The ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary are a critical enabler for the Royal Navy, delivering logistic and operational support worldwide. Here we look at the status of the fleet and how it may be employed this year.
RFA flotilla today consists of a very mixed bag of 13 vessels, three of which are inactive and at very low readiness. The four modern Tide-class tankers now form the backbone of the fleet but the much-delayed FSS procurement process leaves just a single ageing vessel, available to meet the solid stores requirement of the carrier group. RFA Fort Victoria is almost 30 years old but has been well maintained and consistently upgraded and to meet new legislation. She conducted her first RAS(L) with HMS Queen Elizabeth during the October 2020 GROUPEX but a solid stores RAS with the carrier still needs to be rehearsed before the operational deployment in May.
Fort Vic will be a key component of the Carrier Strike Group. Besides providing ammunition, food, stores and fuel, she will embark up to four Merlin Mk 4 helicopters which will have three main roles. They will provide Maritime Intra-Theatre Lift (MITL) capability – when in range of friendly nations they can fly stores and personnel from ashore out to the task group. They will also conduct cross-decking of stores and vertical replenishment (VERTREP) tasks amongst the ships. Used in the Littoral Strike role, each Mk4 can carry up to 24 fully kitted out troops on crash-resistant seats. The Merlins are also earmarked to fly on Joint Personnel Recovery (JPR) operations which involves inserting specially trained Marines to recover aircrew shot down in enemy territory and recover or destroy sensitive equipment.
Since being delivered from the builders in South Korea, each of the 4 Tide-class takers underwent a 3-month UK Customisation, Capability Assessment Trials and Support (UKCCATS) package at A&P Falmouth where they received military weapons and communications fit. After about two years on active service, each vessel is docked at Cammell Laird to have an inaugural refit and hull survey to maintain their Lloyds Certification. Maintaining this safety certification requires a hull inspection every 5 years but CL has also had to rectify builder’s faults. These inaugural Tide-class refits have taken much longer than originally expected, averaging more than 10 months. The work on RFA Tiderace is ongoing, not helped by COVID issues, with the final ship, RFA Tideforce due to begin her refit period shortly.
Despite minor teething problems, the Tides have proved to be an excellent investment and have already covered many thousands of miles in support of the RN and its allies. Two Tides have replenished NATO warships on separate operations within the Arctic Circle and RFA Tideforce supported HMS Queen Elizabeth during the Westlant 2019 deployment and the 2020 GROUPEX. Typically the vessels can provide about 600 tonnes of fuel for the aircraft carrier, enough for about 5 days steaming during a RAS that takes about an hour and a half. In future when the carrier has a larger air group, using both rigs and the double hoses, potentially up to 2,000 tonnes of F76 marine diesel and/or F44 aviation fuel per hour can be delivered to the carrier.
One Tide-class tanker will be deployed in close support of the Carrier Strike Group (probably RFA Tidespring) but a second ship (probably RFA Tiderace) will provide more distant support for the group by replenishing the task group tanker. This will be practised during the May 2021 deployment even if frequent port visits do not make it a necessity. This logistic model, which might also include contributions from tankers of allied nations, would allow the task group to be sustained at sea for long periods if required in the future.
Past and present…
The RFA is the largest UK employer of British merchant seamen and in June 2020, had trained personnel numbering 1,625. This comprised 561 Officers, 244 Chief or Petty Officers and 820 ratings with a further 86 Officers and 131 Ratings under training. Accommodation onboard RFA vessels is very spacious and comfortable in comparison to warships, even junior sailors have their own cabins with a bathroom shared with one other crew member or a private en-suite for officers. It should, however, be noted that with their light armament and volatile cargo, in a shooting war, life on an RFA is arguably a more risky prospect than a warship.
Sweating the assets
Like the RN, the RFA is looking at every option to further increase the availability of its ships. At present, the sailors of the RFA serve at sea for 4 months before rotating ashore for 3 months of leave and training. Typically about 25% of a ship’s crew changes every month and this can present challenges maintaining continuity of trained personnel in every role. Commodore David Eagles, Commander of the RFA said recently the RFA is considering the “one ship, two crews” model where the entire crew swaps every 4 months. This system is working successfully for HMS Montrose based in the Gulf.
Eagles also said that availability might be improved by having a short annual maintenance and certification period instead of more intrusive and disruptive major refits every 5 years or so. Awaiting a deep refit can store up bigger problems that might be better addressed earlier. There is also time spent in preparation beforehand with an extended work up period afterwards. The total time the ship is unavailable might be reduced by a more frequent, but lighter maintenance cycle.
