Royal Fleet Auxiliary
Active1905–present
Country United Kingdom
BranchMerchant Navy
TypeAuxiliary force
RoleReplenishment & Operational Support
Size1,750 personnel (as of late 2022);[1] combined vessel displacement c. 341,000 tonnes
RFA HeadquartersLeach Building, Whale Island, Portsmouth, England, UK
ColoursBlue and gold    
Fleet
DecorationsKings Colour
WebsiteRoyal Fleet Auxiliary
Commanders
Commodore in ChiefThe Duke of Edinburgh
Commodore RFACdre David Eagles[2]
Insignia
Royal Fleet Auxiliary Ensign
Royal Fleet Auxiliary Jack
AbbreviationRFA

The Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) is a naval auxiliary fleet owned by the UK's Ministry of Defence. It is a component of His Majesty's Naval Service and provides logistical and operational support to the Royal Navy and Royal Marines. The RFA ensures the Royal Navy is supplied and supported by providing fuel and stores through replenishment at sea, transporting Royal Marines and British Army personnel, providing medical care and transporting equipment and essentials around the world. In addition the RFA acts independently providing humanitarian aid, counter piracy and counter narcotic patrols together with assisting the Royal Navy in preventing conflict and securing international trade.[3] They are a uniformed civilian branch of the Royal Navy staffed by British merchant sailors.[4] The RFA is one of five RN fighting arms .[5]

RFA personnel are civilian employees of the Ministry of Defence and members of the Royal Naval Reserve and Sponsored Reserves. Although RFA personnel wear Merchant Navy rank insignia with naval uniforms, they are part of the Royal Navy. RFA vessels are commanded and crewed by these sailors, augmented with regular and reserve Royal Navy personnel who perform specialised functions such as operating and maintaining helicopters or providing hospital facilities. Royal Navy personnel are also needed to operate certain weapons, such as the Phalanx; however, other weapons (such as the DS30B 30 mm cannon) are operated by RFA personnel. The RFA counts an aviation support vessel and dock landing ships amongst its assets.

History

Further information: Maritime history of the United Kingdom and History of the Royal Navy

USS Donald Cook receives fuel during a replenishment at sea (RAS) with RFA Wave Ruler.

The RFA was established in 1905 to provide logistical support for the Navy. Since the Royal Navy of that era possessed the largest network of bases around the world of any fleet, the RFA at first took a relatively minor role.

The RFA first became heavily relied upon by the Royal Navy during World War II, when the British fleet was often far from available bases, either due to the enemy capturing such bases, or, in the Pacific, because of the sheer distances involved. World War II also saw naval ships staying at sea for much longer periods than had been the case since the days of sail. Techniques of replenishment at sea (RAS) were developed. The auxiliary fleet comprised a diverse collection, with not only RFA ships, but also commissioned warships and merchantmen as well. The need for the fleet to be maintained was unambiguously demonstrated by World War II.

After 1945, the RFA became the Royal Navy's main source of support in the many conflicts that the Navy was involved in. The RFA performed important service to the Far East Fleet off Korea from 1950 until 1953, when sustained carrier operations were again mounted in Pacific waters. During the extended operations of the Konfrontasi in the 1960s, the RFA was also heavily involved. As the network of British bases overseas shrank during the end of the Empire, the Navy increasingly relied on the RFA to supply its ships during routine deployments.

The RFA played an important role[clarification needed] in the largest naval war since 1945, the Falklands War in 1982 (where one vessel was lost and another badly damaged), and also the Gulf War, Kosovo War, Afghanistan Campaign and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.[citation needed]

In July 2008, the RFA was presented with a Queen's Colour, an honour unique to a civilian organisation.[6][7][8]

Fleet

See also: List of Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship names

RFA Blue Ensign

Ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary

A - B - C - D - E - F - G
H - I - J - K - L - M - N
O - P - Q - R - S - T - U
V - W - X - Y - Z

Amphibious warfare ships
Replenishment ships
Miscellaneous ships
Commodore Bill Walworth and Commodore Tim Fraser RN aboard RFA Lyme Bay

Ships in RFA service carry the ship prefix RFA, standing for Royal Fleet Auxiliary, and fly the Blue Ensign defaced with an upright gold killick anchor. All Royal Fleet Auxiliaries are built and maintained to Lloyd's Register and Department for Transport standards.

