"Protect our merchant fleet. There's no more time or money to waste." - Guy Platten

The UK government can't afford to dilly-dally any longer in ordering new naval vessels to protect the world’s merchant fleet, writes Guy Platten, CEO of the UK Chamber

Royal Navy destroyer HMS dauntless

Awe-inspiring videos of the first Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier have made a big splash on social media these past few weeks. But in reality the Royal Navy’s fleet is overstretched and still the Government is delaying making decisions that impact the security of our country and safe passage of the world’s food and energy supplies. 

The security of our nation and its trading economy depend on the Royal Navy’s ability to protect the global merchant fleet. You don’t need me to tell you that the world’s geopolitical situation is becoming increasingly unpredictable. Added to this, maritime security threats can jeopardise the safe passage of oil, food, gas and other everyday commodities on which we depend.

Worrying research published last month by Chatham House highlighted the vulnerable “chokepoints” in trade corridors that could hamper the flow of energy supplies, food and manufactured goods, should vessel traffic in these areas be disrupted. 

Two of the critical “chokepoints” identified were the Suez Canal and, south of the canal, the Strait of Bab al-Mandab. The Royal Navy has played a leading role in EUNAVFOR’s operation in the Horn of Africa region, escorting merchant vessels through the high-risk area, which has been plagued by pirate attacks. 

Somalian piracy is making an alarming comeback. During the first three months of 2017, armed pirates hijacked two vessels off the coast of Somalia, an area in which previously no merchant ship had been hijacked for five years. Four further incidents in the region were also attempted during the period, according to figures from the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre.

The situation in the Horn of Africa is just one of a range of threats that require a naval response to ensure that world trade keeps moving. 

In the Mediterranean, the coordinated efforts of European naval forces, including the Royal Navy, have saved tens of thousands of lives during the migration crisis. The MoD has maintained at least one ship in the south-central Mediterranean since April 2015, as part of an international effort to save lives and disrupt people-smuggling activity. Royal Navy ships also contribute to the NATO operation that provides support to the Greek and Turkish coastguards. On the other side of the Med, the Royal Navy is assisting with training the Libyan coastguard to help improve border control and counter the activities of migrant smugglers in the country.

Maintaining a strong naval response to the migration crisis in the Mediterranean is key. Commercial ships will of course provide any help necessary to people in distress, but the ultimate responsibility lies with those who are best trained and equipped to undertake humanitarian missions at sea. 

But the Government doesn’t seem to be taking seriously the renewal of its naval fleet – which should give all of us the jitters. 

The first three of eight Type-26 frigates are to be built for the Royal Navy at Scottish shipyards, it was announced this month. The Government has committed £4.7bn to the Type 26 programme, which is scheduled for completion in 2035.

But it remains to be seen if all eight of the frigates will indeed hit the water. More amazing still will be if the project is completed on time and on budget – previous projects have not set a good precedent. In the case of the Type 45 destroyer, for instance, the Ministry of Defence had originally planned to order 12 of the vessels, which would have replaced a dozen of the older Type 42s. But firm orders only materialised for six destroyers, which arrived two years behind schedule and over £1.5bn over budget. (Then there was the small problem that immobilised the vessel’s engine in warm climates).

The Queen Elizabeth-class project, thankfully, remains on schedule but its original budget has doubled to £6.2bn because the Government couldn’t decide on a design. 

We have absolutely no more time to waste, let alone money – indecision costs billions. 

More detailed plans to renew the frigate fleet are to be included in the Government’s National Shipbuilding Strategy, which was slated for release in “Spring 2017” but has still not materialised. New Type 26 and Type 31E general-purpose frigates have been mooted but we await clarity.

In maintaining Britain’s naval might, we also maintain the security of Europe and the world. Not only that, in protecting the world’s merchant fleet, the Royal Navy keeps the lights on and food on the table. It’s critical that the Government avoids any more delays or deviation. Order those frigates and show the world what the UK is made of.

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