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Naval Construction, Repair and Refit: The challenges of maintaining a fleet

 Defence IQ talks with Paul Blackmore, the Amphibious Ship’s Business Support Manager with Babcock International Group’s Marine Division, on the developments and challenges in the field. Listen to the full interview.

Defence IQ: Paul, could you possibly give us an overview of the Surface Ship Support Alliance, and the work currently being undertaken at Devonport?

Blackmore: The Surface Ship Support Alliance is a programme that was instigated in late 2004/2005 as part of the wider defence industry strategy to improve the way that industry worked with the Ministry, and the way that it supports its naval platforms generally. There was a general recognition throughout the MoD and UK that competition…the way that the MoD was traditionally trying to look after its war ships, for maintenance…was not really sustainable, in that the rates that were being offered by industry were not sustainable. Effectively, we were driving out the business. So I think the MoD recognised that, and the actual MoD recognised that they needed to retain the UK expertise, if you like – the main expertise.

So as part of that process, they created the Surface Ship Support Alliance Programme – which by its very name infers that it’s an alliance between MoD and industry – to look at the way that it looked after its surface ships. So here we are, four or five years on, and the programme is due to be implemented probably next year, as a go-live project, whereby each of the industry players – that’s ourselves as Babcock and BAE – will become the lead providers of naval support to the MoD for all its surface ships. So we would become what they call class managers, or COM’s for various classes of the ships that it looks after.

Some vessels aren’t included within that, but we as Babcock are looking after the amphibious ships, some of the frigates, the Sandown class…and that’s generally our scope of supply at the moment. So I don’t know if that clarifies the question?

Defence IQ: Very much so, thank you. Moving into the heart of the matter, how are maintenance costs being reduced at the same time as improving the availability of these landing craft? How is this balanced?

Blackmore: Well, it’s more than just landing craft, it’s the actual mother ships as well as the landing craft so the key thing is really, by industry being involved in the process of actually determining what work needs to be done, we’re able to reduce through-life support costs, in a very simplistic way, because effectively, we’ve become a product of our own making. And now what has happened traditionally in the past is that the ministry have written a re-fit spec or a maintenance specification. And we would then be responsible for doing the work that they have told us to do. And that’s been great, because if I’m honest with you, we’ve been traditionally focused on revenue and growth, and the amount of work that comes through the books, et cetera, and that’s been great.

But now we’re being contracted for availability. So effectively, we’re more focused, working with the MoD as an alliance on what the output is all about really, in terms of [being] contracted for availability. We’re being incentivised to provide that availability, but within a diminished budget. So it… this might be a complicated way of saying that we’re being paid probably the same, maybe a little bit less, for doing more, in terms of making the platforms more available. All the “glitzy” stuff that may have been done in the past, the areas where we’ve actually made growth and re-fits in maintenance periods; that’s gone. So the recognition by both ourselves and BAE – that can’t carry on, and that’s the way that we’re going to be working in the future.

Defence IQ: Paul, what would you say are perhaps the main challenges in covering through through-life support to amphibious platforms, and all of its associated infrastructure?

Blackmore: Well, there’s lots of things really, there is…I mean, the complexity of amphibious platforms, their size and how they’re deployed; the issue of SDSR (Strategic Defence and Security Review)…I’m not including any thoughts about SDSR or what that might mean, but we’ve got the issues that relate to the way that we work together. Clearly, we’re trying to reduce costs overall, across the enterprise, and that’s MoD and ourselves. And as you will probably appreciate, a lot of the costs that go into looking after amphibious platforms and through-life support costs is in people. And there is, if I’m honest with you, a lot of double-dipping, double-accounting, man-to-man marking that goes on within the MoD and industry enterprise. And treble S – the Surface Ship Support Alliance – will obviate that, we hope. And one of the biggest challenges is, where do those jobs go and what do you do with those people that you’ve re-deployed? At the same time, trying to maintain SQEP – suitably qualified experienced people – to continue to be able to maintain those ships, both now and in the future.

So as I was saying earlier on, there was a recognition by the MoD in the early days, in the Defence Industrial Strategy (DIS), that it needed to be able to retain organic capability within the UK. The difficulty will be, how low can we go to maintain that level, but still make it a cost-effective way forward…if that’s not double Dutch?

Defence IQ: No, not at all. And do you think that the Continuous Engineering Support arrangement will serve as a model for future military private navy support partnerships? Can you perhaps walk us through that?

Blackmore: CES, as we call it, is one strategy that we could use to improve the maintenance of war ships. I don’t think it’s an end state, because in it’s own right, it’s not actually taking the risk away from the MoD. I mean, what the MoD, as you probably would appreciate, always wants to do, is to actually devolve the risk to industry, wherever it can afford to do so. And CES doesn’t really do that, because we’re still back in that traditional type of approach of work that I mentioned just now, that they’re trying to move away from. It’s still a revenue type of role. Whereas, the contract for availability, whilst more risky for ourselves as an industry, really does take that risk away from the MoD. It gets all the benefits of the CES-type approach where appropriate. And it becomes a more cost-effective way for the ministry to do it.

So to answer your question in a long-winded way, I think it does serve as a model, but it’s only one element, and it’s not – I don’t think – the complete solution. It’s not the final solution that the MoD worked for in it’s longer term aims for reducing through-life support costs.

Read the full interview.

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