RFA Fort Victoria, the UK’s only vessel capable of providing solid stores logistic support to the Carrier Strike Group has been non-operational since late 2021 with mechanical and crewing issues putting a question mark over her future.
Fort Vic returned to the UK from the CSG21 deployment in mid-December 2021. She had served as a key component of the group, conducting 44 replenishments at Sea, transferring 27,000 tonnes of fuel and 350 tonnes of ammunition, food and spares. She also hosted three Merlin Mk4 helicopters of 845 Naval Air Squadron and conducted 635 deck landings.
After de-storing at Crombie, she off-loaded oil at Loch Striven and returned to Plymouth in January 2022, spending 4 months alongside until heading to Birkenhead to begin refit in May 2022. On completion of refit at Cammell Laird, she left the Mersey in December and returned to Plymouth. At the time, the RN stated the ship was “looking forward to a jam-packed 2023” and her Captain said she would be “…supporting the Carrier Strike Group 23 deployment”. She remained in Devonport for another 4 months until April 2023 when she left South Yard and then swung around a buoy in Plymouth Sound until 15th May when she sailed for Portland.
The MoD now has to pay expensive fees to keep ships in Portland harbour (a facility it once owned) so long stays in the Dorset port are avoided when possible. Fort Vic will likely soon be on her way to Leith Docks where she will retain a skeleton crew and be used for training at least until the end of this year. The 2022 refit does not seem to have resolved the significant defects which are believed to include the compressors. (The pneumatic systems are an important aspect of a ship, providing high-pressure air for various functions which include starting the main and auxiliary engines, valve control and many other operations.)
Launched in 1990 and having served across the globe, it is not surprising it is becoming a struggle to keep this old ship going. Although Fort Vic has had regular maintenance, spending a good proportion of her life in Cammell Laird shipyard, an accumulation of age-related defects cannot all be blamed on the contractor. As the ship enters her fourth decade, spares may no longer be in production and the alternatives are to either get very expensive bespoke replacements made or make do with refurbishing old parts. The replacement Fleet Solid Support ships were finally ordered in January but the years of delays now leave the RFA in a familiar trap. Either they are forced to spend very significant and scarce funds on new items of equipment for a vessel that may only be in service for another few years or cut their losses and scrap the vessel.
In light of the escalating shortage of RFA personnel, opting to lay up a ship that demands a crew of approximately 100 is also an appealing choice for planners trying to staff the rest of the fleet. Between October 2021 and October 2022, the number of RFA sailors declined from 1,840 to 1,750, a loss of nearly 5% from a workforce that was already overstretched. At the same time, the RFA is also having to generate new crews for RFA Proteus and RFA Stirling Castle.
Government has now formally announced that the Carrier Strike Group will deploy to the Asia-Pacific region in 2025. A solid support ship is especially critical to that deployment and repairs to Fort Vic are the most likely option, whatever the cost. The RN would not comment on the current status of the ship but says “RFA Fort Victoria is due to enter a pre-planned refit next year.”
In the meantime, HMS Queen Elizabeth and the Carrier Strike Group is theoretically at high readiness, prepared to be sent to hotspots anywhere in the globe at short notice. For the foreseeable future, Fort Vic will not be available to support CSG deployments, planned or otherwise and there is no opportunity for RN warships to practice solid stores replenishment without assistance from allies.
If it becomes obvious the ship cannot be affordably sustained until around 2028 when the first new FSS should be ready, then either there will be a major gap in capability or the RFA may consider trying to lease a temporary replacement. One of the T-AKE dry cargo replenishment ships operated by the US Navy’s Military Sealift Command would be the most likely candidate. This assumes the US would be willing to lease a vessel from its already stretched support fleet. Not insurmountable, but it would also require the RFA to operate another vessel with completely unfamiliar equipment, ammunition storage and handling arrangements.
Putting off the replacement of naval vessels for short-term savings, results in old ships staggering on with patchy availability while becoming a money pit that absorbs resources needed elsewhere. The result of decades of cuts and detrimental in-year budget cycles, this is a lesson that the MoD is continually unable to apply to its long-term planning.
Subsequent to writing this article further details have come to light. Fort Victoria is in Leith being maintained by a small crew and could be called upon to support an unplanned CSG deployment, although this would require taking crews from other RFA vessels that currently have higher priority. She is mechanically fairly sound and the planned refit work next year is primarily to bring firefighting and munitions handling safety equipment up to increasingly stringent modern standards. It is planned she will regenerate and deploy on exercise Steadfast Defender and with HMS Prince of Wales and the Carrier Strike Group deployment to the Asia Pacific in 2025.