In focus: the Wave class tankers of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary

The two fleet tankers, RFA Wave Knight and Wave Ruler joined Royal Fleet Auxiliary in 2003. They have already had varied careers both supporting the RN and operating independently, In this article we examine their construction, design and service history.

Background

RFAs Wave Knight and Wave Ruler were ordered on 12 March 1997 as replacements for RFA Olwen and RFA Olna built on Tyneside in the 1960s. The three Ol class tankers displaced 33,000 tonnes, had steam turbine propulsion, could sustain 20 knots and carry 3 Sea King Helicopters. They were popular with their crews and served all over the world with distinction. They played a critical logistic role during the Falklands War, RFA Olmeda alone conducted 185 replenishments during 96 days continuously at sea. RFA Olmeda decommissioned in 1994, while Olna and Owen survived until 1999 and 2000 respectively. The 1997 Defence Review confirmed that two new fast tankers would be constructed and Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering (VSEL) in Barrow won the £200 Million contract in competition with British Aerospace (BAe). VSEL was subsequently acquired by BAe and the ships were constructed by newly re-named BAE Systems.

Construction

RFA Wave Knight and HMS Albion were laid down together at Barrow on 22 May 1998 in an unusual joint ceremony performed by Admiral of the Fleet, Sir Henry Leach. The yard was enduring a (disastrous) break from submarine construction but was stretched to build two large ships and sub-contracted some of the steel fabrication to other yards. The cargo tanks were built by Harland & Wolff in Belfast, the stern block by Cammell Laird, Birkenhead and the funnel by Appledore shipbuilders, then transported to Barrow by barge. She was scheduled to be launched in 1999 and completed by September 2000, ready to replace RFA Olwen. Wave Knight was built on an open slipway adjacent to HMS Albion but technical and yard capacity problems held up progress. She was formally named on 28 September 2000 but high winds delayed her launch until the next day. She was the largest ship launched at Barrow since HMS Invincible in 1977 and retains this distinction.

Wave Knight was partially fitted out in the nearby Buccleuch dock before sailing under her own power for the Clyde in September 2001 where she underwent further work out at Inchgreen dry Dock (which was leased by BAE Systems at the time). In January 2002 she came to close to capsizing in the dock due to loss of hydraulic pressure during ballast transfer operations and sustained damage to her bilge keel and paintwork. She suffered further minor damage a few weeks later when she touched the dock wall during a winter gale. She was completed and sailed for sea trials in June 2002, was accepted off-contract on 16 October 2002, and formally dedicated on 8 April 2003.

  • RFA Olna. The predecessors of the Wave class, the three much-loved Ol class vessels came into service between 1965 – 66. A fourth, slightly modified vessel, the Kharg was launched in 1977 and is still in service with the Iranian navy today.

  • RFA Wave Knight launched at Barrow on 29th September 2000. (Photo: BAE Systems)

  • RFA Wave Knight fitting out in Buccleuch Dock, Barrow, March 2001. (Photo: Andrew Naylor)

  • Blocks of RFA Wave Ruler on the slipway at BAE Systems Govan shipyard in early 2000. All eight of the cranes visible in this photo have now been removed. (Photo: Paul Strathdee)

  • RFA Wave Ruler launched on 29th February 2001 at Govan. (Photo: BAE Systems)

  • RFA Wave Ruler in dry dock at Cammell Laird, Birkenhead, July 2012. Her propeller has been removed but the small stern thruster is just visible. (Photo: S P Jones)

RFA Wave Ruler was also originally ordered from VSEL in Barrow but her construction was transferred to the Govan shipyard in Glasgow which was acquired by BAE Systems in 1999. The Wave Ruler contract was critical to sustaining the yard which subsequently built the RFA Bay class, the most complex sections of the QEC aircraft carriers and now the Type 26 frigates. The hull comprised 12 main blocks which were all built undercover at the yard and then erected on the slipway. She was launched into the Clyde on 9 February 2001 and was fitted out initially at the Govan basin, before being towed to Inchgreen in May 2002 for completion. She was accepted off-contact in October 2002 and formally dedicated into service on 27 April 2003, just 3 weeks after her older sister.

In early 2001 BAE Systems made an unsuccessful offer to the MoD to build a further two ships of this class at reduced cost, building on the experience gained from the first two ships. This was an effort to secure more work for Govan where there remained some spare shipbuilding capacity because of delays in starting work on the Bay class landing ships.

