The campaign to retain, and eventually replace HMS Ocean starts here
Under current plans the RN’s sole helicopter assault ship HMS Ocean, will decommission on 31st March 2018. There will then be a gap in capability for some years but the official plan is for the new Queen Elizabeth class to eventually double as both strike carriers and assault ships. Although this concept is not without precident, in the current circumstances it is fraught with problems, limitations and dangers. Many inside and outside the RN strongly believe the best solution would be to retain HMS Ocean, at least in reserve and then build an affordable replacement vessel.
Built at a cost of around £150M (£300M in today’s money), HMS Ocean was a very good deal for the taxpayer. Although partially constructed to merchant ship standards, the RN was able to obtain a large and useful ship for about the same price as a Type 23 frigate.
As Landing Platform, Helicopter (LPH) she is designed to lift troops quickly onto a beachhead usually in parallel with troops carried by landing craft from the Landing Platform Dock (LPD) HMS Bulwark or Albion. As well as her 285 crew, she has accommodation for an embarked military force numbering approximately 500 personnel (or upto 800 for short periods in austere conditions). Primarily designed as a helicopter landing ship, she is able to supplement the LPDs with her own small landing craft and some extra vehicle stowage. She has a small vehicle deck and 4 LCVP Mk5 landing craft able to transport around 35 fully armed troops. A small stern ramp and pontoon allow vehicle and personnel access to landing craft or using mexeflote.
The helicopter hangar has space for up to 18 aircraft, depending on their type. Over her lifetime she has embarked RN, RAF and Army helicopters including Lynx, Sea King, Merlin, Chinook and Apaches. US Blackhawk’s and V-22 Osprey have also operated from her deck.
Clearly a large helicopter carrier, even if built on the cheap has a great deal of flexibility and offers a lot of options to any navy.
The RN’s rather underrated amphibious capabilities offer the government a very flexible tool. Amphibious assault has the advantage of being able threaten or attack at a point and time of your closing. The ships are also ideal platforms for humanitarian relief operations, transport and general sealift or evacuation. Without the Harriers and HMS Ark Royal, during the Libya operations of 2011 the RN employed HMS Ocean as a poor man’s ‘strike carrier’ using Apache attack helicopters. Never designed for anti-submarine operations like her Invincible class half-sisters, in July 2016 she was flagship for anti-submarine exercise Deep Blue II. Ocean embarked 7 ASW helicopters and hunted submarines around the clock, working up skills that will be required for the protection of HMS Queen Elizabeth when she comes into service.
Manpower and reserve
When HMS Ocean leaves the fleet in 2018 the manpower this will release will almost immediately be needed to crew HMS Prince of Wales. The current personnel available to the RN means there can be no question of keeping HMS Ocean active while manning both carriers. It would require a very dramatic improvement in retention rates plus an increase in recruitment and associated funding which is simply unlikely to happen in the next 2 years. The sensible solution would be for HMS Ocean to go into reserve instead of for scrap or sale. This would give the option of activating the ship in an emergency (using naval reservists and moving manpower from non-essential jobs). It seems likely that top of the RN wishlist for the 2020 SDSR would be funding for a more significant increase in manpower, ideally at least 2,000 more people. If the manpower situation was to ease HMS Ocean could possibly be reactivated in future. Even if she was never re-activated she would at least be part of the RN’s nominal order of battle (ORBAT). In the short-sighted world of Whitehall, it is much easier to argue the case for the replacement of a ship that exists than to get a new ship from scratch. Keeping HMS Ocean in reserve would cost little, offer a valuable addition to the fleet in a crisis and point the way to an eventual replacement.
The biggest argument against keeping Ocean would be the material state of the ship. Built only to semi-warship standards and with a 20 year hull life, she could require expensive work to keep her seaworthy after 2018. Ocean underwent major refits in 2007 and 2014-15 and she could probably be realistically kept as a viable reserve vessel for another 5-10 years. Keeping her alongside and internally de-humidified reduces corrosion and wear on the ship. To re-activate her might require some work but better to have a ship in an imperfect state than no ship at all. Who would bet against her giving good service for at least another decade if sold to a lower-tier foreign navy?
While the aircraft carriers cost more than £3Bn each, for about a tenth of that price, around £300M it would be possible to build a direct replacement for HMS Ocean. Using commercial standards for construction may produce a less battle damage-resistant vessel but it keeps costs down and helped get HMS Ocean built in the first place. Perhaps the RN should use this procurement model again and make the case for another affordable LPH in SDSR 2020. Sadly the UK has very little commercial shipbuilding left, her hull could be built overseas and then fitted out with military equipment in the UK.
An alternative approach would be to consider the replacement of HMS Ocean together with HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark in one go. For around £1.8Bn it would be possible to build two large LHDs (Landing ship Helicopter/Dock) similar to the French Mistral class or the Spanish/Australian Juan Carlos class. These ships have both a well dock for landing craft and a large flight deck. They have far superior troop, vehicle and aviation capacity to both Ocean and Albion. The Juan Carlos design also has the space and a ski ramp to operate F-35Bs in emergencies. The challenge of how to fit the construction of two large ships into the National Shipbuilding Strategy in a similar time frame to the Type 26/31 frigates would be a complex issue.
The case for having as many ‘big decks’ in the RN fleet as possible is overwhelming. Although the new carriers have a great deal of space it will always be desirable to have more hulls to give mass, flexibility of operation and resilience. The RN should fight hard to somehow retain and ultimately replace HMS Ocean. In part 2 of this article we will look at why employing the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carriers in the LPH role is flawed.
- Why your CVF should not moonlight as your LPH (Save the Royal Navy)
- HMS Ocean to be decommissioned in 2018, MoD announces (BBC)
- HMS Ocean leads international submarine hunting exercise (Royal Navy, July 2016)
- Diligence, Argus and Ocean (UKNDA)
- Why the UK won’t purchase the ex-Russian Mistral assault ships, even though we should (Save the Royal Navy, August 2015)
- Solving the Ocean problem (UK Armed Forces Commentary, 2014)