Concern has been expressed regarding news that engine production could be taken away from GE Power in Rugby and given to a French firm in Nancy.
Earlier in the year this website also reported that a letter was sent from Defence Committee Chairman Julian Lewis to Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson, in relation to concerns over the build location for future components of the Type 26 frigate. You can read that here.
During a recent debate in Westminster Hall on defence procurement, further concerns were expressed in national security terms.
Steve Kerr, a worker General Electric for 25 and a union convenor for the union, said in the committee session:
“I would point out that the Rugby site is on the Government’s List X, which, as you know, is for buildings with defence manufacturing capabilities of national strategic importance. Overall, the Type 26 work we do is officially rated as “sensitive”, and there are elements of it that are classified as “NNPPI—UK eyes only”; I am not sure what the abbreviation stands for, but I am sure that you gentlemen will. To give you an idea of how sensitive it is, we have had foreign nationals who have been the site leader for manufacturing but who were not allowed on the shop floor until they gave notice, so that the equipment could be covered up with tarpaulins. They were also excluded from technical meetings at which secret and top-secret information was shared. It is very sensitive, and all the employees have to be security-cleared to work on site.
John Spellar, Member of Parliament for Warley, asked:
“If it is UK eyes only, it would, of its essence, be compromised if that work were moved to France?”
“Yes. This is why we cannot understand GE’s philosophy. They said, “It’s only the total package that is UK eyes only—if we cut it up into small work packages, it is not top-secret,” but they are going to put the whole lot of the equipment together, and it becomes a top-secret piece of equipment.”
Spellar probed further:
“What is your understanding of the security classification of the Nancy site?”
“Nancy has no UK security classification whatsoever. There was recently a visit by the Ministry of Defence and by British Aerospace, which is the lead partner in the Type 26 programme. When they went round, they were surprised to see Russian contracts on the shop floor. They asked whether that meant that there were Russian nationals there, and they were told, ‘Oh yes, we regularly have Russian engineers on the shop floor'”, Kerr replied.
He also added:
“There is also a concern that in 2011 two Chinese nationals, who were employees of the company, were detained and subsequently deported from France for having civil nuclear sensitive material on their computers. That involved a raid by the French intelligence services—it was a very serious matter. This is a constant threat. Late last year, at another General Electric facility in Belgium, there were some more Chinese nationals who had obtained information on the latest generation of fighter aircraft engines; I believe that at least one gentleman has been extradited to America to stand trial.
There is also the threat to the infrastructure. The naval facility in Rugby has a completely separate, stand-alone computer IT network, which has to be approved by the Ministry of Defence as cyber-secure, but there is nothing of that ilk in France. One of the IT personnel at work told me that it would take at least 18 months, and potentially two and a half years, to procure, install and test a secure IT infrastructure.”
The chair then asked about responses from key people in Government and the civil service:
“You fired off a salvo of letters to key people, including the CDS and the First Sea Lord, and you had this reply from Michael Gwyther, assistant head, DE&S Policy Secretariat (Ships), dated 14 November 2018. He says at one point: “The concerns that you raise about the loss of sovereign capability and security are matters the MoD takes very seriously and I can assure you they are being carefully considered.”
In the next but one sentence he says: “You will understand, however, that the future of the facility is ultimately a decision for the company.” Towards the end, he says: “No matter what the company’s final decision on the Rugby facility the MoD will continue to work closely with GE to ensure that key programmes can continue to be supplied and supported with the equipment they need to support the Royal Navy.”
Is there any way that GE could continue in the UK to supply the secret and top secret elements of their services that they are supplying at Rugby at the moment? Is there any other facility they could use to supply?”
“If the Rugby facility closes, no, there is no alternative place in the UK. We have the largest VPI tank in the world, which is key. The height of the building is another prerequisite.”
Eight Type 26 Frigates are to be built in total with three in the first batch, the contract for the second batch will be negotiated in the early 2020s.
Ordering in batches is common for projects of this size around the world and was last seen with the Royal Navy for the Type 45 Destroyers and recent Offshore Patrol Vessels. The Type 45s first batch order was for three vessels for example.
The Type 26 Frigates will be named Glasgow, Cardiff, Belfast, Birmingham, Sheffield, Newcastle, Edinburgh and London.