Wednesday, February 22, 2012

MARS FT: here at last!

425 millions committed to acquire 4 MARS Fleet Tankers to replace the current ancient, single-hulled tankers of the RFA. Better than expected, since it was widely anticipated that the order would only be for two vessels, with two options for subsequent orders of 2 more in a 2+1+1 fashion. 
True, once MARS FT had to deliver 6 tankers, but it was a whole different time, and the fleet was much more consistent than today. Sadly, because it is another reminder of the massive shrinkage suffered in the years. 

The winning bidder has been selected in Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering (DSME), South Korea. DSME will build the four hulls, which will be kitted out by british companies, which will get some 150 million pounds in orders, comprising, according to the MOD

- £90m on UK contracts for the provision of key equipment, systems, design and support services. The winning design is being provided by UK company BMT Defence Services 

- £60m investment in the UK from customisation, trials and specialist engineering support.

The MARS tankers are described as being more than 200 meters long, displacing 37.000 tons and fitted with helicopter facilities, consisting of flight deck and hangar for a Merlin helicopter. The first vessel will be in service by 2016, with the others entering service at yearly intervals. Details of the design are available from BMT here.
The MARS FT design is an adaptation of the Aegir 26 design, slightly enlarged. The Aegir 26, shorter than 200 meters long, has a capacity of 24.000 cubic meters of fluids. They are also likely to have some significant space for solid stores, as even the much smaller Aegir 18 type has a 400 cubic meters hold.  
Propulsion will be entirely Diesel, on two shafts.
BAE should be involved as well to some degree, since BMT, DSME and BAE teamed up for pursuing the MARS FT contract back in 2008

Apart from the abeam RAS and refueling stations, MARS FT will be fitted for, but not with a stern fuel delivery reel.

In terms of solid RAS capability, the MARS FT will be able to move pallets weighting 2 tons.
This means that Rolls Royce will have to wait to provide its latest Replenishment At Sea system, capable of moving pallets of 5 tons each (compared to 2 tons now). The Rolls Royce RAS kit has already been ordered for installation in a new land training facility being built for the RN at  HMS Raleight base and including simulacres of both a Type 23 frigate and a Type 45 destroyer's RAS stations, to enable high-fidelity training. 
The aim of the new RAS system is to be able to transfer up to 25 five-tonne pallets/loads per hour while two ships are steaming no more than 50 metres (165ft) apart, travelling at 10kts, by day and night, in all but the most extreme weather conditions. This new RAS system will be central to the future part of MARS, the Solid Support program which is to deliver solid replenishers to replace the "Fort I class", but this is still relatively far away in time (the "Fort I" class includes Fort Rosalie and Fort Austin. The latter was put in reserve and mothballed in 2009, but following the SDSR it is being re-activated and entered port for refit in late may last year at Birkenhead. Both will carry on into the 2020s). 

Unless there are changes announced in the future (entirely possible) it seems that for the tankers two tons are judged sufficient. The MARS FT will mostly only supply pallets of supplies, principally food, and drums of lubricant oils. Like the Wave Class, they are to carry a variety of loads, including 8 20'' containers for food pallets. 
They will have a crew of 63 and accommodation for a further 46 men. In the BMT image they are shown rather heavily armed (2 x Phalanx CIWS and 2 DS30 30 mm gun mounts are visible) but of course, the CIWS will be "fitted for but not with", as with the Waves. 

Winner: BMT design has been selected, but the hulls will be built in South Korea. If the 400 millions price is respected, we are looking at an excellent deal for real. Image from BMT.

The MARS FT will represent a dramatic improvement in RFA capabilities: it is enough to mention that the small Rover tankers have a flight deck but no hangar and are only 16.000 tons. 
RFA Orangeleaf is larger (40.000 tons) but has no helicopter facilities at all. 

It is not clear if the last remaining Auxiliary Oiler, RFA Fort Victoria, also single-hulled, will be retired early and replaced by the fourth MARS FT, but i guess it is quite likely. Fort Victoria (pennant A387) is the last remain of the "Fort II" class of auxiliary oilers. Her sister, Fort George (A388) was retired following the SDSR and decommissioned in April 2011.

Overall, this is excellent, excellent news. It was a long wait, but this is a very important day for the Royal Navy. And for the Carrier Enabled Power Projection program, of which MARS FT is a very fundamental part, along with navalized Merlin, JCA and CVF. 

Value for money

The price does seem to be quite damn good. According to Defense Industry Daily, the cost of MARS FT is projected at 602 million pounds (452 for buying the hulls from Korea, and around 150 to be spent in the UK for completing the vessels for service). However, according to the government statement in parliament, instead, it would appear that the contract is worth 452 millions (of which 90 go to UK companies), plus some 60 more millions to be spent on design work and fitting of the ships for british service. This would mean 512 millions in total.
The government has specified that the contract includes 2 years of spare parts, training and support. 

