An F-35B lands onboard the British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth on Sept. 26, 2018, in Portsmouth, England. (Kyle Heller/British Ministry of Defence via Getty Images)

Andrew Chuter

Britain has relaunched a £1.6 billion (U.S. $2.3 billion) competition to build three logistic ships to support the deployments of Royal Navy aircraft carriers and other surface ships.

The Ministry of Defence issued a contract notice inviting companies to register an interest in bidding for the work to replace aging Fort-class logistics vessels.

A contract to build the ships, locally known as fleet solid support vessels, is expected to be awarded within two years, the MoD said in a May 20 announcement.

Construction of the ships has been at the center of a long-running row between the government, politicians and unions about the extent to which international shipyards should participate in a program that some believe should be reserved for domestic industry members.

At one stage of the naval effort, the government claimed the vessels were not warships and therefore must be procured under international rules that prevent reserving the contract for British industry alone.

A controversial international competition was abandoned in late 2019 with the MoD claimed the process failed to generate a value-for-money bid.

Now the competition has begun anew.

With the government committing to a revitalization of British military and commercial shipbuilding, ministers late last year signaled that this time a revised procurement policy for the logistics ships would require a “significant” portion of the work be undertaken locally and that any international teaming be British-led.

That prompted Spanish shipyard Navantia to announce a tie-up with Harland & Wolff in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The partnership, known as Team Resolute, also includes warship designer BMT in Bath, west England. Team Resolute is expected to be among the partnerships declaring an interest in the new procurement effort. BMT already supplied the design for four South Korean-built oilers now in operation with the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.

A local grouping of Babcock International, BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce also previously expressed an interest in the competition.

Despite the reference to a “significant” portion of work required to be undertaken by British companies, the government did not spell out what that entails. It also made no mention of the bids having to be British-led, as it did earlier. However, the MoD expects to award the contract to a British company alone or as part of a consortium

The announcement stated that the successful bidder “can work in partnership with international companies, but would be required to integrate the ships in a UK shipyard.”

One industry executive, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he hopes the MoD hadn’t resorted to weasel words in order to keep its options open when it comes to international competition.

“The worst-case scenario on integration could involve the hull being built offshore and the fitting-out undertaken in the U.K.,” he said. “With publication of a refreshed national shipbuilding strategy close, a strong commitment to a British-built warship program now would be a golden opportunity to rev up skills and capabilities locally ahead of publication of a 30-year requirements plan for the Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary.”

Part of the revised shipbuilding strategy will involve laying out warship construction requirements over a 30-year timescale to help industry plan ahead.

Trade unions, which have campaigned fiercely for a “Buy British” policy on the logistics ships, urged the government to move quickly with awarding the contract.

Ross Murdoch, the national officer for the GMB union, said: “The restart of the procurement process is not just needed — it is long overdue. Ministers must end the delays that have dogged this program because our yards are crying out for work.”

“Ministers talk about supporting U.K. shipbuilding, but they are setting U.K. yards against each other. Despite the grand words about making the U.K. into a ‘shipbuilding superpower,’ there is still no requirement that the bulk of the work will be fulfilled domestically,” he added. “That’s why we are calling for the government to favor a collaborative approach which makes use of the specialist skills in yards across the U.K.”

Vice Adm. Chris Gardner, director general ships at the MoD’s Defence Equipment & Support procurement organization, said: ”The launch of the Fleet Solid Support competition presents a really exciting opportunity for the shipbuilding industry to support the design and build of a new class of ship that will primarily resupply our Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers.

“It is also another step in implementing the National Shipbuilding Strategy and increasing our domestic maritime construction capacity and capability alongside the Type 26 and Type 31 [frigate] program already underway.”

The logistic ships, to be operated by the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, will primarily be used to supply ammunition, food and stores to the two 65,000-ton Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers now operated by the Royal Navy.