convener at the Scotstoun yard in Glasgow:
“She was saying that the Clyde is the only game in town. I’m afraid it is not. There’s shipbuilders in Cammell Laird in Liverpool. You have got the A&P Group on the Tyne, who are shipbuilders, and you have got Barrow in Furness.
So to say if Scotland goes independent we will still be building Type 26 frigates… listen, I assure you that if we go for independence we will not be building.
We have been told quite clearly by the UK government and I have been told quite clearly that will not happen.”
The build plan for the Type 31 Frigates is expected to follow a similar pattern to that of the Queen Elizabeth carriers and early Type 45 Destroyers in that blocks will be built in yards around the UK and assembled on the Clyde.
Modern shipbuilding makes considerable use of prefabricated sections. Entire multi-deck segments of the hull may be built elsewhere around the UK, transported to the building dock or slipway, then lifted into place and assembled into one ship. This is known as block construction and is far more cost effective.
Yards pre-install equipment, pipes, electrical cables and any other components within the blocks, to minimise the effort needed to assemble or install components deep within the hull once it is welded together.
What are the builders saying about this?
Ian King, chief executive of BAE, had indicated in a letter submitted to the Scottish Affairs Committee before the referendum that shipyards on the Clyde would likely have to close if Scotland were to leave the UK.
Mr King said BAE would build the ships at a location compatible with the contract awarding process of the Ministry of Defence:
“In the event of a Yes vote, and as we have made clear, we would be required to discuss the future of the Type 26 programme with our customer, the MoD. It would be for the MoD to determine how the vote affects the final decisions they have yet to make on the programme, including the future location of the build of the ships.
We would take our customer’s lead in these circumstances. We cannot determine this outcome in advance, or without the direction of the MoD.”
The Ministry of Defence, the customer referred to above by Mr King, has recently made clear that leaving the UK would influence the ‘location of the build of the ships’.
The full statement, an excerpt of which is displayed at the top of this article, was made by the Minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology with responsibility for Defence procurement and Defence exports in response to a question from Brendan O’Hara, MP for Argyll and Bute, regarding the Type 26 frigates.
“What I can confirm to the hon. Gentleman is that, had the independence vote gone the way that he and his colleagues would have liked, no warships would have been built on the Clyde, because the United Kingdom Government would not have chosen to build them there; we made that very clear.
As it is, as I have just confirmed to the House, we will be proceeding with the construction of eight complex Type 26 warships on the Clyde as and when the programme is ready.”
What about Scottish naval vessels?
Scotland would still need a navy right? Up to date facts on what an independent Scotland would operate at sea, let alone what it would build aren’t easy to come by. The SNP earlier proposed that under independence Scotland would:
“Take over existing naval, army and air force bases within Scotland and inherit a share of defence equipment in negotiation with the rest of the UK.”
Prior to the referendum, the SNP had planned to inherit two Type-23 frigates in addition to four mine counter-measures vessels, two offshore patrol vessels and four to six patrol boats from all from the Royal Navy’s current fleet. This leaves seemingly little needing built and any ships that would be constructed, would likely be a few Offshore Patrol Vessels similar to what’s being built on the Clyde today.
Given the already slow drumbeat of MoD orders are barely enough to sustain the yards as it is, this doesn’t bode well for the yards future if Scotland chooses to leave.
The only way for naval shipbuilding to continue to be viable on the Clyde after independence would be for the Scottish government to place a significant order totalling many billions of pounds for a large volume of vessels.