The only suitable term of paragon in fact is the Indian purchase of the INS Deepak from Italy's Fincantieri. The vessel is 175 meters long and 25 wide and weights some 27.000 tons (so it is in fact considerably smaller than MARS FT at 200.9 meters long and 28.6 wide and 37.000 tons). She does have a maximum speed of 20 knots and more accommodations, while MARS will be slower (i expect something like 15 to 18 knots speed. The Aegir design has a max sustainable speed of 18 knots, possibly MARS FT will have it too), but she is overall comparable. She carries some 510 tons of solid cargo. MARS FT, one would expect, will have larger space for solid cargo, seen the much larger size and inferior number of berths, but we will see at some point in the future. Almost certainly the british berths will be much larger and more comfortable: the RN has been trying to give its crews very good living conditions in modern times, and significantly beats other navies in this aspect, even though it comports a space and cost penalty.

Deepak did cost 159.326 million euro, of which 20,81 millions in spare parts. The larger british ships would seem set to cost 150.5 million pounds each in the worst case (602 millions as said by Defense Industry Daily).
Even considering the exchange rate between pound and euro, the deal would still be very good.

Also because Deepak was delivered in 2010, and inflation has not been still in these years!

The Royal Fleet Auxiliary situation, today and tomorrow

So, where does MARS FT fit, and where does it bring us?
Today, the RFA lines a fleet of tankers and replenishers that include: 

- Wave class Fast Fleet Tankers
        Wave Knight A389
        Wave Ruler  A390 

These tankers are double-hulled, and thus meet the current International Maritime Organisation legislation for protecting the environment. They have extensive aviation facilities with a large one spot flight deck, hangar and maintenance facilities capable of supporting two Merlin helicopters and can carry an additional eight refrigerated 20’ containers when needed, for food and other supplies.

They have a cargo capacity of 16,000 cubic metres for fluids, which include 3,000 cubic metres of aviation fuel, 380 cubic metres of fresh water, with the capacity to produce 100 cubic meters of potable water per day, 500 cubic metres of dry cargo and 125 tons of lubricating oils. They are well capable to defend themselves with a defensive fit which includes 30mm cannons and the ability to receive two Phalanx CIWS. They can sustain a task group speed of 18 knots.

Their crew numbers 74, with room for an additional 26 Marines, weapon operators and aviation crews from the RN. They both commissioned during 2003 and have a long life ahead of them.

Fort I and Fort II classes   

The Fort Rosalie or "Fort I" class includes two vessels: Fort Rosalie - A385 (born Fort Grange, renamed in 2000 to avoid confusion with the new Fort George) and Fort Austin - A386. 

RFA Fort Rosalie
The two ships entered service in 1978 and 1979 and were involved in the Falklands war. They are fleet replenishers carrying solid stores in four huge holds. They will carry anything from food to nuclear weapons (in the Cold War days they did, anyway) which they can deliver to other vessels with their cranes or by VERTREP. They have two flight decks for this (one landing spot being on top of the hangar) and facilities for up to 4 medium helicopters, once Sea Kings and now Merlins. 

The "Fort II" or Fort Victoria class is a follow-on class, much more recent, of two vessels combining the functions of a fleet support tanker and a stores support ship. The ships have the capacity to carry a cargo of up to 6,250m³ of solids stores plus 12,500m³ of liquids.Fort Victoria - A387 and Fort George - A388 entered service in 1994.
They have a two-spots deck and facilities for up to 5 Merlin helicopters, RAS stations capable of moving two-tons pallets, and replenishment rigs port, starboard and stern.

RFA Fort Victoria

Ironically, despite being much more recent and brilliant in design under many points of view, the Fort II ships are single-hulled, and they have now ended up losing ground to their older sisters.
Fort George was retired in the SDSR, and i suspect that Fort Victoria might follow with an early demise as MARS FT and Fort Austin come into service.  

RFA Orangeleaf   A110

Last of the Leaf class after Bayleaf was retired as part of the SDSR10. The ship began life as a merchant vessel, MV Balder, London, before joining the RFA Fleet as a support tanker. She had a major refit in 1985 which fitted her with gantries and other equipment, enabling her to carry out replenishment at sea (RAS). She is a single-hull tanker with a cargo capacity of 22,000 cubic metres of diesel, 3,800 cubic metres of Avcat (aviation fuel) and a limited capacity for refrigerated and general naval stores.
She has no aviation capabilities at all, but has a couple of old 20 mm guns and machine guns for self defence.

