The future of Barrow shipyard got a boost as the defence secretary hinted he is set to fire the starting pistol on a revolutionary ‘mother and babies’ submarine-class to be built after the Dreadnought programme finishes in the 2030s.
Gavin Williamson’s response to a parliamentary question from Furness MP John Woodcock today (Tuesday) will ease local fears that the Ministry of Defence may be planning to abandon submarine building altogether in favour of cheaper underwater vessels like unmanned mini-drones after replacing its nuclear deterrent fleet.
The MP claimed that Mr Williamson’s announcement that news on the future design is coming “in the not-too-distant future” suggests that industry experts are winning the argument that drones should be piloted from a ‘mother’ submarine – which would be built in Barrow into the 2050s or 2060s.
The Royal Navy and BAE Systems in Barrow are years into a scoping project to decide what should replace the Astute-class hunter-killer submarines once they eventually retire. But ministers have repeatedly refused to accept a continued role for submarines – a move which would be a major blow for Barrow and could see the UK permanently lose its finely honed skills base.
Instead, post-Astute planning has been clumsily named Maritime Underwater Future Capability (MUFC), with the MoD telling suppliers at a recent industry day that: “Although the current capability solutions are delivered by submarine platforms, no decisions have yet been taken on what the future capability requirements will be nor the solutions composition.”
In the commons, John asked: “The secretary of state is right to push for more creativity in thinking about future capability of in our underwater environment, but is it not time now to confirm that this will be based around a submarine platform?”
In response, Mr Williamson said: “The honourable gentleman does tempt me to do that, but it is fair to say that actually our investment in submarines is absolutely vast in terms of the Astute programme, but also in terms of the Dreadnought programme. We do want to look at the innovation going forward and how we can best tap into those skills that are held by BAE Systems and the people of Barrow, in terms of developing those next platforms to succeed Astute, but we do hope to be able to update him and the House as to how we think we’ll take those developments forward in the not too distant future.”
Speaking afterwards, John said the words were a “significant step in the right direction and a hint of good news to come.”
He added: “It is right to explore all the possibilities that incredible advances in technology could open up by the time that the Astutes begin to come to the end of their life – unmanned drones could indeed greatly increase the Navy’s capability in future decades as battery life increases. But any drones are going to need to be controlled from somewhere – and everything points to that control point needing to be another submarine, albeit one that might look very different to the Astute and Trafalgar classes that have gone before.
“While the late 2030s might seem a long way off when all eyes are on Dreadnought but if we don’t make a decision about the basic design concept soon we risk getting seriously behind the curve. I understand that thinking at the top of the MoD is coalescing around a ‘mother with baby drones’ submarine idea which would be great news for Barrow shipyard, and the secretary of state’s suggestion that an announcement is expected soon and will tap into Barrow’s existing expertise is heartening.”