Thursday, August 29, 2013

Thinking about MARS Solid Support Ship

A post by Solomon up at SNAFU has pushed me towards a return to the subject of the crucially important and very interesting MARS Solid Support Ship requirement. I want to briefly explain why, in the Royal Navy that is taking shape in these years, the MARS SSS is crucially important and why giving it RoRo and amphibious capabilities would be an excellent investment.

The discussion is inspired by some early concept images of the MARS SSS ship which have made it out of MOD circles, reaching the public. These images show large, ambitious supply ships with three Heavy RAS stations, two large cranes supporting a couple of LCVP MK5 landing crafts, a RoRo deck with ramp and, apparently, an enclosed well dock, in addition to a large two-spot flight deck and hangar arrangements for three Merlin helicopters, folded.

The objection moved is that MARS SSS looks like a ship that is trying to do too much. In part, it is a correct observation, because MARS SSS comes from the merging of two different requirements. In origin, the Military Afloat Reach and Sustainability (MARS) program was due to deliver six fleet tankers, two Solid Stores replenishment ships and three Joint Sea Based Logistics vessels.
Years of budget cuts have had a dramatic impact on MARS, with its separation in separate workstreams and with a tough reduction in the number of hulls. The MARS FT (Fleet Tanker) workstream, after many long delays, settled for the delivery of four 37.000 tons tankers, with hulls built in South Korea to british design.  The Joint Sea Based Logistic requirement has been killed by the insufficiency of funding, leading to a merging with the Solid Stores replenishment requirement. From an initially envisaged 5 vessels of two types, we are down to aspirations for three vessels of the same design.

With MARS, the Royal Navy had hoped to return to a clean separation of roles between Auxiliaries, taking a step away from the concept of “one stop” replenishment vessels such as Fort Victoria and Fort George, which have been built to be able to provide both fuel and solid stores during a single RAS contact with supported warships.
Following the cuts, while the neat distinction between Tanker and Solid Support vessel will be reinstated, some degree of fusion between requirements is expected to be part of the Solid Support Ship, as the alternative is abandoning every ambition of providing better afloat logistics support to ground troops ashore. The JSBL vessels was to be able to provide stores and support, including maintenance workshops for helicopters and land vehicles, for a up to a complete medium weight brigade engaged on operations even well inland. We’ve never quite gotten to explore the design of such a vessel, since the requirement has been killed before we could reach the stage of the first designs, however extensive Forward Aviation Support (FAS) capabilities, plus a RoRo cargo deck and some means for the transfer of large loads and vehicles to and from landing crafts for delivery ashore were all key points of the ship’s concept.

The MARS SSS will thus need to harmonize the requirements of a Stores replenishment ship, optimized for the support of aircraft carrier operations, with the requirements connected with the support of ground forces in action ashore.

This merging of requirements fits into a wider picture which sees the Royal Navy condemned to do a lot more with a lot less. With the effective, silent death of any program for the replacement of the LPH capability offered by HMS Ocean and by HMS Illustrious, the Royal Navy is reduced to hoping that both of the Queen Elizabeth (CVF) class carriers can make it into active service not as pure strike carriers, but as multirole Landing, Helicopter, Aviation vessels (LHA). This need has been recognized publicly and openly for the first time in the SDSR 2010, with the unveiling of the Carrier Enabled Power Projection plan. The QE-class ships will routinely only carry a single squadron of F35B, but will complement it with elements of a Royal Marines battlegroup, with support helicopters including Chinooks, Merlin and Apache gunships.

As a consequence, the Solid Support Ship will be required to support a carrier which is also an amphibious assault platform, at the centre of the Response Force Task Group of the Royal Navy, an integrated force which replaces the earlier, separated Amphibious Ready Group and CVS battlegroup.

MARS SSS should enter service “around the middle of the next decade”. In fact, during planning round 2011, the Ministry of Defence decided to extend by two years the service life of the current replenishment vessels, Fort Austin (which had been mothballed in 2009 but was brought back in service with an SDSR 2010 decision and a big refit) and Fort Rosalie, so that they are now due to retire in 2023 and 2024. I’ve not been able to find an official, up to date indication of OSD for Fort Victoria, which is younger but has the problem of being an Auxiliary Oiler Replenisher carrying fuel in an outdated single-hull structure. My guess is that she could bow out in 2025.
Fort Austin and Fort Rosalie have a full load displacement of over 23.800 tons, and can carry up to 3500 tons of solid stores in four holds with a total capacity of some 12.200 cubic meters. They have a single spot flight deck and a large hangar, the top of which can be used as an emergency landing platform. Up to four helicopters can be embarked.
Fort Austin has been fitted with two Phalanx CIWS guns, on the two wings of the bridge, prior to sailing with the Cougar 13 task force. You can see them in the photos by Cherbourg Escale

The concept art released for MARS SSS clearly shows a Ro-Ro ramp access (closed), a couple of LCVP MK5s with cranes, a triple hangar for Merlin helicopters and a large, two-spot flight deck. The stern view shows what seems to be a well dock, open for boat operations. Two H-RAS masts are present on the port side, while only one is provided starboard. The RAS masts on the port side are positioned to be able to link up to aircraft lifts openings in the hull of the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers.