As of 2024, there are 13 ships in service with the Royal Fleet Auxiliary with a total displacement of approximately 341,000 tonnes. These figures exclude the merchant navy vessels under charter to the Ministry of Defence performing sealift and fuel provisioning roles.

Underway replenishment

The most important role provided by the RFA is replenishment at sea (RAS), therefore the mainstay of the current RFA fleet are the replenishment ships.[9] Three classes of vessel are in service as of 2024: Fort Victoria, the Tide class and the Wave class.

The Wave class are called 'Fleet Tankers', which primarily provide under way refuelling to Royal Navy ships, but can also provide a limited amount of dry cargo. The Tide class are designated 'Fast Fleet Tankers' that were ordered in February 2012. The four tankers were ordered from DSME, South Korea with design support from Britain's BMT Defence Services, the first of which Tidespring entered service in 2017.[10] From 2022, only the Tide class were to be active with both Wave-class vessels being placed in extended readiness (uncrewed reserve).[11] As of April 2024, RFA Tiderace was also reported to be in extended readiness, primarly owing to serious personnel shortages in the RFA.[12]

RFA Fort Victoria is a 'one-stop' replenishment ship, capable of providing under way refuelling and dry cargo (i.e. rearming, victualling and spares). Until 2011, she had a sister ship in RFA Fort George until she was decommissioned as a result of defence cuts. Two ships of the Fort Rosalie class also provided dry stores replenishment but were placed into extended readiness in 2020.[13] The two ships were later decommissioned, leaving Fort Victoria the only fleet solid support ship in service.[14][15] In 2023, Fort Victoria was reported to be in "reduced readiness" but available for deployment in an emergency.[16][17] A class of three new fleet solid support ships are expected to arrive starting in 2031 under the Fleet Solid Support Ship Programme.[18][19][20][21] The manufacturing contract for this acquisition, valued at £1.6 billion, was signed in January 2023.[22]

The Wave class, Tide class and Fort Victoria incorporate aviation facilities, providing aviation support and training facilities as well as vertical replenishment capabilities. They are capable of operating and supporting Merlin and Lynx Wildcat helicopters, both of which are significant weapons platforms. The presence of aviation facilities on RFA ships allows for them to be used as 'force multipliers' for the task groups they support in line with Royal Navy doctrine.

Replenishment ships

Class Ship Pennant No. Entered service Displacement Type Note
Tide class RFA Tidespring A136 2017 39,000 tonnes Replenishment tanker [23]
RFA Tiderace A137 2018 [24][N 1]
RFA Tidesurge A138 2019 [26]
RFA Tideforce A139 2019 [27]
Wave class RFA Wave Knight A389 2003 31,500 tonnes Fast fleet tanker [28][N 2]
RFA Wave Ruler A390 2003 [31][13][N 3]
Fort Victoria class RFA Fort Victoria A387 1994 33,675 tonnes Multi-role replenishment ship [33][N 4]

Amphibious warfare

The RFA is tasked with the role of supporting Royal Navy amphibious operations through its three Bay-class dock landing ships (LSD). Typically one Bay-class vessel (as of 2023 RFA Cardigan Bay) is also assigned as a permanent 'mothership' for Royal Navy mine countermeasures vessels in the Persian Gulf. The 2021 defence white paper proposed the acquisition of a new class of up to six Multi-Role Support Ships (MRSS) to support littoral strike operations. These vessels are to replace the Bay-class ships, and other vessels, starting in the 2030s. In the interim, the white paper had proposed to upgrade one of the Bay-class vessels with permanent hangar facilities in order to carry out the littoral strike role.[36][37] However, in July 2022 it was reported that the future littoral strike role would in fact be assumed by RFA Argus after a refit to convert her to this role.[38]

