Good news on Royal Fleet Auxiliary tankers lost in controversy

4 badly needed ships

It may be big come-down from the original plans for a 2.5 £Billion programme of 12 ships, but there was some good news on 22nd February for the Royal Navy when it was announced that the MoD had placed an order for 4 new replenishment tankers. The ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) that can re-supply warships with fuel, food and stores at sea allow the RN to reach across the globe, be self-sustaining and able to remain at sea for long periods. In particular, the new aircraft carriers will need a tanker in regular attendance to supply her and the thirsty air group with aviation fuel. Like the RN, the RFA has been in sharp decline and has not received any new replenishment vessels since 2003. It has just 6 ships left that can supply oil to warships at sea, 2 x modern ‘Wave’ class tankers, the multi-purpose RFA Fort Victoria, 2 small elderly ‘Rover’ class tankers and RFA Orangeleaf. Other than the 2 ‘Wave’ class tankers, the RFA fleet does not conform to modern double-hull safety standards and are in urgent need of replacement.

British shipbuilding: a job creation scheme or a strategic necessity?

The news that the 4 tankers will be constructed abroad has caused uproar. In our society that is so disconnected from our forces and navy in particular, there were few positive responses from politicians, unions or media, rather self-interested hysteria about “betrayal of British workers”. In fact no British shipbuilder had bid for the contract, knowing they could not possibly match the price. The company managing the project is British (BMT Support) and some 150 £million will be spent in the UK but the ships will be assembled in South Korea. Basically it is the right decision, given the lack of funds and the sorry state of UK shipbuilding. Highly efficient yards employing cheap labour in the Far East virtually ended UK commercial shipbuilding a long time ago. The slow death of UK shipbuilders since the 1960s was caused by a combination of militant and childish behaviour by unions and complacent management lacking the vision and drive to modernise. The yards that remain survive largely on building sophisticated ships & submarines for the Royal Navy. If governments past and present had the foresight to treat both the Royal Navy and shipbuilders as national strategic assets by placing regular orders at regular intervals, then the yards could invest and plan, making them more efficient. Instead it has been a story of feast or famine, successive governments ordering in fits and starts when politically and fiscally convenient for them. Currently the carrier programme is keeping the UK yards busy (fortunately so large they could be built in separate sections, thus spreading the workload across multiple sites). When the yards involved in the in the early parts of the carrier programme get near to completing their work, there will be further uncertainty as the Type 26 Frigate programme will not generate enough work for all of them.

Because of this lack of strategic thinking, the MARS tanker  project neatly encapsulates the short-term dilemma often being faced by the MoD – should they either ‘buy British’ to preserve jobs and industry or prioritise the needs of the forces (and the hard pressed tax-payer) when better value for money can often be found overseas? The £425 million price tag for 4 ships represents very good value and no UK shipyard could hope to compete. Its is not really a fair comparison but a UK-built Type 45 destroyer cost around £1Billion, whereas these 4 large ships are being built for less than half that cost of a single destroyer. It is also interesting to note the RAF’s parallel ‘Future Strategic Tanker’ air-to-air refuelling project will cost a staggering 10.5 £billon over it’s lifetime for 12 aircraft.

Life on MARS?

MARS is the ridiculous acronym for the “Military Afloat Reach and Sustainability” programme which was started back in 2003 and was supposed to produce a family of 12 ships to replace a variety of ageing RFAs to be delivered by 2012. The RFA is relatively ‘low-profile’ so when there was a hunt for easy cost savings, it was obvious the cancellation of the MARS programme would cause minimal political fall-out. By 2007 it was clear that the project would not be properly funded and it was cancelled in Dec 2008. It is only now that a part of the original MARS project has been resuscitated and the first orders have been placed. This order is only for tankers and the rest of the RFA fleet has no replacements in sight.

A much-loved fleet of geriatrics doing the work of warships

With the RN so over-stretched in the last decade, RFAs have increasingly been doing work that would once have been done by frigates or destroyers. RFA Fort Rosalie is currently in the Caribbean to offer support to Islands in the event of natural disasters and patrolling against drug traffickers. The large flight deck and hangars provide an excellent base for 1 or more RN helicopters and a Royal Marine detachment. RFA Fort Victoria recently completed a very successful spell on anti-piracy patrol in the Indian Ocean. Although slow and rather unwieldy, the RFAs have been able to adapt to these ‘policing’ roles. They are gradually being fitted with more light armament and their crews are adapting from their merchant navy background to be more like the RN. While they live in far greater comfort than the RN sailor, in many ways the RFA sailor takes a bigger risk, living aboard a lightly armed ship loaded with oil or explosives. Various studies have looked at ‘privatising’ the RFA but sanity has so far prevailed and always concluded the RFA actually provides great value for money and take risks that regular merchant ships would never consider.

While it’s true that the simpler ships of the RFA do not become obsolete as quickly as warships, older ships are less reliable, harder to maintain and often don’t meet modern maritime safety standards. Apart from the 2 wave class and the 3 modern Bay class ships (which are amphibious ships), the RFA fleet is ageing fast. With the premature decommissioning of RFA Fort George, the RFA has just 3 ships capable of supplying solid stores and ammunition at sea and 2 of these ships are doughty Falklands war veterans and well over 30 years old. 2 other key vessels, RFA Argus and RFA Diligence were both originally chartered for the Falklands war in 1982 and are also over 30 years old. RFA Diligence offers an important forward repair capability to the RN and is primarily used to support RN submarines deployed for long periods in the Gulf and Indian Ocean. RFA Argus is a large aviation training ship with a modern medical facility and in emergency could also be used a makeshift helicopter carrier. If the RN is not to lose a significant element of its support, then orders for replacements of these other ageing ships must be placed soon.

Failure of political strategy, lack of vision and poor planning leaves the aircraft carrier project facing more problems
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