Fort Victoria is newer and larger. Designed as a single-stop support vessel capable to provide both fuels and dry stores, she can carry some 70.000 barrels of fuels and oils along with 6234 cubic meters of dry stores. She displaces more than 32.000 tons. She can operate with up to five helicopters and is fitted with a couple of Phalanx CIWS guns for self defence but is no longer compliant to law as she is a single hulled oiler. 

Her sister, Fort George, was decommissioned in the SDSR 2010.

Roles for MARS SSS
The MARS SSS depicted by the concept art is a large, ambitious vessel, but far less compromised and overtasked than other proposed or realized European “Joint Support Ships”, as the JSS normally combines tanker, solid stores and RO/RO amphibious role all in one.
MARS SSS would at least be relieved of the tanker role, and the vast cargo holds needed for solid stores, including ordnance, are relatively compatible with the need for a RoRo deck, with ramp, and even with a well dock. The well dock would be the best way to ensure that the vessel can send stores and vehicles to the forces ashore, in mostly every sea condition, thanks to the controlled environment of the enclosed dock.

The well dock would also enable MARS SSS to embark some landing crafts or the future Force Protection Craft when deploying as part of the Response Force Task Group. This capability, along with the Ro-Ro cargo deck, is important because it would make up for the future loss of the four LCVP MK5s that HMS Ocean currently brings to the party. Ocean also has a (relatively small) space for vehicles and stores, which can be driven onto landing crafts thanks to a ramp leading down to a “steel beach” in the stern, which during operations is expanded with the use of a pontoon that the ship carries, folded, on her flight deck.

The new carriers don’t have a reserved space for the embarkation of vehicles, have no ramp and no steel beach. If vehicles for the amphibious force are to be carried, they have to be craned onto the flight deck and moved into the hangar with the aircraft lifts. During an amphibious assault, such stores and vehicles would only reach the shore if they were Chinook or Merlin portable, as under slung delivery would be the only realistic option. It is not clear yet if the boat bays of CVF are compatible with LCVP MK5s. The carriers have a boat boarding area in the stern, which can be reached by soldiers and sailors thanks to stairs. Marines could use this, weather permitting, to climb aboard landing crafts coming from the LPD and LSDs in the task force, but an additional well dock and more landing craft capacity would no doubt be welcome during operations.  

HMS Ocean's ramp and steel beach. The poonton in the water is carried, folded, on deck, and deployed by crane. HMS Ocean has a relatively small vehicle deck and carries four LCVP MK5. The aircraft carriers that will have to replace her due to the impossibility of funding a dedicate replacement do not match these particular capabilities. MARS SSS could step in and remedy to this.
Concept Art showing the hangar of the CVF carriers

The boat boarding area

MARS SSS is shown carrying two LCVP MK5s on davits, which could be replaced by Force Protection Crafts were the boats to be more adequate to the missions, but a single-bay well dock capable to take a LCU or support operations of the LCVPs and FPCs once they are lowered in the water would be a major enhancement.

The well dock would also be particularly useful in the Gulf. For what I can see now, I can only guess that the Royal Navy will be busy in Operation Kipton (the enduring presence in the Gulf of minesweepers and support assets) for many more years. And according to MOD data, the current minesweepers will not begin to be replaced by new vessels before 2028, which means that well into the 2030s they will need intimate support of a mothership whenever they go. The Hunt and Sandown are excellent ships, perfect for their job, but aren’t really deployable and only have a logistic endurance out at sea of around 14 days.

