This article will compare the differences between the remaining Royal Navy amphibious ships and those of the UK’s NATO allies and establish, after the decommissioning of HMS Ocean, what is the UK’s amphibious capability.

Until recently the Royal Navy had 3 amphibious assault vessels, 1 helicopter carrier and 2 landing platform docks. These are the vessels which are expected to deploy and support troops straight into combat operations on enemy territory.

In addition the UK is also able to call on vessels of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary which has a variety of RO-RO and landing ships. The ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, however, are not intended to take part directly in combat operations but are more to support British landings once the initial landing has taken place.

Unfortunately, the UK will imminently decommission the helicopter carrier, HMS Ocean, with no plans to replace it. That leaves the capability to take enemy shores squarely with the two Albion Class landing platform docks. But how do these two ships and their capability compare to their equivalents possessed by our NATO allies?

Well that’s a harder question to answer than it may sound, the reason being that amphibious warfare ships come in all manner of shapes and sizes and are designed to do different things. Some, like Ocean, are designed to deploy only infantry, their equipment and very light vehicles via helicopter. Others such as the Turkish Bayraktar class are designed to primarily deploy troops directly to shore via smaller watercraft and may have few if any aviation facilities. However most, such as the French Mistral class are designed to be able to deploy both by air and sea.

The UK however relied heavily on HMS Ocean to deliver troops by air whilst the two Albion ships would deliver troops by sea. This decision to have different ships specialising in different methods of delivery made sense at the time of building, with Ocean proving itself to be incredibly flexible, however now that she has been sold this leaves a significant gap.

First of all let’s take a look at the similar craft operated by NATO.

Name          | Navy  | Mass (tonnes) |Length| Ships complement
Mistral Class |France| 21300            |  199   | 160
Juan Carlos  | Spain |26000             | 230    | 261
Wasp Class   | USA   |41500            | 257    | 1208
Albion          |UK      |19600             | 176    | 325

The comparable ships for the UK are the French Mistral class ships and the Spanish Juan Carlos. The Americans operate the Wasp and America Class but these vessels would probably be considered fully fledged aircraft carriers in most other navies, however they are included for completeness. As can be seen by the table above, the Albion class are smaller than their counterparts both in terms of overall size and tonnage.
But the key to amphibious warfare vessels is how many troops and trucks can be carried and deployed. So how do the Albion class compare in terms of transport ability?

Name | Embarked personnel (Short Duration) |Well dock capacity

Mistral       | 900 |59 vehicles + 13 Main battle tanks or 40 Main Battle Tanks

Juan Carlos| 913 |up to 46 Main Battle Tanks

Wasp Class | 1894 | 5 Main Battle Tanks, up to 25 Amphibious APCs, 8 howitzers, 68 trucks, and up to 12 other support vehicles.

Albion        |710                   | 24 Main battle Tanks

Many modern amphibious transports allow doubling up of troops for short periods of time so we have broken down the numbers where possible.

So how do the competitors stack up in terms of being able to deploy troops by sea?

In terms of armour in the form of main battle tanks that can be deployed the UK is outclassed by our European partners. The Spanish’s Juan Carlos can deploy as much armour as the Royal Navy’s two Albion class combined, however there is something to be said for two vessels deploying at different locations simultaneously and also the increased survivability in the event of counter attacks during landing.

The French however have three of their Mistral class ships and each one of them can deliver 40 main battle tanks (or a combination of 59 trucks with a squadron of 13 tanks) in a single landing.

When it comes to troops that can be carried as opposed to armour the Royal Navy is again outclassed by the French with each of the mistral class being able to deploy 200 more troops on each ship. Whilst the Spanish vessel can deploy more troops per ship the UK is able to deploy more troops when the number of ships is taken into account.

But what about their ability to project power further inland via air?

