Many in Britain may feel proud that the UK government is giving away £11.2 Bn per year in overseas aid, leading the world in ‘international development’. While growing poverty in the UK leaves increasing numbers dependent on food banks, the armed forces suffer cut after cut and national debt rises by £1Bn per week, for others this generosity is hard to stomach. There is a case for overseas aid both on a pragmatic and moral level – we should do the right thing and besides, lifting people out of poverty should make us all richer. The old adage that “charity begins at home” has lost much of its meaning in the context of the globalised inter-connected 21st century world where what happens in far off nations can have immediate impact at home. The principle that governments of rich nations should be helping the poorest and the most vulnerable in the world is sound and should not just be left to charities or benevolent billionaires.
What is not in doubt is that UK overseas development has been mismanaged in some areas to the point of lunacy. Not only is much of the money wasted by corruption, absorbed by expensive ‘aid professionals’ or put into schemes with no accountability but we have been giving money to growing economic powerhouses such as India and even China. We are sending cash to relieve grinding poverty in India while their government has the resources to run a space programme and build aircraft carriers. We don’t necessarily need to cut our overseas aid budget but we certainly should start spending it far more intelligently. Building and operating a hospital ship is a good example of how we could spend this money better.
With apparent climate change bringing more extreme weather, regular earthquakes and tsunamis, it is sad but safe to say that the services of hospital ships will be needed many times in the coming decades. With 95 of the 100 largest cities in the world port cities and the 90% of the world’s population living within 200 miles of the sea, aid and assistance from ships will often be the most appropriate way to deliver large scale relief.
By diverting a very small part of the Department for International Development’s (DFID) very generous budget into building and running a hospital ship, the MoD would be spared further pressure on its already under-size budget. The taxpayer would be getting a highly visible ambassador for Britain and a force for good in the world. A hospital ship can deliver medical aid direct to those who need it most while avoiding potential corruption and the middle-men that plague so many aid projects.
Ideally we would have 2 vessels. One ‘forward-deployed’ mainly around Africa or Asia making scheduled visits to provide a programme of free medical care but ready to respond to natural disasters. The second vessel would be at home either refitting or in reserve but at a few days notice to respond to emergencies. In their secondary roles, the ships would give the armed forces of the UK and its allies the assurance of a dedicated hospital ship able to cope with large numbers combat casualties. They would also provide a useful back up to the NHS in the event of a major incident or disaster in the UK. It is notable with the closure of Royal Naval Hospital Haslar in 2009, the UK is now the only country in the Western world not to have a dedicated Military hospital.
RFA Argus is the nearest we currently have to a hospital ship. Designated a “Primary Casualty Receiving Ship” (PCRS), she carries a fully equipped 100-bed hospital. However she is painted grey and does not conform to the requirements of the Geneva Convention on hospital ships because she carries weapons and embarks operational units. She is also the Navy’s helicopter training vessel and in wartime she would be a very useful extra helicopter carrier. Originally converted from a container ship for the Falklands War and then significantly re-built, few vessels have provided the taxpayer with better value for money. Argus is due for retirement in 2020 and like so many “gaps” in MoD equipment, there is no active plan or funding to replace her. We would advocate her replacement as soon as possible this should be treated a seperate issue to the hospital ships which would be white-painted non-combatants with a much larger capacity.
Design & build
To have sufficient capacity to cope with large numbers of casualties or medical cases the ship would need to be fully equipped to a standard similar to a large general NHS hospital with at least 500 medical beds. Procurement of these ship need not be particularly expensive. A new build vessel would provide welcome work for the Portsmouth, Cammel Laird or Appledore shipyards. However a merchant ship conversion would probably be more affordable and could be done faster. Ideally the ship would be able to manage a sustained 25 knots as speed of response could be important, although most merchant ships can manage a maximum of 18 Knots. A flight deck and large hangar would be required to support several helicopters. There would be ramps and a vehicle deck to allow casualties and stores to be driven on and off when in port. A couple of light landing craft (LCVPs) in davits would also be useful for embarking casualties when port facilities are damaged or unavailable and the ship has to lie at anchor.If the ship had an RFA crew and was based in Portsmouth or Devonport it would utilise existing training and support infrastructure keeping costs down. The medical staff would come from across the armed forces and it would provide valuable experience for them, especially as the superb work of the battlefield medical teams in Afghanistan winds down.
This video showcases the amazing work of the Mercy Ships charity - a great example of what can be done with a hospital ship. With an annual budget that is probably less than what DFID spends on paperclips, their ship MV Africa Mercy spends several months in ports of the world’s poorest nations providing free medical care ranging from simple medical checks to major operations.
