by Conrad Waters
The European naval construction sector is currently experiencing significant demand for new logistic support ships. Previous delays in replacing existing vessels have reached the point where further deferral is no longer an option, particularly given many do not comply with present-day environmental standards.
Most leading European navies either have placed or are planning orders for new replenishment ships. Additional units have been ordered or designed for service abroad. The new ships represent a generational change over the ‘legacy’ vessels they are intended to supersede.
The availability of logistic support – particularly replenishment at sea – is a prerequisite for the effective performance of oceanic naval operations. In spite of this truth, procurement of new support vessels was a low priority for European navies in the immediate post-Cold War era. Many fleets experienced substantial reductions both in size and in resources. Remaining funding was typically focused towards the replacement of frontline warships.
This situation is now changing. The previous deferrals of logistic support ship replacement have meant that the age of existing vessels has crept steadily upwards. Many ships have now been in service for 40 years or more, meaning that further life extensions are no longer an economic prospect. Equally as importantly, more stringent environmental regulations in the commercial sector – notably the phasing out of single-hulled tankers – have left many naval auxiliaries out of line with the new requirements. It has generally been possible for navies to seek exemption from the new rules but this produces significant practical and moral hazards. For example, a single-hulled naval tanker might not be allowed access to a foreign port. Equally, the political ramifications of any accidental oil spill it might be responsible for would be significant.
The result is that procurement of new logistic support shipping now forms an important part of naval construction programmes across Europe. A variety of projects are at various stages of implementation. This activity has also attracted the interest of overseas fleets in a broadly similar position, driving additional export sales. This article looks at the major programmes currently underway.
The United Kingdom has the largest and the most advanced plans for new logistic support shipping. These are driven largely by the need to sustain operations by the QUEEN ELIZABETH class aircraft carriers. Plans have evolved since they were first devised around the turn of the millennium and are currently based on the operation of new classes of fleet tankers and fleet solid support ships. This division between bulk (i.e. liquid) non-bulk (food, ammunition and general stores) support shipping is unusual in Europe but has similarities with US Navy practice. As for all British seagoing replenishment vessels, the new ships are allocated to Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) service.
The overall programme for the renewal of British replenishment and floating logistical support shipping was initially known as the Military Afloat Reach and Sustainability (MARS) project. By 2007, it had been decided to proceed with the tanker element of this programme as a discrete competition. However, it was only in 2012 that a contract was awarded. This saw South Korea’s Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering (DSME) win out over competing bids from rival Korean builder Hyundai Heavy Industries and Italy’s Fincantieri to build four so-called MARS fleet tankers.
A key element of DSME’s bid was the use of a design from British consultancy BMT Defence Services as the basis for the new ships. BMT had developed a series of support vessel concepts under the generic AEGIR brand. All used features contained in the Norwegian Skipskonsulent’s Baltic type product tankers. The thinking was that the pause in orders for support ships after the Cold War had resulted in naval design practices for such vessels falling behind developments in the commercial shipping market. The evolution of a mercantile design into a ship for military use was therefore seen as providing significant competitive advantages. The DSME proposal was derived from the 26,000-ton deadweight AEGIR 26 concept but adapted to achieve higher levels of survivability.
The resulting ships have a full load displacement of 39,000 tonnes. They can ship 20,300 tonnes of liquid stores as well as a limited amount of solid cargo in eight TEU containers. Three replenishment at sea (RAS) stations are provided as well as a stern reel. Facilities for a single medium-sized helicopter also permit vertical replenishment. The layout of the RAS stations was driven by the corresponding arrangement in the QUEEN ELIZABETH class carriers. A noteworthy feature of the ships is their hybrid combined diesel-electric or diesel propulsion arrangement. This includes the use of hybrid machines that can either be used as electrical motors for economical, low speed operation or as generators to supplement overall electrical capacity as required. The design requirement was based on achieving a sustained speed of 15 knots in adverse weather and good endurance. A top speed approaching 20 knots was achieved on trials.
Work on the lead ship, TIDESPRING, started in 2014. She commenced sea trials in early 2016 but a number of snags meant that it was nearly a year before her acceptance. On subsequent arrival in the United Kingdom, she was docked for ‘customisation’, including the fitting of sensitive communications and other military equipment, finally entering service with the RFA in November 2017.
