The was no official announcement but the RN has just lost another important capability. RFA Diligence is a forward repair ship able to provide specialist engineering support to ships and submarines alongside in overseas ports or even at sea. Diligence has been inactive in Birkenhead for over a year and the MoD has just put her up for sale.
RFAs do not conduct a formal decommissioning ceremony like HM ships so it was easy for the MoD to quietly decide to dispose of her. Even after the 2015 SDSR the MoD was giving RFA Diligence’s out of service date as 2020 but a deadly combination of lack of money and manpower appears to have brought a premature end to her career. At the time of writing, she remains optimistically listed as active on the Royal Navy website.
Diligence is the perfect name for an odd-looking ship, an unsung hero diligently performing vital support work almost unnoticed. Built in 1981 as an oil rig support vessel Stena Inspector, she was a Ship Taken Up From Trade (STUFT) and sent to the South Atlantic to act as a floating repair vessel during the Falklands war. It proved to be a very wise decision with so many ships sustaining damage during air attacks. The engineers aboard worked round the clock performing miracles of improvisation in their floating workshop, patching up ships to rejoin the fight or making them seaworthy enough for the long journey home.
Appreciating her great value the MoD purchased the ship after the war, renaming her Diligence and she has served for 33 years all over the globe. She was often overseas for up to 5 years at a time with her civilian crew and naval party being rotated at 4-6 month intervals. She has provided aid to many stricken naval vessels over the years but in recent times most of her work has been supporting submarines deployed East of Suez.
Diligence is still in very good condition having had major life-extension in 2007, a complete new sewage plant in 2014 and a general refit at Cammel Lairds as recently as March 2015. There is no material reason she should not keep serving until 2020.
There are 4 Trafalgar class submarines still in service, the last of which will not decommission until 2022. Assuming they will continue to be sent East of Suez, these vessels will need greater engineering support as they age. They will have to make do without her specialist facilities and rely on what is available in various Gulf ports. The RN is building a new permanent support base in Bahrain which could be an excuse as to why we can do without a forward repair ship. Doubtless, the new facilities in Bahrain will provide great service to vessels in the Gulf region. However a repair ship can be sent anywhere in the world in response to unpredictable events. Diligence had a dynamic positioning system that allowed her to come safely alongside and raft up with ships in conditions up to sea state 3. During the Falklands War, she was able to conduct major repairs in the open ocean, an option that is now gone.
The recession in the oil industry has given rise to a global surplus of offshore support ships available on the second-hand market. A modern equivalent to Diligence could probably be obtained for less than £30M. It would require some conversion work but for a budget of around £50M the MoD could replace this ship. Of course, the bigger challenge at present would be finding the crew and engineering staff.
The loss of Diligence in itself is not catastrophic, just another instance of salami-slicing, death by a thousand small cuts in the hope that it goes almost unnoticed. This ship was a genuine force-multiplier that allowed vessels with damage or defects to quickly return to action without long passage home for repair. When your fleet is already too small, removing a relatively cheap capability that can maximise your assets is simply foolish.