LONDON – American, British, Dutch, Indian and Spanish companies are among members of four rival industry consortia named by the British Ministry of Defence to develop designs for logistics ships to support the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carriers.

The consortia have each been awarded contracts worth around £5 million ($6.9 million) to develop their proposals to build three 40,000 tonne supply ships for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, the Royal Navy’s logistics arm.

The warships are urgently needed to replace the aging RFA ships now replenishing the Royal Navy’s new carrier task groups.

The announcement Sept. 1 signals the delayed capability, known as the Fleet Solid Support program, is back on track after delays and debate over pricing and whether the ship should be built in the UK.

At one point the procurement competition was abandoned after the MoD said none of the bids satisfied value-for-money targets.

With the new procurement now seemingly firmly underway a preferred bidder is expected to be named in the fourth quarter of next year, with a build contract expected around May 2023.

The overall cost of the requirement, known as the Fleet Solid Support program, is put at £1.6 billion ($2.2 billion), although the MoD said it had provisioned additional funding required to transition the ships into service ,including capability assessment trials.

In a statement, the MoD said the contracts will “enable bidders to develop their design proposals and the next stage will seek details of how they would fulfill the wider delivery needs of the program. Assessment of these proposals will lead to the selection of a preferred bidder and award of the manufacture contract.”

The MoD announcement Sept. 1 named the consortia selected as:

  • “Team UK,” which includes Babcock and BAE Systems;
  • “Team Resolute,” which includes Northern Ireland shipbuilder Harland & Wolff and British naval design company BMT;
  • Indian shipbuilder Larsen & Toubro teamed with Leidos Innovations, a UK-based business of the Reston, U.S.-based Leidos group; and
  • Serco, the British support services provider, and Dutch shipbuilder Damen.

Team UK and Team Resolute’s bids have been widely touted. Spanish shipyard Navantia is part of the Team Resolute consortium but wasn’t named by the MoD in its announcement.

The other two bidders, though, are left field.

Nobody was immediately available at Leidos Innovations for comment on the nature of the company’s involvement alongside Larsen & Toubro in the supply ships competition.

However, Leidos in the United States has made no secret of its intention to build its maritime business and last year acquired one of Amercia’s best known naval design companies, Gibbs & Cox, for $380 million.

Dutch shipbuilder Daman and Serco may have also been a surprise combination to some, but the two companies have had a long relationship.

Daman has been supplying small vessels to Serco for years for a Royal Navy support contract undertaken by the British company.

Earlier this week a large icebreaker built by Daman for the Australian Government started its journey to its home port of Hobart. Serco was the prime contractor and Damen the builder.

Serco will operate and maintain the ship, the RSV Nuyina, under a deal with the Australians.

The competition will likely come under intense scrutiny by members of Parliament, the shipbuilding unions and the media over just how much of the construction is undertaken locally.

“The final manufacture contract will be awarded to a U.K. company acting either solely or as part of a consortium,” said the MoD.

At one stage the government appeared to be moving closer to a UK-built solution but that commitment appears to have been watered down recently.

The MoD announcement said the program had to “maximize the social value contribution shipbuilding can make in the UK, including encouraging investment in domestic shipyards, whilst balancing the need to deliver value for money.”

At an event marking the start of the competitive procurement phase of the program Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said: “I wish all the competitors well as we work towards realizing a program which will deliver ships essential for the U.K.’s security as well as vital jobs and skills.”

“I am proud to see U.K. companies stepping up to the challenge of the Fleet Solid Support competition as we begin the next chapter of this British shipbuilding success story,” he said.

In the Daily Mirror newspaper here GMB Union national officer Ross Murdoch saw it somewhat differently.

He said the announcement would “increase fears” the contract is “being lined up for overseas yards.”

“It’s vitally important as much of the supply chain as possible for this crucial order remains in the UK,” he argued, adding: “The aircraft carrier fleet urgently needs new support vessels and our yards and factories need work – it really is a no-brainer.”

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