The vessels will be constructed by “British-led teams”, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has announced.
While international companies will be invited to work in collaboration with UK firms, “the successful manufacturing team must be led by a British company”.
“This will have a huge impact on the local economies across the UK where shipbuilding is a prominent feature. Hundreds of highly skilled jobs will be created as a direct result of today’s announcement, with many more in small and medium sized enterprises throughout the supply chain for the new builds to follow over the next few years.”
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said:
“Shipbuilding has historically been a British success story, and I am determined to revitalise this amazing industry as part of this Government’s commitment to build back better. The Fleet Solid Support warships competition will be the genesis of a great UK shipbuilding industry, and allow us to develop the skills and expertise for the shipyards of tomorrow.”
According to a statement from the Ministry of Defence:
“The Fleet Solid Support ship competition will build on the success of the Type 31 programme, which will be built primarily in Scotland and is expected to support 1250 highly skilled jobs and 150 apprenticeships across the country.
The Fleet Solid Support warships competition will be designed to challenge the shipbuilding industry. The goal will be to build ships fit for the future, while boosting homegrown skills and leading to a highly competitive shipbuilding industry.
The warships will incorporate next-generation technology with a purpose-built design and will eventually support HMS Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales as part of the Carrier Strike Group, which will undertake its first operational deployment next year. Today’s announcement follows a period of market engagement and a clearer understanding of how the strike group will operate and will allow the MOD to consider a broader range of ship designs. As well as setting out requirements for British involvement, the Fleet Solid Support ship competition will set targets to ensure industry delivers on time and at pace.”
The build competition was initially offered internationally, meeting strong criticism from all sides of the political spectrum and even the UK Defence Journal. The tendering process for the ships was even suspended last year, with some suggesting the process was being restructured to better favour British bids.
Better late than never?
Earlier in the year, The National Audit Office released a report titled ‘Carrier Strike – Preparing for deployment’, the report examines the MoD’s management of the programme since 2017 and the risks towards achieving Carrier Strike’s full capabilities.
Under the Carrier Enabled Power Projection concept, the operational freedom of a carrier group relies on support ships providing munitions and stores where and when they are needed. However, delays are posing risks to the programme say the NAO.
“The Department has been slow to develop the solid support ships which are crucial to operating a carrier strike group. Carrier Strike relies on the sustained availability of munitions and stores, such as ammunition and food. However, the Department has only one ship able to resupply a carrier group, which slows the tempo and reach at which this can be done. It has long been aware that this will restrict the operational freedom of Carrier Strike but has not yet developed a solution.
In November 2019, the Department stopped the competition to build three new support ships due to concerns about value for money. It believes this will delay the introduction of new ships by between 18 and 36 months, making it uncertain the first new ship will be operational before the existing support ship leaves service in 2028. The Department will also incur additional maintenance costs while it uses its existing support ship as an interim solution.”
The Department has long known that deploying Carrier Strike will depend on two types of support ship:
• tankers supplying oil and water; and
• solid support ships, carrying food, ammunition and general stores.
In April 2020, the MoD was reviewing its options and the impact on the delivery schedule. It has recognised that achieving full capabilities of a carrier strike group depends on the new support ships being available from the mid-2020s.
The NAO say that the MoD will need to assess the impact of any delay when it considers whether it has met the final CEPP programme milestone for full operating capability in 2026.
“In the meantime, only one of the three current Royal Fleet Auxiliary solid support ships is capable of resupplying the carriers. RFA Fort Victoria entered service in 1994 and is due to retire in 2028, having already been extended beyond its 25-year service life. The Department has allocated £2 million to modify RFA Fort Victoria so it can replenish the carriers at sea and in 2016 budgeted up to £42 million to operate the ship to 2028. Having only one support ship with limited cargo capacity slows the tempo and reach at which the Department can replenish a carrier group. In addition, the Department will have restricted options for deploying the carriers for much of 2022 because RFA Fort Victoria will be unavailable due to major planned maintenance work.”
However, the MoD now expects there will be a delay of between 18 and 36 months to the new ships entering service, meaning the first ship would be operational between October 2027 and April 2029.
Where might they be built?
Belfast appears to be the favourite to construct the vessels after InfraStrata, the firm that bought Harland and Wolff, signed a memorandum of understanding with Navantia.
Navantia say that the agreement with InfraStrata at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast will allow them “to work on the Fleet Solid Support Ships and other offshore projects”.
Navantia are participating in this tender in partnership with BMT, their design is pictured at the top of this article).
The rationale for this, say Navantia, is that “BMT has proven naval design and engineering capability, including support ships for the UK (Tide Class) and Norwegian (HNoMS Maud) defence ministries, and as design partner in the Carrier Alliance”.
The firm adds that “through the combined strengths of their partnership, the Navantia-BMT proposal assures low technical risk, budget viability and timely delivery”.