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Article first published on Sep 11th, courtesy of “Save the Royal Navy”

Spanish shipbuilder Navantia and UK naval engineering specialists, BMT have formed a partnership to bid for the contract to build the Fleet Solid Support ships (FSS). At DSEI they released more details of their design.

The FSS is one of the last parts of the jigsaw in the generation of the UK Carrier Strike group. New ships are needed to replace the three ageing Fort class RFAs. Only RFA Fort Victoria has been upgraded to replenish the carriers with large loads using the heavy RAS rigs. As it stands, the FSS procurement remains an open international competition to build two ships with an option for a third. Navantia/BMT are the first of the competitors to reveal any details about their design. The British consortium (Babcock, BAE Systems, Cammell Laird & Rolls-Royce) has remained quiet about their proposal. Nothing has been made public by the other competitors and there is some doubt if the Japanese (MUC), South Korean (DSME) and Italian (Fincantieri) companies all remain in the competition. FSS concept designs were delivered to the MoD in July 2018 and final designs submitted in early September.

BMT are a respected naval architecture and engineering house that have worked on many projects for the RN and overseas navies. Despite the teething troubles, the Tide class tankers designed by BMT are considered a major success. BMT say they considered joining the British FSS consortium but they would have derived a very limited work share and they considered the design proposal under development to be weak.Navantia have a very large dry dock with two goliath cranes for assembly large blocks at their facility in Puerto Real in South-West Spain. Their recent experience building the Cantabria class Combat Support Ships for the Spanish and Australian Navies is something no UK yard can match.

The BMT design is evolved from the Tide class tankers but with a finer hull form. It will have similar efficient twin shaft diesel-electric propulsion capable of driving the ship at a sustained 18 knots. The ships will meet the MoD requirements for a capacity of 7,000 m2 for ammunition, food and stores. They can conduct simultaneous replenishment of two vessels steaming at up to 12 knots and transfer large loads up to 5 tonnes using their heavy RAS rigs. The geometry and positioning of the rigs will be compatible with the proven HRAS rigs installed on the QEC aircraft carriers.

Contrary to early speculation, the MoD has not specified a highly automated system for the handling of ammunition and stores, similar to that used on the aircraft carriers. An arrangement similar to the existing Fort class vessels, using manually operated forklifts and elevators will be used.

Navantia’s shipyard near Cadiz has a large dry dock that has plenty of space to assemble large vessels. Its resemblance to the recently closed Harland & Wolff facility in Belfast is rather ironic.Navantia is promising the UK supply chain will benefit by at least £400 Million of the approximately £1Billion that will be spent on the ships. Following the pattern of the Tide class procurement, a UK shipyard will have the chance to bid for the military equipment fit-out and customisation work. A supplier conference is being held at DSEI on Friday for companies interested in contributing to the project and Navantia are also offering potential technology transfer of their digital shipyard expertise along with the chance to partner in other export work.

Due to the relative efficiency of Navantia, advocates of all-British construction may have to face a difficult conundrum. Buy British and get two ships, or build in Spain and get three vessels. Do you prioritise the needs of the navy and frontline now or sustain UK jobs and industry so it will be in a better position next time the RN needs new ships?

Renderings of the FSS by the MoD’s Naval Design Partnership. They are intended only to be indicative of the type of design that might be the solution although uncannily similar to the BMT proposal.

Simplistic BMT model of their FSS concept on display at DSEI. The model has been kept deliberately basic so as not to reveal too much to their competitors.
The Tide class heritage is most obvious at the bow with similar visor design and twin skeg hull form at the stern. Note the HRAS rigs in a staggered layout with one behind the superstructure on the port side.

The Navantia/BMT FSS package looks like a very credible solution but would be a highly unpopular choice in many quarters of the UK. As Britain leaves the European Union at great cost to national harmony and stability, a politician who announces the award of a substantial contract to a Spanish shipyard might be considered ‘courageous’. Spanish vessels continuing to make illegal incursions into Gibraltar territorial waters further undermine Anglo-Spanish relations, something RN personnel are especially conscious of. Should his government survive, Boris Johnson and many of his ministers are considered to be rather more patriotic than many preceding administrations and may need little encouragement to ‘buy British’, whatever the merits of the overseas bids.

(Main image: MoD Crown Copyright modified by BMT with permission)

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