A Private Finance Initiative provides the UK Ministry of Defence with four roll-on, roll-off (Ro-Ro) ships available to deliver military vehicles and other equipment around the globe. Here we look at these ships, plans to replace them and their tasks, including recent work to reinforce the British Army in Europe.
The 1998 Defence Review identified a need for six Ro-Ro vessels to provide logistic support for Joint Rapid Reaction Forces and MoD freighting tasks. Reliance on ad-hoc charters or Ships Taken Up From Trade (STUFT) was seen as both expensive in peacetime and uncertain during times of conflict especially as the UK merchant fleet continued to shrink. Designated project SR(Sea) 7047, in October 2000, the MOD signed a 25-year contract with AWSR Shipping to provide six vessels, funded through a £1.25Bn Private Finance Initiative. AWSR was responsible for constructing the ships and providing all-British crews that are eligible to be called out as Sponsored Royal Navy Reservists (under the Reserve Forces Act 1996) if operational requirements demanded.
AWSR was a consortium formed specifically for the contract by Andrew Weir, Houlder Offshore Engineering Ltd, James Fisher & Sons plc and Bibby Line Ltd. It is now known as now Foreland Shipping Limited (FSL). In 2013, James Fisher plc sold its 25% shareholding in Foreland to the Hadley Shipping Group which now owns FSL in its entirety. The PFI agreement allowed FSL to generate revenue by employing two of the ships in the commercial market while ensuring that they are were available at 30 days’ notice for defence tasking in an emergency. The remaining four vessels were allocated to routine transport duties but remain property of FSL and the MoD is not under obligation to buy them when the contract expires at the end of 2024. The Treasury is the insurer of last resort for the ships that may have to enter war zones where normal marine insurance would be invalid.
Getting to the Point
The vessels were ordered from, Flensburger Schiffbau Gesellschaft (FSG) in northern Germany. FSG built 4 of the ships, all named after British lighthouses: Hurst Point (Delivered Aug 2002), Eddystone (Nov 2002), Longstone (Jan 2003) and Beachy Head (Aug 2003). Harland and Wolff, Belfast was subcontracted to build two ships; Hartland Point (Dec 2002) and Anvil Point (March 2003). Although the firm remains active in ship repair and offshore energy, Anvil Point was the last complete ship to be built by H&W to date. Construction and delivery was exceptionally efficient and all six ships were in service by 2003, around 18 months ahead of the original schedule.
The PFI partnership with FSL has been described by the NAO as “extremely effective” and the ships have proved generally very reliable in meeting the MoD’s logistic needs, reportedly no one has come across any defence equipment too large to be moved in one of the ships. In a classic ‘salami slicing’ move to save money, two of the ships, Beachy Head and Longstone, which offered a measure of spare capacity and resilience were released from the PFI and sold in the wake of the 2010 SDSR.
The Flensburger Ro Ro
Sometimes referred to as the “Point-class” after the lead ship, they are painted in a distinctive green, white and yellow livery and with handsome lines, the vessels are easy to recognise. The vessels are based on the Flensburger Ro-Ro 2700 series design, FSG having already built several examples for other customers prior to the order from AWSR. The recent construction experience and their relatively simple design meant the ships were built in an average of just 18 months, a world away from the demands of complex warship projects.
With an overall length of 193m and able to carry 13,000 tonnes of cargo they are large vessels. Their three spacious vehicle decks have a total of 2,606 line-meters available, ie. they could accommodate a column of vehicles that would measure over 2.5 km if lined up nose to tail. Vehicles are typically embarked and disembarked over the very large hydraulically-operated stern ramp rated to 77 tonnes, although they do also have a cargo door and side ramp rated to 68 tonnes on the starboard side. The stern ramp has twelve 2.7m wide ‘fingers’ that are individually raised and allow loading using link spans that are narrower than the width of the main ramp. A 40-tonne pedestal crane allows to the self-loading or unloading of deck cargo.
