This was written a few days before HMS Daring's launch -
The big ship Royal Navy is back
An old giant of the Royal Navy - the mighty HMS Dreadnought.
Now, the Royal Navy's destroyers and aircraft carriers are getting bigger again.
This week's launch of HMS Daring marks a new era in British warship construction. But will it last? Sylvia Pfeifer reports
Two workers in navy-blue overalls stand 15 ft above the ground in a cherry picker, busy smoothing out rough patches on the steel bow of a giant warship. On the decks above them, dozens of others crawl over the ship. Outside by the entrance to the cavernous hall, an electronic clock counts down next to the words "Days to launch".
In three days' time, weather permitting, the workers will launch the 153m ship into the Clyde. The official launch - which will be attended by 11,000 guests, including the Countess of Wessex - will mark a major milestone in the Ģ6bn programme to supply the Royal Navy with its first new class of warship for several years.
HMS Daring is the first of the new Type 45 destroyers and the largest vessel launched from BAE Systems' Scotstoun yard in Glasgow. But the launch is much more than just another photo opportunity for royal watchers.
In the yard's centenary year, and just over 200 years since the Battle of Trafalgar, Britain's shipbuilding industry is enjoying a revival, buoyed by the largest work programme in a generation. With the Royal Navy's two new aircraft carriers and the Astute submarines, the 7,350 tonne Type 45 destroyers will form the backbone of the Royal Navy's air defence for the first half of this century. The final piece of the jigsaw is Mars (short for Military Afloat Reach and Sustainability), a Ģ2bn-plus supply ship programme which is just at its formative stage. "It's the return of the big ship Navy," says one industry executive.
Vic Emery, the managing director of BAE's naval shipbuilding division, says talk of a revival is "true to some extent".
The company recruited 300 people last year to cope with the increased workload; it plans to hire the same number this year and a further 250 in 2007. Investment has also kept pace with the orders; since 2001 BAE has committed Ģ55m in capital expenditure to bring the Clyde yards up to speed for the warship programme. Emery proudly points out that the company has taken on 280 apprentices in the past three years as well as 50 graduates.
Ross McLure, the module hall manager at Scotstoun who started in the industry as an apprentice plater in 1976, says that much of the uncertainty that plagued the work force during the 1980s and 1990s, when redundancies took place nearly every two to three years, has gone.
"It's only in the past three to four years
that you can say there is continuity," he says on a walk around the ship. "We've never been able to look ahead for eight years even."
Having witnessed three "first of class" launches during the past three decades, McLure is adamant that the Type 45 is in a class of its own. In a new style of partnership with other contractors, the bow of the ship was built by VT Group, the support services and shipbuilding company, at its yard in Portsmouth and shipped to the Clyde where it was put together with the other blocks built at Scotstoun. The second and third ships in the eight-ship order are already being built at BAE's Govan yard on the other side of the river.
Apart from its impressive length, the ship boasts a radar mast that is as high as the Twin Towers of the old Wembley Stadium, a flight deck large enough for 20 London buses and a fitness centre for its mixed crew of 190. It is the first time a ship has been designed from the start to have women on board.
It is the first front-line warship to use all-electric propulsion and, when ready to go into service in 2009, will be equipped with the latest in warfare technology. Apart from a design that incorporates stealth technology, the Type 45 will have an anti-aircraft missile system, PAAMs, which is capable of taking out supersonic aircraft. Connecting it all, are 400 miles of cabling and 19,000 pipes.
Nevertheless, despite such superlatives and the industry's healthy signs, there are concerns that the renaissance could fizzle out. The original requirement from the Government for 12 Type 45s has already been scaled back to eight and the overall budget has been cut by Ģ145m following a decision to reduce the capabilities of the ships.
Much depends on whether the Government confirms an order for the final two vessels. According to Emery, unless BAE and its partners get approval to build two more Type 45s, it could lead to a gap in workload until the next big project starts in earnest, that to build the aircraft carriers.
Emery says: "What we need to secure in terms of continuity of work are two more Type 45s. The ministry have said they will buy up to eight but the budget is creaking. That would secure that there would be no gap at all."
Paul Lester, the chief executive of VT Group, is equally blunt. "Type 45 is the first in a series of projects that will sustain the industry for a period of some 15 years and gives us the opportunity to plan the long-term future. The programme has allowed us to recruit and train new skilled personnel in preparation for further projects, notably the future aircraft carriers. However, it is vitally important that ships seven and eight are ordered so that we do not suffer any break in production through to the aircraft carriers and therefore avoid the risk of losing those skills," he says.
Emery says he expects to hear more from the MoD by the summer, and declares himself "optimistic". "I believe it's really an affordability issue. There is no doubt the end-user wants eight."
Above all, what executives are striving for is a long-term strategy for an industry that has been dominated by peaks and troughs. A new maritime strategy, unveiled by Lord Drayson, the defence procurement minister, in December, has gone some way towards assuaging concerns.
At the heart of the review is a move to build a strategic partnership between industry and government to help safeguard future warship building capability. The alliance building the naval carriers is also expected to form the blueprint for a wider grouping of naval shipbuilding firms that could lead to the formation of a new national champion in warship construction, dubbed "ShipCo".
Emery says "the initial flush of the review is positive", pointing out that he has been calling for a more of a partnership with the Ministry of Defence for three years. Nevertheless, as always, "the devil is in the detail".
"We need to understand what the intention is. We want a single entity. Anything other than that
and you don't get the economic benefits," he says.
But any thoughts about the best way to ensure the industry's long-term future will be no doubt be at the back of his mind on Wednesday when the HMS Daring takes to the water for the first time. "I can't wait," says Emery. "To get the first one in the water is a great event. I will be elated."