Argus is a unique support ship in the RFA and has served in various aviation support roles. On active operations, she can deploy as a Primary Casualty Receiving Ship (PCRS); essentially a hospital ship. She cannot be described as such – and was not afforded such protection under the Geneva Convention – as she is armed. Argus completed a refit in May 2007 intended to extend her operational life to 2020.[39] Prior to the announcement that she would take on the Littoral strike role, Defence Procurement Minister Jeremy Quin indicated that it was planned to retain the ship in service beyond 2030 rather than retiring her in 2024 as previously planned.[40][41] The 2021 defence white paper did not specifically mention her replacement. However, Minister Quinn indicated that her functions are projected to be taken over by the new MRSS vessels, approved for acquisition in the 2021 defence white paper.[42][36][37]

Dock landing ships

Class Ship Pennant No. Entered service Displacement Type Note
Bay class RFA Lyme Bay L3007 2007 16,160 tonnes Dock landing ship auxiliary [43][N 5]
RFA Mounts Bay L3008 2006 [45]
RFA Cardigan Bay L3009 2006 [46][N 6]

Aviation support/Littoral strike ship

Class Ship Pennant No. Entered service Displacement Type Note
RFA Argus A135 1988 28,081 tonnes Littoral strike/aviation support/casualty receiving ship [47][48][N 7]

Ocean surveillance/survey

The RFA has acquired a Multi-Role Ocean Surveillance Ship to protect undersea critical national infrastructure, such as gas pipelines and undersea cables.[50] In February 2023, the vessel identified for this role - MV Topaz Tangaroa - was acquired and in October 2023 entered service as RFA Proteus. She was purchased for some £70 million and was converted to act as a mothership for autonomous systems and have military communications and light defensive armament added.

It is reported that a second MROS ship is envisaged, which is to be a new build vessel and as of 2023 is in the concept stage with service entry envisaged in about 2029.[51][52]

Multi-Role Ocean Surveillance (MROS) Ship

Class Ship Pennant No. Entered service Displacement Type Note
RFA Proteus K60 2023 6,000 tonnes Critical seabed infrastructure protection/underwater surveillance/seabed warfare [N 8][53]

Mine countermeaures

In December 2022, it was reported that a commercial vessel was being sought for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary which would act as a trials vessel to further develop the concept of deploying autonomous minehunting systems from command and support motherships.[54] The new vessel, to be named RFA Stirling Castle,[55] is the former offshore support vessel MV Island Crown which, after her entry into service, is likely to be based at the Clyde naval base[56] to operate with the Mine Threat and Exploitation Group which deploys the Royal Navy's autonomous vessels. The ship was purchased for £40 million and arrived at HMNB Devonport in January 2023. Her conversion was not anticipated to be lengthy.[57] Full service entry took place in April 2024.[58][59]

Up to three additional ships are also planned for eventual acquisition in the mine countermeasures command and support role,[60][61] one of which is intended to replace RFA Cardigan Bay and some of the other vessels in 9 Mine Countermeasures Squadron operating from HMS Jufair in Bahrain. The new vessels may either be conversions of existing commercial vessels or, as reportedly preferred by the navy, new-build ships.[62] Cardigan Bay would then be returned to a primary amphibious operations role.[63]

Mine Countermeasures Trials Platform

Class Ship Pennant No. Entered service Displacement Type Note
Castle class RFA Stirling Castle M01[64] 2024[65] 5,840 tonnes Mine Countermeasures trials platform [N 9][66]

Sealift and fuel provisioning

The Point-class sealift ships were acquired in 2002 under a £1.25bn private finance initiative with Foreland Shipping known as the Strategic Sealift Service. These ships are Merchant Navy vessels leased to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) as and when needed and as such are not part of the RFA. However, they are listed here due to their role in expeditionary military operations and in provisioning U.K. military bases and facilities. Originally six ships were part of the deal, allowing the MoD use of four of the ships with two being made available for commercial charter, these latter two were released from the contract in 2012.[67]

