Foreign Yards Join Final Competition for New Royal Navy Auxiliaries

One possible design for the FSS (UK Defence Ministry)

Published Sep 2, 2021 10:43 PM by The Maritime Executive

The UK's Ministry of Defense has picked four top contenders to build the Royal Navy's next dry stores auxiliary, the future Fleet Solid Support (FSS) ship. 

The new series of vessels will be designed to keep the service's new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers and amphibious task groups supplied with ammunition, food and spare parts. Four design contracts worth $7 million each have been awarded to develop competing options for the new ships, and three of the four consortia selected for the next phase include foreign partners. 

The groups picked to move forward include Indian shipbuilder L&T and U.S.-owned defense contractor Leidos Innovations; UK-based vessel operator Serco and Dutch shipbuilder Damen; Spanish shipbuilder Navantia, Belfast-based yard Harland & Wolff and British naval architecture firm BMT; and Babcock and BAE Systems.

The inclusion of foreign shipbuilders is controversial in the UK. The contract competition allows for part of the vessel to be built outside of Britain, so long as “a significant portion of the build and assembly work" is completed at a British yard.

If an international consortium wins the final $2 billion contract, it would not be the first time: the ministry used a similar arrangement for a recent series of fleet oilers, the four-ship Tidespring class, which were built in South Korea and fitted out at A&P Group's Falmouth Docks.

“I am proud to see UK companies stepping up to the challenge of the Fleet Solid Support competition as we begin the next chapter of this British shipbuilding success story," said Defence Secretary Ben Wallace in a statement. 

The ministry has taken a long road to arrive at the design phase. The first round of competition for the FSS included foreign bidders, but it was suspended in 2019 after Sir John Parker's landmark shipbuilding strategy review, which recommended a UK-only design and build procurement for the FSS. Wallace re-launched the project in 2021, opening the competition again for international bids. 

Though the government has promised a "substantial" role for UK shipbuilders, the nation's shipbuilding unions are skeptical. "'Substantial' is in the eye of the beholder," said Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions general secretary Ian Waddell. “We need to go further and ensure the programme guarantees a future for all our shipyards in every part of the country."

"Our yards can deliver world class vessels on time and to budget. It’s vitally important as much of the supply chain as possible for this crucial order remains in the UK," said GMB union national officer Ross Murdoch. "The aircraft carrier fleet urgently needs new support vessels and our yards and factories need work – it really is a no-brainer."

In response to criticism from UK shipbuilding unions and the UK's Labour Party, a spokesperson for the defense ministry said that "we welcome international partners to team with British firms [and] we will seek to maximise UK social value in the programme."