Characteristics

The Wave class were designed as ‘fast fleet tankers’ and displace 31,500 tonnes at full load, marginally smaller and slower than the 21-knot Ol class vessels they replaced. Propulsion is via a single fixed-pitch propeller driven by two 7MW Alstom variable speed, bi-directional AC electric motors. The motors are electrically separate from each other powered by two almost symmetrical generation systems providing a measure of back up and redundancy. Four 4.7MW Wartsila V12 VASA32 diesels drive four GE CLM generators to provide power to the propulsion motors. There is also a 1.6MW Wärtsilä 4R32 LNE auxiliary diesel generator. The ships can sustain a maximum speed of 18 knots and have a range in excess of 8,000 nautical miles. For manoeuvring in confined spaces, the ships are equipped with an 18-tonne bow thruster and a 12-tonne stern thruster.

A Kelvin Hughes Integrated Bridge Navigation System (IBNS) is fitted which also manages the Internal Communications System. A new Integrated Platform Management System (IPMS) was installed on both ships in 2014, this manages machinery control and surveillance, damage control, electrical power management and RAS and cargo ballast control (RASCON) functions.

The double-hulled Wave class can embark 13,000 tonnes of issuable marine diesel 3,000 tonnes of aviation fuel and 125 tonnes of lubrication oils. Three RAS rigs, two on the port and one on the starboard side, are fitted with NATO standard single 7-inch hoses which can each transfer around 500 tonnes of fuel per hour. The two deck cranes can be used for embarking or unloading stores and the starboard crane can be used to replenish smaller vessels not fitted with RAS points (such as MCMVs). A reverse osmosis plant can produce up to 100 tonnes of potable water per day and there is storage for 380 tonnes of fresh water. There are holds for up to 500 m3 of dry cargo, although this can only be transferred at sea via helicopter. Securing points and power supplies on the foredeck are available for up to eight TEU 20 refrigerated containers for food or other stores.

RFA-Wave-Class-Tanker-Plan-View

The Wave class feature a RAS control room (RASCO) directly under the bridge, this has the advantage of being within the protective citadel and gives a good view over the RAS rigs. The Winch Control room (WINCHCO) is sited amidships between the rigs so the Chief Officer and winch drivers are separate from each other. (On the new Tide class this arrangement has been revised with WINCHCO and RASCO combined and located close to the rig captains working on deck.)

Despite being officially classed as civilian support ships, they have a relatively heavy self-defence armament. Phalanx close-in weapon systems (CIWS) can be mounted on the bow and above the hangar when the ships are deployed in higher threat regions. Two 30mm cannons are permanently mounted on platforms below the bridge wings and 4 GPMG or minigun positions can be manned for force protection. Eight sextuple Sea Gnat passive decoy launchers are also fitted on the upper deck. An air/surface search and navigation radar is mounted on the mainmast and for some deployments, an electro-optical (EO) camera turret is fitted.

The flight deck is capable of operating a Merlin-sized helicopter in high seas, up to sea state 6 and the spacious hangar has full support facilities including a 25-tonne overhead gantry crane to facilitate engine changes. The ships’ RFA crew numbers between 62-80, depending on the mission and trainees embarked. There is also accommodation for a detachment of 22 Royal Navy and Royal Marine personnel.

  • Concentration by the bridge team on RFA Wave Knight while conducting RAS with HMS Westminster, 2008.

  • RFA Wave Ruler Curacao

    View from the bridge, the winch control room (WINCHCO) is sited amidships. RFA Wave Ruler Curacao, 2011 (Photo: S P Jones)

  • RAS control (RASCO) below the bridge. This provides the Chief Officer excellent visibility on all 3 rigs and is where the cargo loading is controlled from while in port. RFA Wave Knight, December 2018.

  • Two 30mm DS30M Mark 2 Automated Small Guns (ASG) are fitted on platforms on the port and starboard side below the bride. Seen here during gunnery exercise aboard RFA Wave Knight, Caribbean, May 2017.

  • Aircraft hangar, RFA Wave Knight, December 2018.

  • Aircrew ready room, RFA Wave Knight, December 2018.

  • Flight Deck, RFA Wave Ruler. Not the sloped superstructure designed to reduce the radar cross-section. (Photo: S P Jones)

  • Crew mess, RFA Wave-Knight, December 2018.

  • RFA Wave Ruler RAS crane

    RFA Wave Ruler prepares to conduct RAS with US Coast Guard vessel using the starboard crane, 2007.

In action

The reduced size of the Naval Service has seen the ships of the RFA increasingly used for purposes beyond their core warship replenishment role. The careers of the Wave class reflect this trend. Both vessels have been deployed several times to the Caribbean, on what is formally known as Atlantic Patrol Task, North (APT(N)) and have been involved in a long list of successful drug busts while on anti-narcotics patrols. Ships on APT(N) also standby to provide disaster relief to British Territories in the region in which frequently suffer Hurricane damage.

