Does the state of the RFA threaten the global reach of the RN?

The civilian ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary are a relatively ‘low profile’ part of the surface fleet but they are critical in providing the RN with the ability to stay at sea for extended periods and many other additional capabilities. An examination of the RFA flotilla in 2015 reveals a small and rather threadbare collection of ships. Like the RN it serves, it is doing its best with what it has in anticipation of the arrival of new vessels.

Of its thirteen ships, half of them are antique vessels dating back to the 1970s and at the time of writing, only eight of them can be considered fully operational.

Uncertainty over the future of several vessels and their hoped-for replacements maybe resolved in the defence review later this year. At least 3 RFAs (RFA Mounts Bay and Fort Rosalie & Orangeleaf) have been alongside unable to put to sea during the last 18 months due to lack of engineers. The RFA is experiencing similar problems to the RN, competing for technical personnel against well-remunerated opportunities in the offshore hydrocarbon, wind and renewable energy sector as well as regular merchant navy jobs. RFA Orangeleaf is due to go back to sea in September 2015. RFA Fort Rosalie has begun her reactivation and will replace RFA Fort Austin which has just returned from a spell in the Gulf. It will be interesting to see if sufficient manpower can be found for RFA Mounts Bay to join the annual ‘Exercise Cougar’ deployment later this year.

In June  2014 work began on construction of RFA Tidespring, the first of 4 new Tide-class tankers to be built in South Korea. This project is the only remnant of the ambitious original ‘MARS programme’ to fully regenerate the RFA flotilla. They will be the first new replenishment vessels the RFA has received since 2003 and they represent a vast improvement over the older ships they will replace. Designed by British company BMT, the 37,000 tonne vessels are built to modern double-hull standards with highly efficient propulsion and automation. They have also been designed from the outset to re-supply the QE aircraft carriers with engine and aviation fuel as well as some solid stores and ammunition. The Tide class will also benefit from good self-defence weapons and have large flight decks and hangar facilities. RFAs are routinely performing tasks previously done by warships and embarked helicopters are a critical aspect of delivering that capability as well as vertical replenishment (VERTREP) duties.

RFA Tide Class

Models of Tide class RFA and QE aircraft carrier undergoing hull testing

Tidespring, is due to arrive in the UK in early 2016 where she will be fitted with refuelling and other equipment by A&P Falmouth. She will be followed by her three sister ships at six-monthly intervals. The entire cost of this four-ship programme is around £500M and although building these ships abroad has caused a storm of controversy, it is hard to argue with the value for money and speed of delivery offered by the South Korean DSME shipyard. These four ships will effectively replace RFA Gold Rover, Black Rover and Orangeleaf. It seems likely that despite being relatively modern, lacking a double hull protection for her oil tanks, RFA Fort Victoria will also be retired when the final Tide class vessel is delivered around 2019. It should be noted that five RFA tankers have been scrapped in the last ten years, all without replacement.

Both over 30 years old, RFA Diligence and RFA Argus offer important specialist capabilities and an announcement about if and how they will be replaced is much overdue. Diligence has done sterling service providing engineering support to RN vessels all over the world, particularly to ageing submarines deployed East of Suez. Discussions about a replacement have been ongoing since 2006 but nothing has been forthcoming. RFA Argus is a highly flexible helicopter carrier, aviation training ship and floating medical facility, few ships have offered the tax payer better value for money than the redoubtable Argus. Both vessels were originally merchant ships taken up from trade for the 1982 Falklands War and modern merchant conversions would again be a quick and affordable option for replacing both ships.

Solid stores and ammunition ships RFA Fort Rosalie and Fort Austin are also Falklands war veterans. Spacious, relatively simple and reliable they continue to provide useful service. It looks likely they will remain active into the 2020s when they will pass their 40th birthdays and also need replacing.

RFA ve

RFA Vessels under repair and refit at Cammel Laird, Birkenhead

A&P Falmouth is contracted to maintain four RFAs and the other nine vessels are maintained by Cammel Laird in Birkenhead. These ‘cluster’ contracts have provided the MoD with good value for money since 2008 and the arrangement has been extended until at least 2018. It is encouraging to see that maintaining the RFAs helped breathe new life into the ship yards at Falmouth and Birkenhead. Cammel Laird, a once a great name in shipbuilding closed down in the 1990s but the stability provided by the RFA work has contributed to its revival as a successful ship repair business, now making tentative steps back into ship building. Political considerations maybe one of the drivers for spreading the work across the country but Devonport Dockyard, Western Europe’s largest naval facility is massively under-utilised and it would perhaps seem a more logical home port and maintenance facility for the RFA.

Snapshot of the Flotilla in July 2015

RFA Argus – In UK waters after returning from 6 months off Sierra Leone
RFA Diligence – Laid up in Birkenhead
RFA Mounts Bay – Not left Falmouth since 2013, in refit Summer 2015
RFA Lyme Bay – Deployed to Caribbean on APT(N)
RFA Cardigan Bay – Based in Bahrain providing long term support to mine warfare vessels
RFA Fort Austin – In Birkenhead after returning from 9 months in Gulf
RFA Fort Rosalie – Refitted 2014, in Birkenhead being reactivated to replace her sister ship
RFA Fort Victoria –  Refitted 2014, supporting coalition warships in Gulf and Indian Ocean
RFA Wave Knight – Completing refit in Birkenhead
RFA Wave Ruler – Refitted 2014, completed Gulf deployment June 2015, at sea in Atlantic
RFA Orangeleaf – laid up in Birkenhead, supposed to go back to sea in September 2015
RFA Black Rover – Duty FOST Tanker, operating in training role around South Coast
RFA Gold Rover – Refitted 2014, on her final deployment to South Atlantic, retiring in 2016

It could be argued that the shrunken state of the RFA simply reflects the reduced support requirements of the RN. But by 2020 there will only be eight vessels able to replenish warships at sea, (even including the two ancient Fort class ships) an inadequate number, even with a smaller fleet. Beyond its core replenishment task, the RFA is also in demand as a ‘force multiplier’ for the surface fleet. Single RFAs often carry out independent missions such as patrols in the Caribbean or like RFA Argus, serving off Sierra Leone. With such a lack of warships, auxiliary vessels have an increasing value. Perhaps our politicians and planners should be according almost as much consideration to the state of the RFA as given to the RN itself.