Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence



  1. The aim of the following short paper is to describe RFA practices, exposing the similarities and differences between the RFA and traditional shipping companies.


  2. Formed in 1905 and incorporated by Admiralty Order in Council in 1911, the RFA is the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in-house merchant fleet in support of UK defence and foreign policy. The Commodore RFA (COMRFA) is a Fleet Type Commander, responsible to the Commander-in-Chief Fleet (CINCFLEET). The RFA's main task is to supply warships of the Royal Navy (RN) at sea with fuel, food, stores and ammunition which they need to remain operational while away from base. It also provides aviation support for the RN, together with amphibious support and secure sea transport for Royal marine and Army units.


  3. The RFA is under the command of CINCFLEET and consists of 22 ships, including nine tankers, two ammunition/stores ships, an aviation training ship, a forward repair ship, five amphibious landing ships, two RoRo ferries (for Joint Rapid Reaction Force (JRRF) support) and two fast combat replenishment ships. An order has recently been placed for two new Fast Replenishment Oiler, to enter service in 2002, to replace two ageing tankers.

  4. The RFA has the capability to provide the British Army and the Royal Marines with much of the heavy lift logistic support required to support the expeditionary nature of deployments in the future, including the ability to undertake and sustain out of area operations of significant size and duration. This includes the deployment of the JRRF.

  5. The majority of RFA vessels are able to act as force multipliers, by providing additional flight decks, hangars and air engineering support. In addition, the ships supplement platform availability of Anti Submarine Warfare operations. Many RFA ships are fitted with a limited self- defence capability for operating alone and all are fitted with secure communications.

  6. The RFA meets long standing defence commitments in the West Indies, the Arabian Gulf and Falkland Islands and has operated in support of peacekeeping operations, including West Africa and Bosnia. There is also a standing commitment to assist in Operational Sea Training of RN and RFA units.


  7. The RFA is entirely civilian manned, with terms and conditions of service that are a mixture of civil service and maritime regulations together with a number peculiar to the RFA. Seafarers are appointed to ships for periods of approximately four months for junior officers and ratings and up to eight months for senior officers. During this time they earn voyage Leave. Personnel are paid a consolidated salary, have a compulsory retirement age of 60 and are embraced by the Principal Civil Service Pension Scheme (PCSPS).

  8. Discipline is governed by the RFA Code of Conduct, which is very similar to the Merchant Navy Code of Conduct, but also reflects the predominantly military nature of RFA work. All seagoing personnel are required to sign a Crew Agreement, specifically agreeing: to serve within areas of warlike operations; to undertake training and once qualified, to man ship's weapons; to work cargoes at sea; and to carry out rostered duties in harbour. Failure to sign this agreement automatically breaches the RFA contract and can result in dismissal from the service.


  9. The RFA is funded entirely by the MoD, employs 885 officers and 1,492 ratings. It trains officers and ratings for their routine duties at Merchant Navy Training colleges and overlays this with specialist military training, such as Warfare disciplines, Battle damage control and specific navigation courses, at various RN establishments. Currently, 97 officer cadets are undergoing basic training, of which around 25 qualify each year. The RFA does not qualify for GAFT or DOCS and there is no provision to include the RFA in future SMART benefits.

  10. The RFA is the largest single employer of British seafarers. It draws its work forces only from UK Nationals. It does recruit from the wider British seafarer population but equally, is vulnerable to similar practice from shipping companies. Recent statistics indicate that the RFA loses three times the number it gains by this method.

  11. In common with all the Shipping Industry, the RFA has suffered in recent years from a lack of recruits and poor overall retention. Considerable efforts have been made to redress this balance, with a widening of the recruiting net, to cover all educational levels from graduate to GCSE and also to offer a rewarding career to older entrants. A promotion scheme from rating to officer has provided real incentives to ambitious male or female ratings, who can now pursue a coherent, challenging career. Eleven serving officers have progressed through this route. In recent years, the RFA has recruited between 80 and 90 junior rating trainees in all disciplines and there is now a proven route to officer rank for these people to focus on.

  12. Plans for the future are already in place, with the emphasis on all new entry trainees following a National Vocational training (NVO) path. Already, 73 cadets and 140 ratings have progressed through NVQs. In addition, the RFA is committed to achieving accreditation under the Investors in People (IIP) scheme. Despite the lengthy and demanding process to achieve this accreditation, the RFA anticipates meeting requirements by late 1999.

  13. In summary, the RFA has a purpose and a plan for the future. At cost only to the MoD, it provides training and employment to a large number of British seafarers. It is not without its problems, in particular with manpower shortages especially with the recruitment and retention of junior deck officers. But, by carefully crafting its terms of reference and conditions of service, within a principally military structure, it fulfils an essential role, without losing its essentially Merchant Navy status.

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Prepared 8 June 1999