The ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary are critical for the Royal Navy to operate worldwide but despite its excellent capabilities, the service is in slow decline. Here we look at the current status of the fleet.
The Integrated Review is committed to a vision of global Britain, able to deploy and sustain naval forces over long distances. The RFA has always been seen as a key enabler that gives the RN a reach many other navies lack. Despite the further reduction in the RFA’s size, it still just holds on to its crown as the premier naval auxiliary service in Europe although this is not a great yardstick for comparison. In 2002 the RFA numbered 20 vessels but in the two decades since, has more than halved in size, down to 9 active ships in 2022 and only 5 of them are capable of replenishment at sea.
RFA Wave Knight joined her sister in long-term lay-up in March as a cost and manpower-saving measure. At least these relatively modern ships have not been scrapped or sold, but even if the RN had adequate tanker capacity, these vessels have considerable utility besides replenishing warships. RFA Wave Knight was sent to the Caribbean, primarily on a humanitarian mission (2021) and served in the Gulf supporting RN and coalition warships (2019-20).
The four modern Tide-class tankers now form the core of the RFA fleet. RFA Tidespring spent 136 days at sea during the CSG21 deployment and was a fundamental part of the logistic chain, providing 58 million litres of diesel and 14 million litres of aviation fuel. She was the first vessel of the group to return home but was replaced by RFA Tidesurge at the tail end of the deployment. Tidespring underwent an extended inaugural refit between Feb 2018 and January 2020. She returned to Merseyside in January this year for another refit that is still ongoing.
RFA Tiderace has operated in the High North in support of HMS Prince of Wales, but otherwise, 2022 has been unremarkable for the class so far, with the 3 active ships spending most of their time off the south coast conducting training. The UK Carrier Strike Group (centred on HMS Queen Elizabeth) is officially at high readiness to deploy if called upon and one of the Tides is earmarked as part of the CSG. One will likely accompany HMS Prince of Wales on the Westlant 22 deployment to the US east coast in the Autumn.
In April RFA Tidesurge conducted her first abeam RAS with a commercial tanker, MV Maersk Peary in the English Channel. The Peary is on charter to US Sealift Command, mainly for freighting duties and supplying US bases in Greenland and the Antarctic. Although RAS between RFAs and commercial vessels is rare and usually done using the astern method, it has been done before. If port access is denied or very distant then commercial tankers can be used in the freighting role to supply RFA tankers at sea. The Falklands campaign would have failed without merchant ships to keep RFA tankers topped up with fuel for onward supply to the vessels of the task force.
The Bay class continue to be in high demand as ever. RFA Lyme Bay arrived in the Gulf in May 2021 to relive RFA Cardigan Bay deployed in Bahrain as MCMV support ship. Lyme Bay participated in the International Maritime Exercise in February 2022 involving launching USVs from her well dock and UAVs from her flight deck. She spent less than a year in the Gulf and at the time of writing is in the Mediterranean making her way home to the UK. After returning from 4 years in the Gulf last year, RFA Cardigan Bay has completed refit in Falmouth, sporting a new darker-coloured Rubb aircraft shelter. She will sail soon to begin another spell based in Bahrain. As the RN draws down its crewed MCMV force and replaces them with autonomous systems, the Bay class will likely be in even greater demand to act as mothership to small, short-range uncrewed boats.
RFA Mounts Bay has been operating in her core amphibious role, taking part in NATO exercise Cold Response off Norway at the start of the year. She is about to join this year’s BALTOPS exercise in the Baltic Sea. RFA Lyme Bay has been earmarked for conversion to Littoral Strike Ship but the timetable for the project is unclear. In late 2021, industry sources were saying the project had been ‘paused’ and the National Shipbuilding Strategy Refresh indicates a contract will probably not be awarded before the end of 2023. The LSG (South) which is supposed to be centered on RFA Lyme Bay will be thinly stretched at the best of times to cover a potentially vast region. One of the Wave class tankers operating in the Gulf could provide logistic support and another aviation platform for the LSG but even this meagre option appears out of reach.
