Recent controversy over foreign firms being given access to the tendering process for the solid support ship fleet has caused the Ministry of Defence to confirm they have no plans to modify the definition of ‘warship’.

Kevan Jones, Member of Parliament for North Durham, asked:

“To ask the Secretary of State for Defence, whether his Department plans to clarify its definitions of the terms (a) warship, (b) complex, (c) war material, and (d) warlike when they are used for shipbuilding procurement.”

Guto Bebb, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence, replied:

“The National Shipbuilding Strategy (paragraph 92) defined Royal Navy warships as destroyers, frigates and aircraft carriers. We do not plan to issue any further definitions for the purposes of the National Shipbuilding Strategy.”

According to the National Shipbuilding Strategy, there are three tenets regarding UK shipbuilding policy that impact on the build location of contracts:

  1. For reasons of national security, all Royal Navy warships (destroyers, frigates and aircraft carriers) will continue to have a UK-owned design, and, will be built and integrated in the UK. Warship build will be via competition between UK shipyards. But international partners will be encouraged to work with UK shipyards and other providers to produce the best possible commercial solution.
  2. All other naval ships should be subject to open competition (provided that there are no compelling national security reasons to constrain a particular procurement to national providers). Integration of sensitive UK-specific systems will be done in the UK, where possible after competition between UK providers.
  3. Defence will take account of wider factors (including the impact on UK prosperity) when making these procurement decisions.

The Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015 confirmed that three new large Military Afloat Reach and Sustainability (MARS) Solid Support Ships would be acquired for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, to replace the single-hulled RFA Fort Victoria, which entered service in 1994, and RFA Fort Rosalie and RFA Fort Austin (both dating from the late 1970s). The Solid Support Ship is designed to carry a wide range of stores to support other ships with ammunition, food and explosives to replenish naval ships at sea.

They will have extensive aviation facilities, with 2 flight decks, one at the stern and one spot on top of the hanger. They will have the ability to to replenish at sea via 6 replenishment stations, three on each side as well as using helicopters for vertical replenishment.


  1. Never even be considered in America, that bastion of capitalism.

    Total. Industrial. Madness.

    Had hoped Gavin Williamson might have put a stop to this but no. Really shameful.

    • Williamson can only do so much. The problem is UK (political) culture which tends to exaggerate polarised choice between ruthless no subsidies application of Adam Smith individual self interest economics and state socialism models. We find it hard to agree on a middle way. The French still have substantially sovereign control of their car industry, shipbuilding and aerospace. We moan about their selfishness when it comes to shared projects but their behaviour is quite rational….if you are French. French society I think is better integrated by its shared values.

      • Paul P. There has been extensive riots in Paris over the last couple of days and large parts of major French cities are no go areas for cultural reasons. To suggest the building of a few ships can paper over the chasms in France or anywhere else is fanciful.

        • Indeed. At the risk of igniting the wrong sort of discussion I would agree that French society is showing fracture lines. I agree that culture is handling its empire legacy less well than we are handing ours.
          That said I will stand my ground on my key points: a Frenchman’s sense of being French rooted in post revolution values is deeper than an Englishmans sense of being British and is more or less independent of his position in society. Also by virtue of the Grandes Ecoles the French establishment crosses administrative, commercial and technical barriers. An engineer in Dassault has parity of esteem with a senior civil servant (in Paris or Brussels) or politician. There is automatically more trust between all the parties needed to make something happen. You don’t see the kind of adversarial position we see here between BAE and the MOD. Default policy for example is design and build at home.

          • You are 100% right PaulP. I’ve seen this at work with my own eyes when I lived and worked in France. But let’s get real here. It’s more important to get these things built and supporting the RN in short order, than to squabble about where they get built. The basic design (concept as opposed to detailed) as well as specialist outfitting, test and commissioning will be performed in the U.K. The stores handling and RAS equipment will be designed (and a lot of it made) in the U.K. (in other words, the alma matter of the ships), an area where U.K. is a world leader. So let’s calm down, build the damned ships affordable and soon and use the money we save by building them in Korea (or wherever) on an extra T31!

