The Ministry of Defence have confirmed that said the competition to build the vessels will begin next year and will see “a significant proportion of the build and assembly work to be carried out in the UK”.
The 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 suspended last year, with some suggesting the process was being restructured to better favour British bids.
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.”
The Ministry of Defence have also stated that “international companies will be invited to work in collaboration with UK firms to feed in their skills and expertise” however “the successful manufacturing team must be led by a British company”.
However, Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions General Secretary Ian Waddell said:
“The news that the successful bid will be led by a British firm is welcome but it only promises a ‘significant proportion’ of the work will be completed in Britain, which could be open to all sorts of interpretation. The facts of the matter are that deSpite some recent good news, British shipbuilding continues to hang by a thread.
The UK built up world class skills to deliver the aircraft carrier and FSS will be a vital bridge to maintain the industry to the next round of naval procurement, which could guarantee jobs for a generation. Without FSS supporting every shipyard in the UK we will lose those jobs and those skills forever.”
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.