The remaining TIDE class ships followed at roughly regular intervals. TIDEFORCE completed the programme when she became operational in July 2019. Although the construction programme took longer to implement than originally anticipated, the total cost for all four ships of £550M (US$720M) was below budget and significantly cheaper than could have been achieved by a European-based build strategy.
With the fleet tanker project now satisfactorily concluded, attention has turned to acquisition of the fleet solid support ships. As their name implies, these are intended to deliver non-liquid cargo. Up to three ships are planned. Tender documents suggest they will be required to carry up to 7,000m³ of stores at sustained speeds of up to 18 knots and to be able to transfer single loads of up to five tonnes whilst on the move. A shortlisting process concluded in November 2018 saw a British ‘Team UK’ consortium competing with DSME, Fincantieri, Japan Marine United Corporation and Navantia for a contract said to be valued at £1Bn (US$1.4BN). However, the competition was halted a year later after a number of potential bidders had dropped out on the basis that none of the proposals were able to meet the budget. A new tender is expected to be launched in the course of 2021. The new process will require the successful manufacturing team to be headed by a UK-based company following heavy criticism of the possibility of another contract being allocated overseas. This has already seen Navantia team with BMT and Northern Ireland shipyard Harland & Wolff (part of InfraStrata plc) in the hope of keeping its place in the competition alive.
In the meantime, the AEGIR concept has also been adopted by another European country in the form of the Royal Norwegian Navy’s logistic support vessel MAUD.
An evolution of the AEGIR 18/18R design, she was also ordered from DSME under a US$140M contract announced in mid-2013. In contrast to the single-role focused TIDEs, the 27,500 tonne vessel is designed as a flexible, multi-role ship. She can supply liquid and solid consumables and also perform alternative support roles such as medical and humanitarian assistance, sea basing and the provision of repair and maintenance facilities. A major feature is the incorporation of reconfigurable accommodation spaces. These can, for example, be adapted to expand the core medical facility to a large, 48-bed hospital. Delivered in November 2018, she was formally christened in May 2019 after arriving in Norway in March of that year.
Italy and France
Italy and France share similar at-sea replenishment requirements to the British Royal Navy in as far as they are Europe’s other major aircraft carrier operators. However, they have taken a different approach to renewing their logistic support vessel fleets, opting to acquire auxiliary replenishment oiler (AOR) type ships combining liquid and solid stores capabilities. The resultant ships are more flexible than their British equivalents at the expense of lower overall stowage capabilities and a somewhat higher procurement cost.
What is now essentially a joint Franco-Italian replenishment ship programme traces its origins to the approval of a new Italian logistic support ship under the wider programme of fleet renewal put forward in the 2014 Naval Law. The acquisition is being managed under the auspices of the European collaborative armaments procurement agency OCCAR. It ordered the ship from a Fincantieri-led consortium in May 2015. Named VULCANO, the new support vessel has been fabricated in two sections at Fincantieri’s yards at Castellammare di Stabia near Naples and Muggiano near Genoa. Final integration has taken place at Riva Trigoso in the Gulf of La Spezia. Delivery was initially scheduled in 2019. However, a serious fire during outfitting in July 2018 pushed back the start of sea trials until December 2019. Although the current COVID-19 pandemic has inflicted further delay, it seems likely the Italian Navy will still take possession of the ship shortly.
Displacing a little over 27,000 tonnes at full load, VULCANO is designed in full compliance with the latest international maritime standards. She is able to stow up to 15,500 tonnes of cargo. This includes over 11,500 tonnes of fuel and potable water as well as ammunition, solid stores and eight TEU containers. She has two RAS stations to both port and starboard, two abeam-handling cranes and an additional refuelling position at her stern. In similar fashion to most other logistic support ships, a combined diesel-electric and diesel (CODLAD) propulsion system is optimised for endurance. However, the twin shaft arrangement produces a respectable maximum speed of around 20 knots.