          • @Richard. Agreed. No right or wrong here. The French ‘ communautaire’ approach is struggling with Asian competition on steel for example, like everyone else. State subsidies buy you time to get yourself competitive. They are not a permanent solution to chronic inefficiency. We are where we are. On balance the SSS decision is probably optimum.
            My old boss used to say things are either a commodity or a circus act. Complex warships are a circus act. Support ships are ( supposedly) a commodity where you buy on price.
            What many posters I think are getting at is that there are worthwhile and honourable design, engineering and manufacture skills and longterm investment, pride, profit and jobs in making commodities. The Japanese and Germans who now own our car industry have managed to extract excellent products from British designers and workers. Cars are cars. But you can take pride in a well designed good quality motor car.

    • Not entirely true. The US navy has support ships that are built in other countries. Granted they build most of them in the US but then they have a much larger capacity to build these. For many of the UK support ships the UK yards do not even bid to build them!

      Now if a UK yard bids and the bid is in the realms of reasonable (can still be more expensive just not lunatic expensive) then yes they should be built in the UK, but if no one wants to build them then what are we supposed to do?

      • The UK firms are being made to not feel welcome to the party. They get the vibe from the MOD. Why be rejected by a decision that has already been made?

  2. A glaring omission to me is that amphibious ships (LPH and LPD) and OPV are missing from the Warship list. Was the writing on the wall for the amphibious fleet when the National Shipbuilding Strategy was written?

  3. How much will change post brexit though.
    Arent this international tenders mandatory under current EU regs?

    • No. Warships are excluded. And the EU definition is ships built for military purposes. Not the UK’s effed up definition.

    • No, nothing to do with the EU. You can claim/do what you like when it’s defence procurement or procurement for national security reasons. That’s why contracts for printing passports can only be awarded to national companies in most of Europe, because they classify passports as documents of national security. It’s entirely up to the U.K. government and how they chose to classify these ships. Let’s open our eyes as to what is really going on – what successive governments have really been up to supposedly acting in the national (our) interest, and stop blaming the EU for everything!

  4. I’d think that as far as the UK is concerned the easiest definition of a warship is a vessel operated by the Royal Navy.

    While I don’t blame the government for inviting international tenders for RFA vessels, I do think that it doesn’t bode well for the Type-31e that is apparently designed for export. If the UK industry cannot win a competitive tender for its own auxiliaries, then what hope does it have of winning tenders to build for other nations navies?

    • there is the issue – the fleet support ships are operated by the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, not the Royal Navy. I can assure you – both the RN and the RFA are very strongly independent in how they see themselves

    • Is it even there? The teeny, tiny bit of description that seems to be leaking out re the design after the industry day mentions a spot on top of the hanger but I think these renders that UKDJ is using to illustrate these articles are from years ago and were simply concept images for MARS SSS when the program was first announced and way before any serious design work started. I am not sure they bear any relationship to the actual design (if it even exists) or design guidance that, if a design doesn’t exist yet, was presumably given during the industry day.

      I’m very frustrated at the lack of information regarding MARS SSS design or lack of it at this point in time. I really hope that UKDJ is trying to do some serious digging here amongst its contacts to try and find out what the state of play really is in terms of design, or at least basic desired characteristics of these ships. After the T31e industrial day some fairly detailed documentation came out on core and additional design elements required. For MARS SSS? Pretty much nothing.

      • That’s what I was getting at. An addional landing spot above the hanger might suggest a total of 3 Merlin landing spots. Would be interested to find out whether SSS could have a vehicle deck and support a steel beach without compromising its primary role as a support ship.

        • This is why I’m so frustrated about lack of detail. It might equally mean only a Tide-like single spot on the “main” deck plus a second one on the hanger roof. Also, that rooftop deck will presumably be more of a lillypad facility than for use by embarked helicopters unless they put in a lift to the main hangar (very, very unlikely in my opinion) or an additional hanger to service the “rooftop” pad. Obviously I want your theory (3 spots) to be right and mine (2 spots) to be wrong but until we get more details we’re all just guessing. Still, at least the project is moving forward and we’ve got to the stage of trying to guess the details which is some progress at least.

          • Yes. No news on Type 31 designs either. MOD playing their cards close to their chest.

          • Andy – Yes, that’s a decent optimistic take on it.

