British-Spanish Team Bid to Build the Fleet Solid Support Ship

 In Sea, Spain, VIC

This week ‘Team Resolute’ went public. This is a new part­ner­ship between Spanish ship­builder, Navantia, Belfast ship­yard, Harland & Wolff and naval archi­tects, BMT to bid for the Fleet Solid Support (FSS) ship con­tract. Here we con­sid­er this part­ner­ship and sum­marise the story of FSS so far.

Team Resolute

The naval archi­tec­ture pedi­gree of BMT com­bined with Navantia’s recent track record of build­ing naval stores ships was already the basis for a very cred­i­ble bid for FSS. Unfortunately, their plan to con­struct the ships entire­ly in Spain always looked polit­i­cal­ly unwork­able. The inclu­sion of Harland and Wolff is a way to sur­mount this obsta­cle, although raises many other ques­tions. H&W have not con­struct­ed a naval vessel since RFA Fort Victoria 30 years ago and cur­rent­ly have a work­force num­ber­ing just 130 people.

Despite their illus­tri­ous ship­build­ing her­itage, H&W nar­row­ly escaped obliv­ion last year. in June the owners, Dolphin Drilling, filed for bank­rupt­cy and put the yard up for sale. The sav­iour was energy firm InfraStrata Plc which bought the yard in September, appar­ent­ly plan­ning to use the site to con­struct ele­ments of their Islandmagee underground gas storage plant off the coast of Country Antrim. Subsequent to the buy-out, a new man­age­ment team with sub­stan­tial UK and inter­na­tion­al ship­yard expe­ri­ence has been assem­bled in Belfast.

InfraStrata con­firmed to us that their plan would see mod­ules for the lead vessel built in both Belfast and Spain with more mod­ules of the 2nd (and pos­si­bly 3rd) being built in Belfast. A large con­tin­gent of UK work­ers would be brought over and trained by Navantia. The plan will enable con­cur­rent fab­ri­ca­tion of the ships at both H&W and Navantia’s Puerto Real ship­yards. New jobs will be cre­at­ed, a local skills base does still exist as around 1,200 work­ers were laid off prior to the InfraStrata acqui­si­tion.

Team Resolute say their bid would “re-estab­lish a skills base for UK ship­build­ing in Northern Ireland, The trans­fer of Navantia’s cut­ting edge knowl­edge to Harland & Wolff will sup­port the mod­erni­sa­tion and avail­abil­i­ty of this UK sov­er­eign asset for FSS and beyond.” Navantia have devel­oped a dig­i­tal ship­yard con­cept named ‘Shipyard 4.0’, which they promise to share with all UK part­ners across the supply chain. This system includes dig­i­tal con­nec­tiv­i­ty, cyber­se­cu­ri­ty, robot­ics and logis­tics, ensur­ing con­sis­ten­cy in the pro­duc­tion process and improv­ing con­nec­tiv­i­ty between people, prod­ucts and machines. Navantia has deliv­ered 40 ships on time to cus­tomers world­wide over the last 5 years and recent­ly built ves­sels for the Australian, Norwegian and Turkish navies.

The BMT design is based on an existing mature design and aims to maximise the commonality of equipment and components with the Tide Class RFAs. This will facilitate reduced training overheads, smart documentation and intelligent spares holdings across the fleet. Integrated Logistic Support (ILS) has been fully considered to minimise through-life costs and maximise time at sea. Navatia have expertise in using predictive maintenance using artificial intelligence with data analysis, virtual reality simulators to reduce support costs. H&W are also hopeful of winning the MoD’s ‘Future In-Service Support’ (FISS) contract to maintain the ships in service.

InfraStrata have big ambi­tions for H&W and say that secur­ing the FSS work would enable them to “dis­rupt the UK defence ship­build­ing duop­oly that cur­rent­ly exists” They also argue it could strength­en their posi­tion to tender for con­tracts in the oil & gas, cruise & ferry, com­mer­cial and renew­able sec­tors and are in dis­cus­sions with Navantia about fur­ther team­ing agree­ments in rela­tion to off­shore wind farms.

Beyond FSS, there are not many other large UK naval projects on the hori­zon and H&W is unlike­ly to re-estab­lish itself as a major player in naval con­struc­tion. Although Team Resolute say they have iden­ti­fied other oppor­tu­ni­ties in the inter­na­tion­al naval market, it is hard to envis­age Navantia pass­ing naval con­tracts to the UK instead of build­ing in Spain. The two large dry docks pos­sessed by H&W are, how­ev­er, poten­tial sites for under­tak­ing major refits of the QEC aircraft carriers in future.