They are propelled by two MaK M43 diesel engines driving two controllable-pitch propellors. Hurst Point, Anvil Point and Hartland Point have 7M43 engines and a maximum speed of 18 knots. Beachy Head, Eddystone and Longstone have the more powerful 9M43 engines and are able to reach 21 knots. The typical cruising range is about 12,000nm and the ship has two heeling pumps and flume roll stabilisation tanks but no active stabilisers. The ships are highly automated and can be run by just 12 people, the standard crew numbers 18-22 and they typically serve on board for 90 days before being relieved. Crew accommodation is on two decks below the bridge in comfortable twin or single berth cabins. There are also six twin-berth cabins to accommodate up to 12 passengers or vehicle drivers.Point-Class-Ro-Ro-ship-Plan
A typical vehicle load for the British Army might comprise up to 220 of all types which can include Challenger 2 tanks, Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFV), Spartan and FV432 Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC), Challenger Armoured Repair and Recovery Vehicles (CARRV), AS90 self-propelled howitzer, Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) and a mix of smaller logistic support vehicles and trailers.
Up to 668 TEU containers can be embarked. 72 TEUs can be placed in the lower cargo deck, 272 double stacked on the main deck and another 324 double stacked on the upper deck. There are reefer plugs available to support up to 30 refrigerated containers. In practice, cargos are usually a mix of vehicles and TEUs and there is great flexibility in what can be carried.
Since entering service in 2003 the six, and then four ships, have been kept busy on MoD tasking around the globe. The main role has been transporting equipment for the Army in Germany but in recent years there has been increased activity supporting the UK force’s presence in the Baltic States. Besides logistic support for European operations, the FSL vessels are important enablers for UK overseas military presence in Gibraltar, Cyprus and in the Middle East.
The ships also take on the role of the Falkland Islands Resupply Ship (FIRS). For the 8,000 mile round trip, a ship leaves approximately every six weeks from Marchwood, stopping at Ascension Island before arriving at Mare Harbour on the Falklands. FIRS delivers supplies such as food, large mail parcels, vehicles and other stores for the forces based at the Mount Pleasant Complex (MPC). The service also supports the wider Falklands community and is an essential link in the logistics chain for these remote Islands. On returning to the UK, the ship carries containers of wool, the island’s main export.
The 4 ships are also nominally available to the NATO Sealift Consortium which includes 11 European nations. With 4 ships (totalling 9,200 lane-meters) the UK is the largest single contributor to the consortium which has a total of 15 ships and a capacity of about 33,700 lm.
Future strategic sealift
In October 2021 the MoD issued a Request for Information (RFI) to interested parties for an “interim” Strategic Sealift (SSL-I) capability that will begin in January 2025 and run for at least 5 years. A more detailed Prior Information Notice (PIN) was issued in January 2022 to assist industry in preparing bids for the contract. The incumbent, FSL should be in pole position to win a contract extension but this may be dependent on how much needs to be spent on the existing vessels to extend their lives for another 5 years. There are other commercial operators with Ro-Ro fleets that could compete, although some adaptations to standard merchant vessels would have to be made to meet MoD requirements. The stipulation that the entire crew must be British would also add an overhead that many commercial operators are unused to, typically reliant on cheaper foreign labour.
The interim arrangement allows the MoD to put off the complete replacement of the service for a while but a permanent solution will have to be ready by 2030. The contract signed in 2000 is an example of a broadly successful PFI that has not excessively gouged the taxpayer but there is not the same political enthusiasm of the Blair government to embrace this method of funding anymore. Either a substantial sum must be put into the budget line for new ships or there will be a return to the less efficient ad-hoc chartering arrangements. Construction of new vessels funded by the Treasury, even if owned by a commercial entity, will also be more controversial than in the past if done in foreign shipyards. It will be instructive to see if there is any mention of this project in the National Shipbuilding Refresh document due to be published imminently.
The poor performance of the Russian Army in Ukraine so far appears to be in large part down to logistic failures, a powerful reminder of the importance of sustaining troops on the frontline with food, fuel and ammunition. UK strategic sealift ships have a very low public profile and are even less well known than the Royal Fleet Auxiliary but are critical to positioning and maintaining support to the British Army and NATO partners. The dramatic change in the strategic situation is likely to demand increasing reinforcement of land forces on the continent and a growing need for sealift vessels.