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Lessons from Britain’s National Shipbuilding Strategy

Shipbuilding is complex and challenging. Naval platforms are big, complicated, and expensive, with long lead times and a need for a robust defence industrial base staffed by skilled personnel. Many nations around the world are struggling to figure out how to keep their shipbuilding sectors healthy in order to boost both their maritime defence and their domestic economies. 

No nation has found the perfect answer to these difficulties, but there are lessons to be learned from their attempts. Britain’s allies and partners around the world would do well to take a look at the United Kingdom’s (UK) National Shipbuilding Strategy (NSS). Britain has set a strong example by acknowledging the problem, something which is not always evident in other nations; by working across government to solve it rather than siloing it as solely a defence issue; and by encouraging broad and deep collaboration with industry. Three particular threads stand out as key solutions to shipbuilding problems: ensuring a consistent long-term demand signal, simplifying procurement, and encouraging leadership and collaboration. 

Long-term demand signal

One of the biggest problems faced by the shipbuilding industrial base in any nation is the lack of a robust long-term demand signal. Building vessels requires significant investment in facilities, personnel, and logistics – not just for the shipyards themselves, but also for their suppliers further down the chain. Without a clear long-term plan for what needs to be built and when, industry is unable to plan for its part, leaving the worrying possibility of capacity being unavailable when it is needed. It is of course impossible to plan for every eventuality – predictions for the future are notoriously difficult to get right, particularly in the realm of national security. However, the stronger the demand signal a government can give to its defence industrial base, the better the outcomes are likely to be when those ships are most needed.

As the NSS states baldly and correctly:

The MOD understands that a boom and bust approach to naval shipbuilding will only create damaging volatility and uncertainty for industry and by extension harm productivity. This is damaging to economic growth and prosperity and to industry’s ability to deliver the capabilities necessary to protect our national security.

His Majesty’s (HM) Government has tackled this with a 30-year shipbuilding pipeline plan which covers not only naval procurement for combat and support ships, but also ships across other sectors – scientific research vessels, passenger ferries, Border Force patrol ships, and so on. This not only helps with shipbuilding but also with maintenance; clearer knowledge of what the fleet will look like in the future allows for better planning for the repair and upgrade of those ships, again permitting better long-term investment in the facilities and skilled personnel needed. 

Simplifying procurement

The procurement process for a modern military is a complicated one. Any company bidding for a contract must deal with strict requirements, reams of regulatory guidance, and overlapping layers of bureaucratic demands. While it is important to make sure that the acquisition process is overseen and regulated properly, it is both possible and beneficial to investigate the whole pathway and ensure it is as simple and efficient as possible. 

A strong shipbuilding sector requires both well-thought-out plans and robust implementation, and these are made possible only through good leadership based on wide collaboration.

The UK is currently undertaking wider reform of government procurement, which extends across government into the defence realm. The regulations which govern public contracts are too fragmented presently and will thus be combined into a single framework – although necessary flexibilities for certain aspects of defence procurement will be retained. The process will be simplified for suppliers through a single digital platform for registration, cheaper participation in the bidding process, and making opportunities easier to find. This encourages companies without previous experience of defence contracting to bid, diversifying the industrial base whilst bringing in start-ups and small businesses, and reducing reliance on the big traditional prime contractors. 

Collaboration and leadership

A strong shipbuilding sector requires both well-thought-out plans and robust implementation, and these are made possible only through good leadership based on wide collaboration. The NSS established the National Shipbuilding Office (NSO), which sits within the Ministry of Defence but provides strategic oversight of all HM Government activity within the shipbuilding ecosystem. The previous approach had been somewhat fragmented, with authority spread across various departments without clear lines of accountability. The NSO solves that problem by bringing together officials and experts from government and industry with a clear mandate to implement and oversee NSS policies. This creates clarity for stakeholders in both how to feed into HM Government’s shipbuilding strategy and where authority lies to enact that strategy – having a single point of contact removes confusion over responsibility and permits the kind of single-mindedness which is necessary to focus on such an important area of policy. 

On the collaboration front, there is clear benefit to bringing in industry – not only do they have the experience and knowledge to shape policy, but they will also be on the front line of making that policy a reality. The NSS establishes the Shipbuilding Enterprise for Growth, allowing industry to feed in its knowledge of the challenges facing shipbuilding and how best to address these challenges going forward. The defence industrial base is a complicated beast, and having the perspective of industry is vital for HM Government if it wants to be able to direct shipbuilding strategy on industry-specific matters like skills shortages, export regulation, productivity challenges, and the supply chain. 

Looking beyond the horizon

The NSS takes excellent steps towards both recognising and solving key problems in British shipbuilding, working across government and with industry to tackle the bottlenecks and ensure that everyone can make plans for the long-term. As with any policy strategy document, these are aspirational goals. There is always the possibility of a change in government bringing a realignment of policy priorities, and the next government should be mindful of the value of consistency, avoiding the temptation of changing shipbuilding strategy for the sake of novelty. And, as ever, the enemy has a vote too – a conflict within the next two decades would mean plans would likely need to be altered. 

However, if the UK can succeed in achieving these goals, both the Royal Navy and the nation will be in a far stronger position, and allies and partners would be wise to learn from Britain. Success can be achieved together by the sharing of ideas, and the British shipbuilding strategy contains several of the best.

Emma Salisbury is the Robert Whitehead Associate Fellow in Military Innovation at the Council on Geostrategy. Undertaking a PhD at Birkbeck College, University of London, she is also a senior staffer for a Member of Parliament and an Assistant Editor at War on the Rocks.

Image Credit: UK Ministry of Defence

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