The 2015 SDSR confirmed the intention to build 3 new solid stores support ships. This kind of logistic support vessel is critical to the global reach of the RN but are low profile and do not get the focus of attention given to warships. Government commitment to build the new ships is positive but entirely lacking in urgency, the first ship will probably not be ready for sea until around 2025.
By the time HMS Queen Elizabeth achieves initial operating capability in late 2020, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary will have six modern tankers able supply the carrier and other warships with fuel. In contrast, the three solid stores support ships which supply ammunition, food and spares are antiques. The 3 Fort-class vessels have served the RN well, RFA Fort Austin and Fort Rosalie were built in the late 1970s and saw action in the Falklands War. RFA Fort Victoria was commissioned in 1994 and is semi-permanently deployed in Gulf and Indian Ocean. Until the new Fleet Solid Support Ships (FSS) arrive, these hardy veterans must stagger on into the mid-2020s. The official out of service dates are 2023 for Fort Austin and 2024 for Fort Rosalie by which time they will be well over 40 years old. It is unclear when Fort Victoria will go but she is also a tanker but does not conform to current double-hull MARPOL legislation.
Main gate approval is for the FSS is expected in December 2019 with the main contract for FSS construction signed by March 2020.
The slow pace of the project to build new stores ships, opens up the possibility of yet another ‘capability gap’ during the period 2023-27. With two or less solid stores ships it may not be possible to always have one available to support the carrier.
The three ship plan is already a bare minimum, one likely to be assigned to support the carrier, one forward-based, probably in the Gulf and one in refit. In partial mitigation, an advantage of large-size of the QEC is that they can embark large stores of ammunition and food so they will be a little less reliant on the support of their RFAs than the preceding and much smaller Invincible-class. In the early years of the QEC, lack of available F-35s may mean the embarked air group may also be below its full strength and therefore require fewer stores. However in high-intensity operations, either acting in the Carrier Strike or Littoral Maneuver role, the RFA will be hard pressed to meet the carrier group’s demands or will have to rely on supply from allied auxiliaries.
Only early outline proposals for the FSS exist in the public domain at this stage. The FSS is a part of the MARS (Military Afloat Reach Sustainability) project that the MoD embarked on in the early 2000s to replace the ageing RFA fleet. Budget cuts have drastically reduced the scope of MARS which originally included both the FSS and a separate Combat Support Ship Auxiliary (CSS(A)) to provide additional logistic support for amphibious operations. After the brutal cuts of the 2010 defence review, the CSSA and FSS were merged and the Naval Design Partnership Team produced a new concept for a stores ship which included a vehicle deck and stern ramp. This would allow vehicles and stores to be offloaded by landing craft or by Mexefloat at sea. (This ‘steel beach’ arrangement is a simple ramp, not a fully floodable dock that is a feature of the HMS Albion/Bulwark and the Bay class RFAs). The loading ramp can only be used in very benign weather conditions but would be a very useful addition to RN amphibious and general transport capabilities.
The FSS is likely to be a large vessel with displacement in excess of 30,000 tons. A spacious vessel allows efficient movement and storage of cargo plus a large hangar and flight deck. The RN has always made good use of the extra decks provided by its auxiliaries and the FSS will be no different. Armament is likely to be 2 or 3 phalanx mounts and a couple of 30mm cannons. Such a large vessel often attracts suggestions that more sophisticated weapons be fitted. Sea Ceptor would provide much better self defence and add to the carrier group’s firepower. Fitting a bank of Tomahawk missiles or even anti ballistic missiles has been suggested. Although desirable, such weapons add considerably to cost and complexity of the build, through life costs and manning requirements. It is very unlikely FSS will have anything but a basic self-defence weapon fit.
The approximate MoD budget allocated for the three FSS is around £1bn and the priority must be to deliver an affordable ship that can efficiently provide solid stores at sea. The MoD held an industry day for companies interested in bidding for the FSS work in July 2016. The itinerary mentioned nothing about the amphibious capability. It is possible that budget limitations may not allow for a vehicle deck and stern ramp but hope remains.