That has forced the Royal Navy to constantly support the four ships in the Gulf with a larger support vessel capable to pass on fuel and stores. With the risk of hostilities in the area always being so high, a flight deck for helicopters is also badly needed, being helicopters excellent to detect and fight back fast attack crafts that could, in theory, swarm out of Iran very quickly were things to get hot. UAVs and force protection boats are also constantly in action to keep the force secure, and all the requirements of these supporting elements have made large, capable support vessels simply indispensable.
The US Navy converted an old LPD, the USS Ponce, into a capable Afloat Forward Staging Base, and this vessel provides command, control, communications, a large flying deck for helicopters and a well dock for boat operations.
The Royal Navy cannot afford such a top class solution, and is consequently forced to constantly commit one third of its LDSs to the “Seabase” role in the Gulf: one of the Bay class LSDs is always serving in the Gulf, looking after the minesweepers, and this has a very evident knockout effect on the amphibious capabilities of the UK. The madness of withdrawing Largs Bay from service, selling it to Australia, only made things worse. 

USS Ponce and Cardigan Bay together in the Gulf, followed by the minesweepers that they support and protect. Cardigan bay shows the hangar she has finally been fitted with, and the Marinised Land Phalanx Weapon System installation on the cargo deck.
The Bays have been steadily increasing their capabilities in these years: from very simple, lightly-equipped LSDs, they have been evolving into capable seabases. They are being fitted with Data Link 16 and complete communications suites removed from the retired Type 22 Batch 3 frigates. They are getting remotely-controlled 30mm gun turrets as the combat vessels in the fleet, and Cardigan Bay, the ship currently in the Gulf, finally also sports a prefabricated hangar structure on deck, which finally gives adequate protection to embarked helicopters and UAVs and their ground crew as maintenance is carried out. Possibly, the other two vessels will also get hangars of their own in the next future: Mounts Bay has been used as an auxiliary aviation ship while RFA Argus was undergoing her latest refit, and she had to resort to walls formed on deck with empty containers to provide some shelter to the helos. A solution not unlikely the emergency fitting of Atlantic Conveyor for the Falklands War!
Cardigan Bay has been serving as a base for US UAV teams, and is almost certainly going to be the first Royal Navy ship to get the newly ordered, much awaited Scan Eagle drones the MOD finally funded. Cardigan Bay will, at least for the next future, only have a contractor-owned, contractor-operated Scan Eagle task-line, with a second task-line to be made available for embarkation on Type 23 frigates afterwards. Hopefully, it is only the first step towards a greater availability of UAVs for the Royal Navy.
A couple of Diving Teams and reconnaissance parties with REMUS unmanned underwater vehicles also operate from the Bay, which can provide an excellent base to all boats with her rafting system and well dock. Finally, the ship also embarks a Role 2 Medical Team: a tri-service, deployable surgical field hospital.

The Bays are also getting fitted with Phalanx CIWS Block 1B, eventually uplifted to Baseline 2 standard, the latest and most capable. initially the Bays deploying to the Gulf have been fitted with “Marinised Land-Based Phalanx Weapon System" (MLPWS), which are, put simply, the Centurion C-RAM guns that the British Army deployed to Basra during operations in Iraq. Removed from the trailers and bolted to the cargo deck of the Bays, the MLPWS have been the solution so far, but Lyme Bay now shows, first of the three sisters, properly integrated Phalanx guns installed in the intended positions on the superstructure, over the bow and overlooking the stern. It is hoped that the other two ships will be eventually fitted out to the same standard.  

This close up better shows the temporary solution represented by the MLPWS Phalanx fit

RFA Lyme Bay, deployed on Cougar 13 right now, shows, for the first time, a properly integrated fit of Phalanx CIWS guns, placed in the intended, originally Fitted For But Not With positions.

The Bays could have been fitted with Goalkeeper mounts, but the Royal Navy is standardizing on Phalanx and will withdraw from service all Goalkeeper mounts by 2015. The positions evidenced in the photos above have now been used for Phalanx, at least on Lyme Bay. It is hoped that all three ships will be similarly outfitted. A careful look at the photos will also show that Cardigan Bay and Lyme Bay show new radomes, probably part of the Data Link 16 and communications fit coming from the withdrawn Type 22 frigates.

The hangar fitted to Cardigan Bay is built by Rubb Buildings Ltd. Australia acquired one of these hangars and had it fitted on the ex-Largs Bay, now HMAS Choules, in the photo.
Improved weapons fit: this photo shows Cardigan Bay fitted with 30mm guns an M134 miniguns

The Royal Navy also maintains in the Gulf and Indian Ocean a variety of other support vessels, including a tanker, the forward repair ship RFA Diligence (working hard in support of the SSN presence constantly maintained “East of Suez”) and the Auxiliary Oiler Replenisher (AOR) Fort Victoria.
MARS SSS, if fitted with a well dock, could tick all the boxes and provide a perfect seabase for the UK to maintain in the Gulf Area. Instead of maintaining a tanker, an LSD and an AOR in the area, the Royal Navy would possibly be able to cover both the AOR and minesweeper support roles with the same ship, releasing the LSD back to its main role as amphibious vessel.
The vast hangar, the large flight deck, the unmatched capacity for stores and the well dock would make MARS SSS perfect to sustain the minesweepers and the other vessels working in the Gulf. Hopefully, the Riverine Command Boats employed by the Americans from Cardigan Bay’s well dock would in time be replaced by british Force Protection Crafts, increasing the security of the force in the area. 

