LONDON – The first of four tankers in the fleet being built in South Korea to support Royal Navy operations has still not been accepted by Britain’s Ministry of Defence, seven months after it was handed over.
The Royal Fleet Auxiliary tanker Tidespring was due to be accepted out of contract by the British in January this year, with the expectation that it would enter service in September. But the ship, which is part of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s Military Afloat Reach and Sustainability (MARS) program, is still undergoing trials with shipbuilder Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering (DSME) in South Korea.
It is unclear what exactly triggered the delay in handing over the tankers.
The Ministry of Defense declined to answer questions about the delay in accepting the tanker or when the Tidespring would sail for the UK.
On arrival in the UK, the tanker is due to enter the A&P yard in Falmouth, West England, to be fitted with sensitive equipment such as self-defense weapons, ballistic protection systems and communication.
A source said the ship performed well during sea trials, especially in handling and maneuverability tests.
“However, there are still some first-class issues to be resolved to ensure that all naval and civilian approval authorities are satisfied and to enable the Department of Defense to accept the vessel out of contract,” the source said.
Despite the delays, a Department of Defense spokeswoman said the department remained confident that all tankers would be in service by 2018, as planned, and that any additional costs resulting from the delays would not be borne by British taxpayers.
“We remain confident that we can deliver the MARS Tanker project within the originally approved budget and expect all four tankers to be in service by 2018 as planned,” the spokeswoman said. “As with all major projects, timelines are reviewed regularly and the nature of this contract means the Department of Defense is protected against any unforeseen cost increases.”
Shipbuilder DSME was not immediately available for comment.
Britain ordered four of the 37,000 tonne tankers from DSME in 2012 in a $597million deal which sparked controversy here over the MoD’s decision to put the program out to competition international rather than reserving the work to local sites.
The tender procedure saw no British contractor enter the final stage of the tanker competition, leaving the door open for the huge South Korean shipyard to outbid its rivals for the works.
MoD policy is to have complex warships, like the Type 26 frigate, built locally, but made available to international tender vessels like the Royal Fleet Auxiliary support ships.
DSME has, however, teamed up with British naval design house BMT Defense Services to use the double-hulled AEGIR design from Bath, West England, for the tanker.
The South Koreans are also building a smaller version of the AEGIR for the Royal Norwegian Navy.
The new British tankers are equipped with a helicopter flight deck and a hangar. Besides ship and aviation fuel, they are designed to hold ammunition and hard reserves. The vessels replace older single-hull tankers that no longer meet international environmental standards.
The ships are part of a wider and overdue modernization of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary needed to support the introduction of the Royal Navy’s new 70,000 tonne aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth, which is nearing completion by an alliance industry led by BAE Systems.
The Royal Fleet Auxiliary provides logistical and operational support to the Royal Navy worldwide.
The precise timetable for the delivery of the tankers was revealed earlier this year when the UK government released a series of letters giving details of recently appointed senior officers responsible for running some of Britain’s major defense programmes.
The letter to the new senior officer in charge of the oil program showed that the second of the ships, RFA Tiderace, should have been handed over to the British in April and be in service by January next year.
Tidesurge, the third of the class, is expected to be handed over in October and be in service by June 2017, with the newest member of the fleet, RFA Tideforce, having accepted the contract in April 2017 and in service by December of the same year.
The delays in delivering the initial tanker come at a sensitive time for Department of Defense shipbuilding procurement officials.
The department is moving forward with a program to build three logistics vessels for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, with an industry briefing on July 28.
The need for three ships, which will provide ammunition, food and other hard supplies, was confirmed in the UK Government’s 2015 Strategic Defense and Security Review.
Shipbuilding unions and others believe support ships should be reserved for UK shipyards, but the cash-strapped Ministry of Defense is more determined to ensure low costs by turning to the International market.
“There will be an international competition to build the ‘Fleet Solid Support’ (FSS) supply ships, which UK companies can participate in, with a separate UK-only competition for customization work and trials,” said MoD spokeswoman. “This approach ensures the best value for taxpayers.”
Under current plans, the MoD hopes to award a contract for the construction of the vessels around March 2020.
The government plans to roll out a national shipbuilding strategy by the end of the year, and it is unclear whether strong support ships will play a role in this.
The main objective of the strategy is to maintain a long-term capability to build complex warships like the Type 26 anti-submarine warfare frigate and the smaller and cheaper Type 31 general-purpose frigate.
A spokesman for BAE Systems, Britain’s only major shipbuilder, said the company had not decided what, if any, involvement it would have in the tender for the solid-supported vessels. .
“We are currently maturing our understanding of the MARS FSS program and therefore it is too early to speculate on any further involvement at this stage,” the spokesperson said.
Andrew Chuter is the UK correspondent for Defense News.