Reflecting on the demise of HMS Ocean

HMS Ocean made her final entry into Devonport today and will be alongside until decommissioned in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen on 31st March. The impending loss of HMS Ocean has been known about for very a long time and has attracted considerable comment and opposition.

Difficult choices

Lack of manpower dictated that keeping HMS Ocean in service was never an option for the RN, once it was decided that HMS Prince of Wales would join the fleet after all. We have always argued that HMS Ocean should have been retained in reserve pending a similar replacement. Depending on who you listen to, some say this is not a viable option because its too expensive to keep modern warships in reserve, better to sell in running condition and get a few quid for her now than suffer the inevitable deterioration that occurs when a ship is inactive. Others argue we could maintain her in usable condition as a low-readiness asset without great expense. As an example of how it can be done, HMS Bulwark is currently non-operational in Devonport but has a skeleton crew and is being maintained in a much better state than her sister Albion when she was kept in mothballs between 2011-15. Albion required a two and a half year refit to bring her back to fighting condition. (She deployed this week to replace HMS Duncan as flagship of Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 in the Meditteranean). Despite the very uncertain future for the two LPDs, the RN is making the best use of them and underlining the value of amphibious forces.

Second-hand bargain?

Sources in Brazil say they have already agreed to purchase Ocean for £84 Million, although the MoD has so far refused to confirm this. If true, the Brazilians will probably be getting a bargain but it is unclear if the sale includes the LCVP (landing craft), powerful Artisan radar system, the three Phalanx mounts and assorted other removable equipment needed to make her an effective warship. There are those who claim HMS Ocean is a “worn out old heap” but this not really the case. She was built to mostly commercial design standards with a nominal 20-year hull life which has been reached. However the ship had a £90M refit 2015-16 and despite some mechanical issues, she has life left in her. There are plenty of other warships that have, and will have to, serve the RN far beyond their intended lifespan. With more regional interests, the Brazilian navy is unlikely to run her as hard, or deploy her as far as the RN would, so will probably be able to keep her going for another 10 years. Like almost any type of kit, the running costs will increase with age and spares may harder to find.

While some corners were cut in the construction of Ocean, what can be said is that the taxpayer has obtained great value for money from a large ship that cost less than £200M (around the cost of a contemporary frigate). Procurement done this way perhaps should be considered more often for specialist ships. In contrast, the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers (QEC) take the complete opposite approach, designed to the highest warship survivability standards and intended to last 50 years, if properly maintained and upgraded.

The world’s largest LPH

Excitement grows as HMS Queen Elizabeth makes continuous good progress towards initial operating capability. The QEC will assume the LPH role of HMS Ocean, with the second vessel, HMS Prince of Wales taking the lead in developing this capability. We still strongly contend that using the carriers in this way is unsound, inviting risk and putting too many eggs in one basket. Doubtless the RN will somehow manage to make the best of what they have but should not have been put in this position.

As would be expected, the construction of PoW has benefited from the lessons learned from QE. The internal fitting out of PoW, while she was in dry dock, was more extensive and she weighed 3,000 tonnes more than her older sister at the same point when she was floated out into the basin in late December.

The 2015 SDSR allocated £60 million to modify the QEC for the Landing Platform Helicopter (LPH) role. HMS Prince of Wales is being fitted with additional communications systems for amphibious operations, improved accommodation for the embarked military force and additional ammunition storage. The number of helicopters operating spots is being examined (Potentially 10 Merlins could be launched simultaneously). It should be noted the QEC has no capacity to embark or land vehicles and heavy equipment in the modest way that Ocean could. The RN is reliant on the LPDs for this. (The Bay class auxiliary landing ships do carry a single landing craft (LCU), compared to the 4 that the LPDs can operate.)

Scheduled to be decommissioned at the end of March, her CO stated recently that Ocean will be maintained at 5 days notice to deploy, for the next few weeks at least. A planned farewell tour of UK ports appears to have been scrubbed from the programme and Ocean has in effect, come home early. The government doubtless does not want to draw attention the controversial loss of another warship. The RN has at least managed to secure the presence of Her Majesty at the decommissioning ceremony, a fitting farewell and tribute to those who have served on this fine ship on operations around the globe.