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Does COVID-hit Britain need more warships? (Yes and no – here’s why)

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has unveiled plans to boost Britain’s shipbuilding industry with big contracts to build three fleet support warships, vessels that support Royal Navy aircraft carriers.

While Wallace says Britain will ‘work with international partners’ on this, the work will be carried out mostly in the UK, starting in spring 2021, and is expected to provide a much-needed fillip to the COVID-hit industry and local economies.

But is this really a good idea? We examine the arguments for and against.

For

Britain has always been a maritime nation, and the sea needs to be at the heart of our defence strategy. It’s the lifeblood of our economy; in fact, 90% of all trade worldwide is by sea, according to the UN.

The sea – especially the Persian Gulf, the politically fraught Middle East, the Indo-Pacific region, and the sovereignty of the world’s key straits – shapes the world’s political future. But it’s also a locus of crime and violence – drug-running, piracy, illegal arms trading, human trafficking, terrorist activities, and ‘grey-zone’ or asymmetric warfare.

Russia and China are using their power and influence at sea to challenge their neighbours’ territory and threaten the freedom of the seas. Against them stands the ‘Five Eyes’ alliance of Britain, the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, with Britain’s Royal Navy and Royal Marines playing key roles.

These navies act as the main deterrent to attempts to challenge international order. The UK’s main power to help maintain the world order and protect its own interests lies at sea. So it’s vital that we fund the equipment needed to implement a strong maritime strategy.

Against

While shipbuilding is a great British tradition, there are questions around the Ministry of Defence’s move to take us back to the days of big defence contracts.

As recently as 2015, Britain’s marine and maritime sectors employed 111,000 workers in 6,800 companies, contributing over £13 billion to the UK economy, including £2 billion just from shipbuilding and repair, according to the Department of Transport. It goes without saying that it’s important to rebuild a strong British shipping industry. But through warships?

Using defence contracts as a way to boost the economy is a risky move. Dropping billions on just three ships may not be the most efficient or sustainable use of the government’s limited funds. What happens when those three ships are built? Where do all the workers go – back to the jobcentre? It could be years before the next defence contract comes along.

There’s also the fact that in terms of commercial shipbuilding, Britannia doesn’t rule the waves; Japan, China and Korea do. And plans to “work with international partners” risk increasing Britain’s dependency on foreign contractors rather than shoring up our own resources – not to mention that foreign businesses may be reluctant to share their intellectual property.

It’s true that Britain’s fleet is showing its age, and some replacements and refits are needed. However, our shipbuilding industry has only recently switched its focus to more reliable income sources like commercial shipbuilding and repairs and offshore renewables – so is switching it back to temporary defence contracts that will be gone in a year or two really the answer?

At any rate, the Government clearly believes it is.

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