The Royal Navy – prime force for delivery of emergency aid and disaster relief

The size of the Britain’s £11Bn overseas aid budget is becoming increasingly controversial at a time when we are cutting defence spending and trying to reduce national debt. There are good reasons for wealthier nations to help the poorest in the world but whether these hand-outs create lasting peace and prosperity is questionable. There is however, a clear moral imperative when natural disasters occur to assist our fellow man struggling for their very survival. This important and frequently required humanitarian aid mission is often forgotten in political discussions around the size and shape of the navy.

The RN has a proud history of disaster relief operations going back decades but in a time of such scarce resources, maybe it there is a case for specific additional funding for this work?

90% of the world’s population live within 200 miles of the sea so when disaster strikes, aid and assistance from ships will often be the most appropriate way to deliver large-scale relief. A warship is a ready-made disaster relief platform. Able to quickly re-role from maritime security or even warfare operations for humanitarian work they are mobile, self-contained and offer a wide range of skills and capabilities. Recent history suggests the average ship of the naval service will be more frequently involved in relief work than firing weapons in anger. Therefore the RN thoroughly prepares every ship’s company for disaster relief operations when they pass through their exacting Operational Sea Training courses. This ensures when called upon the ship can deliver engineering expertise, medics and plenty of willing hands ready to go ashore and quickly make a difference. The RN has also been regularly called upon to perform more low-key evacuations of British citizens from other nations when they have become at risk from sudden conflicts.

Warships do not routinely carry large amounts of extra food or building materials, but do carry ration packs, bottled water and have the ability to make drinking water from seawater. Portable generators, thermal imaging cameras, and floodlighting are standard equipment and can been further supplemented with other items by replenishment at sea or embarked in port. The new generation of warships, The Type 45s, the QE aircraft carriers and the Type 26 have relatively small crews but are spacious by the standards of older warships. They have spare accommodation for extra personnel and space to stow additional relief supplies and equipment.

Most deployed warships carry at least one helicopter, which is especially useful for making an initial aerial assessment of damage to areas that may have become in accessible by road. Subsequently they can also be used for transport of personnel and equipment.

Provided there is a paved airfield, still intact and reasonably close to the scene of the disaster, RAF heavy lift aircraft are often the ‘first responders’ and can deliver relief stores across the globe with as little as 48 hours notice. The UK’s airborne heavy lift capacity is rather inadequate, the RAF has just 8 C-17 Globemasters, the most suitable aircraft. In addition there are around 30 other transport aircraft – Atlas, Hercules and Voyager aircraft for support of the military overseas. In the event of an overseas crisis requiring transport of significant manpower or equipment we will always be primarily reliant on by shipping. A C-17 can carry a maximum load of around 75 tons so it takes a lot of expensive flights to deliver aid in high volumes. In 2010 RFA Largs Bay (before being flogged off to Australia for paltry cost savings) delivered more than 600 tons of food and materials after the devastating earthquake in Haiti. Largs Bay is an amphibious vessel with a floodable well-deck and her landing craft were ideal for delivery of stores as local port facilities were damaged.


Of course the army has the most manpower that can be deployed and have contributed the majority of personnel to ‘Operation Gritrock’ in the successful tri-service fight against the Ebola disease in Sierra Leone. It is usually manpower that can make the biggest impact on the ground but an Army unit is not a self-supporting package like a warship, will require transport into theatre and logistic support either from the sea or air, once deployed. Off Sierra Leone RFA Argus has provided accommodation, acted as a distribution hub and a floating heliport for 3 RN Merlins that have provided critical logistical support to the effort. Argus also arrived carrying Royal Marine Landing craft as deck cargo which provide another means to distribute supplies along the coast and river network.

In the Caribbean where there are frequent hurricanes the RN maintains and almost permanent presence, ready to respond to emergencies that threaten the islands, many of which are UK overseas territories. The RN has left a lasting legacy of gratitude to Britain by providing help to these small communities that frequently have to contend with natural disasters.

In 2013 HMS Daring was on a rare deployment to the Pacific region when Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines. The benefits of having ships deployed around the globe was demonstrated as she was quickly on the scene helping remote island communities. HMS Illustrious was in the Gulf and steamed 5,000 miles to join ‘Operation Patwin‘, loading supplies in Singapore before using her embarked helicopters to deliver aid.

It should be noted that the Philippine aid effort had an unexpected strategic benefit, the Chinese have admitted re-evaluating their assessment of the UK’s capabilities shown by this demonstration of global reach.

In contrast when Vanuatu in the Pacific was hit by Cyclone Pam in March of this year there were no RN vessels available in the region and the sole UK government contribution has been aid delivered by a single RAF C-17.

It can be argued that much of our recent defence expenditure has been spent defending the human rights of those in other countries, in addition to the more obvious disaster relief missions. If we believe that part of overseas development is helping establishing secure and peaceful nations, then the contribution of the forces should be recognised and given appropriate funding.