Storm in a teacup? A setback for the Royal Navy’s newest ship, HMS Forth

First of the new batch II River class OPVs, HMS Forth was accepted by the Royal Navy in February 2018 and formally commissioned on 13 April. After suffering a major electrical problem, she is currently alongside in Portsmouth without power. Discovery of a small number of missing, stripped and snapped bolts (marine fixings) that secure various items throughout the ship is also being addressed.

An incompatibility with the ships’s electrical switchboards and the shoreside power supply blacked out the ship earlier this week. Following established procedure, all non-essential personnel were landed as a precautionary measure, but an emergency evacuation was not necessary. The cause is under investigation by a team from BAE Systems and the subcontractors who supplied the switchboard.

Less sympathetically viewed was the discovery that around a dozen snapped bolt heads in various parts of the ship had been simply glued back on instead of being replaced. Some of these botched fastenings secured racks holding the lifeboats, although straps would prevent the liferafts falling from the ship. None of these bolts are critical to the safety of the vessel but sub-standard workmanship is clearly unacceptable. Upon discovery, BAES moved quickly to make repairs and issued an internal quality alert to all employees, demanding better performance. The contents of the alert were leaked to the media and will cause embarrassment to BAES and unwanted headlines for the RN.

HMS Forth was already undergoing a scheduled engineering period, receiving additional communications and electronics equipment when the electrical issue arose. All the faults will be rectified in the near future and it is unlikely to delay the ships work-up and sea training programme significantly. Before arriving in Portsmouth, HMS Forth had spent a total of 20 days at sea on trials and was accepted by the RN as meeting specification on 26th February. The approximately 100 small snagging issues discovered during sea trials that need to be rectified by the contractor are actually well below average for a ship of her type.

The vessel has a 12-month warranty period after acceptance and the navy will not have to fund the cost of rectifications. To sustain BAES and its workforce during delays to the commencement of the Type 26 frigate programme, a government agreement resulted in each of the Batch II River class OPVs costing around £114 Million. HMS Forth is currently the most expensive OPV in the world, the contractor can afford the repairs.

Issues of this nature are to be expected with new vessels and are not an indication of fundamentally poor design or major construction flaws. (HMS Forth is not strictly the first of her class, BAES have already delivered three similar ships for the Brazilian navy. The RN vessels are built to a higher specification and may have different electrical arrangements.) As we have witnessed in the last year, HMS Queen Elizabeth has suffered a series of well-publicised engineering problems some of which emerged into the media, out of context and in exaggerated form. None have proved to be a show-stopper and all have been quickly rectified.

Occurrences like this are not especially newsworthy, as these kind of difficulties are a normal part of operating warships the world over. Resolving engineering issues, large or small, is the whole reason that facilities like Portsmouth exist. The PR ‘optics’ may not appear ideal, “Expensive new OPV suffers technical faults just weeks after commissioning” but this is not untypical of bringing new vessels into service.

 

Rear Admiral Gardner (Senior Responsible Officer for Batch II OPVs) confirmed on her commissioning day that HMS Forth will sail for the South Atlantic in the latter part of this year and will replace HMS Clyde as the permanent Falklands guard ship. HMS Clyde is not owned by the MoD, but is leased from BAES and she will be returned to her owners, who will probably have little difficulty selling an 11-year-old ship.

Main Image: Lesley Doubleday via Flickr

 

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