Tuesday, April 5, 2011

MARS: alive and breathing (even if weakly)

In the last month or so, i've noticed a couple of small news which have had a very limited diffusion and almost no visibility at all, but which is worth pointing out, because they are two rare "breaths" of the long-delayed MARS programme for the renewal of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary fleet.

The Military Afloat Reach and Sustainability (MARS) borns from the need of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary to replace most of its existing tankers in order to meet an amendment to MARPOL regulations (the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships 1973 and the Protocol of 1978) that requires tankers to be double hulled.  With the exception of the still relatively new Wave-class tankers, the RFA has a single hulled tanker fleet which will became non-compliant with MARPOL in 2010, although a waiver can be claimed for government owned ships at least until 2015.

Initial Gate approval to enter the Assessment Phase was originally expected in early 2004 (Feb to April), but was delayed to early 2005 due  to funding constraints. Making a full history of the expected dates and relative delays would provide for a depressing and boring read, so you'll pardon me if we fast skip to late July/early August 2007, when the MOD abandoned MARS as an integrated project with an estimated cost of £2.5 billion, and dropped plans to select a single integrator.  The MOD stated on 8 August 2007 that "The announcement of the CVF contract, combined with the changing industrial landscape ... led us to review our approach to MARS .. the decision not to proceed with the MARS integrator competition has been taken in this context". The project, which had been conceived as a single procurement effort spanning on over a decade and envisaging 11 ships, was so broken down into separate, smaller, lower cost and (hopefully) faster moving projects.

The first of those is the MARS FT (Fleet Tanker), intended to provide the RFA's urgently needed new double hull tankers.
On 10 December 2007 the MOD issued an "Invitation to Participate in Dialogue" to industry to for up to six fleet tankers at an expected total cost of £800 million, and on 21 May 2008 the MOD announced the results of the invitation - four companies have been shortlisted:  Fincantieri (Italy); Hyundai (Republic of Korea); Navantia (Spain) and BAE Systems with BMT DSL and DSME (Republic of Korea). Their proposals were to be tested for Value for Money and the MOD was expected to select one of the companies to design and build the new ships in early 2009, which then became 2010 which then became "one day, maybe" when the SDSR came in and nothing at all was sure anymore, with any and every project effectively stalled, in wait of an indication of what the future would have been for them. None of the bidders, anyway, will build the Fleet Tankers in the UK.

Meanwhile, ships continue to require fuel to do their job around the world, and the MARS programme keeps being an absolute priority for the Royal Navy's future. It is evident that the capability of the Royal Navy to deploy and fight all around the world depends by the logistics and fuel and stores provided by the RFA vessels, which are getting old and outdated, when they are not all but decommissioned entirely. 

The cuts to the RFA contained in the SDSR have added new urgency: the RFA is now left with only:

Leaf class: RFA Orangeleaf
The Support Tanker (Orangeleaf is a massive 40.000 tons ex-civilian tanker used to move fuel between MOD depots in the UK and from depots to fleet tankers and ships at sea) is now only one, with the slighty-smaller Bayleaf having been decommissioned (NOTE: the Leaf class is not a "real" class of ships as it is an amalgam of various civilian tankers chartered for naval auxiliary use and as such there have been many different designs of ship in this particular class).

Rover class: RFA Gold Rover
                   RFA Black Rover
These are small (11.000 tons full load) fleet tankers.

There is then, of course, the two Wave class Fast Fleet Tankers.

It is to be pointed out, however, that in 2007 planning, none of the above should now be serving: since the decommissioning dates expected were Gold Rover (2009),  Black Rover (2010), Brambleleaf (2009), Orangeleaf (2009), Oakleaf ( 2010) and Bayleaf (2010).
Even the tankers that remain, as you see, are living (not usually) well past their foreseen pay-off dates.

The MARS FT requirement will replace the Rover and Leaf class ships, providing tankers that will serve alongside the modern Waves. The primary role of the proposed Fleet Tanker Class is to deliver bulk fluids such as Marine Gas Oil, Aviation Kerosene, Single Battlefield Fuel, and Potable Water, to Naval Task Groups (including CVF), Naval Combatants, and other Auxiliary ships. Typically, transfer takes place by abeam replenishment via the delivering ship’s RAS(L) rig. Other methods will be utilised, however, for different replenishment situations and sea-states, such as astern refuelling or over the bow transfer to a single point mooring buoy.
A further possible role of the Fleet Tankers is to provide aviation support to naval warships or an amphibious taskgroup.  Corresponding aviation facilities, such as a flight deck, hangar, refuelling equipment, air weapons magazine, aircraft maintenance facilities, and accommodation for associated personnel may therefore play a large part in differentiating the overall size and design of the Fleet Tanker Class from commercial tankers of equivalent cargo capacity. This capability is seen as a large driver of ship cost, but it is also a kind of remedy to the shortage of "fighting" warships: the RN in the last few years has been seen often using RFA vessels and even Bay class LSD(A) in roles more akin to a frigate than a tanker, and with the reduction in the surface fleet, it has already been announced that tasks such as the ongoing presence effort in the Caribean will be carried out not with frigates but with RFA assets.
It is evident that to use a tanker with any hope of success in any anti drug-smuggling, anti-piracy or disaster-relief operation, space for an Embarked Military Force and proper helicopter flight are requirements that simply can't be ignored.