Name          |Navy   |Aircraft carried    | Landing spots
Mistral Class |France| 16 NH 90 medium helicopters     |6
Juan Carlos   |Spain |up to 25 NH90 medium helicoptors    |6
Wasp Class   | USA   |Up to 22 V22 Osprey or Super Stallion Heavy lift helicopters |9
Albion | UK     |2 chinooks on the flight deck, no hanger |2

In terms of aviation projection both the Juan Carlos and Mistral Class are able to deploy significantly more helicopters and of all of the ships the UK’s Albion class is the only one without a hanger. This can cause problems in terms of maintenance of aircraft especially when they are exposed to harsh salty conditions aboard a ship which can cause more rapid degradation of the aircraft.
Whilst it is worth noting that the Albion class is able to deploy chinooks which have a significantly higher carrying capacity than the European NH90 the sheer number of aircraft carried more than makes up for this. In terms of simulations operations the Albion class only has 2 landing spots for helicopters as opposed to the European ships which have 6 each.

Some may say it is unfair to compare these vessels as when they were built the UK assumed that its deployment by air would be done by our helicopter carrier, however as that is no longer available we must be realistic that amphibious operations will be conducted only by these two vessels.

But wait, isn’t the Royal Navy about to get two shiny new aircraft carriers? Surely they can deploy troops by air to complement the Albion class?

Well yes and no. Whilst the new Queen Elizabeth class carriers are more than capable of deploying troops via Merlin and Chinooks (between 250 and 900 marines per ship) it isn’t necessarily the greatest idea. The Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers would have to move closer to shore potentially leaving them vulnerable to submarine activity in the shallower waters and also to land based missiles and jets.

So now down to the final consideration, money. This section should be taken with a big pinch of salt due as inflation, currency fluctuations and labour and materials costs vary dramatically over time, however the below costs give a, very, rough guide to the costs of the competitors in 2018 USD.

Name          | Navy  |Mass              |Cost In 2018 USD
Mistral Class|France  |21300 tonnes| $582m
Juan Carlos  |Spain  | 26000           |$500m
Wasp Class  |USA     | 41500          | $1.2-1.6Bn
Albion         |UK       |19600            | $493

As can be seen, when inflation is taken into account all three of the European amphibious ships all cost in the region of $500m, however it is worth noting that the Albion class are between 5 and 10 years older than their counterparts. This section also illustrates why the American WASP class were not compared, at over three times the price the American ships are in a different league, both to what the UK has and what it could realistically afford.

So what can we take from all this?

With the decommissioning of HMS Ocean the two Albion class will have to step up to a role that they were never designed to do on their own, whilst they do retain the ability to deploy some troops by air they are far outclassed by their European counterparts and whilst they can contribute effectively in combined NATO operations the ability of the UK to conduct amphibious operations on any meaningful scale remains in doubt.

The Royal Navy desperately needs a replacement for HMS Ocean both to serve as a versatile Heli-carrier which can be deployed more cheaply and with fewer escorts than the Elizabeth class carriers and also to deploy troops further inland by helicopter. The Mistral and Juan Carlos class with their ability to both deploy large numbers of main battle tanks in addition to deploying troops by air may provide a tempting blueprint which could be built domestically in the UK as part of the national ship building strategy and would support jobs and industry in the UK.

Given that only Cammel Laird or Babcock will win the Type 31 contract the new amphibious ships could fill the yards of the loosing company and help to keep a continual flow of work in the UK, not to mention export potential.

48 COMMENTS

  1. I think many have got themselves out of step with current military reality. Opinion appears to be that Ocean was a cheap ship and was therefore more likely to be used close in shore. This is the mindset of that gave us practically useless type 21s in the Falklands and Snatch Landrovers in Iraq. Surely a ship built (expensively) to war fighting standards should be what’s used. Today the people are more important than the ship. I’d rather see both LPDs brought to proper readiness levels and both QEs equipped with a good compliment of F35s and Junglies. 2 rotating battle groups. Expendable is no longer acceptable.

  2. Expecting HMS POW to act as an LPH is mad, so the idea should be discarded straight away.

    The Albion class again can not perform the role of an LPH and was never designed to do so.

    Albion should be sold rather than mothballed and 2 large LPD’s should be built with Bulwark being sold when the new LPD’s are commissioned.

