New BAE destroyer launches today on the Clyde
Another eyewatering day for UK taxpayers
Comment HMS Diamond launches today at the BAE Systems Govan shipyard, third of the Royal Navy's new Type 45 destroyers. There will be rejoicing up and down the Clyde and quieter satisfaction in many parts of the Navy. Meanwhile in the warzones of Southwest Asia, British soldiers and marines are fighting and sometimes dying, hamstrung by lack of money.
The Beeb reports this morning on the latest Type 45 launch:
The Type 45 will replace the navy's ageing fleet of Type 42 destroyers... securing work at the Clyde yards for next 15 years. With a price tag of £605m, the 150m long vessels weigh in at 7,350 tons... The Type 45 is fitted with state-of-the-art technology, including the Principal Anti-Air Missile System, which can provide air space cover for hundreds of miles.
BAE Systems took on more than 100 apprentices this year and hope the launch will encourage more young people to join up.
Even the Beeb and their briefers at BAE admit that the Type 45 project is to cost £6bn for - most probably - just six ships (actually the latest estimates say £6.11bn, up from £5.95bn last year - but hey, what's a poxy hundred million quid or so). Therefore, the actual price tag of each ship is one billion pounds and counting, more than half the projected cost of a new aircraft carrier.
Not that we UK taxpayers are splurging all that cash into deprived Govan. Most of the cost of an air-defence destroyer goes on its sensors and weapons - in this case on the Principal Anti-Air Missile System (PAAMS), as the Type 45s are not supplied with any other significant kit.
PAAMS is mostly French and Italian, though BAE electronics is also used. Most of the UK taxpayers' money for the Type 45 project is not going on hiring young Scotsmen (and perhaps a few women) to work steel on the Clyde - it's hiring Frenchies and Italians to build complex electronics and aerospace components, genuine high-added value work which might be viable for rich Westerners in the 21st century. (The UK version of PAAMS is about to undergo its first end-to-end tests. In France, of course.)
There's nothing wrong with buying stuff from overseas, of course, particularly missiles. Britain has never really acquired the ability to build proper guided weapons that genuinely work. The performance of the all-Brit Sea Dart and Sea Wolf missiles in the Falklands was embarrassing, and nowadays they are completely obsolete*. PAAMS should be a big improvement, though it certainly doesn't dominate "hundreds of miles" of airspace. It can knock down low-flying stuff out to 20 miles at most, and higher-flying targets to perhaps 75.
Still, though, we could have bought cheaper. And better, and bigger - all at the same time. Consider the 9,000 ton uprated "Flight IIA" Arleigh Burke class destroyers now coming into US naval service. They carry two helicopters to the Type 45's one, and 96 missiles to the Type 45's 48. They can fire Tomahawk cruise missiles at targets hundreds of miles inland, too - typically the main useful employment for surface warships in modern wars. The American ships bristle with other useful weapons, and can be upgraded to shoot down Scud-type ballistic missiles of the type favoured by rogue states.
By contrast the Type 45 is a one-trick pony which will only be of any serious use in the event of another Falklands War scenario where a big fleet is caught without proper air cover. Other than PAAMS, all it has is some rather unimpressive gun mounts.
The cost of an Arleigh Burke type ship to a foreign buyer wishing to build the outer casing in a local shipyard? It depends. But South Korea's KDX-IIIs - an example of a foreign-assembled Arleigh Burke design, the first of which launched earlier this year - are thought likely to cost about US$923m, or about £450m. Less than half the price of a Type 45, for a much, much better ship.
Still, at least we won't be dependent on the Yanks, like the Koreans will. (Just on the French and Italians. Oh wait - and the Americans, actually. To be specific, we'll be dependent on Bill Gates, because the Type 45s will run on Windows.)
So actually we could do a deal like the Koreans did, be dependent just on the Yanks instead of the Yanks and everyone else, and save around £3bn. We could spend some of that on helicopters and transport planes, so that our boys and girls in Afghanistan and Basra wouldn't have to operate with their hands tied behind their backs, and wouldn't have to spend half their leave periods waiting for planes. We could spend the rest on bumping their pay up a bit. It would be nice if a highly-trained fighting soldier started on more money than a kitchen potwash boy; it would be nice if a veteran corporal commanding a combat team of eight men got more than a police constable's starting pay. Indeed, it would only be fair.
As for those new apprentices on the Clyde - here's a warning. The current navy shipbuilding plan might keep you in work for 15 years. But BAE Systems isn't going to win much work other than from the UK government.
Don't trust them to keep you going beyond that point. Don't take out a mortgage on a house in Govan, and have kids, and just expect that there will still be steel to work in 2025 when you're well and truly trapped. The world is full of hungry people dying to build ships. This is probably not the start of a brave new world for Clyde shipbuilding. ®
*Sea Dart did shoot down an antique Silkworm missile fired by the Iraqis in 1991. What's less commonly known about that engagement is that the Silkworm had already gone past the destroyer which fired the Sea Dart. Normally it's better to shoot the flying things down while inbound, rather than outbound; often they hit one of your ships while passing through.