The MoD also contracts to secure fuel supplies for facilities overseas. For sometime this requirement was maintained through charter of the vessel Maersk Rapier.[68] The ship was tasked with supplying fuel to the United Kingdom's various naval establishments at home and overseas, as well as providing aviation fuel to RAF stations at Cyprus, Ascension Island and the Falkland Islands.[68] The MoD chartered the vessel to commercial companies during periods where she was not in use for defence purposes.[68][69] Since the end of the contract for the use of Maersk Rapier, a further contract for the use of another tanker, renamed the Raleigh Fisher, has been secured.[70][71]

Ministry of Defence sealift/supply vessels

Class Ship Owner Entered service Displacement Type Note
Point class MV Hurst Point Foreland Shipping 2002 23,000 tonnes Ro-Ro Sealift [72]
MV Eddystone 2002 [72]
MV Hartland Point 2002 [72]
MV Anvil Point 2003 [72]
MV Raleigh Fisher James Fisher and Sons 2005 35,000 DWT Tanker [N 10][70][71][73]

Rank insignia

Officers

Rank insignia of RFA officers differ from the Royal Navy as the RFA makes use of the diamond used by some British merchant shipping companies, rather than the executive curl used by the RN. The rank of commodore is the most senior in the RFA.

RFA Officer Ranks and Insignia
Rank Commodore Captain Chief Officer First Officer Second Officer Third Officer Officer Cadet
Insignia
Abbreviation Cdre Capt C/O 1/O 2/O 3/O CDT
Analogous RN Rank* Commodore Captain Commander Lieutenant

Commander

Lieutenant Sub Lieutenant Midshipman/Officer Cadet

Department Colours

The RFA uses distinction cloth to distinguish the branch of its officers. The Royal Navy ceased this practice for most officers in 1955, with the exception of medical and dental officers who are denoted by red and orange cloth respectively.

Deck (X) Logistics and Supply (LS) Marine Engineering (ME) Systems Engineering (SE) Communications
unadorned        

Although the Marine Engineering distinction cloth is generally described as being purple, it is in practice closer to maroon.

Crew

RFA Crew Ranks and Insignia
Rank Chief Petty Officer Petty Officer Petty Officer Leading Hand Seaman Grade 1 Seaman Grade 2 Apprentice
Insignia
Branch shown Comms Comms Deck Comms Deck Deck

Uniforms

Officers and Ratings of the RFA wear similar uniforms to the regular navy with RFA distinguishing marks.

No. 1 Dress

No. 1 dress

This is the formal uniform worn on ceremonial occasions. For all officers it consists of a double-breasted, navy blue reefer jacket with four rows of two RFA buttons; matching trousers; white shirt and black tie; peaked cap; and black leather shoes. Rank insignia is denoted on the lower sleeve. RFA officer cap badges, although similar in style to those used by RN officers, feature a ring with letters ‘RFA’ surrounding the fouled anchor at the centre.

For ratings below the rank of Petty Officer, this uniform is a single breasted tunic fastened with four RFA buttons, with flapped chest pockets and hip pockets; white shirt and black tie, and a dark blue beret and black leather shoes. Petty Officers and Chief Petty Officers wear a double breasted navy blue reefer jacket similar to the Officers version but with three rows of two RFA buttons. They wear a beret with an RFA badge, formerly a pantone blue, now the same colour as the RN Navy Blue. Rank insignia is denoted on the lower sleeve.

No. 2 Dress

No. 2A dress, as worn by the Duke of Edinburgh

Number 2A dress is the formal evening dress for ceremonial dinners; it consists of a navy blue mess jacket with a white waistcoat (black cummerbund for female officers) with miniature medals. 2B is "mess undress" for other mess functions, and is worn with either a black cummerbund or navy blue waistcoat and miniature medals. 2C, "red sea rig", is worn for informal evening wear on board ship; it consists of a white short sleeved shirt, worn with shoulderboards, without medals and with black trousers, black shoes and a black cummerbund. It is unusual to see a black cummerbund worn with red sea rig as it is traditional to have personalised cummerbunds. These are usually in the branch colours of the wearer and commonly have either a branch insignia or a ship's badge embroidered in the centre. This tradition is also prevalent in the RN.

