RFA Tidespring – another refit behind schedule?

RFA Tidespring arrived on Merseyside on 8th February for her inaugural docking. A Cammell Laird press release at the time said this new vessel would undergo a planned 4-month inspection and maintenance period. Nearly 7 months has passed and the ship has not left the yard.

When asked about this delay CL would not comment themselves and referred our query to the MoD. An official from DE&S stated “The programme for RFA Tidespring is not running late. The dates in Cammell Laird’s original announcement were estimates”.

The claim that the project is not running late is hard to believe on several counts. RFA Tidespring is a new ship and the primary reason for docking was to conduct a hull survey and inspection to maintain her Lloyds Certification. This process should be fairly straightforward, HMS Queen Elizabeth completed a similar inspection in Rosyth in just 6 weeks. Even if CL’s 4-month figure was only an ‘estimate’, the project has now taken more than 50% longer which is a considerable miscalculation. It is reasonable to assume that when CL bid for the FISS contract to maintain the Tide class ships, the time and man-hours for each job would have been carefully calculated as far a possible, although allowing for some contingency for the unexpected. In theory, the time needed for first docking should have been one of the easiest and simplest to predict.

Further evidence of complications comes from recent unconfirmed reports from sources on Merseyside who say that there has been additional work to rectify problems with Tidespring’s original construction, including a vibration issue with her uptakes and funnels. In November 2018 the UK Defence Journal reported a series of build faults with the ship including fireman valves, engine mounts and cracks in the funnel.

RFA Tiderace arrived at Cammell Laird on 2nd August for her inaugural docking and is now in the wet basin adjacent to her sister. Will Tiderace and the other two ships also require the same length of time in the yard? (Photo @CammellLaird)

RFA Tidespring was launched in April 2015. After completing her delivery voyage she was fitted out for military service in Falmouth between March – September 2017, which included time in dry dock. She was then available for about 15 months of operations before arriving at CL in February.

A delay to RFA Tidespring rejoining the active fleet is not catastrophic and the navy can make do with the 3 active tankers for now. RFA Wave Ruler remains laid up on Merseyside and RFA Wave Knight arrived in the Arabian Gulf in early August and has been supporting coalition warships on tense merchant shipping escort operations. In the long run, the Tide class look set to be fine additions to the fleet, not only designed from scratch to refuel the carriers but benefiting from modern aviation, self-defence, medical and accommodation facilities.

There is a school of thought that assumes that foreign shipyards are inherently more efficient and deliver better quality than anything British shipbuilders can produce. While it was the correct decision to build the Tide class in South Korea given the lack of domestic capacity available at the time, issues with the Tide class demonstrate that problems with new ships are not unique to the UK. She was delivered from her builders more than a year late with the official explanation being that delays were due to “changes in regulations around electrical cable insulation”. As first of class and effectively a prototype, some teething problems with RFA Tidespring might be expected but there is absolutely no OPSEC or commercial sensitivity aspect that would preclude more MoD transparency about the issues.

It seems unlikely CL is to blame for the additional time the project has taken but it is a tense period for the company. An unconfirmed report in the Telegraph on 24 August said that the Babcock Arrowhead 140 candidate has won the Type 31e frigate competition and this will be officially announced at DSEI in London (10-13th September). Should this prove to be the case, then the BAES/CL Leander bid will have failed and there would be a considerable gap in workload. RRS Sir David Attenborough is due for completion in October and CL will then be very short of new construction work. Much would rest on the uncertain prospect that the British consortium wins the bid to build the Fleet Solid Support ships, unless the company can quickly secure substantial new commercial shipbuilding contracts.

Despite the optimism of the National Shipbuilding Strategy, it is not the best of times for the industry and infrastructure that supports the RN. The Appledore and Harland & Wolff shipyards closed recently. The first Type 23 frigate to receive the PGMU (engine replacement programme), HMS Richmond is behind schedule and there are now 7 frigates either in refit or inactive awaiting refit at Devonport. HMS Forth’s entry into service was delayed by a year due to poor initial build quality. The 4th Astute-class submarine, HMS Audacious, has still yet to begin sea trials and the refit of HMS Vanguard has encountered serious problems.

In August 2018 the RN announced RFA Tiderace would accompany HMS Queen Elizabeth during her first trip to the US but for unknown reasons, she never crossed the Atlantic. Instead, RFA Tidespring joined for the tail end of the deployment in November 2018. On a more positive note, the newest Tide-class vessel, RFA Tideforce left the Solent in company with HMS Queen Elizabeth last week to provide fuel for the aircraft carrier and her supporting warships on the Westlant 19 deployment. (You can follow her progress via her excellent Twitter account @RFATideforce) RFA Tidesurge has been operating around the UK and gained her ‘blue nose’ supporting NATO warships in the Arctic Circle.