Funding of the UK Royal Navy (RN) has been consistently squeezed over the past 20 years. Much of that money which has been available, furthermore, has been expended on big ticket items, notably aircraft carriers and nuclear-powered submarines, leaving little to sustain the RN’s paramilitary support arm, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA).
As a result, the RFA’s fleet of replenishment-at-sea (RAS) tankers has become progressively depleted. There was therefore much relief within the RFA top brass when, in 2012, Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering (DSME), of South Korea, was awarded a US$716 million contract to build four 201-metre, 37,000- tonne, diesel-electric powered Tide-class RAS tankers for the service. DSME sub-contracted BMT of UK to provide the design (based on BMT’s AEGIR project), and to supply the requisite RAS gear, while the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) awarded a contract to British shipyard A&P to complete, and commission, the vessels, (‘Tidespring’, ‘Tideforce’, ‘Tidesurge’, and ‘Tiderace’) in the UK, post acceptance from DSME.
All the ships were due to be taken on by the RFA by the end of 2018. This was the first time that a contract for major UK government vessels had been awarded to an overseas yard. The MOD argued strongly that the construction arrangements included much British input, and represented the best value for UK taxpayers, but there was, inevitably, controversy. The government line was that the ships, which feature a large helicopter flight deck and hangar, stealth hull and superstructure, substantial fixed armament, and helicopter control, and surveillance, radars, were not “warlike”, and that their construction overseas did not therefore contravene national policy of building all large, complex, naval vessels indigenously. This assertion was greeted with derision from some commentators.
Also, some accused the MOD of deliberately timing the order to coincide with a period when UK’s greatly reduced warship construction capability was fully engaged with foreign and domestic orders. The ‘Tide’ class project has since entered choppy waters. First of class, ‘Tidespring’, has put to sea for trials in Korean waters (there have been conflicting reports on the ship’s performance to date), but is already eight months late, with no new delivery date scheduled. Two sister ships are reportedly at an advanced stage of construction, but neither has yet proceeded to sea. The state of the fourth remains unclear.
DSME has met with serious trouble over the past year, with insolvency, labour unrest, and corruption allegations, and a former CEO has been arrested. Speculation is rife that these difficulties are a cause of delay. Questions are being asked about the financial health of DSME at the time of the contract award, and whether or not the company would be able to pay any financial penalties which might be incurred by late delivery.
The situation is a delicate one, particularly as it is widely believed that the MOD wants the hulls of three projected new advanced RFA logistic support ships, due to be ordered by 2020, to be built abroad, in order to save money. On the other hand, there are rumours that the RFA is suffering a severe shortage of key personnel, and cannot yet man its new ships, and that the MOD is therefore deferring their delivery. The MOD has so far remained largely silent, other than to give an assurance that the UK taxpayer is not going to suffer any additional expense.
Whatever the causes of the delay, crisis point has been reached. The long-serving old RFA tankers have been retired, and the service is down to just two modern such vessels (one of which is assigned long-term to training support duties in UK waters), and one older, larger, dual role fuel/ dry stores RAS ship. This state of affairs is likely to impact upon UK, NATO, and EU naval operations, particularly as European navies are already chronically short of RAS capability.
Alex Baird is the Managing Director of Baird Maritime