            Paul – At least with T31e we do have quite detailed design requirements from the MoD that came out after the industry day defining what any design must be able to do (core and optional equipment), aviation facilities, target crew complement, speed, etc. We also have a published schedule for how things will progress through design studies, winner selection and build. We have none of this that I’ve seen for SSS. Recent UKDJ articles mention 40,000t in a few places but I have not seen even that info attributed to a source. Is that the official target tonnage or just, based on the Tide tankers, an educated guess at what it is likely to be? If an educated guess then it could be 35,000t (which would still be bigger than Fort Victoria and just over 50% bigger than Forts Rosalie/Austin) or it could be over 45,000t. There’s a huge difference in space available for, for instance, aviation facilities on a 45,000t vs a 35,000t ship.

            I don’t seem to be able to type any comment about SSS without my frustration at lack of info turning it into a bit of a rant 🙂

  5. The problem for the MoD with regards to broadening the classification of ‘warship’ is that everyone knows they would be more expensive built here which would come out of a fixed defence budget. If say the govt paid the difference between the best price domestically and the best price from overseas it would solve the problem. But until then the MoD has nothing to gain and everything to lose from a change in classification.

    • (Chris H) David Steeper – can I gently point out that you need to define ‘more expensive’ before you can make that judgment call. You are, with respect, falling into the same mindset of the Civil Service who only look at ‘Price’ and not ‘Nett cost’ to the UK. The recent stupidity of having British passports now printed in bloody France illustrates this mindset eloquently. I won’t rehearse the arguments about netting back tax receipts and economic recycling of money but think of Korea as a black hole where taxpayer money goes never to be seen again and you may want to rethink ‘more expensive’.

      • Yeah but the money returned would go to general government spending not back to the RN. If the budget is a set amount and that gets you 3 FSS built abroad or 2 at home, you go abroad. The RN doesn’t care if the exchequer gets some more tax receipts it cares about how many ships it can get and how quickly. Look at the Tides, 4 large shiny new tankers for £452 million and built and delivered in under 4 years. Do you think that would have been the case if they where built at home. Unlikely the budget would have covered more than 2 hulls and we would still be waiting on delivery of the 1st.

          • I don’t think you understood. The MoD would be charged the same price as they would have done to build them overseas and the Govt would pay the difference from outside the MoD budget.

          • Ron, not wishing to speak on David’s behalf, but I read his comments as he’s saying is that it comes down to pure rational economics.

            If there’s no compelling reason for a ship to be deemed a ‘warship’ get the very best bang for your buck via an open tender.

            It’s not a ‘good’ thing that the builds might go abroad, but it is the reality of the situation.

            For what it’s worth, my personal opinion is that i do think all RN/RFA vessels should be built in the U.K. but the economic argument for building abroad does make sense in our present situation.

          • P.S. I’m a different Chris, to Chris H above, just to avoid any confusion.

            Chris J

        • 452 million pounds for just the hull build. They were 610 million for 4 ships. Yes I do think the UK could have built them for this. Waves, inflation adjustment and minus the % now called UK content and be surprised! Check it out. Please don’t assume.

          • They were a year late too, and in Sir John Parker’s view more expensive because of the South Korean factor! Read his report.

        • Not good enough from them Stephen. This simplistic mindset of the MOD does not wash and probably did not wash many years ago and I think they do this on purpose. We live in a data-driven, computer modelling digital world where you just cannot get away saying there’s the budget, go with an on the face, a bit cheaper bidder abroad as we cannot work out the real cost, its implications etc. That is not on. These massive bad value for the UK taxpayer government departments with all their computers (they do have them, but probably cost 10 billion quid) cannot say to me, well due to the complexity of buying steel, we leave it to BAE. Not on!

    • At 4000 tons it is not a corvette. This is a corvette:
      Half the displacement, half the range, no hanger, smaller helo deck, no anticipated provision for VLS or area AAM defence, no mission bay for humanitarian assistance. Corvettes are coastal defence ships. Type 31 is a global multi role singleton capable of contributing to a multinational task force.

    • The Cammel Laird proposal (Leander) is for a stretched Bae corvette.

      Apparently the stretching changes the ship from corvette to frigate (eyes roll).

      • Be fair, when Blohm and Voss came up with the MEKO ‘family’ we all thought how smart they were. I can see the brochures now…’The Leander family’.

