Fleet solid support ships for the Royal Navy to be built in Britain

In a carefully-worded statement, the MoD has confirmed the Fleet Solid Support ships will, at least predominantly, be built in the UK and the competition will be re-launched in the Spring of 2021.

The statement says the competition will be for “three Fleet Solid Support warships”. Until now official communications talked of “up to three” vessels, with the assumption that only two would be ordered. At least the option for a third ship is again on the table. Calling them “warships” is rather misleading, although it sends the right message to the majority of the public oblivious the nuances of naval ship classification. It could be argued that labelling them as combatants is reasonable, as they share the same risks as warships in combat, are enablers of the carrier strike group, and therefore have national security implications.

The FSS will serve in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and it is important that their status as auxiliaries is maintained and recognised. Although carrying light weapons they are essentially defensive in nature and auxiliaries lack the sensors and combat systems of true warships. Most importantly they are manned by civilians, part of the British Merchant navy, although employed by government as civil servants. Their auxiliary status also gives them simpler access to foreign ports and territorial waters without the more complex diplomatic clearances and regulations and that apply to warships.


It should be noted, that despite the “built in Britain” headline, the way is still open for foreign companies to be heavily involved in the project and even some construction work to be done overseas. The MoD insists: “a significant proportion of the build and assembly work to be carried out in the UK… international companies will be invited to work in collaboration with UK firms to feed in their skills and expertise, but the successful manufacturing team must be led by a British company.”

After several years of lobbying, the government has finally been persuaded to place the economic benefits of UK construction ahead of balancing the MoD’s in-year budget. FSS construction will support its North/South “levelling up agenda” and post-COVID commitment to “build back better”. Not only does domestic production help retain and develop industrial skills ready for the navy’s next generation of vessels, but a large part of the expenditure is ultimately returned to the Exchequer.

A two-way fight

Seeing the writing on the political wall, foreign interest has mostly melted away and the competition now has only two contenders left. Team UK is the all-British consortium led by BAE Systems, including Babcock, Cammell Laird and Rolls Royce. Embarrassed by the highly politicised and tortuous procurement process, the MoD has imposed a Non-Disclosure Agreement on participating industry. This is the reason Team UK has not made any public comment about their design concepts or how their build process would be distributed. Should they win the competition, there is speculation the ships would be assembled in Rosyth with Cammell Laird, and possibly other UK yards, contributing blocks.

Team Resolute is a partnership between Harland & Wolff (now owned by Infrastrata Plc), naval architecture house, BMT and Spanish shipbuilders, Navantia. Team Resolute has used a more relaxed interpretation of the NDA and has previously published outline designs and explained the structure of their bid.

Their competitive advantage lies in the recent experience of Navantia in building FSS-like vessels and their offer of technology transfer to reinvigorate shipbuilding in Belfast (and possibly Appledore). Potentially counting against them is the political downside of a much greater foreign component, possibly including most of ship 1 being built in Spain. The requirement for a British company to lead the bid could also be an issue. Bidding for MoD business requires a company to have cash or assets in proportion to a significant percentage of the contract value. The approximately £1.5Bn FSS contract would not be a problem for a major corporate entity like Navantia but Infrastra Plc is relatively small.


Against the clock

Delaying the start of the competition to Spring 2021 is disappointing after the Defence Secretary had previously promised: “sometime in the Autumn”. However, seen in the context of the recent decision to again postpone the Integrated Defence Review due to the challenges of COVID-19, this is a minor detail.

It is now an accepted fact the FSS will not be available in 2026 when CEPP is supposed to achieve Full Operating Capability. RFA Fort Victoria may have to soldier on as a ‘single point of failure’ for CEPP, possibly requiring another expensive refit to extend her out of service date beyond the current 2024 plan.

The NAO says the first FSS could be in service in a vague timeframe ‘sometime between October 2027 and April 2029’. The MoD says that for the FSS procurement process, it wants to “set targets to ensure industry delivers on time and at pace…” and “…will build on the success of the Type 31 programme” (the early signs are encouraging but it’s a bit soon to be claiming Type 31 has been a success). Assuming a contract is awarded in late 2021/early 2022, with good management, getting a ship into service within 5 years or so maybe achievable.

RFA Fort Victoria replenishes HMS Queen Elizabeth with fuel during Exercise Joint Warrior, October 2020. Her replenishment rigs have been extensively modified to allow her also to supply the carrier with solid stores.

Specification

It is known that the navy’s requirement for FSS has been revised considerably over the last few years. The original intention to incorporate Heavy Replenishment at Sea (HRAS) capability to transfer up to 25 loads per hour weighing up to 6 tonnes was a major driver of cost and complication. Not only would the rigs have to be much larger, but the systems for moving loads up from the holds are a more complex engineering challenge. HRAS was conceived to allow the transfer of heavy and bulky items such as packaged Storm Shadow missile or a complete F135 jet engine for an F-35. There is no plan for Storm Shadow integration on F-35 and the QEC carriers have the capacity to store a few spare jet engines onboard anyway.

HRAS capability has been deleted as it is hard to justify the additional expense. FSS will also dispense with the Highly Mechanised Weapons Handling System (HMWHS) fitted to the aircraft carriers and utilise the same manual methods to move munitions and stores as RFA Fort Victoria. Simplification of the design may make a third vessel affordable within the fixed budget and help reduce construction time for these urgently-needed ships.

The MoD says “The warships [FSS] will incorporate next-generation technology with a purpose-built design”. It can be assumed that the ship will be built to Lloyds rules, enhanced in some areas and feature typical modern ship automation such as integrated platform management, navigation systems and unmanned machinery spaces. What other next-gen technologies are being alluded to is unclear but it is known that aviation requirement has been increased. Probably hangar space for at least two Merlin-sized aircraft, together with air weapons magazines, aviation fuel arrangements and a spacious flight deck. It is interesting to note the RN has signalled the intention to use RFA Fort Victoria as a base for Merlins, potentially operating independently from the carrier strike group for periods during the May 2021 operational deployment.

Ironically the FSS is a prime example of ‘heavy metal’, or the ‘industrial-age technology’ that is becoming increasingly seen as out-dated by those trying to drive transformation in UK defence. Despite the advent of drones, cyber, AI and all the other hot-topic innovations, the navy will still need well-founded ships to deliver bombs, beer and beans to the fleet at sea.

Main Image: One of BMT’s concept designs for the Team Resolute bid.