Replenishing the aircraft carriers
Under a £25M contract, Rolls Royce has already developed and built a prototype Heavy Replenishment at Sea rig (HRAS) that will equip the FSS. A test rig was installed and successfully trialled at training establishment HMS Raleigh between 2013-14 and has been left in place as a training aid. Capable of transferring 25 loads per hour weighing up to 5 tonnes, this system promises to be highly efficient, able to supply the carrier at sea quickly. This reduces the window of vulnerability when ships have restricted manoeuvrability as they steam in parallel for RAS. Most importantly HRAS is also capable of transferring a complete Pratt & Witney F135 engine that propels the F-35. The ability to change aircraft engines at sea is an important consideration for extended operations and there is limited space to store such large items on the carrier.
The FSS will have 2 HRAS rigs fitted on their port side which align with the QEC aircraft lift openings on their starboard side. The QEC can then receive stores straight into the hangar. Arriving on standard pallets they can be quickly struck down into magazines and store rooms using the Highly Mechanised Weapon Handling System (HMWHS). The QEC are designed to receive oil on their port side and the Tide class tankers have 2 rigs on their starboard side. Both the Tide class and FSS will have a single rig on the opposite side that can replenish other warships simultaneously with the carrier.
Build at home or abroad?
A beneficiary of retaining such an elderly RFA stores ship fleet is Cammel Laird which has been kept busy with frequent maintenance of these vessels under its ‘cluster’ contract with the MoD. A reliable workflow has allowed CL to invest and make a gradual return to new ship construction. Last year it won the prestigious contract to build the 12,790 tonne RRS Sir David Attenborough. (AKA Boaty McBoatface) Cammel Laird now appears well placed to participate in the FSS project if it can beat foreign competition.
With the completion of HMS Prince Wales there will be a significant shipbuilding capability left at Rosyth. The GMB Union and Scottish interests are already lobbying for Rosyth to be involved in FSS construction. Having recent experience of block building the carriers and a spacious facility, it would make sense. However, there are questions about the strength of the workforce as many of the BAES workers employed on the carriers will return to Glasgow to work on Type 26. The Goliath crane at Rosyth used for the assembly of the large aircraft carrier hull blocks was put up for sale some time ago and the Aircraft Carrier Alliance hopes to get £6m for it if a buyer can be found. If the Goliath crane is retained it could be very useful in constructing the large FSS.
“There is the opportunity with the FSS for UK firms to make competitive bids, and hopefully secure the contract, thus contributing further regional economic benefits in the UK.” Sir John Parker, Report to Inform the National Shipbuilding Strategy.
The weaker pound and the problems with the MARS tankers built in South Korea may also strengthen the case for UK construction of FSS. £500m for the 4 Tide class tankers is great value for money but the experience has been soured by delays to the first vessel Tidespring. At the time of writing, she is on her delivery voyage and set to arrive a year later than scheduled. A corruption scandal at DSME, together with a major error during installation of electrical cabling blighted the project, although delivery of the remaining three vessels is set to follow quickly. Building RFAs abroad has also proven politically explosive with the fine line between warships and auxiliaries misunderstood and the project seen by many as a government betrayal of UK workers and industry.
Although pure speculation at this stage, a joint Cammel Laird & Babcock Rosyth consortium block-building the FSS appears to be an attractive prospect. For the Royal Navy the FSS is another important element of carrier-enabled power projection and the fleet’s continued ability to deploy globally. For the next seven years the RN must make do with old ships and hope they can be kept going until the arrival of badly needed new vessels.
Subsequent to writing this article, DE&S announced RFA Fort Victoria will have her oil tanks modified to be double-hulled (probably by Cammel Laird) to conform to MARPOL standards. This should allow the life of the ship to be extended to keep 3 ships available to support the carriers until the first FSS arrives sometime around 2024.
- Flat out: The Royal Fleet Auxiliary in 2016 (Save the Royal Navy)
- Does the state of the RFA threaten the global reach of the RN? (Save the Royal Navy 2015)
- RSS David Attenborough will provide a livelihood for 400 Cammell Laird workers (Liverpool Echo)
- Fears new ships to back up Royal Navy will be built overseas (Telegraph)