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Lessons from UK shipbuilding: On Point with Rear Admiral (Ret’d) Bob Love

queen elizabeth under construction

As part of an extensive career with the Royal Navy, Rear Admiral (Ret’d) Bob Love, CB, OBE transferred key skills to transform the UK naval shipbuilding industry, providing lessons for Australia’s burgeoning naval shipbuilding industry.

As part of an extensive career with the Royal Navy, Rear Admiral (Ret’d) Bob Love, CB, OBE transferred key skills to transform the UK naval shipbuilding industry, providing lessons for Australia’s burgeoning naval shipbuilding industry.

The Commonwealth government has committed $95 billion as part of its Naval Shipbuilding Plan and the broader Sovereign Industrial Capability plans to support the redevelopment and recapitalisation of Australia's defence industry, with a focus on a competitive Australian naval shipbuilding sector. 

However, such recapitalisation and redevelopments are not without hurdles, as the once unrivalled shipbuilding industry of the UK has shown.


Cost and delay overruns, combined with serious defects in key Royal Navy platforms like the Type 45 Daring Class guided missile destroyers and the Astute Class nuclear attack submarines placed great pressure on the UK's defence industrial base (DIB).

The Royal Navy and UK government's ambitions to re-establish a potent aircraft carrier capability highlighted the limitations of the UK's shipbuilding DIB. However, for Rear Admiral (Ret'd) Bob Love, the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers, which are the largest vessels ever operated by the RN and the largest UK naval shipbuilding program since the Second World War, provided avenues to respond to deficiencies in the UK industry.

In this edition of On Point, Love discusses the lessons learned throughout the construction and delivery of the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers and the opportunities the program provides Australia's own defence industrial base.

If you had your time again, if you're going to go back to the formative period of working up the plans and strategy for the delivery of those carriers all the way through to final construction, would you do anything particularly different with it? 

Bob Love: You've got to deal with the political realities of what it is and that is largely to do with the fact that carriers, for example are extremely expensive, there is no hiding that.

It's just the same here in Australia, as it is in every country in the world.

To counter these challenges, we put a very, very smart deal together which would have delivered the carriers, if not on budget, only just over budget. Within three months of signing that, those enormous financial pressures were brought to bear.

I was asked to delay the build by two years, which we subsequently did. And of course that cost, it didn't cost any money then, I could tell you exactly how much we took out of the budget and how much we had to add in.

It was a pretty eye-watering amount that we had to add in nearly 10 years later. But of course that's somebody else's problem. 

How do you view Australia's attitude to the Government's $95 billion naval shipbuilding plan? 

Bob Love: Well, first thing is you've got to admire the whole country's commitment to this, and I think the decision to build in Australia is absolutely the right one.

Now it might be difficult at the start, but we've got to grow that capability because there are thousands upon thousands of jobs attached to projects of this scale.

For my carriers, for example, in the UK, I call them my carriers, there are 25,000 jobs attached to that program.

I think it is absolutely the right thing to do. We have to grow that capability, I think we've already seen really consensus from both parties, which is very encouraging.

The one thing I've always liked about Australia, I think Australia has always recognised, it is a continent, it is an island. Sometimes I used to get a bit frustrated in UK and that sometimes we forgot we were an island, but Australia always gets that, and I think that's a really good place to start, that focus on a strong navy.

I'm full of admiration for the shipbuilding program. I think we can do it, I think the investment in the plans are right. We have to understand what it is we can do and can do well and what it is that actually might be a little bit too difficult for us right now. But we can grow those capabilities.

From your experience building the UK carriers, what was critical to ensuring that the build process went smoothly? Was there anything you saw, the behaviours, attitudes, habits, systems, processes of defence industry that really excelled in delivering the capability to the Navy?

Bob Love: I'm going to put my commercial hat on. The first thing is you've got to have the right commercial construct in place, I'm a huge fan of alliances in terms of a shared gain and shared pain.

I think that worked really, really well with the carriers in the UK and I firmly believe that actually without that construct then we probably wouldn't have built them. So I'm a fan of alliance, but that's not the only thing that can work.

But I really do think industry, having been on both sides of defence, industry works well when incentivised. You've got to get the right incentives in place at the right time. That's not to say to be soft on them, you've got to set those incentives against milestones, against targets and so on.

I think you can do it, but just start with a good commercial contract. I did learn very early in the piece, if one side thinks they've got a good deal and the other thinks it's a bad deal, it's a bad deal, that is a matter of fact.

I think the shipbuilding college is a great start, and that's going to have to grow the skills significantly. I think modern techniques, and it's just a matter of fact, need slightly less people, so I think that helps.

If you looked at them welding blocks of Queen Elizabeth together, it was a robot that was doing it, crawling up the side of the ship. So I think we've got to ensure, and I think all that will happen.

The one piece of advice I would give and we've learned that lesson really, really hard in UK through Type 45, through Astute, to the new carriers, is do not start cutting steel too early. 

If you cut steel too early, you wind up with change on change on change as the design develops. You really want the design to be mature to about 80 per cent or over before you start cutting steel.

The full podcast with Rear Admiral (Ret'd) Bob Love, CB, OBE is available here

Stephen Kuper

Stephen Kuper

Steve has an extensive career across government, defence industry and advocacy, having previously worked for cabinet ministers at both Federal and State levels.