The consortia competing to build three Fleet Solid Support ships (FSS) have now submitted their detailed bids to the MoD. The winner of this major shipbuilding contract is expected to be announced by the end of March 2023. For the first time, we can reveal some details of the all-British proposal entered by Team UK.
The RN needs these naval logistics vessels in service as soon as possible, primarily to resupply the carrier strike group on global operations but the project has been drawn out and highly politicised. Assuming the competition winner can deliver what the contract demands, the first ship is expected to be in service and replace RFA Fort Victoria by 2028, with all three vessels delivered by 2032.
Public information from the FSS competitors has been somewhat limited by the MoD insisting on a Non-Disclosure Agreement. Team Resolute applied the most relaxed interpretation of the NDA and their initial design concept and their build strategy are outlined in previous articles. TUK has been tight-lipped until now, but the images above and below indicate some of the main features of their design.
The TUK proposal is based on an existing naval platform design. The hull form and propulsion is derived from a ROPAX (roll-on/roll-off passenger) ferry design developed by Danish Naval Architects OSK-ShipTech. Two ferries using this design are being constructed by Hyundai Mipo Dockyard (HMD) in South Korea for New Zealand state-owned enterprise KiwiRail. This hull form has considerable capacity, the ferries have a gross tonnage of 50,000 tonnes, are 220m long, have a beam of 30.8 m and a draught of 7m. They have four diesel generators providing electrical power for two podded azimuth thrusters.
Utilising the existing platform saves some costs and development time but there is still demanding design work to re-purpose for the FSS role and reconfigure an entirely different superstructure arrangement. The FSS will have similar dimensions although the beam has been increased by the addition of sponsons on each side to increase the working area around the replenishment rigs. This would not be the first time azipods have been used in UK naval service as the Bay-class RFAs and Echo-class SVHOs are equipped with them. Early designs for the QEC-class aircraft carriers featured azipods but they were ultimately discarded as they did not meet warship shock resistance standards.
Other features of note are the very large bridge with full-height windows, the midships RAS control room (RASCO) which runs the full width of the vessel and a large hangar with a Chinook-capable flight deck. The main superstructure and bridge is set forward, similar to RFA Fort Victoria. (The BMT-designed Team Resolute proposal places the bridge aft, astern of the RAS rigs in a similar arrangement to the US Sealift Command T-AKE-1 stores ships.) The standard defensive CIWS and cannons are fitted as expected but the inclusion of BAE Systems’ Artisan (Type 997) medium-range 3D radar would be the most capable sensor yet fitted to an RFA.
The build strategy
Although not yet fully finalised, TUK will use a distributed build strategy with several British shipyards participating in the project. The model is similar to the Aircraft Carrier Alliance with Babcock and BAES leading the consortium but with A&P, Cammell Laird and Harland & Wolff all contributing.
The main assembly work would be done at Babcock’s Rosyth yard, utilising the Goliath crane over Number 1 dock. Babcock is contracted to provide both planned and contingency dry docking for the aircraft carriers but are confident that this can be balanced with FSS construction. Number 3 dock is of sufficient size to take the FSS and the vessels could be moved between 1 and 3 docks, even if not fully completed, to facilitate the needs of the carriers.
FSS features a small operations room and BAE Systems would be the lead integrator on the project. The investment in the new construction hall at Govan for Type 26 frigate work would free up space for BAES to manufacture the command decks in Glasgow. It is planned that Cammell Laird would construct the entire stern section of the vessels at their Birkenhead yard. A&P’s yards would also be involved in the fabrication of sections. Despite having a large stake in the Team Resolute consortium, Harland & Wolff are also part of TUK and would have a share in the work. Their yard at Appledore could also be used to contribute smaller modules such as superstructure sections or funnels.
The social value
There is not sufficient detail in the public domain to make an objective assessment of the ship designs themselves but it is reasonable to assume that having spent £5m and at least 11 months developing the designs, the bidders have submitted credible solutions. Each consortium’s proposals will be evaluated in two phases that focus on design/feasibility and then deliverability/social value.
Whatever the merits of the ship designs, construction capacity and budgets, TUK’s trump card is the maximised economic benefit to the country as a whole. They estimate 2,000 UK jobs will be sustained directly by the programme, a further 1,500 in the wider supply chain plus indirectly supporting 2,500 jobs in communities surrounding the yards. If TUK are awarded the contract, around 80% of the funds will be spent in the UK and £650M will be returned to the Treasury through direct or indirect taxes.
TUK promise to invest £90M in shipyards and a further £54M in training, apprenticeships and improving the skills base. Some analysts suggest that lack of sufficient skilled and experienced people would be the biggest problem for TUK in meeting the delivery timetable. Government ‘net zero’ targets will be helped by investment in greener shipyard practice and an FSS design with an efficient hull form and diesel-electric propulsion systems adaptable to use future biofuels.
TUK’s competitors have their own advantages. Team Resolute is probably the toughest contender, able to leverage the recent experience of Navantia and BMT in building large naval auxiliaries. They are likely to be slightly more competitive on price but still over budget. An unconfirmed estimate suggests the shared build between Spain and Northern Ireland would only see 20% of the work on ship one done in the UK, rising to about 40% by ship three.
The Larsen & Toubro / Leidos bid leverages the very low labour costs of Indian shipyards, estimated to average just 15% of European equivalents. Their primary advantage would appear to be coming in on, or below, budget but it would likely be politically explosive if the ships were largely built in India. The GMB Union recently highlighted what they described as “exploitative labour standards” at L&T Indian shipyard which has a record of serious accidents and fatalities among workers. The fourth consortium (Serco / Damen) in the competition is rumoured to have withdrawn entirely as they were unable to submit a proposal that was even close to the budget.
By far the biggest cost in the project is labour and industry insiders say the stated £1.67Bn budget (plus inflation allowance) is simply not sufficient if these ships are to be built in the UK. It is likely TUK has submitted the most expensive bid, significantly breaching the budget. This will put the government in a tricky position as the much-vaunted National Shipbuilding Strategy would look completely incoherent if TUK does not win. With its promise to contribute to the wider ‘levelling up agenda’ as well as helping yards invest in order to be competitive for future work such as MRSS, the contract award will be a strategic choice between long-term industrial growth or short-term departmental book balancing.
As the Defence Secretary and UK ‘Shipbuilding Tsar’ contemplates the FSS competition, he will either have to award a large part of the work overseas or be asking the Treasury for more money, cutting other naval programmes and potentially reducing the order from three to two ships. With FSS and many other such thorny decisions on the horizon, it is understandable why Ben Wallace has backed Liz Truss to be Prime Minister in preference to Rishi Sunak who has resisted giving more funding to the MoD at every opportunity.