There is a cer­tain irony that Britain, once the ship­build­ing pow­er­house of the world could be reliant on a tech­nol­o­gy trans­fer from aboard to build ships for its navy. Should Team Resolute win the bid, it would cer­tain­ly be good for Northern Ireland and there is an appeal in seeing naval ves­sels being built by this iconic ship­yard once again. Breathing new life into the Belfast yard would also be in line with the government’s pros­per­i­ty agenda and efforts to ‘level up’ the economies of the provinces. FSS could pro­vide a path­way to oppor­tu­ni­ties beyond naval con­struc­tion for H&W but in there is already over-capac­i­ty in UK ship­build­ing and moves fur­ther away from the idea of con­cen­tra­tion of exper­tise at one or two effi­cient ‘super yards’.

 

The 3 existing Fort-class vessels are ageing fast and the need for replacements to re-supply the carrier strike group remains.

The FSS story so far…

FSS was orig­i­nal­ly part of the ambi­tious MARS (Military Afloat Reach Sustainability) project that the MoD embarked on in the early 2000s to replace the major­i­ty of RFA ves­sels. MARS suf­fered death by a thou­sand cuts, even­tu­al­ly only deliv­er­ing the 4 Tide-class tankers. Some early con­cepts for FSS devel­oped by the NDP (Naval Design Partnership) includ­ed a very large ship with ‘steel beach’ and vehi­cle deck. Later con­cepts are closer to the more con­ven­tion­al US Navy (T‑AKE‑1) stores ship design.

November 2015
The defence review (SDSR) con­firms the inten­tion to build three new solid stores sup­port ships.

September 2017
The National Shipbuilding Strategy (NSbS) is pub­lished and sets off a two-year con­tro­ver­sy by stat­ing the FSS con­tract would be open to inter­na­tion­al bid­ders to “test UK yards against for­eign com­pe­ti­tion”. This policy is jus­ti­fied by labelling them “non war­ships”.

6 May 2018
For the first time, the number of ships is in doubt. The MoD issues a Contract Notice asking for poten­tial bid­ders to build two ships, with an option for a third.

30 November 2018
It is announced that five bid­ders had been accept­ed for the FSS com­pe­ti­tion. The British con­sor­tium, ‘Team UK’ is made up by Babcock, BAE Systems, Cammell Laird and Rolls-Royce. Fincantieri, Navantia, Japan Marine United Corporation, and DSME of South Korea are invit­ed to submit a tender for the com­pe­ti­tion.

25 Feb 2019
Rear Admiral Paul Marshall appoint­ed by the navy as the Senior Responsible Officer (SRO) Fleet Solid Support Programme (FSSP).

March 2019
The con­tro­ver­sy over build­ing the ves­sels over­seas rum­bles on. The House of Commons Defence Committee is not impressed and writes to the Defence Secretary demand­ing clar­i­fi­ca­tion as to why FSS are being clas­si­fied as “non-com­bat­ants”. Brexit-relat­ed polit­i­cal insta­bil­i­ty induces a rapid turnover of Defence Secretaries and Junior Ministers which ulti­mate­ly results in grow­ing sup­port within gov­ern­ment for buying British.

May 2019
The Financial Times reports that JMUC, DSME and Fincantieri have with­drawn from the com­pe­ti­tion, leav­ing Navantia head-to-head with ‘Team UK’.

Sept 2019
Spanish ship­builder Navantia and UK naval engi­neer­ing spe­cial­ists, BMT announce they have formed a part­ner­ship for the bid. Their out­line design is revealed at DSEI.

4th November 2019
Two years after it was first pub­lished, Sir John Parker is asked to review the imple­men­ta­tion of the National Shipbuilding Strategy. When the review is pub­lished, it is clear he has changed his tune and now says “I rec­om­mend that UK-only com­pe­ti­tion should be con­sid­ered for future defence-funded ves­sels”.

6th November 2019
The Defence Secretary announces the FSS com­pe­ti­tion has been sus­pend­ed. The accom­pa­ny­ing MoD state­ment is strange, saying the bids were “not com­pli­ant with com­mer­cial terms and not deliv­er­ing on value for money expec­ta­tions.”

March 2020
It is revealed that the RN could be plan­ning to dis­pense with the Fleet Solid Support ship (FSS) and Littoral Strike Ship (LSS) con­cepts and stan­dard­ise on a single hull known as the Multi-Role Support Ship (MRSS). The FSS has many unique and demand­ing require­ments and the common hull con­cept is proved to be just a rumour. MRSS is pos­si­bly the solu­tion to the LPD and LSS replace­ment but FSS is still alive.

7 May 2020
The Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace says FSS com­pe­ti­tion will “prob­a­bly be restart­ed in September 2020”.

26 May 2020
Navantia and BMT announce Harland & Wolff will join their ‘Team Resolute’ part­ner­ship, bid­ding on the basis of skills trans­fer to Belfast.

The future
The Pandemic leaves public finances in a par­lous state. When the dust set­tles and a Comprehensive Spending Round and Defence Review final­ly get going, FSS is a project that looks vul­ner­a­ble to the sav­ings axe. The indus­tri­al and eco­nom­ic ben­e­fits are likely to carry greater polit­i­cal weight than the needs of the navy when fight­ing to keep the project alive.

Images: Team Resolute

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