  6. The point being missed is this is new government policy that was slipped out in the NSS with the hope that nobody noticed. Nobody did.

    The prior policy was that all UK warships, including Amphib, submarines, mine hunters etc. had to be built in the UK.

  7. The only company that has the capability of building these in the UK is Cammel Laird. They have refitted most of the RFA fleet and have the necessary skills, workforce and working dry docks for fitting out. My guess is the MoD will see how RRS Attenborough comes out before committing to either giving them T31 or MARS. Not been widely publicised but the complex stern section of Boaty was built by A&P on the Tyne. A combination of large ships built on the Mersey and Tyne might be too politically tempting to turn down. But, if CL get the T31 contract then they will not have capacity to do MARS as well. They will have to go abroad.

    • No, they will not. As Cammell Laird says, they could build all the requested 5 type 31s at the same time, but timed properly, the FSSS will be accommodated too and Cammell Laird has stated they want some of the FSSS to build. Babcock, Harland and Wolff, Cammell Laird (who want to develop their Inchgreen facility which has many acres and the big dry dock, BAE (worrying), Ferguson Marine, with others as tier hull block builders like the feeder shipyard Pallion. This will be a closer cluster than the Carrier Alliance and are all wanting to get going on this project.

  8. These should be warships first and foremost.

    These platforms should be hosting fields of missles from sea ceptor to SM3, they should be contributing to the numbers and variety of missles for seriously credible carrier air defence, off the coast of Brunei for example.

    They should have some howitzers anchored down too, with GPS guided long range ammo for shore bombardment and the hangers and landing decks should support airbourne radar & sensors and helicopter & drone refueling.

    2 RFA ships proteing the carries as its lastbline of defence, 4 CIWS each.

    Carrier is now able to support long term deployemnt of 2 f35 squadrons.

    Other ships should be replenishing them!

  9. We should only build these if there is a long term strategy for very large ship building. If these ships leave us with the ability to then make other vessels such as cruise ships and exploration ships, even floating islands that can be joined together, and we can take advantage of that with industry consortiums and incumbents.

    Otherwise, lets just get them bought, built and into the fleet ASAP. No time to mess about.

    • Ther is, and there are reports to this effect. Desire and belief are needed, along with a proper ongoing evolving industrial strategy (because many technologies will benefit us and close any gap, we can lead too). If not, we may as well not bother, and I would even say why do we bother looking at the sea at all and do not deserve any navy if desire will planning and money is not there for the longer term benefit.

  10. The only company that has the capability of building these in the UK other than BAE is Cammel Laird. They have refitted most of the RFA fleet and have the necessary fabrication skills, workforce and working dry docks for fitting out. My guess is the MoD will see how RRS Attenborough comes out before committing to either giving them T31 or MARS. Not been widely publicised but the complex stern section of Boaty was built by A&P on the Tyne. A combination of large ships built on the Mersey and Tyne might be too politically tempting to turn down. But, if CL get the T31 contract then they will not have capacity to do MARS as well. They will have to go abroad. Enjoy the video, RRS Attenborough is very large.

  11. Same old argument by the UK government, they are squirming again. We assume they are cheaper to build abroad in certain countries. But as we know, face cost or price is not always cheaper. Like it or not, this all originally stems from eu rules when the MOD/UK industry alliance partnership was axed for the first MARS ships and warship like, military, grey ships argument came about, then Luff said we got away with that (yes the UK public) when this contract was given abroad at our cost, they felt obliged to do it and thought hey were saving a few quid but were not. Penny wise pound foolish.

    It goes back though, with Ro Ro’s, ferries etc. National security reasons, but if you lose one or two of these ships, the more gunny ships may have to go home. They are essential for security reasons, are they not? Or being classed as something else makes them immune to attack, so should other war e type ships be classed the same to make them immune? This is hardly a National Shipbuilding Strategy with the type 26’s possibly taking 10 years to complete, with just a hand full of type 31’s to build, we do not see a real development of UK shipyards as Sir John Parker wants.

