The Military Afloat Reach and Sustainability (MARS) project has had more lives than a whole herd of cats, on, off and on again. Most of the indecision has been driven by cost issues and delays around the CVF. Originally intended to replace the existing replenishment ships and provide a joint sea based logistics capability, the sea basing concept seemed all the rage in the US so as usual, the UK followed.
The RFA logistics capability is a vital enabler; it does not attract much attention and certainly does not have the glamour of a sleek warship but make no mistake, the RN would simply not be able to operate without them.
It is a capability we neglect at our peril.
Towards the end of last year it showed signs of twitching back to life with the Afloat Support (AfSup) directorate in DE&S launching a pre-qualification phase for the Fleet Tanker element.
With a reduced fleet size in all areas the need for at sea replenishment self evidently becomes decreased.
The existing fleet is quite diverse.
The replacement for Rover and Fleet Class has evolved over the years and it is likely that these will be replaced by a single design. The IMO pollution regulations, commonly called MARPOL, are a significant driver for the new designs. Although government owned ships are exempt the UK Government has always ensured that compliance with international and cascaded national maritime regulations is achieved in its fleet. None of the RFA fleet is compliant (double hulls etc) except the Wave class. The older vessels do not benefit from modern engineering and machinery so are likely to be significantly more expensive to operate than a new design.
The original project called for 6 vessels to replace the 4 Leaf/Rover class, subsequently reduced to 5, If CVF is cancelled the need for aviation fuel will be reduced so 4 may be a more reasonable number.
BMT, BAe, Daewoo, Ficantieri, Rolls Royce and Hyundai have shown interest and the BMT Aegir family would, as Jed has stated, would seem like an excellent fit and is available in 3 sizes and 2 configurations.
The largest is the Aegir 26 (26,000 tonnes) and is a large fuel only tanker, with 24,000 cubic metres of cargo fuel. The smallest is the Aegir 10 (10,000 tonnes) with 8,000 cubic metres of cargo fuel.
The intermediate design is the Aegir 18 (18,000 tonnes) and is available in a fuel only configuration with 16,000 cubic metres of cargo fuel or a split configuration (18R) that has a cargo fuel capacity of 12,000 cubic metres and cargo stores capacity of 1,350 cubic metres. The 18R also has a large aviation capacity.
4 Aegir 18’s would provide approximately 15% less cargo fuel capacity than the Rover and Leaf class but given the reduction in aviation fuel capacity this would be acceptable.
Another option to consider would be to purchase 6 of the 18R design to provide greater flexibility; these would offer more or less the same fuel capacity and be able to provide both refrigerated and dry stores capacity as well as some aviation capacity.
It is likely that single or small task group deployments are more likely to be the norm so 4 might be a reduction too far and recent experience with RFA vessels has shown that they can actually supplement or replace RN vessels in some deployments. Carrying a Lynx or two, a selection of fast attack craft like RHIB’s/CB90 and a small contingency of Royal Marines they can be effective in the smuggling or piracy interdiction role.
After the Leaf/Rover class go out of service the Fort class will follow, these will be hard to replace because they are extremely capable. The MARS programme originally called for these to be replaced with two classes of vessel (much like the existing Fort class)
The Fleet Solid Support Ship and Joint Sea Based Logistic Ship are primarily designed to support the CVF and amphibious group. At this stage the potential to extend the service life of the existing designs should be seriously considered.
Looking beyond that, designs such as the Joint Logistic Support Ship, as suggested by Jed in his earlier post should be seriously considered to fulfill both requirements although 4 may not be required if CVF is cancelled at the brigade ashore support capability is not realised.
RFA Argus is due to go out of service at around the same time as Ocean and is an usual vessel because she has two primary roles, in wartime the extremely modern 100 bed hospital meets the Primary Casualty Receiving role and in peace time the extensive aviation facilities are used for training. Because it is an RFA not RN vessel is very cheap to operate and has shown its versatility on many occasions, standing in for RN vessels in extremis.
Operational medical care has been transformed during the Afghanistan operation with more complex and extensive medical capabilities being closer to areas of operation with extra treatment being carried out in the UK but this does not mean there is no longer a need for an afloat hospital facility.
Aviation training for deck handling, large and small vessel landing with everything from Chinook to Lynx and in all weather conditions is carried out on Argus. The US military use a smaller vessel for deck landing training, the IX-514 but they have the benefit of a much larger surface fleet for follow on or advanced training. The Royal Navy does not have that luxury so that makes Argus particularly valuable.
In an earlier post we suggested a C2 design based on an offshore supply vessel supported by a Bay type support ship equipped with RAS equipment. The Dutch JSS is a larger version of this and is a very interesting design. With an obvious reference to the Enforcer class upon which the Bay class is based the JSS is a large ship, displacing some 28,000 tonnes. The Dutch wanted a versatile ship out of which they could squeeze maximum value, it has to be able to resupply vessels with fuel, weapons and dry stores, provide a secondary aviation capacity, have command and hospital facilities and carry significant loads of equipment for an embarked force.
It will have 2 replenishment at sea masts, an elevator and crane for up to 40 tonnes, 2000 lane meters of vehicle or ISO container storage, roll on/roll off (Ro-Ro) ramps and a well deck. A large helicopter deck can handle up to 2 CH-47 Chinook heavy-lift helicopters, and the hangar will be able to hold up to 6 Merlin or even 2 Chinooks without the rotors folded.
The RFA might not need the command facilities but being able to provide support for a range of vessels, replace RFA Argus is the aviation and casualty receiving role and also carry stores for an embarked force would be a valuable capability to have.
The contract value is for £320million and as Jed suggested, some collaborative funding arrangement with DfID may be worth pursuing given the types obvious advantages for the initial phases of a disaster relief operation.
It may even be worth reducing the fleet tanker numbers to obtain more of these versatile ships.