One step forward, two steps back – delivering the Royal Navy’s new OPVs

As we reported in April, significant defects have been found aboard HMS Forth which was delivered to the RN in February. Initial assessments were that the problems would be remedied in a couple of weeks but this has not proved to be the case.

HMS Forth’s defects list has not expanded beyond what was originally reported; sheared bolt heads, failed marine fixings and the electrical system. However, the investigation and agreeing on the rectifications by all parties took much longer to complete than initially expected.

The ship has not been “handed back” to BAE Systems and remains a commissioned RN warship. However, that is really a technicality because, as is standard practice during deep maintenance, the contractor has taken over over care and protection of the vessel with no RN personnel living on board. After the delay caused by the investigation and scoping, there are now are teams of contractors working on board the ship to correct the problems. HMS Forth will definitely not require dry-docking for this work as the issues are all internal and not related to propulsion, steering or the hull. The date the work will be completed is unknown right now and sources can only say “well before the end of this year”. The ship is effectively under warranty and BAES are meeting all costs for this work.

HMS Forth is due to replace HMS Clyde as the Falkland Patrol ship. The delays to HMS Forth commencing work up and FOST will have the knock-on effect of extending HMS Clyde’s time in service. The RN is down to just one active OPV in UK waters right now and there is some speculation HMS Tyne could be re-activated. The RN is performing a delicate juggling act rotating crews between OPVs and MCMVs under Project Jicara. HMS Tyne’s crew joined HMS Forth in March 2017 and she was then manned until decommissioning by a crew loaned from the 2nd Minehunting Squadron. They then moved to HMS Mersey so her crew could join HMS Trent in build in Glasgow. There is no spare crew available for HMS Tyne so reactivation would be a challenge.

HMS Tyne was formally decommissioned on 24 May and, along with HMS Severn already decommissioned, and HMS Mersey, due to decommission in 2019, will be preserved alongside. This has been funded by a £12.7M allocation from the EU Exit Preparedness Fund, should the ships be required to patrol UK waters following Brexit. Unfortunately, the RN does not have the people to crew these vessels while at the same time providing manpower for the new Batch IIs. Reactivating the Batch Is would require innovative alternative manning arrangements.

BAE Systems has sensibly initiated inspections of the next 2 OPVs, Medway and Trent, currently under construction to ensure these issues are dealt with before the ships are handed over to the RN. This inspection is ongoing and rectifications being completed where necessary. So far only one sheared and glued bolt head has been discovered on Medway. Medway was named two months earlier in her schedule than Forth so their timetables for delivery do not easily compare. Medway is due to go on sea trials later this summer and the MoD is working with BAES to agree on the schedule for the remaining ships to come into service.

The RN’s relationship with BAE Sytems, its monopoly warship supplier is akin to an arranged and essentially loveless marriage. With absolutely no prospect of divorce, there is little choice but to live with reduced expectations and make the best of the situation, focusing on the positive aspects. (Some serious flirting with Babcock has not yet developed into a full-blown affair.) BAES have been embarrassed by this episode, the OPVs are, after all, relatively simple vessels and have proved a very expensive way of sustaining Clyde shipbuilding. The company has taken it very seriously and is working very hard to rectify the situation as quickly as possible.

More positive news is the very strong indications that the BAES Type 26 (GCS-A) design is going to win the SEA5000 Australian frigate competition, an announcement is expected by the end of next week. This would be the first major UK warship export success in more than 2 decades and will be of far greater significance than relatively minor issues with the OPVs.