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UK Cancels Flagship Project Opting for Subsea Cable Protection Ships

Britain's national flagship
Harland & Wolff was one of two finalists submitting a design for the national flagship (H&W)

Published Nov 8, 2022 4:21 PM by The Maritime Executive

The government of the new British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak confirmed to members of Parliament a change of priorities for the national shipbuilding program as they seek to reign in the naitonal budget in the face of runaway inflation. Former PM Boris Johnson’s plan for a national flagship to showcase Britain is being suspended while the United Kingdom has moved forward the purchase of two “spy ships” designed to protect subsea cables and pipelines.

Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said in the House of Commons that “in the face of Russia’s illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and President Vladimir Putin’s reckless disregard of international arrangements designed to keep world order, it has become paramount for the UK to prioritize delivering capabilities which safeguard the country’s national infrastructure. To effectively address the current and future threats, we will now invest in two Multi-Role Ocean Surveillance (MROS) ships that protect sensitive defense infrastructure, and civil infrastructure, to improve our ability to detect threats to the seabed and cables.”

Johnson announced plans for the national flagship in May 2021 as a showcase for UK shipbuilding. While he said it would serve as a platform to promote British trade the project was widely criticized as a vanity project. While never called a replacement for the retired Royal Yacht Britannia the plans were often compared to the former vessel which had also played a role as a British trade ambassador.

Budgeted at $288 million, the design competition and tendering process for the flagship had been underway. Reports indicated that the competition was down to two finalists, with one being famed shipbuilder Harland & Wolff. John Wood, chief executive of the reborn shipbuilder, issued a statement expressing regret for the cancelation saying the company had planned to use the contract as a launch platform for green shipbuilding projects.

Rear Admiral Rex Cox, CEO of the National Shipbuilding Office issued a statement saying "The National Flagship project showcased the talent of the UK’s maritime industry and I am grateful to all those bidders who took part. The willingness to embrace modern design and production practices with a focus on green innovation embodies the essence of the National Shipbuilding Strategy Refresh. This contemporary approach to shipbuilding and design will be fundamental to the success of the future shipbuilding pipeline."

Sunak in 2017 authored a study on the vulnerability of subsea cable infrastructure to foreign espionage and sabotage. The move to accelerate the development of the two Multi-Role Ocean Surveillance (MROS) ships is believed to be a direct response to suspected sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline in the Baltic Sea. Sunak’s report highlighted that just over 200 subsea cables carry about 97 percent of the world's telecommunications, along with trillions of dollars in financial transactions each year.

The Defense Ministry said the purchase of the MROs has been brought forward with the first ship scheduled to be handed over in January of next year. The first MROs had initially been scheduled for delivery in early 2024.

The two ships will be operated by the Royal Navy’s Fleet Auxiliary with their main mission being to protect subsea cables and pipelines. The vessels will be adaptable, and able to provide a range of capabilities, such as operating remote and autonomous offboard systems for underwater surveillance and seabed warfare.