The 10-year Future In-Service Support (FISS) contract was renewed in 2018 and awarded to A&P, CL and UK Docks. This model of maintenance support continues to be broadly successful. There are many benefits to this approach which allows the contractor to plan and invest for the long-term as well a become expert on maintaining those particular platforms. CL have the contract to maintain the Tides, Waves and RFA Fort Victoria, while A&P Falmouth are responsible for the Bay class and RFA Argus. Small teams from A&P and CL can also be sent out to provide engineering support to vessels deployed overseas.
The FSS gap
The competition to build the Fleet Solid Support ships is due to be relaunched in ‘Spring’ this year. The vessels are urgently required but political complications and a misguided initial plan for an entirely open international competition have delayed the process. UK industry will take the lead may have assistance from overseas in some form.
Vice-Admiral Christopher Gardner, Director-General, Ships at DE&S, speaking last week said: “If we want to get back to having a highly effective and productive shipbuilding sector in the UK, we need to learn from those who know how to do it rather than reinvent the wheel ourselves. There is experience we can bring in from international partners and for FSS, part of that might be around design. We have deliberately set the requirement so it does not just lead to one solution, but brings in a range of solutions. We need to understand from the totality of industry, including internationally what they can bring to the design.
If we said it had to be UK-only, we would be limiting options far too early in the procurement process… What we are very clear about, and what Prime Minister has said, is that a significant proportion of build and integration that has to be done in UK.”
The two oldest Fort class FSS have been laid up for some time, although nominally still part of the RFA fleet, are unlikely to sail again. Maintaining them to meet modern legislation and finding spare parts for ships built in the 1970s is increasingly difficult. RFA Wave Ruler was laid up to save on running costs and crew while her sister ship and the 4 Tides provide adequate tanker numbers. She has been well maintained and speculation she may be sold to a foreign navy persists.
|Vessel||Status, January 2021|
|RFA Tidespring||Inaugural refit/inspection at CL Feb 19 – Jan 20. Fitted with full outfit of self-defence weapons. Likely to deploy on CSG21.|
|RFA Tiderace||Inaugural refit/inspection at CL Aug 19 – Jun 20. Currently FOST tanker on the South coast.|
|RFA Tidesurge||Inaugural refit/inspection at CL began Sep 20 – still in progress.|
|RFA Tideforce||At Garelochhead Oil & Fuel Jetty since December. Inaugural refit/inspection likely to commence soon.|
|RFA Wave Knight||Began refit at CL April 20, now alongside in Liverpool Docks.|
|RFA Wave Ruler||Laid up but maintained in good condition at Seaforth Dock, Liverpool since April 18.|
|RFA Fort Victoria||Sailed from Plymouth 25 Jan, now fitted with full outfit of self-defence weapons and will deploy on CSG21.|
|RFA Lyme Bay||Participated in LRG(X) Mediterranean deployment in 2020. In maintenance period in Falmouth.|
|RFA Mounts Bay||Returned from 3 years in the Caribbean, Mar 20. Completed major refit in Falmouth Nov 20. Alongside in Portland.|
|RFA Cardigan Bay||Forward-deployed in the Gulf since May 17, based in Bahrain in support of RN and allied minehunters.|
|RFA Argus||In maintenance at A&P Falmouth. Returned from 8 months in the Caribbean in late Dec 20.|
|RFA Fort Rosalie||Laid up since Jun 18, now and unmanned at de-stored at ‘extended readiness’ in West Float, Birkenhead.|
|RFA Fort Austin||Laid up since Jul 15, now and unmanned at de-stored at ‘extended readiness’ in West Float, Birkenhead.|
The RFA is in reasonable health but is suffering from the failure to fully deliver on the original Military Afloat Reach and Sustainability (MARS) program. This was the 2006 plan for 11 new ships to recapitalise the fleet. Only the 4 Tides, sometimes referred to as ‘MARS tankers’, have been delivered. Pressures on the RN budget has seen the two FSS which were supposed to be in service by 2020, much deferred, while two additional tankers and three ‘joint sea-based logistics’ (JSBL) vessels were cancelled entirely. Lack of new ships was further compounded by the axing of RFA Fort George and RFA Largs Bay in the 2010 SDSR.
The big ambitions of Carrier Strike will bring new pressures on the service and the legacy of two decades of underfunding will really be felt. Despite this, the RFA still provides the UK with the biggest afloat logistics capability of any European nation and is integral to the operations of the RN.
(Main photo: RFA Tidespring off Plymouth, October 2020. Via RFA Nostalgia)