Fears are growing that a £1bn-plus contract to build ships to supply the Navy’s new aircraft carriers could be abandoned in expected defence cuts, damaging Britain’s struggling shipbuilding industry.
Bidding to build up to three “fleet solid support” (FSS) ships to supply aircraft carriers with stores such as ammunition and food was halted in the autumn when none of the bidders could meet the terms required.
Now defence insiders say the programme is seen as likely to be abandoned if the military budget is cut because of the costs run up battling coronavirus.
However, building the FSS vessels is seen as a key way of maintaining the country’s shipbuilding sector, as well as being part of the Government’s “levelling up” agenda, creating jobs in depressed regions.
Ian Waddell, general secretary of the Shipbuilding and Engineering Union, said: “The FSS programme is a perfect example of what the Prime Minister would call a ‘shovel-ready’ project. “It will get the post-coronavirus economy up and running as part of the levelling up agenda by injecting £1.3bn into regional economies and could benefit every single shipyard in the UK.”
Building the FSS ships in the UK would also support Sir John Parker’s national shipbuilding strategy review. This backed producing ships for the British military in domestic shipyards to prevent the industry from collapsing without regular work.
Peter Sandeman, director of campaign group Save the Royal Navy, added: “It has always been obvious that FSS would be one of the first things on the chopping board if things get difficult.
“The Navy is juggling a budget and projects which have not been started like FSS are not a core priority, unlike new submarines and frigates.”
A recent National Audit Office report into the new aircraft carriers identified support ships as a potential weakness in their effectiveness, with them relying on the vessels to be able to operate for long periods away from port.
The spending watchdog highlighted that the Navy has just one FSS vessel to supply the carriers: Fort Victoria.
This ship has already had its life extended beyond the expected 25 years and is now due to retire in 2028.
However, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace last week told MPS he was “keen [work on FSS] gets underway as soon as possible” and had asked for it to be brought forward.
A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: “We continue work on the procurement strategy for the FSS and will provide when the current stage is completed.”