Acquiring civilian vessels to convert for service was considered, but it proved impossible: there is no great availability of double hulled tankers that the MOD could buy or charter. Civilian companies themselves are still often operating single-hulled tankers, and there's definitely no modern tankers to spare at the moment.
Which is why the final approach is to build a modified civilian hull in a foreign country (as far as South Korea potentially) and eventually complete the fitting-out for service in the UK. Number planned was 6 tankers. I believe 4 is now more likely.

The MOD requires that the FTs are constructed with quality equipment and material of proven reliability and be:
  • interoperable to NATO standards and with NATO assets
  • designed to maximise reliability, facilitate ease of maintenance, repair or replacement and minimise through life costs
  • designed with open architectures that facilitate support and readily enable future capability upgrades and incorporation of emerging technologies
  • capable of operations worldwide, seasonally unrestricted from Tropical to Arctic (1st Year Ice). 
Indicative characteristics of the FTs are:
  • Petroleum Class II and III clean product compliant, reconfigurable for two grades concurrently with capacity up to 18000 m3
  • Carriage of 8 fully laden 20ft ISO containers
  • Potable water cargo capacity of 1300m3
  • Sustained speed of 15knots in Sea State 5
  • Range of 7000nm
  • Replenishment at Sea rigs to include three abeam tensioned jackstay rigs, one astern fuelling reel, single buoy mooring point
  • Helicopter deck and facilities for maintenance and refuelling;
  • Accommodation for up to 100 persons of mixed gender to UK Flag merchant standards
  • Ship life of 25 years
  • OCIMF compliant
  • Classification to Lloyds Register Naval Ship Rules with Naval Ship Auxiliary notation
  • Medium speed diesel propulsion operating on MGO fuel
  • Capable of passage through Panama and Suez canals, i.e. maximum draught of 11m, maximum air draught of 39m, maximum length of 220m.
The ship shall be fitted with equipment and systems to load and offload Cargo (Liquid), Cargo (Solid), Stores (Solid) and Stores (Liquid) to and from:
  1. the shore when in a port
  2. other ships and boats when at anchor
  3. other ships while underway
  4. other ships while rafting
  5. VERTREP by helicopters hovering in flight (solid stores and cargo only)
  6. helicopters on the flight deck
The ships will receive light weapons for self-defence, and be fitted-for-but-not-with a couple of Phalanx CIWS. They should receive a 24 meters hangar (Merlin sized) and also an air-weapons magazine with the weaponry for the onboard helo. There will also be predisposition for soft-kill decoy systems, for which space will be reserved.

It is not entirely clear, but these tankers might be considered by the MOD a (at least partial) replacement also for the Fort II series of ships, the Auxiliary Oiler Replenishers (AOR) RFA Fort Victoria and Fort George.
The AOR is a role that combines the missions of a tanker and stores supply ship: the Fort Victoria class in fact transports (indicatively) 9500 tons of Gasoil and 2400 tons of Aviation fuel, along with a combined 7000 cubic meters of space for stores (3000 of these cubic meters being in refrigerated holds).
These two vessels are the most modern and recent of the 4 Fort class vessels, but they are single-hulled, and because of their main role as oilers, might end up replaced (in the oiler role at least, since the tankers will not have comparable stores capacity) by the MARS FT, despite their planned retirement date having been precedently set at no earlier than 2019. The feeling i have is that Fort Victoria might be retired earlier, with its role as oiler covered by the new tankers and its role as stores replenisher covered by regenerating Fort Austin (currently mothballed, from 2009).
Fort George, as we know, was decommissioned as part of the cuts of the SDSR, and a now likely future for her is being offered to Brazil as part of the mega-deal including the Type 26 frigate and several patrol vessels.