Long spells have been spent supporting RN and coalition warships in the Gulf and conducting independent anti-piracy patrols. In April 2009 a very ill-advised pirate attack was made on the British tanker MV Front Ardenne, being escorted through the Red Sea by RFA Wave Knight. A few warning shots ended the attack. Wave Knight was involved in a controversial incident in November 2009 when pirates kidnapped a British couple and their yacht near the Seychelles. The ship was on the scene as the couple were transferred from their yacht to a pirate mothership. It was not considered safe to intervene without risking the lives of the hostages, who were taken away to be held to ransom in Somalia for a £4 million ransom. Despite this unhappy episode, both Wave class ships contributed to an operation that has lasted over a decade and dramatically reduced piracy in the region. In 2010 both ships were honoured by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) for their work to prevent piracy off the coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden.

Wave Knight also made the headlines in 2016 when she provided the accommodation for Prince Harry during his tour of the Caribbean. A defect with the bow thruster briefly delayed the ship’s departure from St Vincent resulting in a small alteration in the Prince’s schedule. The media also reported that “while at sea for up to 20 hours at a time he has no mobile signal and is completely cut off from the outside world, including his [then] girlfriend Meghan Markle”. The Prince survived such terrible depravation but despite being given the captain’s cabin and enjoying his time on board, his use of a “mere tanker” for the tour was used as an argument by some for a new Royal Yacht.

Although these ships have spent a lot of time in the Caribbean, they have travelled all over the globe including to the South Atlantic, Norway, the Mediterranean and spent time closer to home as duty FOST Tanker, practising RAS with warships training off the South Coast. The brand new RFA Tidespring conducted her first RAS with RFA Wave Knight in 2017. A more detailed record of Wave Knight and Wave Ruler’s 15 years in service can be found on the excellent Historical RFA website.

  • After a year deployed in the North and South Atlantic, RFA Wave Knight replenishes her relief, RFA Mounts Bay, June 2017.

  • RFA Wave Ruler conducts RAS with HMS Clyde in the South Atlantic, 2010 (Photo: S P Jones)

  • Embarked Merlin on the flight deck of RFA Wave Knight, approaching Gibraltar, 2014.

  • RFA Wave Ruler replenishes the brand new HMS Daring, 2009 (Photo: S P Jones)

  • RFA Wave Knight replenishes HMS Dauntless, East of Suez 2012.

  • While serving with CTF 150 in Gulf, RFA Wave Knight in company with HMAS Parramatta, PNS Babur and HMS Daring, Feb 2012.

  • RFA Wave Ruler in company with HMS York off South Georgia, March 2010 (Photo: S P Jones)

  • RFA Wave Ruler, HMNZ Endeavour and HMAS Success off Malaysia, July 2009 (Photo via: S P Jones)

  • RFA Wave Ruler Fleet Review

    With Blue ensigns stretched out proudly in the breeze, a youthful RFA Wave Ruler seen at anchor in the Solent for the Trafalgar 200 International Fleet Review, 28 June 2005.

  • RFA Wave Ruler and HMS Richmond standby to provide assistance to Grenada after Hurricane Ivan, September 2004.

The future

RFA Wave Knight emerged from refit at Cammell Laird in December 2018 fitted with Phalanx CIWS – a sure sign that she is likely to be deployed to the Gulf region in 2019. RFA Wave Ruler has been laid up in very good condition at Royal Seaforth Dock on Merseyside since completing refit April 2018. This is a symptom of the RFA struggling to find sufficient manpower while bringing four new Tide class tankers into service. Five active tankers (plus the modest fuel capacity of RFA Fort Victoria) is probably sufficient for the replenishment requirements of the RN at its current size but Wave Ruler would still be very useful, capable of acting independently and in support of allies. There are also now no support tankers left in the RFA, ships intended to top up ‘frontline’ tankers needed for sustained operations over long distances.

The Tide class tankers were specifically designed to refuel the new QEC aircraft carriers so the Wave class remain likely to be seen operating independently in the Gulf or Caribbean. Whatever the future holds, these vessels have been a success in service and can continue to offer a flexible and reliable asset to the RN. In June 2018 reports emerged that Wave Ruler has been offered for sale to the Brazilian Navy (to complement their recent acquisition of ex-HMS Ocean, soon to be joined by ex-HMS Clyde). The MoD has subsequently denied that Wave Ruler is for sale. The Wave class were intended to have a 25-year service life and would be due for replacement around 2028. Modern and capable ships, with at least another decade of service ahead of them, remain an attractive proposition for foreign buyers, something that we hope the MoD continues to discourage.

RFA Wave Knight recently joined Twitter and you can follow her progress here @RFAWaveKnight