It is worth noticing that the "Leaf class" never was a real, homogeneous class of ships, since each Leaf was a civilian ship taken up for RFA service, and there weren't two identical. Orangeleaf is the second largest ship in the class, with the largest having been Oakleaf, which was retired in 2009. Other vessels in the class could be half as big as Orangeleaf despite being in the same class.

Rover class Light Fleet Tankers

Gold Rover A271
Black Rover A273

Last of the Rover class, these tankers of 16.000 tons were Admiralty-designed and built to replenish RN ships with fuel, oil, aviation fuel, lubricants, fresh water and a limited amount of dry cargo and refrigerated stores. They can carry parcels as required of stores and supplies, including 340 tones of dry cargo including munitions and refrigerated stores. They are capable of fuelling a ship abeam or astern with automatic tensioning winches and two-ton stores jackstays. They are also fitted with a large, single spot flight deck for night and day operation, but without a hangar.


"Tomorrow", which means, of course, the year 2016 and beyond, the fleet will work with the 2 Waves and 4 MARS FT, plust Fort Rosalie and Fort Austin. In theory, Fort Victoria will be there too, but as i said i think there are pretty clear indications that she will be retired once MARS FT comes online. 

The 4 MARS FT are going to be a bit larger than the Waves and larger than even Fort Victoria, even if being tankers, they will have a different design and carry less stores than her. They will also be a bit smaller than Orangeleaf, but they will be behemoths compared to the Rovers. 

We are looking at ships with a capacity, in terms of fuels, higher than that of the Waves and Fort Victoria and, of course, of the Rovers. In terms of stores, the MARS FT will almost certainly match and probably overcome the Waves in capacity.
Each will also come with smaller crews than even the modern Waves, and more ready accommodations for embarked forces of Marines or other personnel, enhancing their ability to cover multiple types of mission and tasks.
All of the MARS FT will also have helicopter facilities probably as good as the Wave's. 

The loss of Fort Victoria would be more than balanced by the re-entry in service of Fort Austin alongside the MARS FT. In terms of helicopter hangars and decks, we go from: 

Current: hangar space for 11 helicopters (1 on each Wave, 5 on Fort Victoria, 4 on Fort Rosalie) and 6 fly decks. 


Future: hangar space for 14 helicopters (1 on each tanker Waves included, 4 on each of the two Fort I ships) and 8 flying decks. 

Fuel capacity is also greatly increased, as is stores capacity. The number of vessels is maintained. 
For a battlegroup, however, a dual-role ship such as Fort Victoria would of course be useful, since it would enable to keep back a tanker and a stores ships, assigning these only in case of need, instead of having to assign one ship of each kind to a battlegroup leaving Britain even just for an exercise. 

The 6-ships MARS FT concept did indeed include such a large CVF support vessel intended to be part of the carrier task group, but really, i think there is no room for complaints for once. The RFA and Royal Navy get an excellent deal out of MARS FT, even if i'm right and Fort Victoria vanishes.

I'm impressed. 
Did the government finally get the message of sea power and carrier strike then? I sure hope it has. It looks like it has. 


  1. Gabriele

    You will have to pardon me, as I am a bit of a landlubber, not very au fait with Royal Navy matters.

    I am getting a bit confused. When you say, “It is not clear if the last Auxiliary Oiler, RFA Fort Victoria, also single-hulled, will be retired early and replaced by the fourth MARS FT”, you are presumably referring to the AOR class that included “Fort Victoria” (ISD 1994) and “Fort George” (ISD same year). Those were/are ships which combine the functions of fleet oilers and stores ships, weren’t/aren’t they ?

    Then we also have the other ships called “Fort”, built and launched much earlier: i.e. “Fort Rosalie” (ISD 1978) and “Fort Austin” (ISD 1979). Are these the ones you are referring to when you talk about the “Solid Support program which is to deliver solid replenishers to replace the Fort class, but this is still relatively far away in time (the Forts will carry on into the 2020s)". As far as I remember their role was/is to supply warships with food, spare parts and ammunition (Solid Support?). I didn’t even know they were still in service! All these ships called “Fort”!

  2. Sorry, perhaps i've not been clear.
    I'm referring to Fort Victoria, exactly. Fort George, as you know, was retired in the SDSR and is no longer in service.

    Fort Victoria has extensive helicopter facilities, good space for supplies, but mostly carries oils and fuels and is, unfortunately, single-hulled.
    I suspect she will be retired.

    Fort Rosalie is definitely in service, while Fort Austin was mothballed in 2009, but is being re-activated post SDSR. These carry food, spares, ammunitions and, say, engines and spare parts for the aircraft carrier wing.
    They are to be replaced by the Solid Support MARS ships, but only into the 2020s.