Ironically, the Fort I class of two vessels ( Fort Rosalie and Fort Austin), which was once planned to retire in 2013 and 2014, is now likely to live a lot longer: they are also single-hulled vessels, but their role is to resupply Royal Navy ships with weapons and solid stores, of which they carry 3500 tons each. A dedicate replacement (with two ships indicatively planned) is expected to be issued in the future, but these two Stores and Armament ships are now pretty likely to enjoy a long life.
It is to be noted that RFA Fort Austin was placed in the reserve in 2009, and is currently mothballed. It is expected to be regenerated in the next few years. At least, so was said when RFA Fort George was retired.  

This is to give an idea of what we are talking about. But i'll be back on the MARS world sometime in the future.

Now to the novelty itself, instead: as i said, MARS FT had fallen into darkness and silence during the SDSR time, in which uncertainty ruled over everything.
But MARS FT is not dead, and it let out a breath in April 2011, when this was announced:

A consortium of companies, led by international engineering consultancy Frazer-Nash, has been awarded a contract to support the delivery of new Royal Fleet Auxiliary tanker ships, as part of the MoD’s Military Afloat Reach and Sustainability (MARS) programme.
The MoD has a requirement for a number of tanker ships, double hulled to reflect the need to comply with the International Maritime Organisation, which can effectively and efficiently replenish and sustain the Royal Navy.

Frazer-Nash and its partners — Seatec UK, Babcock Marine and Technology, Atos Consulting and LSC Group — will be providing Afloat Support Shipping Engineering and Technical Services to the MoD’s Afloat Support Project Team.
This will initially involve an extensive range of engineering services, including naval architecture, safety management and analysing through-life costs, to assist the project team in the review of proposals from five bidding companies.


The bidders are the same of the 2008 attempt, but it looks like this time we are moving (even if slowly) towards the selection of the preferred bidder at least, if not to a build order which still isn't totally in sight.
Earlier on, on 3 march, there was also this news coming out: 
Rolls-Royce, the global power systems company, has been selected to supply a unique replenishment-at-sea (RAS) system to the Royal Navy.

It will enable heavier-than-ever loads to be transferred between moving ships, more than doubling the amount of vital supplies which can be moved per transfer.
Rolls-Royce has already completed the detailed design phase of the project and this latest contract, worth £25 million, includes the construction of a land-based demonstrator to trial the new equipment.
Commodore Preston, Head of Afloat Support at the MOD’s Defence Equipment and Support organisation, said: “We are delighted that the contract for this vital training facility has been signed. This equipment will help train Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary crews in real time operational scenarios in a safe and controlled environment before undertaking it at sea.”
Richard Dingley, Rolls-Royce, Senior Vice President Naval - UK and International said: “Replenishment-at-sea is a vital part of modern naval operations and we are delighted to be pioneering an innovative system that will deliver world-leading capability for the Royal Navy. The operational requirements exceed those of any system currently in use with any navy in the world. The ability to move heavier loads, quickly and safely will be essential for the future of the Fleet.”
The demonstrator will be built at the Royal Navy’s primary training facility at HMS Raleigh, near Plymouth. It will be used to train operators of all Royal Navy surface ships in a realistic operating environment. 

This new RAS equipment, for now acquired only in the form of a land-based training facility, is clearly targeted at use on MARS, in particular to the future Store Replenisher ships.

What was the last indication of the shape of MARS? In 2007 the complete plan reported:

  1. Five fleet tankers for delivery between 2011 and 2016. (MARS FT, might drop to 4 ships and the delivery date of 2011 is now obviously never going to happen)
  2. Three joint sea-based logistics vessels for delivery in 2018, 2020 and 2021. (These were possibly the most interesting and clever vessels, targeted at supporting ships at sea, but mainly to support a land-deployment from the sea, providing hospital facilities, workshops, fuel and stores to the 3 Commando brigade or army units deployed abroad. They are now possibly never going to happen because of budget constraints. My personal hope is that there will be, in exchange, a third fleet solid-support ship, and that the 3 vessels will inherit as much capability as possible from the JSBL vessels idea) 
  3. Two fleet solid-support ships for delivery in 2017 and 2019. (3? see above)
  4. A single fleet tanker (CVF/carrier strike) for delivery in 2016 (procured as part of MARS FT, probably. The idea is that it will be a larger fleet tanker with stores capacity specifically targeted at supporting a CVF deployment) 
There is also a OMAR (Operational Maintenance and Repair Ship) concept for the future replacement of RFA Diligence, which was last refitted in 2006, seeing her life extended at least out to 2016. For now this programme appears on hold, and i'll dare saying that Diligence will likely get her life further extended, so that a proper replacement is far away in time.

Luckily, MARS is still alive. A breath every now and then signals that the heart inside is still pumping. The hope is that things will pick up some pace rapidly, because especially in the tankers sector, action is urgently needed.
Ships cannot run out of promises, they need fuel.


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