One key issue that has had significant influence over the often torrid debate when it comes to military ship building in Scotland is the reduction of the Type 26 procurement from thirteen to eight vessels.
The often passionate arguments from those who support and oppose Scottish independence makes a balanced view of military ship building in Scotland and its future difficult as it can often end up with people shouting their ‘prefered’ facts at each other over social media rather then examining the issues.
This article was submitted by Jonathan Chartier, a defence commentator working in Government and local government IT services.
Traditionally the Royal Navy has purchased ship classes from multiple yards and in distinct batches, this not only spreads programme costs but also allows for changes and improvements to the base design plus rectification work as well as keep shipyards open with a constant steady stream of work. Certainly for famous classes like the Type 12I Leander this batch production was necessary just to keep up with the radical changes seen in electronics and systems over their extensive career.
So whilst the Royal Navy would have a projected number to be built it was not unusual for the number of batches to be reduced or on some occasion increased as needed without comment by the wider general public to satisfy the requirements of the Admiralty and always lurking in the background Treasury. This practice continued through to the Type 23 class which was built by competing yards Marconi Marine (YSL), Scotstoun and Swan Hunter, Wallsend. It is actually possible to tell where an individual Type 23 was built by inspecting its internal pipe fittings.
When it came to the Type 45 class the Royal Navy projected a fleet size of twelve split into multiple batches, a first batch of three vessels using modular construction would be split between two yards for final build with BAE Systems Marine on the Clyde and Vosper Thornycroft in Portsmouth. VT had actually built a new build hall or “Ship Factory” with a new panel line to accommodate this work.
Nevertheless BAE Systems Marine persuaded the Government of the time that it would be more cost effective for final build to be on the Clyde and VT ended up only providing sections, this caused much ongoing grievance amongst the people of Portsmouth exacerbated by the eventual ending of ship building in Portsmouth in favour of the Clyde after the rationalisation of UK military shipbuilding as part of the oft talked about TOBA with BAE Systems.
As is well known the order for Type 45 was reduced from twelve down to eight and eventually six, a change that had with it significant consequences both operational and politically beyond the scope of this article.
With warship construction consolidated on the Clyde Type 26 was projected to be a build of thirteen vessels again through multiple batches in keeping with common practice, for those familiar with military ship building the thirteen projected was at best a placeholder subject to change.
Certainly it was well known in the period after the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security review it was clear that the equipment programme was again coming under extreme financial pressure again. In that circumstance it was unfortunate with a Scottish Independence referendum in the running David Cameron and the Better Together campaign unwisely turned routine procurement that could be subject to change into a political football by making it a direct promise to Scotland; thirteen Type 26 Frigates would be built on the Clyde alongside a new ‘Frigate Factory’.
The Labour Party exacerbated the situation with a leaflet spelling out that if Scotland remained in the Union it would get 13 Type 26 frigates. The Prime Minister and other Ministers plus representatives of the Better Together Campaign regularly spelled out that a Scotland in the Union would be getting thirteen Type 26.
So when the referendum was over and won for Better Together, the reality that Thirteen Type 26 was not deliverable within the allocated budget set in. A few months after cast iron guarantees for thirteen Type 26, the order was cut to eight as part of the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security with a compensatory order for five General Purpose frigates proffered and some Offshore Patrol vessels ordered in their place.
Considering what was promised in very clear terms by the Prime Minister, Better Together and other Parties including Labour it is understandable why Scottish Nationalists have fixated on it as a totemic issue. Put simply thirteen Type 26 was a core promise by Better Together in the Independence campaign that has been, technically, broken.
Of course the more nuanced point to be considered is that Scotland gained five River class Batch II Offshore Patrol Vessels and five Type 31 Frigates (plus a ‘frigate factory’ in Rosyth) as compensation for the loss.
For a look at what Scottish shipyards are planning on building, this UK Defence Journal article goes into detail.
Not that the Yes campaign and SNP get away from broken promises or more accurately promises they couldn’t guarantee as deliverable when it comes to military ship building and the 2014 independence referendum.
The SNP position on what the future for not only military ship building but also a future Scottish Navy was wholly unrealistic. Whilst during a transition period to independence Scottish Shipyards would certainly need to complete any ongoing orders or at the very least what was already in build they certainly couldn’t guarantee the promises they made about the UK MOD and Royal Navy placing future orders with yards in a newly independent Scotland.
Likewise the proposed Scottish Navy in composition was beyond what could be practically operated by any nascent Scottish navy initially.
The idea that Type 23 and Type 26 would form the cornerstone of a future Scottish Navy clashes with the reality that Scotland lacks the widespread training and support facilities needed to operate these vessels let alone the range of crew who could not be guaranteed to end their careers in the Royal Navy to join a Scottish Naval Service. To be fair more recent proposals by the SNP on the matter at least in respect of fleet composition have been more realistic but the expectations for orders from UK MOD and RN towards Scottish yards if Scotland gained independence are still unrealistic.
Whilst beyond the scope of this article it is the opinion of the author that the basis of any future Scottish Naval Service would most realistically be formed around the Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency and its vessels not unlike the Icelandic Coastguard in scale and role.
Sadly this angry debate is set to continue with accusation, counter accusations and many a myth spun but in all this it does show the danger of politicising military shipbuilding albeit this isn’t the first time it has happened and no doubt a Ghostly Winston Churchill would give a little chuckle considering the trouble induced by the Government of the day in 1906 when asking the public how many Dreadnoughts they wanted only to get the response “We want eight and we won’t wait”… two more than requested by the Admiralty.