Boats in the well dock 
American Riverine Command Boats (CB90s) operating from a british Bay vessel in the Gulf. The CB90 has been evaluated by the Royal Marines as a possible base for the Force Protection Craft.

The requirement for extensive, excellent Forward Aviation Support capability is nothing new for this kind of unit in the Royal Navy. The current Fort-class vessels themselves have very extensive capability in this field, with up to 5 or 6 Merlin helicopters able to work from the ships’s deck and facilities. The ability to support a large number of helicopters from the new vessels (the concept art suggests hangar bays for three Merlin, with a big, Chinook-capable, two-spot flight deck) would maximize their capability to operate, even alone, on complex constabulary tasks during peacetime. During high-intensity ops, the ability to embark ASW helicopters would relieve the carrier’s flight deck from some of the pressure, and this is crucially important following the cuts the Royal Navy has suffered: with the carriers now condemned to be replacements for the LPHs as well, they will be required to carry a lot of machines and stores and men. Even as big as they are, in a major operation requiring both a high number of jets and capable amphibious forces with their helicopters they will be filled to capacity quite quickly. If there’s one certainty about aircraft carriers, simply put, is that they are never quite big enough.

Three MARS SSS ships could be tasked to provide one vessel “on station” in the Gulf, and another to assign to the RN Task Group. If MARS SSS was built to the specifications suggested by the concept art, the new vessel would be able to act as a major force multiplier in both roles.
Speaking about Type 26, Cmdr. Ken Houlberg, Royal Navy who, until August 2012 , was the Capability Manager for Above Water Surface Combatants at the MOD, said:

“There will be no more destroyers or frigates. There will be combat ships.”

Similarly, it looks like the RN hopes to build more than simple replenishment ships. Seabases would be a better description.

Cutting costs and complexity with a steel beach?
The usefulness of the well dock is pretty much unquestionable. But in an age of budget difficulties, its cost and the complexity that it adds to the design of the vessel is what caused the most perplexity. It is possible that cost cutting would remove the dock and replace it with a simpler “steel beach”, with a ramp leading down to the water from the RoRo deck. It would be a serious reduction in the capability to support boat and landing craft operations in hostile weather and sea conditions, but it would take less space, less money and it would be much simpler to add in the design.

A good example of support vessel sporting a RoRo deck complete with steel beach is the new multipurpose dutch Joint Support Ship, the Karel Doorman. This 205 meters long, 28.000 tons vessel is an immensely impressive beast, even if it is the result of many compromises. It can support ships at sea thanks to two RAS masts and a 40 tons crane. It can carry 730 cubic meters of ammunition pallets for some 400 tons of ordnance and 1000 cubic meters of dry stores. She carries 8000 cubic meters of fuel for warships, 1000 cubic meters of aviation fuel and 450 cubic meters of potable water.
In addition to all this, she has 2350 lane meters of Ro-Ro deck, complete with ramp of access and steel beach in the stern for cargo transfer onto landing crafts.
She sports a two-bay operating theatre as part of her medical facilities. She carries a couple of LCVP landing crafts as well as other boats, and she is equipped with an integrated I-Mast with a sensor fit comparable to that of combat vessels. For self defence, she is fitted with two Goalkeeper CIWS, two Oto Melara MARLIN turrets with 30mm guns, four Oto Melara HITROLE remote weapon stations with 12.7 mm machine guns and four SRBOC decoy launchers.
Finally, she has a huge hangar for six NH90 medium helicopters (folded) or two Chinooks unfolded, which can make good use of the huge 80 x 30 meters flight deck. 

The dutch JSS shows the stern "steel beach", right near the opening of the RoRo access ramp

Design detail of the steel beach

An image of the hull of the JSS during her building. The large steel beach is very evident

Her max payload is 10.600 tons, of which up to 5000 tons can be made up by armored vehicles and/or Ro-Ro deck stores. Her crew numbers between 150 and 175 men, with accommodations for 300 people on board. Her max speed is 18 knots, with an endurance of 10.000 nautical miles at 15 knots cruise speed.

The vessel is incredibly impressive and can prove its worth in many different operation scenarios and roles. Its Ro-Ro deck and steel beach provide a visual example of what could be put on MARS SSS, even if, for the reasons covered earlier, a full well dock is desirable.

