Britain should double the size of the Royal Navy to boost its shipbuilding industry, a prominent Conservative MP has said.
Tobias Ellwood, the chairman of the defence select committee, said the UK did not require many complex and expensive warships, but should build a greater number of low-end ships – both for its own Navy and for exporting.
He said: “The big question is: what is the threat we are facing and how do we design our defence posture accordingly? The threat we prepare for – high-risk maritime events that require top-notch vessels – is a low probability. We need a force presence to fly the flag and the ability to call in back-up.”
Mr Ellwood was speaking ahead of the committee’s first evidence session for its inquiry into the role of the Navy and its necessary capabilities.
Tomorrow, it will hear from Admiral Sir Philip Jones, former first sea lord, and Jonathan Caverley, professor of strategy at the US Naval War College.
Mr Ellwood praised the type of ships that were recently used by the Navy when French fishing vessels blockaded the Channel Islands during a dispute over post-Brexit fishing rights.
He said ships such as HMS Tamar were “enormously capable”, and argued that Britain’s industry should build more low-end designs, with buyers given the option of upgrading the ships if necessary.
He added: “We need a ‘skeleton’ ship which can be upgraded to export customers’ needs, like adding apps to an iPhone.” Shipyards would “have the confidence to invest in themselves” if they were certain of regular naval orders, he said. Prices would be driven down if more ships were being built, making them attractive to foreign militaries, Mr Ellwood said.
Mr Ellwood has written to the Ministry of Defence questioning delays in the £1.5bn competition to build three Fleet Solid Support vessels, which would provide carriers with ammunition and stores at sea.
The tender was launched last month but the MoD said it could take two years to be awarded and gave no certainty about the level of construction that would be in the UK.
He added: “If we are going to have these big ticket things [like aircraft carriers], it has to be the full package, it can’t be done on the cheap.”
In the autumn, Boris Johnson announced an ambition for the UK to become a “shipbuilding superpower” and an extra £16.5bn for defence that would make the Royal Navy the “foremost naval power in Europe”.