In common with other recent multi-role support ship designs, VULCANO is able to perform limited repair and maintenance work for other vessels. She is equipped with medical facilities that extend to accommodation sufficient for 13 patients. A relatively sophisticated Leonardo-supplied combat management system is scaled down from that used in the PPA type multi-role patrol vessels. This provides tactical level command and control against a wide range of threats. A panoramic bridge arrangement providing 360° views also assists situational awareness. Although the suite of sensors and defensive systems is seemingly largely configured to handle lower threat scenarios, capacity can be expanded by provision for much ‘fitted for but not with’ equipment. In any event, it seems unlikely that the ship would operate in higher threat areas without considerable escort. VULCANO also has hangar space for two medium-sized helicopters.
Replacements for Italy’s two other existing logistic support ships are envisaged in the Italian Navy’s latest strategic plan. It therefore seems likely that further members of the class will be ordered for Italian service in due course. However, in the meantime the basic design has also been selected to meet France’s requirement for four new vessels to replace its existing, elderly DURANCE class vessels. This programme was originally intended to be a purely national project under the leadership of local champion Naval Group. However, France decided to adopt the Italian design following Fincantieri’s acquisition of control of the Saint Nazaire-based Chantiers de l’Atlantique yard and in the context of growing Franco-Italian naval collaboration.
A €1.7BN (US$2BN) order for four ships was placed with a consortium of Chantiers de l’Atlantique and Naval Group through OCCAR in January 2019. Naval Group’s responsibilities are for the provision of combat management and other systems. Construction work will be split between Castellammare di Stabia and Saint Nazaire. Final assembly will be at the latter site. Limited technical details published to date suggest the French ships will be broadly similar to their Italian sister. Important differences include specification of the Naval Group POLARIS combat management system and an alternative armament arrangement. Work on the first unit – JACQUES CHEVALLIER – commenced in May 2020 to meet a planned late 2022 delivery date. Three sister ships will follow by 2029.
Spain is the other European country whose logistic support ship capabilities are influenced by the need to carry significant volumes of liquid consumables to support fixed-wing aviation operations. However, with current requirements met by the existing PATIÑO and CANTABRIA, there is no immediate need for further support vessel construction. The two ships have essentially followed an evolutionary path.
The single-hulled, 1990s-era PATIÑO – acquired under a joint project with the Netherlands – was subsequently developed into the double-hulled CANTABRIA, which was launched in 2010. Although the latter vessel is somewhat heavier than her predecessor, the penalties inherent in environmental compliance are reflected in a reportedly lower liquid cargo capacity.
CANTABRIA also has somewhat lower overall capacity than the more recent Franco-Italian logistic supply ship class. She is otherwise similarly versatile. However, the evolutionary approach adopted in her design is reflected in characteristics – such as direct drive diesel propulsion and a single shaft – that have fallen out of favour in recent ships. Nevertheless, a modified variant of the vessel was selected over the arguably more modern AEGIR concept to gain a US$470M contract for two Australian AORs in May 2016. Both ships have been built at Ferrol in northwest Spain. Lead ship SUPPLY commenced sea trials in August 2020 and subsequently arrived in Australia in October for final outfitting and testing. With sister STALWART also close to physical completion, fears of a gap in production at Ferrol pending commencement of work on the new F-110 class frigates has led to calls for a second CANTABRIA to be ordered for Spanish service. This seems unlikely in the current budgetary environment.
The German Navy’s expanding international presence means that it has experienced growing logistical support demands in the post-Cold War era. These have been met by the three multirole Type 702 BERLIN class combat support ships, which were delivered between 2001 and 2013. Sophisticated and correspondingly expensive vessels, they benefit from significant operational flexibility through use of a large modularised container capacity.
Further production for German service is unlikely. However, the design has been sold to Canada to meet a requirement for the licensed construction of two joint support ships. After considerable delay, a ceremonial keel-laying ceremony for the lead vessel – PROTECTEUR – was held at Seaspan Shipyards in Vancouver in January 2020. Estimated programme costs for the two ships are a massive CAD$4.1Bn (US$3BN). This partly reflects the expense of rebuilding skills in the previously neglected Canadian shipbuilding sector.
