UK Fleet Solid Support Ships strategy sparks debate

Harry Lye 5 February 2020 (Last Updated February 5th, 2020 16:46)

The UK Government has remained quiet on how the contract to build the Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s new Fleet Solid Support Ships will proceed after having paused the programme last year, while MPs have questioned the ability of the Royal Navy to field full carrier strike groups.

UK Fleet Solid Support Ships strategy sparks debate
FSS concept image. Credits: BMT.

During parliamentary questions on defence, when pushed on whether the contract would be awarded to a UK firm, Defence Minister James Heappey said that the contract had not yet been restarted.

Responding to a question on the issue, Heappey said: “In November, the Secretary of State agreed that the Fleet Solid Support Ship competition should be stopped as it had become clear that a value-for-money solution could not be reached.

“The Department is now considering the most appropriate way forward.”

The competition to build the ships was thrown open to international tender after the Ministry of Defence chose not to classify the ships as warships, meaning they could be built overseas. In that case, overseas-built would have had sensitive equipment installed by British shipyards after delivery.

The £1bn tender for the construction of three ships was brought up in last year’s general election, with opposition parties committing in their manifestos to build these ships in the UK. The competition was put on ice a day after the MOD published Sir John Parker’s review of the National Shipbuilding Strategy where he expressed concern at the decision to possibly build the ships abroad.

At the time Parker wrote: “There is significant parliamentary, industry and public interest in increasing the number of categories of ships eligible for UK only competition. While I do not wish to delay or damage the procurement of the Fleet Solid Support ships.

“I recommend that UK-only competition should be considered for future defence-funded vessels including amphibious vessels and mine countermeasure vessels.”

Responding to a question on the ships earlier in January, Heappey said: “The decision to stop the Fleet Solid Support ship competition was taken because it had become clear that a value for money solution could not be reached.

“The Ministry of Defence is currently assessing the options, and as part of this process will review the requirement and any procurement strategy. It is not possible to provide any further details until this work has been completed.”

The Fleet Solid Support Ships are designed to support the UK’s two new Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carriers while they are on deployment resupplying them with food, ammunition and other supplies.

Is the fleet big enough?

During the debate, the topic also turned to the size of the Royal Navy, with some MPs questioning whether the current surface fleet was sizable enough to support the effective deployment of the new carriers.

Speaking in the debate on frigates and destroyers, Conservative MP Andrew Bowie said: “May I raise concerns that many are bringing to me—that at the minute we simply do not have enough ships to protect our two new aircraft carriers should they ever have to go to sea at the same time?

“Is it still the commitment of the Government to have two wholly UK sovereign deployable carrier groups to deploy at the same time, should we ever have to, while maintaining our other commitments overseas?”

In response, Heappey said: “Although that has never been the policy of the government, both aircraft carriers have been brought into service to ensure that one is always available 100% of the time.

“Although the precise number and mix of vessels deployed within a maritime task group would depend on operational circumstances, we will be able to draw from a range of highly capable vessels, such as Type 45 destroyers, Type 23 frigates, and the Astute class submarines—and, in the near future, Type 26 frigates as well.”

Heappey said earlier in the debate that the UK Government remains “committed to ensuring that the Royal Navy will have the ships required to fulfil its defence commitments.”

Other MPs also voiced their concerns about the standing surface fleet’s ability to protect the new carriers. MP Kevan Jones raised the issue that the problem might not lie solely with the size of the fleet but also the number of vessels laid up in yards undergoing maintenance.

Jones said: “The issue is not just about the number of ships that the Royal Navy possesses, but whether they are operationally effective or not. From July 2018 to July 2019, two of the six Type 45 destroyers did not put to sea, and a third spent fewer than 100 days at sea. What will the Minister be doing to ensure that the existing ships are operationally ready?”

In response, Heappey said that as a defence minister he was ‘concerned’ by the number of ships ‘tied up against walls’ than by the number of vessels currently at sea. He added: “The Secretary of State has made the delivery of more ships for the fleet his priority for the Navy.”

Update on the National Shipbuilding Strategy

Today the House of Commons Library released an update on the National Shipbuilding Strategy.

The update reads: “MPs are divided over the Government’s approach towards UK-only versus international competitions for different categories of surface vessels. Labour and the SNP are calling on the Ministry of Defence (MOD) to restrict the competition for new support ships to UK yards to support the UK shipbuilding industry.

“Some MPs and Lords question whether the Royal Navy’s current fleet of 19 frigates and destroyers is sufficient. There are indications there may be fewer in the mid-2020s.”

The update says that ‘smaller shipyards have not fared well’ over the past few years, with the closure of Babcock’s yard in Appledore, Harland and Wolff in Belfast, and Ferguson Marine in Glasgow raising concerns. The briefing paper does not however that since entering administration, Harland and Wolff have been bought and reopened and Ferguson Marine nationalised.