A capable replenishment ship 
That is not to say that MARS SSS is not primarily thought to be an excellent replenishment vessel, optimized to support the new aircraft carriers, even in high intensity operations. In this that is their primary role, the new ships will be aided by the new Rolls Royce Heavy Replenishment At Sea (H-RAS) equipment, which will increase the current transfer capability of some 2 tons to larger, bulky pallets of five tons each. 
A working H-RAS system has been built on land at the HMS Raleigh base, which is being used to validate and trial the new system. The facility will then be used to train RFA and Royal Navy sailors in RAS procedures. 

RAS operations today with Fort vessels.
H-RAS will shape the new vessels, since their design and internal configuration will be largely determined by the need to move around such bulky loads, sustaining the far higher pace of RAS operations that the more than doubled payload transfer capability will make possible. Receiving such large, heavy loads in one go will be challenging for the supported ships, as well. It is likely that frigates and destroyers will mostly continue to receive the smaller pallets, unless Type 26’s design is optimized for the new system.
The larger payload capability will be crucial mostly for the new aircraft carriers. Currently, the standard RAS pallet is a 1000 x 1200 mm NATO base, with a loaded weight of around 1,8 ton. Resupplying an aircraft carrier during high intensity operations is a challenging task, as right now the transfer rate would be about a couple of 1000 lbs bombs with each pallet, for example.
H-RAS is meant to allow the transfer of 25 loads, each of 5 tons, per hour, while the ships travel at around 10 knots, with a gap from hull to hull of 50 or 55 meters. The improvement is dramatic. It is fair to assume that, if MARS SSS was replenishing HMS Queen Elizabeth during a major operation, some of the weapons could be passed to the carrier already strapped to Highly Mechanized Weapon Handling System-compatible skid pallets, which would then be lowered into the carrier’s deep holds and would be readily available to be picked up by the moles of the HMWHS system.

The 5 tons payload capability will also be crucial to enable the transfer of the F35B’s spare engines, enclosed in their transport containers. The current RAS systems are unable to move the heavy, bulky containers, and this would complicate the life for the embarked air group, requiring a greater number of spare engines to be immediately available on the ship.
The increased capacity of the H-RAS system will also be of great help in moving other heavy, bulky loads, such as Storm Shadow cruise missiles, which should be part of the future arsenal of the british F35Bs: enclosed in its shipping container, a single Storm Shadow weights 2150 kg and is well over 5 meters long. 

Storm Shadow missile being pulled out of its shipping container
The Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers will not have big problems in dealing with the new, bulky loads coming in, since they will adopt the same technique used by the US Navy, receiving the stores directly in the hangar, via the openings of the aircraft lifts. You can see a video and some photos of this evolution, as done by the US Navy. The main difference being that they call it Underway Replenishment (UNREP). 

US Navy UNREP operations aboard supercarriers

Both MARS Fleet Tanker and MARS Solid Support Ships are obviously configured to optimally support the new carriers. MARS FT, for example, has two RAS masts on the starboard side, so that it can easily link up to the two RAS fuel receiving stations on the port side of the QE-class carriers.
The MARS SSS vessel, instead, has two H-RAS masts on the port side, spaced out to coincide with the openings of the aircraft lifts on CVF’s starboard side.
CVF also seem to have another RAS fuel receiving station, under the forward island, on starboard side. 

Model trials of MARS Fleet Tanker and QE-class carrier, showing the RAS Masts and the two receiving bays on the carrier.

This curious image shows the french PA2, once planned to be built on the same design as the british CVF, receiving fuel at the RAS station under the forward wing while also receiving pallets of dry stores through the forward aircraft lift opening. The supply ship seems to be an AEGIR AOR design. None of the depicted vessels will enter french navy service, but the image is interesting as it depicts what will happen with CVF.

Another old image, courtesy of, showing H-RAS at work delivering containerized stores into the hangar of a CVF carrier.

This graphic, once released by the MOD as part of the bidding call for MARS FT, has been preserved by The small arrows indicate the RAS stations. On CVF we can see the two fuel-receiving stations on port side. Two arrows clearly indicate the aircraft lifts openings as well, for H-RAS, while a fifth arrow signals another fuel receiving station.

