Flat out: The Royal Fleet Auxiliary in 2016
Following on from the 2015 article about the stretched Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service, this is an update on current operations. Like the naval service, manpower shortages, tight budgets and industrial issues, together with ever-increasing demand for its services are creating a perfect storm of pressure on the RFA.
Depending on your point of view, the RFA is either being over-worked and its vessels utilised in ways beyond what is prudent, or it is demonstrating incredible flexibility and the best of British improvisation. The RFA has been increasingly taking on ‘traditional’ warship roles over the last 20 years but 2016 has witnessed this trend taken to extremes.
RFA Fort Victoria has mostly spent the last few years providing support to RN and coalition vessels in the Gulf and Indian Ocean. After refit in the UK during 2014 she returned to Gulf duty. The Prime Minister often likes to be seen to be “doing something” on the international stage and has regularly offered to despatch a naval vessel, presumably without consulting the Navy to see if his cuts have left any ships available. He dispatched the flagship HMS Bulwark to attend to the growing migrant crisis in the Mediterranean last Summer but the for the crisis in the Aegean this year the only option was a 31,000 tonne auxiliary, far away in the Gulf.
Her great size allowed her to easily embark plenty of specialist personnel as she headed to the Aegean in March. Royal Marines, a Lynx helicopter flight, medical staff, interpreters, Border Force personnel, intelligence advisors and specialist searchers could all be comfortably accommodated. However signs of desperation were apparent, even the usually inscrutable Royal Navy website admitted that an auxiliary of this size was ill-suited to these patrols, particularly in the confined and busy waters of Aegean. Despite her limitations, Fort Victoria ably acted as command ship for the inevitable rescue operations that save lives but do nothing to solve the long-term migrant crisis. After only a few weeks she was sent back through the Suez Canal to revert to her more familiar duties.
RFA Mounts Bay was deployed on migrant patrols in the Aegean in early March for just a few weeks before being relived by Fort Victoria. She arrived in Gibraltar for a “30 day” refit on 11th April but technical problems delayed her departure until 30th May. She will spend her summer “patrolling” the Med before joining the Cougar 16 deployment in September.
RFA Lyme Bay participated in exercise Griffin Strike in UK waters in April. During the exercise FS Dixmude, HMS Bulwark, HMS Ocean, HMS Sutherland, RFA Lyme Bay formed up with a French tanker and 3 French frigates to create a substantial and genuinely credible amphibious task force (in contrast with the RN’s rather less robust recent Response Force Task Groups). Five years after the Lancaster House agreement was signed, this was a tangible demonstration of genuine Anglo-French power projection capability. Lyme Bay then visited Gibraltar (pictured above) before heading to the Gulf where it is planned she will remain for several years.
RFA Cardigan Bay has been based in Bahrain as support ship for Gulf mine warfare forces for the last 3 years. Alongside in Souda Bay, Crete On 18 May she formally handed her Gulf duties on to Lyme Bay. Cardigan Bay then joined Standing NATO Group 2 which is conducting migrant patrol duty in the Eastern Med. It is expected she will return to Falmouth for major refit in the near future.
Apart from hydrographic survey ship HMS Enterprise, not a single Royal Navy warship has been seen in the Med in the last few months while the RFA has been rapidly shuffled around, valiantly covering gaps.
Although the threat from the Russian navy is part of the reason more RN vessels are staying close to home, the underbelly of Southern Europe is a worry. Migrants, mostly from Africa making dangerous journeys across the Med will remain a problem. UK special forces are apparently active in an unstable Libya and need support from the sea while terrorism on the beaches of North Africa or Europe is also a concern.
RFA Wave Knight is due to replace HMS Mersey in APT(N) on Caribbean patrol in July. The last two APT(N) deployments have been conducted by two OPVs. It is interesting that with media focus on migrants crossing the English Channel by sea that all three OPVs will be back in home waters. RFAs have conducted Caribbean patrols before and although cumbersome, they do benefit from having a flight deck and embarked Lynx. RFA Wave Ruler remains in the South Coast areas operating as FOST tanker.
RFA Black Rover has already been decommissioned and awaits her fate in Birkenhead. Apart from OPV HMS Clyde, 40-year old unarmed tanker RFA Gold Rover is at present is the closest thing we have to a South Atlantic Patrol ship. The Armed Forces Minister cynically cited “operational security” to avoid questions in Parliament about if an RN warship will ever again be sent on APT(S). Gold Rover completed extended maintenance period in Simon’s Town, South Africa in February and is now operating off West Africa. She will return home from this final deployment to be scrapped.
There has been a deafening silence from official sources about the delays to the four new Tide class RFAs being constructed by DSME South Korea. As the Rover class leave service this will temporarily leave the RFA with just 3 vessels able to provide fuel to warships at sea!
RFA Tidespring was originally due in Falmouth in Spring 2016 for final fitting out with RAS and military equipment but this has slipped to “anytime between mid-August and mid-September”. She has conducted sea trials off Korea but it is unclear if the delays are due to technical or manpower problems. The hulls of her 3 sisters are all at various advanced stages of construction and the initial build work seems to have been completed efficiently. Assuming the delay is technical, it raises the question of whether DSME are paying the MoD penalties for late delivery. What are the knock-on and financial implications for A&P Falmouth who were all set to begin the £15M final fitting out contract?
In early 2014 RFA Orangeleaf entered refit at Cammel Laird in Birkenhead but in September the work was suspended. She was in poor condition but there was a very optimistic plan to convert her into a double-hulled tanker and extend her life for several years. There had been expenditure on new generators and other equipment installed before it was discovered that the hull was too corroded to be converted. She was towed away for scrap in February 2016, looking in sparkling condition. Another shocking waste of scarce taxpayer resources.
RFA Diligence remains in indefinite lay up in Birkenhead with no immediate or long-term replacement mentioned in MoD planning. Nearby RFA Fort Austin also remains inexplicably laid up, apparently in good condition after maintenance carried out at CL between December 2015 and February 2016. RFA Fort Rosalie has been active in the South Coast areas. In March she was the largest available vessel that could be found for Portsmouth tugs to use as practice for docking HMS Queen Elizabeth. RFA Argus has been one of the few RFA ships employed predominantly in her intended primary role during 2016, providing aviation training off the South Coast.
Main photo: Daniel Gib, via Flickr. RFA Lyme Bay and Mounts Bay in Gibraltar, early May 2016.
- Does the state of the RFA threaten the global reach of the RN? (Save the Royal Navy, July 2015)
- RFA Fort Victoria – A month in the life of a busy RFA vessel (Royal Navy)
- First new navy tanker due in summer (Falmouth Packet)
- Tide class construction (Pinterest photo board)
- RFA Orangeleaf towed away for scrap (Video – Phil Owen)
- Defence Secretary Michael Fallon has visited RFA Cardigan Bay in the Aegean (Gov.uk)