    These Fleet Solid Support Ships could well be supplying just jelly and ice cream to other ships if it is essential and armed with bubble guns. The fact is, if the huge gains in tax back and potential investment in people and facilities is not realized, we will be yet again, hurting ourselves. We are not the most expensive shipbuilder in the world, far from it. We have a poor hourly production rates caused by warship building (which will be worse with the type 26’s), which will not encourage investment, why do BAE need too? Build the hull very quickly and efficiently, but government wants them to take ten years to build and complete for service? Where is the value for the tax payer here? As with 6 billion pounds on Westminster building that is subservient to eu as i have said before.

    If we are serious about shipbuilding, we need the spur, which is not 5 frigates. There are reports that show how the UK can get into more meaningful shipbuilding. People are forgetting that there are German Italian and Netherland firms (all with higher wage rates, not to say ours are bad) looking at building these ships. How much did the last Berlin cost (smaller too). Please look at the cost of the Waves (albeit a little smaller but built in less efficient yards as opposed to others who in many cases receive aid) and inflation calculators and minus off the what is now called UK important security content hmn (which includes design, why?), and see the actual price is tiny. We are selling ourselves short here.

    HMS Ocean cost £154 million pounds in 1993 (with backwards UK shipbuilding tech) or 210 million pounds 2005. Dokdo from South Korea, a similar but smaller ship (18,000 short tons to HMS Ocean 21,500 long tons (just under short 24, 000 tons) cost 288 million dollars for one ship (from what I can see). At the exchange rate back then (mid-2005), that would mean just under 180 million pounds, compared to 210 million pounds for the bigger tonnage British ship built in old layout facilities with equipment and plant far older than South Korea?! We assume that we are no good at things and always more expensive. Usually double more than anybody else. We need to modernize, and this latest government inspired thing, is not a good advert for UK shipbuilding. That’s is what gets targeted. If it was today exchange rate, it would be nearly the same. I could be entirely wrong, but that’s how I have read it.

    I would like to ask the German, Italian and Netherlands definition of a warship, military and warship like. They would probably agree with the UK MOD, for it is for them to gain from our expense.

    We need a real cost benefit analysis of giving these contract abroad with lost tax lost energy paid by our struggling industries due to unfair green policies, growth in the sector jobs and new skills created with investment in facilities that can give us even better and cost effective ships in the future, instead of this Laissez-faire approach, which is OK if others actually practiced this, which they don’t. Adam smith is right to a degree, but does not take into account unfair practices and other factors which can make a product more expensive but is not visual or direct in the short term. We have a deficit. They are my thoughts, but in short, to give away these contracts, will mean no re-balance and no belief in our industries who never caused this recession either, but due to a poor government who wrongly bailed out banks, who pays the price? Wake bloody up folks. And don’t vote liblabconsnplaid. You will always be having this argument otherwise.

    The blue passports? The gov say that savings that workout at 100 million pound a year savings for the next 11 or 15 years was it? Again, look at the number at de De La Rue involved and their wages with an average of 36% plus that finds it way back to the UK exchequer (as UK people are consumers), the suppliers in the UK and we could be looking at thousands of people, not to mention the various taxes firms pay. Is this cheaper and a saving?

    Winning or losing aside. Plenty of people will still be buying Kia cars and Chinese toasters and kettles that are guaranteed to leak after 6 months. Many will be bought with money from UK workers who built the Fleet Solid Support Ships.

    • I would, and have, spent more for a home-built product than a cheaper foreign one that does not last as long. A ship built in the UK will cost more, but UK workers will receive the wages and pay taxes to the UK government. Some one should compute the opportunity cost of building a ship in Korea compared to the UK.

  12. I really know there is the complete ability in the UK industry to deliver these ships ( as long as civil servants, officials etc do not change anything to screw it up and make UK shipbuilding look bad). We are just as good at building the ships as well as designing the product. Most jobs will be in the manufacture of these ships from Steel plate in Glasgow and hopefully Scunthorpe plate mills (the mill that supplied most of the carriers plate), sections from Skinningrove with pipes and tubes from Hartlepool with electrical systems here too. BAE will get their expensive bits on board no doubt as part of the protected UK content along with the design (I will not be daft in saying can we get a better cheaper design from Korea, as I think we cannot as professionals may be similar paid (and our designers are top notch), but so are shipyard wages similar to S, Korea now, by all accounts (cheaper than many Euro Countries like for example, Germany, Netherlands, France and Italy), we just don’t have the facilities for our floor production staff to flourish and compete, at the moment.


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