MARS SSS can and should be more than just a "solid replenisher" ship. In a navy hit so savagely by cuts, each ship must be able to cover multiple requirements whenever this is possible and efficient. It would of course be better to have more ships, and a neat separation of roles. But this is financially impossible in the current climate. And anyway, the british armed forces have sustained cuts so savage that realizing the once planned combination of two large replenishment vessels and three "seabases" would be realistically excessive. There wouldn't be amphibious forces nor aircraft carrier strike wings large enough to fully justify them. It is a sad truth. 
Freeing the Bay LSDs from the duties of Operation Kipton, on the other hand, would be a major achievement that would reinstate higher capabilities for the UK's amphibious force.

MARS SSS is a key component of a navy which is shrinking in size but not in ambition. So long as the UK aims to remain a globally engaged country, it needs expeditionary forces. And MARS SSS is a fundamental component of them. In "seabase" configuration, its usefulness is maximized in all roles. 


  1. Is there any plans to give the tide class a self defence capability? i'm alittle concerned about these valuable ships not being able to adequtely protect themselves or worse still having to rely on a permanent escort.

    1. Two 30mm guns and a couple of Phalanx CIWS are part of the Tide design.

  2. Very good post Gabriele!

    I have long thought of MARS SSS as a key programme through which capability can be bolstered, it needs to be got right.

    I agree that in the same way RN escorts have to increasingly become multipurpose 'combat ships' fleet auxiliaries also have to become less specialized and more general purpose support ships in order to make up for the shortfall in numbers.

    With only 3 Bays left in service it's absolutely crucial to get all of them focused on RFTG or similar ops and not have a ship permanently tied to the Gulf (as important as that job is). With MARS SSS not arriving until the early 2020's at the earliest would a cheap commercial ship either bought or leased and converted into a sea-base command/control ship for the Gulf be an acceptable temporary solution?

    Also I'm aware that only 3 MARS SSS are expected but if the design proves to be cost effective and an operational success do you think that an additional 1-2 hulls could replace Argus and Diligence as well? Replacing 5 single-role platforms with say 4 more capable, standardized and multipurpose ones seems like a good move.

    1. There was also a less detailed, very rough graphic showing what appeared to be an hospital ship and a forward repair ship built on the same hull. But i'm letting this subject out of the post for now, as i don't want to speculate too much. Hoping, these days, is hard, and i want to be as careful and realistic as possible.

      In addition, i truly loved the BMT OMAR proposal for a replacement for Diligence, and i think OMAR would be both cheaper and, possibly, more adequate to the particular role of forward repair.

      As for buying a commercial ship and converting it in a seabase, well, it would be fantastic. I'm sure a good asset could come out from the project... but considering that the RN first asked for Scan Eagle for use in the Gulf as far back as 2006, and is only getting a few of them now, i can't see money being made available for a project that would cost much more than the 30 million for the UAVs...

    2. Hoping is indeed hard these days but I'll try and remain optimistic!

      Argus is going to need replacing one day and I can't think of a more cost effective solution than spreading her capabilities across 3 or more hulls so that they can perform her role on station whilst conducting various other operations.

      If OMAR was a cheaper alternative as a forward repair ship than introducing elements on MARS SSS and/or possibly having another MARS SSS hull then id go for it as well. I recognize that forward repair is quite a specialist thing that arguably still requires a specific platform so it's the one exception to commonality and flexibility that I would be OK with!

      You're probably right that the fund aren't available for a commercial conversion to replace a Bay in the Gulf and procurement does often move pretty slowly these days. I guess it means using a Bay for the foreseeable. As you say it just shows how moronic the sale of Largs Bay really was!

  3. Good post

    I was not aware of the proposed multi purpose role of these ships.

    Hope we get all 3!

    1. Let's hope so indeed... and let's hope the requirements and ambitions don't get watered down too much before Main Gate is hit...

    2. If some watering down does occur then I personally think sacrificing some (by no means all) of the amphibious elements in favor of getting a ship that could relieve a Bay in the Gulf would be acceptable.

      With Ocean going I think the hangar/flight-deck space to either take the strain off of CVF in times of war or allow a MARS SSS to carry some aviation assets independently is a must. Internal space for vehicles, troops, kit as well as dry stores in the primary role and medical facilities spread across the whole class instead of on a dedicated platform would be joint second!

  4. Gaby

    Just like to say brilliant post. Well researched and packed with detail. Am trying to find the time to read it more thoroughly. However, I am a bit of a landlubber and Naval affairs are not my forte.

  5. Brilliant post as always. A very informative and interesting read.

    Thank you!

  6. I think we should just buy the design for the Dutch JSS ships and amend it for our purpose for instance maybe add a aircraft elevator to allow extra helicopters or additional vehicles on the heli-deck why do we need to keep re-inventing the wheel

    1. It would take a huge redesign to make the dutch ship compatible with the Royal Navy requirements, which include the full H-RAS fit and far greater focus on solid stores, instead of Ro-Ro deck so large and such a long flight deck, plus fuel tanks.
      So great a redesign that, effectively, it would almost be like drawing a new vessel anyway. In other cases, i fully agree that the wheel was needlessly re-invented. But in this case, no.

