By Alan Tovey, Industry Editor
Daily Telegraph – 29 April 2019
Pressure is growing on the Government to reclassify Navy support vessels as warships, to save thousands of jobs.
A £1bn contract to build up to three Fleet Solid Support ships has been tendered internationally: Ministers say that it had to be done under EU competition rules. However the Government faces increasing calls to list the vessels, which carry defensive weapons and supply the fleet with ammunition and stores, as warships. By national security requirements they would then have to be built in Britain.
Influential defence figures, including MP Julian Lewis, Defence Select Committee chairman, and former Navy head Lord West of Spithead, have rubbished the Government ruling that FSS ships cannot be described as warships. They say the MoD is following EU rules as it could lead to cheaper foreign tenders - but it could turn out more expensive if UK jobs are lost.
Opening up the bids internationally also goes against the Government-backed National Shipbuilding Strategy, say critics. This policy aims to create a steady supply of work for UK yards and end the boom-and-bust cycle that destroys shipbuilding jobs as construction programmes of aircraft carriers, destroyers and frigates ebb and flow.
"An FSS is absolutely a military vessel – it's nonsense to say it's not,"
said Lord West.
"The Treasury has not calculated the true cost of building them abroad: the UK jobs that could be lost, the skills that will need to be relearned for future naval ship contracts."
Mr Lewis added:
"The only rules the Government is concerned about are EU ones – the idea that this long-term project should be fettered by rules of an organisation we are about to leave is ridiculous."
Both pointed to France giving a contract for similar ships to a French yard without external competition as evidence of how FSS ships could be reclassified for UK construction.
A UK consortium including Babcock, BAE Systems and Cammell Laird which bid for the contract – to be awarded in 2020 – faces rivals from Italy, Spain, Japan and South Korea. Unions have said building FSS ships in Britain would bridge a gap in demand, with jobs under threat as work at Rosyth on the second Navy aircraft carrier nears an end. Recent losses saw Appledore shipyard in Devon closing and jobs going at Cammell Laird on Merseyside and at Rosyth.
Defence procurement minister Stuart Andrew said FSS ships do not have the same "complex weapons, sensors or design features" of carriers, destroyers or frigates so cannot be exempted from international tendering rules.