The US operates the 2 largest hospital ships in the world, USNS Mercy and Comfort. Pictured above is USNS Comfort arriving to assist in the wake of the earthquake in Haiti in 2010. Both are merchant ship conversions operated by the Military Sealift Command – a civilian organisation similar to the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. (US Navy Photo)
Launched in 2007, the Chinese Navy have a dedicated purpose-built hospital ship called the “Peace Ark”. This shows how China understands the value of investing in ‘soft power’ while rapidly expanding its naval and military capabilities. (Image via Wikipedia)
The humanitarian aid mission is often forgotten in political discussions around the size and shape of the navy. We should perhaps consider allocating further DFID funds to support branches of the forces which can and do contribute significantly to humanitarian aid operations. If we purchased additional naval auxiliaries, helicopters and heavy lift transport aircraft we would be better equipped to respond to crises and have more badly needed assets without increasing the defence budget. Indeed there are already signs the government is thinking this way. With public opinion increasingly hardening against involvement in armed interventions, it is likely that humanitarian missions will occupy a growing proportion of our forces work. A British hospital ship is an ‘everyone wins scenario’ and would be a popular first step to reshaping the aid budget and would avoid the howls of criticism that aid money is being diverted to weapons spending.
- David Cameron sparks fury after he hints that overseas aid budget could be switched to MoD (Independent)
- Mercy Ships (Charity)
- Be Daring – Build Free Ships For The World (Dan Entwhistle Blog)
- Mercy mission to the Philippines – in the finest traditions of the Royal Navy
- Hospital ship USNS Mercy heading to Philippines (Fox5 San Diago)
- China sends hospital ship to Phillipines (David Axe)
This year marks the 350th anniversary of the Royal Marines – the Royal Navy’s soldiers, an elite fighting force with a proud history of successful operations almost continuously around the globe. Their amphibious capability and commando skills means they have been the cutting edge of almost every British operation involving troops since WWII. Their reputation is hard-won, to be awarded the Royal Marine green beret requires completion of the longest and most intense commando course in the world. They are trained to fight anywhere and have expertise in arctic, desert and jungle warfare. Like most aspects of the naval service, the RMs are an increasingly ‘hollowed out’ force. Although personnel numbers remain largely unchanged, at around 7,730 regulars and 700 reservists, it is their equipment and supporting arms that have been quietly ‘salami sliced’ and ‘gapped’ to a point that seriously hinders their capability.
Photo: Defence Images via Flickr
The lack of amphibious ships
Of the two LPDs (dock landing ships), HMS Albion is a long-term reserve in Devonport until 2016 when she will change places with HMS Bulwark. Reflecting the amazing lack of capital ships, HMS Bulwark is now the Royal Navy’s flagship and is being run very hard. Bulwark is the centrepiece of the RN’s Response Force Task Group (RFTG) and for the past 3 years has participated in the summer ‘Cougar’ exercises in the Med and beyond which are helping the RM’s sharpen their amphibious expertise after a heavy focus on Afghan operations. The 4 excellent Bay class LDH(A) (auxiliary dock landing ships) which provide additional amphibious capability have been reduced to 3 by flogging RFA Largs Bay to Australia for a pittance. RFA Cardigan Bay is permanently based in the Gulf proving her versatility, mainly as a mothership to mine warfare vessels, but not really regularly available to the RMs.
HMS Illustrious’ primary role is now as an amphibious helicopter carrier (LPH) but she will be decommissioned this year leaving only HMS Ocean (due to emerge from refit shortly). Ocean is a very useful platform (while cheaper to operate than Illustrious) and can carry small landing craft (LCVP) and has better loading access ramps. There are no plans to properly replace Ocean when she decommissions, maybe as early as 2018. When HMS Queen Elizabeth commissions she is supposed to assume the LPH role, with accommodation for 250 marines, in addition to her primary role as a strike carrier. The carriers will have plenty of space for the Marines and their helicopters and could probably pack in a lot more under austere conditions for short periods if required, but the concept is a big compromise. Normal naval doctrine would have the carrier providing air cover for an amphibious operation with complete freedom of movement to operate her fixed wing aircraft. This could be at some distance from the beachhead and not restricted by the needs of the helicopters shuttling back and forward with troops and equipment.
It is very likely that the 2010 decision to mothball the 2nd carrier HMS Prince of Wales will be reversed in the 2015 SSDR and she will be retained in RN service. Contrary to the official line, the RN plans to step up recruitment in 2015 as there is acceptance across the services that the RN is under-manned. Retaining the second carrier will add to manpower requirements as there would be some overlap between 1 fully manned and the other at least part-manned. However barring a serious crisis, the RN is unlikely to ever manage to have both carriers operational and fully manned simultaneously. One will probably be operational or at 2 weeks readiness, while the other is in refit or reserve. This is far better than the 60% availability and ’hope for the best’ option of having a single carrier but does not allow one to serve as an LPH while the other is a strike carrier. Another case of too many eggs in one basket, operationally challenging and tactically unsound.