    2. The largest costs in starting from scratch always seems to be propulsion, radars, sonars and missile systems. Luckily these elements don't tend to feature on auxiliaries thus making them a cheaper purchase.

      Weren't the MARS tankers ordered for only 150 million a hull? MARS SS will probably be a bit more expensive if they have a stern ramp, larger aviation facilities etc....but they hopefully won't break the bank!

    3. MARS SSS will inexorably be more complex and expensive... but they remain auxiliaries vessels, so it should be possible to get good deals.

      There's a strong possibility that the hulls will be built abroad once more, with british firms and yards coming in for the fitting out. Even the dutch Doorman vessel mentioned in the article has had the hull built in Romania... The MOD might once more look out towards Korea, especially if the MARS FT experience proves overwhelmingly positive. Also because, looking at the schedule, the british yards are supposed to be working on Type 26 in the same period. Working on Type 26 and on three large, well over 30.000 tons ships at the same time might well exceed the capacity of the british yards. Depending on how the work for Type 26 is or is not spread over the various locations.

    4. I sadly agree that the chances are T26 and then MHPC are going to swallow up pretty much all of the UK's remaining shipbuilding capacity for many years to come.

      Purchasing them from Korea or another foreign bidder does tend to make ships a bit cheaper, and if as you say the class is designed and fitted out in the UK then I guess it's an acceptable compromise.

    5. MHPC won't be delivering new vessels before 2028, though. In 2018 we will only see (unless there are further delays) new drones, for use initially on the Hunt-class minesweepers.

      As for MARS SSS, fitting out in the UK is, i believe, a must, since H-RAS and other kit will be more complex and more "sensible" than the equipment of the MARS FT, which is, in itself, going to be mostly installed in the UK anyway.
      Design and most of the complex fitting out of MARS FT is done in the UK, and i can't see MARS SSS being any different.

  7. Just buidling on a couple of points/comments made above (together with Gabriele's previous MARS FT post), is not the end structure that the RN's Support & Amphibious vessels should be aiming for the following -
    2 Wave Tankers
    4 Tide Tankers
    3 MARS SSS
    1 OMAR (to the BMT design or a civilian conversion)
    3 Bay Class
    3 New LPD - this final class would be a replacement for both Argus and the 2 Albion Class LPD and would do away with the idea of a dedicated PCRS and instead bulk up medical facilities aboard these 3 vessels.

    That would then give us the vital "3" in each area meaning that the RN would be able to keep a Royal Marine Commando Group continuously at sea (albeit requiring support from a CV most times).

  8. Gaby

    Great post as usual. I confess the MARS SSS is what I would really like in the fleet. Personally I think the wet dock is very important as is the size of the hangar and flight deck.

    The problem with heavier and heavier, bigger and better kit is it still needs somewhere to repair and maintain the kit in the field. The JSBL ships aren't going to happen, but these acting as a replacement for the Forts, Argus and Ocean as well as providing some of the proposed JBSL capabilities is a realistic option.

    The CVF is no replacement for Ocean, it has been demonstrated in the Balkans that having the right assets is important. The MARS SSS design isn't a LPH nor a LHD, but built large enough it could be bit like the San Antonio class. You could even fit it with Mk41 and decent electronics.

    My point is SSS capabilities are needed but so is seabasing. The change in the equipment we use is making it difficult to airlift assets; Heli or otherwise. Ocean and Argus need replacements shortly, MARS SSS could just be the right solution, at a price that we should be able to afford.


  9. I think they are trying to get to many roles into one vessel which will either be too expensive to buy or will be radically reduced in capability we should concentrate on the AOR roles for these built in Korea and build new LHD to replace RFA Argus HMS Albion, HMS Bulwark and HMS ocean/Illustrious 3 LHD's too replace these 4/5 vessels should look attractive to the treasury include a decent size vehicle deck along with a hanger capable of holding F-35's these new MARS SSS look good in theory but be practical they would be huge to get all the capability into these hulls if we built the LHD's correctly we could leave the carriers to stick to the job they were designed for.

    1. I agree, too many roles are trying to be fitted into a single hull. I see the 3 SSS vessels replacing the Forts and Argus and therefore the capability requirement order should be:

      - Solid Stores Support (at sea)
      - Aviation Support
      - PCR
      - limited command and control facilities for very small ops (like Victoria is doing in the Indian Ocean).

