Multi-Role Support Ships for the Royal Navy – one size fits all?

During an internal briefing in mid-March, its was revealed that the RN could be planning to dispense with the Fleet Solid Support ship (FSS) and Littoral Strike Ship (LSS) concepts and standardise on a single hull known as the Multi-Role Support Ship (MRSS). In this speculative piece, we look at the background and the potential options.

A change of tack

The Future Littoral Strike Ship concept was first announced by Gavin Williamson in February 2019. Subsequently, there has been very limited further official comment about the vessels which were intended to be forward deployed to act as Special Forces and amphibious raiding base. Previal Partners produced a very credible proposal for the requirement which had been quietly in development for several years but there are strong indications LSS is now dead.

A new generation of Fleet Solid Support ships (FSS) is needed to supply the aircraft carriers and their supporting warships with ammunition, food and spares at sea. FSS procurement has been the source of great controversy ever since the government of Theresa May decided to hold in an open international competition for their construction. As several more enlightened defence ministers have taken office, keen to support British industry, the project was suspended in November 2019 with the expectation that FSS would be restarted and open only to UK bidders. MRSS may now supersede both the FSS and LSS projects.

For several years we have promoted the idea of building a UK aid or hospital ship(s) funded by DfID. This would partly relieve the burden on the Naval Service, providing disaster relief and medical support duties overseas as well as be on hand for battlefield casualties or possibly support the NHS in times of extreme crisis. The relative merits of a dedicated hospital ship or aid ship (a very significant difference) are discussed in more depth here but potentially such a vessel could use the same MRSS platform.

The Elidda / MRSS design could also form the basis of a UK hospital or aid ship.

Here comes MRSS

MRSS is not an entirely new idea, a pre-concept study was conducted between 2017-2018 by the MoD’s Naval Design Partnering (NDP) team, primarily focussed on possible replacements for the LPDs. Developments in modular systems, manpower-reduction, miniaturisation, autonomous and off-board systems make it easier for different roles to co-exist in a single vessel. The old way of thinking that to be considered ‘first-rate’, a ship cannot be a ‘jack of all trades’ is being challenged by new technology and financial necessity.

In a wider sense the MRSS concept may not just be about using the same hull for different ships but a more radical design for a truly adaptable ship with modular equipment that can be rapidly reconfigured for different missions. The adaptable ship will inevitably be more expensive than a single role vessel as it has to have the infrastructure and systems in place to support multiple missions. It is also more challenging from a naval architecture perspective, as different types of vessels use a variety of naval standards and classifications. Does the MRSS need to be built to full warship survivability standards or will the lesser standards of a typical RFA suffice?

There are obvious attractions in standardising on a single hull type. A common hull, propulsion, electrical system and other internal equipment would achieve economies of scale both initially and during through-life support. Theoretically, the build process of the later vessels should be more efficient as the shipyard gains experience. Being wildly optimistic, MRSS could potentially deliver at least 2 LSS / LPD replacements, 3 FSS and potentially 1 or 2 Hospital/Aid ships and even a replacement for RFA Argus. Building multiple vessels to the same design to a steady drumbeat would ensure continuity of work for UK industry for a decade. Cammell Laird in Birkenhead and Babcock Marine in Rosyth would be the obvious candidates for involvement. A less attractive, but perhaps more realistic option, would result in fewer ships but designed to be adaptable, able to act as both a replenishment ship an amphibious platform.

Work to be done

The ELLIDA concept developed by BMT is an existing solution for the MRSS requirement, a hybrid replenishment, logistic and landing ship available in various configurations up to around 24,000 tonnes. (More detail in previous article).

Binning FSS and LSS to replace them with the multi-role vessels will not be all plain sailing. The first FSS was supposed to replace RFA Fort Victoria by around 2025 and this single ship will is a critical enabler of the carrier strike group. BMT/Navantia and the British Consortium already had begun design work on their FSS proposals before the process was halted. The original LSS concept was intended to utilise a quick, low-cost conversion of existing merchant ships. Going back to the drawing board to design and tender for MRSS will add further delay to delivery of both vessel types. Even if ELLIDA is used as the starting point, it is only a ‘developed concept’ at present and BMT say there would still be considerable work to mature the design to a point where it could achieve Main Gate approval and begin construction.

While there is some commonality, the detailed requirements for the FSS and LSS are quite divergent. The LSS was originally intended to adapt an existing a commercial Ro-Ro vessel of approximately 8,000 tonnes while the FSS was a specialist ship of around 25,000 tonnes. The original ELLIDA concept would make for a very capable, if more expensive LSS, but to replenish ships as sea with ammunition requires dedicated facilities. ELLIDA had liquid refuelling capability but would need substantial internal modification in order to safely handle stores and ammunition. ELLIDA also has a floodable well dock but as a supply ship that space would be needed for stores. To match the full capability of the original FSS specification, ELLIDA would probably need major re-design, for example there are just 2 jackstay rigs compared with the 5 of the original FSS concepts, intended to meet the high demands for the aircraft carriers. Adding the rigs is relatively straightforward but the access and arrangements to transport bulky stores from the cargo holds below is a more complex design challenge.

At a cost

To fund MRSS, the briefing discussed “divestment options”, ie. deleting one capability to pay for another. In this scenario the LPDs, HMS Albion and Bulwark, look increasingly like they will be axed, either to be retired early or not replaced. The new concept of Littoral Strike recognises the ever-increasing vulnerability of static naval vessels conducting amphibious missions. Lighter raiding operations, mainly delivered by helicopter is seen as the future. It is possible to make an argument that the dock landing ship has had its day but this is perhaps more to do with tough financial choices for the Royal Marines and RN than just tactical realities. Understanding their enormous practicality and versatility, many leading navies continue to invest heavily in new LPDs. Having lost HMS Ocean without replacement and uncomfortably dual-purposing the aircraft carriers in the littoral strike role, RN amphibious resources are already slender.

ELLIDA – featuring well dock

Besides their extensive command facilities, the LPDs are designed to launch the first wave of amphibious operations, whereas ELLIDA is intended as an amphibious logistic support ship, similar to the Bay class LSD(A)s. However successful the first wave of the airborne amphibious landing may be, there will still be a need for landing craft to deliver heavy weapons, ammunition, supplies and vehicles if any kind of foothold is to be sustained. The ELLIDA/MRSS is a compromise that can partially offset the loss of the LPD by having its own, if smaller, well dock and able to deliver supplies by landing craft.

Assuming current events do not entirely up-end the defence budget and existing plans, the MRSS offers potential for the RN and RFA to affordably acquire the ships it needs. Compromises would have to be made but a new design philosophy could be a better solution than the stalled FSS and LSS projects.