On a positive note, 539 Assault Squadron recently moved to a new purpose-built base in Devonport. With around 100 personnel, they operate the small craft that provide amphibious movement for the marines. Including Hovercraft (LCAC), Rigid Raiding craft (RRC), Inflatable raiding craft (IRC) and Landing Craft Vehicle/Personnel (LCVP). The main landing craft (LCU) that operate from HMS Bulwark’s internal dock are old and slow, Plans to upgrade them to something faster and better protected have stalled due to lack of funds and the LCUs will have to soldier on for another 6 years at least.
It is a fine British invention built by a British company and exported round the world. Highly versatile and ideally suited to amphibious operations yet government has funded just 4 Griffon 2400TD (LCAC) hovercraft for the Royal Marines. Historically hovercraft, both for the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines, have been treated like a kind of hobby by the MoD. Regrettably they have never been properly funded or developed to reach their full military potential for the UK.
The ‘Junglies’ slow regeneration
If combat experience from the Falklands to Afghanistan has taught a clear lesson about logistics, it is that there are never enough helicopters. The failure to provide sufficient helicopters for UK forces is a weakness that goes back many years. Out of desperation 6 Merlins were purchased from Denmark in 2007 to provide extra cabs for use in Afghanistan. In spite of this obvious need, the RN’s Commando Helicopter Force (CHF), affectionately known as the ‘Junglies’ specialists who provide the Royal Marines airborne transport has seen its aircraft and crew numbers reduced. The CHF will lose its elderly, if much-loved Sea King helicopters entirely by in 2016 and has just 11 left operational in 2014. After much prevarication from the RAF, the sensible decision has been made to transfer their HC3 Merlins to the CHF after being ‘navalised’ to CH4 standard. The RAF Merlins have served successfully around the world including recently in Afghanistan but finally a £330 Million contact was announced on 29 January to convert the aircraft to include folding head and tail rotors, strengthened undercarriage, new avionics and protection from salt damage. Unfortunately this conversion process will dismally slow, stretched out presumably to spread costs. The first batch of 7 aircraft are expected to be operational by 2018 with the delivery of all 25 aircraft not be complete until the early 2020s.
Photo: Defence Images via Flickr
When the HC4 does arrive in service it will be a vast improvement on the Sea King. It is faster, quieter and has better defensive aids and avionics. Historically the Junglie pilots have shown great skill and bravery, delivering troops in tight spots, often with very basic helicopters and the HC4-equipped CHF will be formidable. As a stop-gap to partially cover the retirement of the Sea Kings until the arrival of the HC4, a few HC3s will be given a folding rotor head to allow them to operate at sea – these aircraft will called the HC3i (interim). The CHF had operated 30 helicopters with 43 crews but even when finally up to strength will only have 25 Merlins HC4s and 37 crews. 847 Squadron, part of the CHF mainly responsible for the aerial reconnaissance will receive just 4 of the new Wildcat Lynx helicopters.
Marines more useful than ever
As operations in Afghanistan come to a close the British Army is casting around to find a role for itself and a platform to argue against ongoing reductions in troop numbers. There is now little public appetite for major overseas interventions and it is very hard to imagine British troops fighting in a major state-on-state conflict in the near future. That said, we must keep our forces ready for the unexpected and it is unwise to hastily dispense with capabilities just because there is no immediate threat. The Marines are in a unique position with their inherent mobility and flexibility that makes them especially relevant to the small operations that are the most likely scenario for UK forces in the foreseeable future. The RMs fulfil a variety of other important roles integrated with the RN, providing force protection and boarding teams and the RFTG is a very useful concept, having a mobile force at sea or ready to deploy quickly makes sense. The marines are the spearhead of a small but effective deterrent force while also offering the ‘soft power’ capability for humanitarian relief or evacuation operations. It is just a shame that the RFTG is so paper-thin with little in reserve and crucially lacking its own air cover.
With so many gaps in equipment, some of which will be filled, others which may not, maybe government assumes in the meantime the marines can grow wings or walk on water to get where they are needed.
- HMS Bulwark wins efficiency award
- Marines get revamped Merlins in £330m boost to Commando Helicopter Force (Navy News)
- Merlin upgrade Programme (Flight Global)
- Tough year ahead… (UK Armed Forces Commentary)
- The case for building a British hospital ship
- Happy 350th birthday Royal Marines, but mind the gap
- Review: the Royal Navy 2013 – 2015
- Maritime Media Awards 2013: Securing the Seaways
- Mercy mission to the Philippines – in the finest traditions of the Royal Navy
- We will remember them – Remembrance 2013
- A story that needs telling – Royal Navy Submarines in the Cold War