      Can't see the need for a ramp, I can for a bloody large flight deck.

      The UK's approach to amphibious assault should in my view be completely reviewed from the ground up as part of the SDSR 2015 based on the likely scenarios and (hopefully) operating both CVFs.


    2. Replacing Albion and Bulwark is not on the cards before 2030 at the earliest, and this is what the Treasury likes. Building LHDs to replace them early is a dream that is not going to go anywhere for perhaps as many as 20 more years. And the Royal Navy is most certainly not getting the money to build a LHD to replace Argus, considering that it is not going to have the money to build one not even to replace HMS Ocean.

    3. By the way, how is a RoRo cargo capacity and, eventually, the ability to load/offload that cargo with boats "putting too many roles" on MARS SSS?

      I absolutely disagree. Nothing of what is proposed is beyond the capabilities of the ship, especially not after experimenting how much can be done even with a Bay at exceptionally low level of fitting out of critical kit, which has only been added over the years.

    4. You seem to be suggesting that by adding a ramp (or a well deck) that the SSS would be able to assist in supporting amphibious ops. What I am saying is don't even try to do this as ensuring that one is always supporting the CVF and another on call for the PCRS role / supporting other ships is enough for 3 ships.

      Confusing the sea based asset support and amphibious assault will in my view mean you get less overall capability for a higher cost. Adding ramps / well decks have a significant impact on the ship design.


    5. MARS SSS must support the one Task Group that the Royal Navy is realistically able to put to sea, which will include the carrier and the amphibious force. What do you do, ignore the amphibious force, considering that you are not going to get two ships? Separation of the roles was originally hoped for, but there just is no chance of seeing it happening.

      Let's be entirely clear: if the RoRo deck and well dock are removed from the design, it will not be a good thing. It will be another blow to the amphibious capability of the UK because there is nothing else that will be provided as a replacement.

      And i'm not the one confusing MARS SSS with a LPD or assault vessel. Supporting the logistics of a carrier/amphibious task group as MARS SSS is supposed to do is not the same as working as a LPD.

    6. There will not be the money to build large, sophisticated LHDs, certainly not 3 and certainly not F35B capable. My guess is that we will either get 2 basic LHDs similar to the Mistral class and based on the BAe LHD design or 2 basic LPDs that are essentially an updated version of the existing vessels. Expecting anything more is unrealistic.

  10. Gabriele
    Why if they don't want to have an amphibious capability why put in a well deck and a ramp they could use a point class vessel if they want to off load vehicles no they are trying to add the JSBL role to these vessels there trying to join replenishment with the LPD role which will be expensive we get fleeced every time also by splitting the vessels it gives us an extra hull

    1. If the MOD decides to not have an amphibious capability, ok. That will be when i know that it makes no longer sense to bother with following the british military. Sell the carriers too, because they won't be that useful if that point is ever reached.

      And no. A Point RoRo, of which there only are four now, by the way, is another thing entirely.
      And no again, splitting roles will not give you another hull. That's the whole point. You are not going to have money for other programs.

      Right now, an amphibious force, like the Marines of Cougar 13, are supported by a Fort class stores ship. Replenishment mixed with support to amphibious forces, oh, horror! It has been done for years.

      It is right because of the limits of the Forts in supporting forces ashore that the JSBL concept began at all. Splitting the roles on two ships would have been fantastic, but it is not financially feasible.

      We can either build new Forts and accept the limitations for several decades more, or try and improve the design. Which is what MARS SSS is so far trying to do.
      I hope it succeeds. I certainly won't be wishing for a diminished design myself.

  11. Taking your comment around no replacement for the Albion Class prior to 2030, but holding out hope (especially if half-funded by DFID) is there millage in simply ordering a 4th and maybe 5th MARS hull but with deletion of the at sea replenishment capapabilities and the emphasis squarely put on seabasing and medical facilities?

    1. In the current climate, i wouldn't bet a penny on it.
      Funding from DFID is something that would happen right away here in Italy, but in the Uk apparently it isn't even considered, so can't bet on that either...

  12. Theres an article over on TD quoting a story in the dutch press saying thst the Karel Doorman is to be sold due to budget cuts. If true it would be a cracking buy for the RFA.


    1. If it is true, it is tempting. Although the Karel Doorman as it is does not readily slip too well into the requirements of the Royal Navy, which are somewhat different. Still, there's no shortage of work, so finding a role for her certainly wouldn't be a problem.

      But is there any available money to buy her? Probably no...

  13. it could take over RFA Argus as Aviation support ship !
    with additional amphibious capabilities making up for the loss of RFA Largs Bay


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