Meanwhile, Germany launched a new programme to replace its two existing Type 704 RÖHN class replenishment oilers in mid-2019. In common with other current projects, the new Type 707 fleet tankers will be of double-hulled construction (see: Periscope). In similar fashion to the British TIDEs, they will be focused on liquid stores replenishment. Preliminary design requirements suggest a large fluid stowage capacity of 15,000 tonnes as well as the ability to handle 20 TEU containers. Core complement will be limited to the 42 crew members of the existing ships but maximum speed will increase from 16 to 20 knots. Although a contract has yet to be awarded, it is anticipated that both new vessels will be delivered/enter into service before the end of 2024.
The Royal Netherlands Navy took something of an idiosyncratic approach to logistic support ship procurement during the Cold War era, taking the delivery of the joint support ship KAREL DOORMAN in 2014. She originated from the Naval Study of 2005, which reoriented the fleet towards lower intensity stabilisation missions. The ship combines replenishment, logistical transportation and sea-basing capabilities in a large, 28,000-tonne hull. With the addition of significant surveillance capacity provided by a Thales integrated mast, she is undoubtedly a capable and flexible ship. The major downside of the concept is the higher cost – both capital and operational – of performing any one of the roles she is equipped to undertake.
The Netherlands appear to have taken note of this drawback in the new combat support ship DEN HELDER. This vessel was contracted with Damen early in 2020 and is effectively a replacement for the single-hulled AMSTERDAM – a sister of the Spanish PATIÑO – that was sold to Peru in 2014.
She is a more traditional AOR type design focused on the underway replenishment of fuel, water, ammunition and other solid cargo. Following a similar approach to that adopted for the construction of other recent large Dutch naval vessels, the new ship’s hull will be built by Damen’s Galati yard in Romania. Final outfitting will then take place in the Netherlands prior to delivery in 2024. The total budget for the programme amounts to €375M (US$450M).
Only sketchy details of the new ship have been released to date. However, it appears that DEN HELDER will be a relatively large, almost 200 metre-long vessel with a displacement in excess of 20,000 tonnes. Stowage capacity is likely to be similar to that provided by KAREL DOORMAN. It will include the ability to carry 20 containers. There will be two abeam RAS positions and the ability to operate several helicopters. Much defensive equipment will be subject to ‘fitted for but not with’ arrangements due to budgetary constraints. The ship’s basic layout owes much to Damen’s series of logistic support vessel concepts. However, many of the more detailed design elements – including the selection of an integrated electrical propulsion system – are derived from KAREL DOORMAN.
Elsewhere in Europe, Portugal’s 2019 Military Programming Law makes provision for a new replenishment tanker at an estimated cost of €150M (US$180M). The vessel will replace the veteran ROVER class tanker BÉRRIO. This was first commissioned into the British RFA as BLUE ROVER in 1970. However, actual commencement of the project is likely to be several years away given the priority allocated to offshore patrol vessel procurement. It is likely construction will be allocated to the domestic West Sea Viana Shipyard at Viana do Castelo once the acquisition is implemented.
At Europe’s other extremity, Turkey has its own ‘DIMDEG’ project for an AOR-like combat support ship. This is being implemented by the Sefine Shipyard south-east of Istanbul under a contract awarded in July 2018. The 190 metre, 22,000-tonne ship will be powered by a combined diesel and gas turbine arrangement. GE is providing two of its ubiquitous LM-2500 gas turbines for the ship. The choice is an unusual one, suggesting a desire for speed found only in a handful of high end US Navy and Chinese combat support ships. Turkish industry is also active in the international technology transfer market for logistic support shipping, providing licensed designs for construction in both India and Pakistan.
It can be seen from this brief overview that European logistic support ship construction programmes are currently enjoying a healthy level of activity. The supply of both ships and designs to overseas navies is also providing a further boost to the market. With new projects for the United Kingdom and Germany in their early stages and further requirements identified in both Italy and Portugal, it seems likely that the sector will be sustained for some time to come.
Looking further ahead, however, the outlook is somewhat less positive. The high level of current activity has been driven by the lengthy pause in acquisitions after the Cold War. It will inevitably subside to more normal levels once replacement of life expired, non-environmentally compliant vessels has been completed. Moreover, the growing strength of Asian competition – evidenced, for example, by the allocation of TIDE class construction to DSME and Hyundai’s recent completion of the AOR AOTEAROA for New Zealand – will inevitably impact future export opportunities. Europe’s shipyards and naval architects might therefore be well-advised to make the most of current conditions whilst they still last.