It was first established in 1905 to provide coaling ships for the Navy in an era when the change from sail to coal as the main motive power for the navies of the world meant that a network of bases around the world with coaling facilities, or a fleet of ships able to supply coal were necessary for a fleet to operate away from its home country. 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 really came into its own in WWII when the British fleet was often far from available bases, either due to the enemy capturing available bases, or, in the Pacific, the sheer distances involved. WWII also saw naval ships staying at sea for much longer periods than had been the case since the days of sail. The British auxiliary fleet was never up to the standards of that of the American fast carrier taskforces in the Pacific. The auxiliary fleet was a polyglot collection with not only RFA ships, but commissioned warships and merchantmen as well. However, the need for such a fleet was unambiguously demonstrated by WWII.
After 1945, the RFA assumed centre stage in supporting the operations of the Royal Navy 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 Pacfic 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 in the largest naval war since 1945, the Falklands War in 1982, and also the Gulf War, Kosovo War, Afghanistan Campaign and Gulf War II. With the end of the Cold War, and the resumption of the worldwide role for the Royal Navy, the RFA will be called on a great deal in the next few decades.
Ships in the RFA carry the prefix RFA, which, unsurprisingly, stands for Royal Fleet Auxiliary. They fly the Blue Ensign[?], which is a blue flag with the Union Flag in the top left corner, defaced with an anchor. It is similiar in design to the Red Ensign of the British Merchant Navy[?]. The RFA is partially civilian and partially military manned. The civilians are members of the Merchant Navy who are under naval discipline whilst on board ship. Some of its ships have a small amount of armament, including 20mm and 7.62mm guns.
The mainstay of the current RFA fleet are the tankers. There are three classes of tankers in service, the fast fleet tankers of the Wave class, and the slower support tankers of the Leaf and Rover classes. Stores vessels in the fleet are the Fort class. One fast sealift ship is also in the fleet, Sea Crusader. Its companion vessel, Sea Centurion was returned to its owners in 2002. Sea Crusader is not due to remain in the fleet for very much longer, since it is being replaced by newly built vessels operated under a Private Finance Initiative[?]. These vessels will be ordinary merchant ships, leased to the Ministry of Defence, not in the RFA. Two unique ships in the fleet are the repair vessel Diligence and the aviation training ship Argus. Argus also doubles as the Primary Casualty Receiving Ship. Essentially the ship functions as a kind of hospital ship. However, since it is armed, it does not enjoy the protections under the Geneva Conventions that a hospital ship normally would. To balance that out, the Argus can venture into waters too dangerous for a normal hospital ship. The final ships in the fleet are the ones that are most likely to expose themselves directly to enemy fire. The Round Table class LSLs (Landing Ship Logistics) supplement the amphibious assualt ships that are commissioned warships in the Royal Navy. One of the class, Sir Galahad, was sunk in the Falklands War, and the current ship of that name is a replacement for the sunk vessel built after the war.
The RFA is a mixture of old and new vessels. The Wave class tankers are very new vessels, only coming into service in 2003. However, the other tankers are a great deal older, and are schedualed to be replaced with new double hulled vessels over the next few years. The stores ships are relatively modern, and so will not need replacing until the second decade of the 21st century. Argus is supposed to be replaced by a dedicated PCRS at some point this decade, but so far there is no indication of funding for the requirement in the British defence budget. Replacements for the LSLs are building at the moment, and are due to enter service in 2004 and 2005. Sir Bedivere is due to be retained until 2011, since it underwent a SLEP[?] from 1994 until 1998.
The current RFA fleet includes the following ships:
In addition to the RFA fleet, some merchantmen are hired for use in military transport. Most of these hirings are temporary, but a major exception to that are the replacement ships for Sea Crusader and Sea Centurion. These are the Point class ships, six of which are being built. When any of the six ships are not needed for military use, they will be available for commercial hire. The Point class ships are: