RFA Fort Victoria suffered a minor fire while alongside in Portland on the morning of the 10th May. It was extinguished by the crew with no serious injuries. This ship is the sole UK solid stores support ship available to replenish the carrier strike group.
After a week of participating in a workup in UK waters with the CSG, Fort Vic returned to Portland. Local fire and ambulance services were called to the ship at 0732 but the fire was extinguished by the ship’s company. Fortunately, it appears no one was seriously hurt, although some of the crew were treated at the scene and 4 of the crew were taken to hospital. All sailors are highly trained in firefighting but it is standard procedure for civilian firefighters to be called to any fire when alongside. Fires in confined spaces are potentially deadly and smoke inhalation is a particular hazard. The ship is equipped with fixed firefighting systems but Fort Vic recently embarked a full load of fuel, ammunition and stores for the forthcoming deployment. A speedy and professional response to any fire on board is obviously vital.
Fires onboard ship are not uncommon but are usually contained when the ship is fully manned and the crew is alert. Even the world’s foremost navies suffer shipboard fires on a regular basis. The French submarine FS Perle experienced a major fire while in refit in Jun 2020 and the entire forward section was destroyed (In an epic ‘cut and shut’ operation, it is being replaced by a section from decommissioned sister FS Saphir).
In July 2020 the US Navy had to write off a 40,000-tonne tonne LDH, USS Bonhomme Richard when consumed by fire when nearing the end of a major refit. The Russians and Chinese Navies have also had serious shipyard fires. The RN has a good track record of containing occasional small fires. The last really serious fire experienced by the RN was on board HMS Fearless at sea in the Mediterranean in November 2000. A boiler fire was contained by the bravery and dedication of the ship’s company but at one point they came close to losing the ship.
For the upcoming deployment, Fort Vic has over 230 personnel on board. Besides to core RFA crew of around 100, she has embarked sailors of 1700 Naval Air Squadron who provide a range of aircraft handling, weapon engineering and support to the civilian crew. Three Merlin Mk4s of 845 Naval Air Squadron, along with aircrew and engineers add to the total. The Merlins have multiple roles, providing logistic support to the carrier group – Maritime Intra Theatre Lift (MITL), Joint Personnel Recovery (JPR), and vertical replenishment (VERTREP).
Fort Vic had earlier conducted a landmark replenishment at sea off the UK coast with HMS Queen Elizabeth that represented the culmination of many years of work and planning. This was the first time solid stores and munitions had been passed to one of the QEC carriers at sea. Fort Vic had to be significantly modified so her jackstay rigs have geometry compatible with the high Heavy RAS-capable rigs of the carrier.
When the carrier group is on operations at distance away from friendly ports for any length of time, they will be heavily reliant upon the auxiliaries to keep them supplied. RFA Tidespring will provide fuel for the group and she, in turn, will be kept topped up by another tide class tanker providing more distant support. The RN can call upon the services of four active tankers (Plus another laid up and another in refit) and therefore has a few more options, should one of them suddenly become unavailable. It is not just the aircraft carrier that requires regular replenishment but the 6 escorts are also arguably even more reliant on regular supplies of fuel and stores.
The CSG’s dependence upon a single vessel for solid support is the result of decisions made over a decade ago to scrap sister ship, RFA Fort George. She was selected for the axe in 2010 simply because she was due for a major refit and the two older Forts class vessel were cheaper to run. RFA Fort Rosalie and Fort Austin could not be adapted to support the carriers and are so old that the sensible decision to scrap them was announced in the March 2021 Defence Command Paper. The problem has been further compounded by the failure to place orders for new vessels during the 2010-20 ‘lost decade of austerity’.
The DCP confirmed three new Fleet Solid Support Ships will be built but the competition for the contract has still not been restarted and it will be the late 2020s at least before the first of the new ships are in service.
Hopefully, the fire was not serious enough to delay Fort Vic in joining the deployment. Although no slouch, with a top speed of about 20 knots she is the slowest of the vessels in the task group. For this deployment, the aircraft carrier will be marginally less reliant on replenishment at sea than in future. HMS Queen Elizabeth has a good reserve of fuel and plenty of storage space available. Taking 7 Merlins and 18 F-35s on this trip, she is at about 50% of her designed aircraft capacity but these numbers will increase for future deployments. Planned combat operations in support of Operation Shader against Daesh in Syria will likely have modest munitions requirements.