    In my opinion, Fort Victoria will be retired early. The reactivation of Fort Austin is a signal in this sense, to me.
    Retiring Fort Victoria reduces aviation facilities (she can support some 4/5 Merlins) and stores capacity. But Fort Austin brings both back into the equation (roughly the same helicopters facilities, no fuel but more stores by far), while the MARS FT cover the fuel needs.

    Exchanging Fort Victoria, Orangeleaf and the two remaining Rovers for the reactivation of Fort Austin and 4 MARS FT is a huge bargain. Capability across the board, including helicopter facilities, are all increased significantly compared to now.

    I'll eventually edit the post to insert this into it, for major clarity. I hope i was of help with this reply, though. We will see in the next few years if i'm proven right on Fort Victoria.

    Thanks for the comment, as always!

  3. Gabriele

    You were really clear the first time. I just wanted to check my understanding of the ships that were being referred to. Thanks very much for the extra explanation though.

    I forgot to say that it is brilliant news for the Navy. The new ships will be, as you say, "a dramatic improvement in RFA capabilities".

    The price seems quite reasonable. Am I right in assuming that the four ships come in ironically at a price which is lower than that which has been expended on the FRES programme so far without a single vehicle appearing? I've been trying to find the figures for expenditure on FRES so far but have failed. I don't know why. The figures have been in the news often enough!

  4. The price is quite damn good. We don't know in the detail all the specifications of the vessels yet, of course, nor is it interely clear if 425 millions is the "all in cost" or the total is given by 425 spent in Korea and 150 in the UK, but still, even in the second case, the deal remains excellent.

    The only suitable term of paragon in fact is the Indian purchase of the INS Deepak from Italy's Fincantieri. The vessel is 175 meters long and 25 wide (so it is in fact considerably smaller than MARS FT at 200.9 and 28+). She does boast a 20 knots speed, which MARS FT won't (i expect something like 15 to 18 knots speed).

    She did cost 159.326 million euro, of which 20,81 millions in spare parts. The larger british ships could cost as little as 106.25 million pounds each, or 143.75 in the worst case.
    Even considering the exchange rate between pound and euro, the deal remains excellent.

    Also because Deepak was delivered in 2010, and inflation has not been still in these two years!

    I'm glad to hear the article was clear enough, and i'm happy that the reply to your comment added good info. I've just heavily edited and expanded the article, to make it further clear and complete.

    As to FRES, for the exact amount expended on it we'd have to look into the NAO report on armored vehicles and into the Major Projects report 2011.
    Anyway, yes. The signed 500 million pounds deal for the prototypes and development already beats on its own the cost of the new tankers.

  5. Thanks, Gabriele. I'll read the revised article tomorrow. I need my ugly sleep. Already looks excellent, though.

  6. Gabriele

    Have just found time to read it through more thoroughly and I think it's an outstanding examination both of the present and what will the future capacity of the RFA supply ships.

    Well done. An enjoyable and most informative read. Now to read the FRES bit, when I have time!

  7. Thank you, i'm glad to hear that the article supplies good info. I'm really happy about MARS FT, i must say. A true good news for once.

  8. I'm sure I read somewhere once that mixed Oiler / Cargo didnt really work.
    Cant for the life of me find where.
    With 4 ships, you dont really have a choice I suppose.
    Personaly, I think tankers should only be a factor for proper warfighting operations (Falklands MKII) and transit.

    If the RN is supposed to be "Defence Diplomacy'ing", surely the best way to do that is for a frigate to stock up Portsmouth, sail to Simons Town in South Africa, resupply, spend 30 days in joint oprations with them, resupply, loop up to Mombassa in Kenya, resupply, out to sea for a month long joint op, and that back home via the canal, with perhaps a stop at Cyprus, Italy or Gibralter.

    Iron Duke entering port, with crew on the rails in full dress uniform and a cheering crowd waving flags on the dock to greet them seems to tick a fair few boxes on defence diplomacy.
    Far more than operating at sea with the local fleet, and resupplying from a floating CostCo.

  9. Gabriele

    Forgot to say that it's also good news on the extra hangar space and flight decks that will become available in the future. I suppose that can only help if we have to launch another expeditionary force a la Falklands.

  10. it a shame about the Fort II class. practically new ships. why dont they just use them as dry good ships or auxillaries for pirate hunting?

  11. Gabriele,

    Since the initial announcement of the MARS contract being awarded to DSME, we constantly hear of UK companies benfitting with up to GBP 150M of contracts. The reality is that DSME has already started to send enquiries to local S Korean companies and BMT Defence Services offering little encouragement to involvement of UK companies. A follow up article on this growing saga would be welcomed.

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