Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace has formally re-launched the competition to build three new Fleet Solid Support (FSS) ships for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. Here we analyse the limited detail that is public and the implications for industry and afloat support for the Royal Navy.
The original competition was abandoned in November 2019 and is being restarted from scratch. Interested companies are being invited to register their interest to receive a pre-qualification questionnaire and those selected will be invited to tender for competitive procurement contracts. Companies submitting bids will be expected to give consideration to ‘UK social value’ including jobs creation, workforce training, and contributions to carbon emission reduction targets.
As previously stated by government, the new competition includes the stipulation that “a significant proportion of the build and assembly work must be carried out in the UK.” The MoD says it will allow the successful bidder to work in partnership with international companies but they would be required to “integrate the ships in a UK shipyard”. Just what percentage of the contract value is meant by “significant” and the definition of “integration” in this context is not made clear in the public statement.
Despite the reset, the competition is likely to remain a two-way fight. Team UK is the all-British consortium led by BAE Systems, including Babcock, Cammell Laird and Rolls Royce. Team Resolute is a partnership between Harland & Wolff (now owned by Infrastrata Plc), naval architecture house, BMT and Spanish shipbuilders, Navantia. Both are likely to re-submit bids based on their initial work for the first competition.
The Team UK bid would be politically low-risk but there are question marks around industrial capacity, given the other parallel shipbuilding projects these companies may already have underway. Infrastrata have a big empty dock in Belfast but lack the experience as well as the skilled the workforce for such a task and would be very reliant on Navatia. The optics of at least a part of the work being done in Spain would be difficult. The upside of the ‘part-foreign’ bid could ultimately be to help reinvigorate shipbuilding in Belfast (and possibly Appledore) by transfer of skills and Navantia’s digital shipyard technology.
The requirement for a British company to lead the bid could also be an issue. Bidding for MoD business requires a company to have cash or assets in proportion to a large percentage of the contract value. The approximately £1.5Bn FSS contract would not be a problem for a major corporate entity like Navantia but Infrastra Plc is relatively small. A good team of lawyers and financiers could most likely surmount this obstacle.
Boris’ promised “bonanza” for UK shipbuilding is coming but this could present capacity issues when bidding for the 40,000-tonne FSS. In the near-mid term, there will be 4 fast attack craft for Ukraine, A Multi-Role Ocean Surveillance Ship (MROSS – possible merchant ship conversion?), a ‘British Flagship’ (More detail to come on this project soon) plus the conversion work on one, or possibly two, of the Bay Class into Littoral Strike Ships. HMS Queen Elizabeth will also need her first major refit. This is in addition to the centrepiece Type 26 and Type 31 frigate projects. The Type 83 destroyers, Type 32 frigates and up to 6 Multi-Role Support Ships are then set to provide steady work into the 2030s and 40s.
The ‘refreshed’ version of the National Shipbuilding Strategy will be published this summer. This looks set to be good news for UK industry as a whole and will be much more ambitious than the 2017 document, setting out a 30-year plan. NSbS – the sequel, promises to encompass the maritime sector more broadly and not just consider hulls and shipyards, but the entire shipbuilding supply chain.
While it is positive that there is a commitment to three vessels, what should be of great concern is the lack of urgency. Having already wasted 18 months suspending the process, the MoD says the manufacture contract award “is expected to be made within two years”. Even in a best-case scenario, the first FSS is unlikely to be available to support the RN until 2028/9 and then another couple of years until there is the ‘luxury’ of two vessels.
The recent minor fire onboard the sole existing FSS, RFA Fort Victoria should serve as a wake-up call that greater priority should be given to providing combat support vessels for the Carrier Strike Group. A small electrical fire is believed to have done very little direct damage to the ship but the effects of smoke have written off the stock of frozen provisions for the CSG21 deployment. There may be some knock-on effects but fortunately, this happened alongside and before the group had sailed, presumably allowing the opportunity for some rapid re-storing.
Should Fort Victoria be unavailable to the CSG in future, the RN cannot easily turn to allies for help. The valuable stores and ammunition carried by the FSS are very specific to UK requirements. There are also complex regulatory frameworks that would make it awkward to place munitions on foreign vessels, even if there was the political will and capable vessels available.
DE&S’ Director General Ships, Vice Admiral Chris Gardner, effectively confirmed that the Heavy RAS (5-tonne) requirement has been abandoned, commenting that FSS will be “able to transfer loads of more than two tonnes at a time while at high speed”. This may not appear significant but de-scoping the specification will simplify internal design, reduce costs and help deliver three instead of two ships. The obvious tactical implication of not being able to transfer bigger loads is more time spent conducting replenishments when the participants are potentially more vulnerable.