|Vessel||Status, May 2022|
|RFA Tidespring||In refit at CL since Jan 2022|
|RFA Tiderace||Currently FOST tanker on the south coast.|
|RFA Tidesurge||UK waters|
|RFA Tideforce||Completed inaugural refit April 2021 – Feb 2022. In UK waters|
|RFA Fort Victoria||Beginning refit at CL|
|RFA Lyme Bay||Returning to the UK after 11 months in the Gulf.|
|RFA Mounts Bay||UK Waters|
|RFA Cardigan Bay||Completed refit Feb 2022. Due to replace RFA Lyme Bay in the Gulf.|
|RFA Argus||Conducted aviation and medical training. Preparing for deployment to the Caribbean for the hurricane season (?)|
|RFA Wave Knight||Laid up in Portsmouth since March 2022|
|RFA Wave Ruler||Laid up in Seaforth Dock, Liverpool since April 2018.|
RFA Fort Victoria successfully supported the 26,000-mile CSG21 deployment last year but is now in refit. Should the high readiness CSG be called upon to sail at short notice, Fort Vic is therefore not available and solid stores support would have to come by improvisation and assistance from allies. 32-year-old Fort Vic was de-stored in early February, alongside or swinging around a buoy in Plymouth Sound until eventually entering dry dock at Cammell Laird in mid-May, a shipyard that she has spent a lot of time in. She underwent a £44M work package between January and Oct 2018 to make her compatible with the new aircraft carriers. She returned in July 2019 for another 6 months of work which included a 30-year special survey including inspections and maintenance of engines, propulsion systems and steering equipment. A new hangar crane was fitted along with an upgraded remote-control ballast valve operation.
Progress with the replacement for Fort Vic has gone quiet for a while as the four consortia in the competition carry out detailed design work on their Fleet Solid Support ship proposals. The winner is likely to be awarded the manufacturing contract in May next year, with the intention that all three ships will be delivered by 2032.
After several years laid up in Birkenhead Docks but officially still listed as part of the active fleet, stores ships RFA Fort Rosalie and RFA Fort Austin were surprisingly sold for further service to the Egyptian Navy in October 2021. Cammell Laird has the contract to reactivate them and Fort Austin has emerged from dry dock re-named ENS Luxor, her sister will become ENS Abu Simbel. The Egyptians may be stretched to find spares to keep these 45-year-old vessels seaworthy.
After maintenance in Falmouth, in March 2022 RFA Argus rehearsed her Primary Casualty Reception Ship role. 150 personnel were embarked to staff the 100-bed hospital facility for exercise Medical Response to validate her Maritime Role 3 medical capability. In April Argus was performing her core aviation training role. Around 70 aircrew and ground crew from 824 NAS and 1700 NAS were embarked as trainee Merlin pilots conducted final tests before qualifying.
Argus is currently scheduled to be decommissioned in 2024, by then 43 years old. In the long term, her aviation and afloat medical capabilities will be replaced by one of the six planned Multi-Role Support Ships. It is also possible one of the Fleet Solid Support ships could be fitted with an enlarged medical facility. Either way, another capability gap looms, the MoD says that in the interim, before MRSS arrives (in the mid-2030s?) “a range of potential options are being explored, including a short extension in service”.
The RFA has contracted in size but now very much operating as a frontline, high tempo, big platform organisation. There has been discussion about merging the service into the RN, changing the status of the approximately 1,800 merchant sailors that crew its vessels. As it stands, RFA personnel are civilians but new entrants are now automatically enlisted as special members of the RN Maritime Reserve as part of their conditions of service. (Older RFA personnel may become Reservists on a voluntary basis). As merchant ships, RFA vessels have access to ports that are not open to warships and it would be a shame for this distinctive service to lose its identity. However, the MoD recently confirmed the RFA will remain civilian-crewed for the next decade at least.
After years of salary freezes, RFA staff saw a 3.6% pay increase in 2019 and another 2.5% in 2020 but many still see remuneration as poor overall compared with other Civil Servants. Like the RN, recruitment and retention of people is challenge. There are good opportunities for promotion, better pension options than the MN and accommodation more comfortable than that of the RN. For the majority, the work pattern is 4 months at sea followed by 3 months on leave which does not suit everyone. The tiny number of active vessels means that for senior officers, opportunities for command are even rarer than in the RN or MN.
The RFA represents very good value for the taxpayer and is a relatively small part of the Naval Service budget. For example, expenditure on refits and maintenance for the entire RFA fleet in the 2021-22 financial year was just £80.5M. After years of delay and prevarication, there is little that can be done to accelerate the FSS project right now but it would not require enormous sums to return the Wave class vessels to service.