Work will begin in two years’ time on a trio of ships to support Royal Navy carrier and amphibious task groups around the globe after a £1.6bn contract was signed with a British-led consortium.
The order for the Fleet Solid Support ships will deliver three ships to the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) by 2032, providing ammunition, spare parts, replacement jet engines, food and provisions to sustain large-scale naval operations hundreds or thousands of miles from the UK.
The role is currently performed by a solitary ship, RFA Fort Victoria (A387), which accompanied HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08) and her carrier strike group on her maiden deployment in 2021.
She’s over 30 years old and despite receiving a major overhaul once again, ultimately needs replacing – and needs sisters to spread the workload.
Beyond a reinvigoration of the RFA, the as-yet unnamed ships/class remark a major investment in UK shipbuilding, with millions pumped into improving facilities at two yards and the creation of 1,200 jobs, three quarters of them in Belfast, plus an anticipated 800 further jobs across the UK supply chain.
As part of the contract signed with Team Resolute – comprising BMT, Harland and Wolff and Navantia UK – £77 million will be invested in infrastructure at the former’s Belfast and Appledore shipyards, and a further £21 million in skills and technology transfer from Navantia.
The deal also brings naval shipbuilding back to Belfast after a break of nearly a quarter of a century.
Visiting the Harland and Wolff yard to announce the contract’s signing, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said: «This contract is a significant boost to the UK’s historic shipbuilding industry, balancing shipbuilding across the Union. Creating jobs and prosperity, Team Resolute is bringing shipbuilding back to Belfast, developing a modern, resilient and thriving shipbuilding industry that will support naval and commercial shipbuilding into the future».
Built to a design by Bath-based BMT, with many common systems, equipment and features as the Tide-class tankers already in service, at 216 metres/709 feet, the new support ships will be second only to the UK’s two aircraft carriers in length.
The majority of the blocks and modules for the ships will be constructed at Harland and Wolff’s facilities in Belfast and Appledore, some construction work will take place at Navantia’s Cadiz yard, with the three vessels assembled in Belfast.
Harland and Wolff chief executive John Wood praised the government’s investment and faith in his firm, hailing it as the «last chance to capture the excellent shipbuilding skills that remain in Belfast and Appledore before they are lost and pass them on to the next generation of UK shipbuilders. The UK Government has seized this opportunity and in doing so ensured the long-term survival of our shipyards and significantly bolstered sovereign shipbuilding capability».
Work to revamp the two yards and training/upskilling workers will begin immediately. Production is due to start in 2025, with all three support ships expected to be operational by 2032.