No. 3 Dress

This is worn all year round for general duties. It consists of a white shirt with rank insignia on the shoulders, and appropriate headgear. For officers 3A dress includes a long-sleeved shirt and tie, while 3B includes a short-sleeved shirt worn with hard shoulder boards. 3C is the same in all respects as 3A but with the addition of a navy blue woollen jersey. This is the same as for Officer's No. 3 dress but with the relevant rate insignia and beret. Junior rates are only issued with short-sleeve shirts and are not issued with ties. Thus No.3 dress is divided into 3B (without jersey) and 3C dress (navy-blue jersey worn over the shirt with the shirt collar out). There is no equivalent of 3A dress for junior ratings.

No. 4 Dress

Number 4 dress is the working uniform of the RFA. It is referred to as Royal Fleet Auxiliary Personal Clothing System (RFAPCS); it consists of a navy blue fire-retardant jacket, navy blue baseball cap and beret, navy blue stable belt, navy-blue fire-retardant trousers, dms boots, black T-shirt and an optional navy-blue microfleece. Number 4R dress is the same only without the jacket and with an optional baseball cap. RFAPCS is distinguished from its RNPCS counterpart by the RFA blue ensign and 'ROYAL FLEET AUXILIARY' tape replacing the white ensign and 'ROYAL NAVY' tape worn on the left arm and left chest pocket respectively. Junior ratings may also wear an RFA badged baseball cap in this order of dress, whilst undertaking courses at Royal Navy establishments.

No. 5 Dress

Number 5 dress is the collective category for all specialist working uniforms. They are worn as required for duties.

Recruitment and training

As of 2022–23, the RFA was reported to be facing considerable recruiting challenges. Manpower was said to have dropped by 5 per cent from 2021 to 2022, contributing to the reduced availability, and even potential redundancy, of some vessels.[74][75][76][77]

The RFA recruits ratings either directly from industry (or where they are suitably trained to allow direct entry), or as apprentices whilst undertaking training.

Officers are recruited in one of three ways:[78]

All new officers take part in a 10-week Initial Naval Training Officers (INT-O) course at BRNC Dartmouth that is designed to familiarise new officers to the RFA and develop leadership skills.

List of Commodores Royal Fleet Auxiliary

Commodores David Eagles and Duncan Lamb at the transfer of command of the RFA in 2020

The post of Commodore of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (COMRFA) was created in 1951, known as Commodore RFA and Deputy Director Royal Navy Afloat Support since 2020, is the senior officer of the RFA.[79] The following people have served as COMRFA:[80][2]

See also

Lists of Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships by role

Lists of ships operated by or in support of His Majesty's Naval Service

Related articles

Notes

  1. ^ As of April 2024, RFA Tiderace was reported to be in extended readiness (uncrewed reserve).[25]
  2. ^ As of March 2022, RFA Wave Knight was placed in extended readiness (uncrewed reserve).[29][30]
  3. ^ RFA Wave Ruler is in extended readiness (uncrewed reserve)[32]
  4. ^ RFA Fort Victoria is in reduced readiness (skeleton crew for ship maintenance) as of 2023[34][35]
  5. ^ Lyme Bay is assigned to Littoral Response Group (South) operating from the UK Joint Logistics Support Base in Oman.[44]
  6. ^ Cardigan Bay is tasked to act as command ship for 9 Mine Countermeasures Squadron based at HMS Jufair in Bahrain.
  7. ^ Argus is assigned to Littoral Response Group (South) operating from the UK Joint Logistics Support Base in Oman; secondary role as Role 3 hospital/casualty receiving ship[49]
  8. ^ Former commercial vessel converted to ocean surveillance role with communications and other military systems added
  9. ^ Former commercial vessel converted to role as "mothership" for autonomous mine countermeasures systems
  10. ^ Vessel provides fuel provisioning for UK military facilities.

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Bibliography

The Royal Fleet Auxiliary – A Century of Service. Adams/Smith. London 2005. Chatham Publishing. ISBN 1-86176-259-3.