This week ‘Team Resolute’ went public. This is a new partnership between Spanish shipbuilder, Navantia, Belfast shipyard, Harland & Wolff and naval architects, BMT to bid for the Fleet Solid Support (FSS) ship contract. Here we consider this partnership and summarise the story of FSS so far.
The naval architecture pedigree of BMT combined with Navantia’s recent track record of building naval stores ships was already the basis for a very credible bid for FSS. Unfortunately, their plan to construct the ships entirely in Spain always looked politically unworkable. The inclusion of Harland and Wolff is a way to surmount this obstacle, although raises many other questions. H&W have not constructed a naval vessel since RFA Fort Victoria 30 years ago and currently have a workforce numbering just 130 people.
Despite their illustrious shipbuilding heritage, H&W narrowly escaped oblivion last year. in June the owners, Dolphin Drilling, filed for bankruptcy and put the yard up for sale. The saviour was energy firm InfraStrata Plc which bought the yard in September, apparently planning to use the site to construct elements of their Islandmagee underground gas storage plant off the coast of Country Antrim. Subsequent to the buy-out, a new management team with substantial UK and international shipyard experience has been assembled in Belfast.
InfraStrata confirmed to us that their plan would see modules for the lead vessel built in both Belfast and Spain with more modules of the 2nd (and possibly 3rd) being built in Belfast. A large contingent of UK workers would be brought over and trained by Navantia. The plan will enable concurrent fabrication of the ships at both H&W and Navantia’s Puerto Real shipyards. New jobs will be created, a local skills base does still exist as around 1,200 workers were laid off prior to the InfraStrata acquisition.
Team Resolute say their bid would “re-establish a skills base for UK shipbuilding in Northern Ireland, The transfer of Navantia’s cutting edge knowledge to Harland & Wolff will support the modernisation and availability of this UK sovereign asset for FSS and beyond.” Navantia have developed a digital shipyard concept named ‘Shipyard 4.0’, which they promise to share with all UK partners across the supply chain. This system includes digital connectivity, cybersecurity, robotics and logistics, ensuring consistency in the production process and improving connectivity between people, products and machines. Navantia has delivered 40 ships on time to customers worldwide over the last 5 years and recently built vessels for the Australian, Norwegian and Turkish navies.
InfraStrata have big ambitions for H&W and say that securing the FSS work would enable them to “disrupt the UK defence shipbuilding duopoly that currently exists” They also argue it could strengthen their position to tender for contracts in the oil & gas, cruise & ferry, commercial and renewable sectors and are in discussions with Navantia about further teaming agreements in relation to offshore wind farms.
Beyond FSS, there are not many other large UK naval projects on the horizon and H&W is unlikely to re-establish itself as a major player in naval construction. Although Team Resolute say they have identified other opportunities in the international naval market, it is hard to envisage Navantia passing naval contracts to the UK instead of building in Spain. The two large dry docks possessed by H&W are, however, potential sites for undertaking major refits of the QEC aircraft carriers in future.
There is a certain irony that Britain, once the shipbuilding powerhouse of the world could be reliant on a technology transfer from aboard to build ships for its navy. Should Team Resolute win the bid, it would certainly be good for Northern Ireland and there is an appeal in seeing naval vessels being built by this iconic shipyard once again. Breathing new life into the Belfast yard would also be in line with the government’s prosperity agenda and efforts to ‘level up’ the economies of the provinces. FSS could provide a pathway to opportunities beyond naval construction for H&W but in there is already over-capacity in UK shipbuilding and moves further away from the idea of concentration of expertise at one or two efficient ‘super yards’.
FSS was originally part of the ambitious MARS (Military Afloat Reach Sustainability) project that the MoD embarked on in the early 2000s to replace the majority of RFA vessels. MARS suffered death by a thousand cuts, eventually only delivering the 4 Tide-class tankers. Some early concepts for FSS developed by the NDP (Naval Design Partnership) included a very large ship with ‘steel beach’ and vehicle deck. Later concepts are closer to the more conventional US Navy (T-AKE-1) stores ship design.
The defence review (SDSR) confirms the intention to build three new solid stores support ships.
The National Shipbuilding Strategy (NSbS) is published and sets off a two-year controversy by stating the FSS contract would be open to international bidders to “test UK yards against foreign competition”. This policy is justified by labelling them “non warships”.
6 May 2018
For the first time, the number of ships is in doubt. The MoD issues a Contract Notice asking for potential bidders to build two ships, with an option for a third.
30 November 2018
It is announced that five bidders had been accepted for the FSS competition. The British consortium, ‘Team UK’ is made up by Babcock, BAE Systems, Cammell Laird and Rolls-Royce. Fincantieri, Navantia, Japan Marine United Corporation, and DSME of South Korea are invited to submit a tender for the competition.
25 Feb 2019
Rear Admiral Paul Marshall appointed by the navy as the Senior Responsible Officer (SRO) Fleet Solid Support Programme (FSSP).
The controversy over building the vessels overseas rumbles on. The House of Commons Defence Committee is not impressed and writes to the Defence Secretary demanding clarification as to why FSS are being classified as “non-combatants”. Brexit-related political instability induces a rapid turnover of Defence Secretaries and Junior Ministers which ultimately results in growing support within government for buying British.
The Financial Times reports that JMUC, DSME and Fincantieri have withdrawn from the competition, leaving Navantia head-to-head with ‘Team UK’.
Spanish shipbuilder Navantia and UK naval engineering specialists, BMT announce they have formed a partnership for the bid. Their outline design is revealed at DSEI.
4th November 2019
Two years after it was first published, Sir John Parker is asked to review the implementation of the National Shipbuilding Strategy. When the review is published, it is clear he has changed his tune and now says “I recommend that UK-only competition should be considered for future defence-funded vessels”.
6th November 2019
The Defence Secretary announces the FSS competition has been suspended. The accompanying MoD statement is strange, saying the bids were “not compliant with commercial terms and not delivering on value for money expectations.”
It is revealed that the RN could be planning to dispense with the Fleet Solid Support ship (FSS) and Littoral Strike Ship (LSS) concepts and standardise on a single hull known as the Multi-Role Support Ship (MRSS). The FSS has many unique and demanding requirements and the common hull concept is proved to be just a rumour. MRSS is possibly the solution to the LPD and LSS replacement but FSS is still alive.
7 May 2020
The Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace says FSS competition will “probably be restarted in September 2020”.
26 May 2020
Navantia and BMT announce Harland & Wolff will join their ‘Team Resolute’ partnership, bidding on the basis of skills transfer to Belfast.
The Pandemic leaves public finances in a parlous state. When the dust settles and a Comprehensive Spending Round and Defence Review finally get going, FSS is a project that looks vulnerable to the savings axe. The industrial and economic benefits are likely to carry greater political weight than the needs of the navy when fighting to keep the project alive.
Images: Team Resolute