  3. I dont think Ocean is ever getting replaced. Best we can hope for is a Mistral type replacement for the Albions in 15+ years.

    • Sadly Ben, I agree. There is no chance of Ocean being replaced. We will be lucky to maintain the promise of 8 Type 26s and 5 Type 31s as it is. ‘Spreadsheet Phil’ and HMG in general pay lip service to our superb Armed Forces but behind the smiles and handshakes have absolutely no intention of investing any further in the RN and the Armed Forces overall….

    • Good article but it kind of ignores the fact these are our NATO partners who would assist us with a beach landing in any article 5 action. Perhaps it should have considered what NATO countries could deploy together if needed to deter or respond to a Russian intervention in the baltics.

  4. No mention though of the number of Landing craft carried by each vessel. Being able to carry 30 MBTs is all well and good but it’s not much use if you don’t have a sensible STOM capability.
    30 MBTS means nothing if you only have say 2 landing craft to carry them to shore and the craft are slow and unreliable or become damaged.
    UK LCUS are ro-ro so that makes life in the well dock easier for loading up. UK amphips also carry 4 MBT capable landing craft and 4 smaller vehicle (LR with trailer) craft. That’s a fair bit of redundancy and tonnage lift to shore.
    You also need to consider the support infrastructure onboard the Aphibs . Fresh water generation capability. Ammo storage, galley and food storage, hospital facilities…they all need to be included in the comparison.

  5. The article is headlined “amphibious capability” not amphibious vessels” so if comparing overall capability shouldn’t it also be factoring our 3 Bay Class? They each (all according to Wikipedia) add the following to the UK capabilities…

    1 x well dock, admittedly relatively small but still able to offload 1 x MBT or 4 x light trucks from a single well dock turnaround.
    1 x Chinook-sized landing spot.
    Potential for 1 x hangar if the temporary one is installed. Definitely not Chinook sized but is it Wildcat only or could a Merlin fit?
    356 troops (in non-overload).
    Capacity to carry 224 x MBT (Challenger 2) or 150 light trucks.

    Also, one final question and possible nitpick on the comparisons of cost. Are all the ships built to the same standard? I thought Mistral are at or close-to commercial build standards whereas the Albions are full military spec and I am not sure enough on Juan Carlos to even venture a guess.

    The article is still somewhat depressing reading and the thing that jumps out at me from the very rough costs, if they are at all close to the mark, is just what good value the Juan Carlos was/is. Maybe tempered by what anyone says regarding my comment/question above about build standards, something like the Juan Carlos would be what I would love to see added to the RN fleet.

    • Exactly Julian. Poor artical attempting to justify a replacement LPH that is not required. The Mistrals are indeed built mostly to commercial standards and our 3 LSDs put our capacity well beyond anyone out with the US. Also as mentioned by Gunbuster landing craft capacity is massively important and we come off better in that regard as well. There is also a lot of talk about not risking the carriers close to shore which ignores the fact that we won’t need to as they can launch from helos from well out to sea and then land and refuel on the LPDs and LSDs which will be close to shore.

      • If we should be desperate enough to send the QEs close inshore, they will sorely miss a decent defensive armament, no doubt about it. Better have a whip round.

  6. Some interesting ideas, however the article is poorly formatted which makes it hard to read.
    Also, the San Antonio class is the US Navy’s most comparable platform to Albion and Bulwark, not the Wasp or America class.
    To be honest, it would be best to remove the US from the comparisons, as they operate on an entirely different level. Italy, France and Spain are better benchmarks – to whom we compare favourably, especially when you add 3 CDO into the equation.
    Ocean will not be directly replaced, but the possibility for flexible support ships that could serve an forward aviation role in an amphibious assault should be explored, especially with RFA Argus needing to be replaced. Personally, I would like to see less reliance on helicopters, which are incredibly vulnerable to missiles and RPGs. We need to beef up the Royal Marines with better armoured vehicles, organic gun / mortar platforms, and quicker, more survivable ship to shore connectors.

  7. I don’t agree with the article as a measure of capability to conduct an amphibious operation. Where are all the other assorted support elements to conduct such an operation?

    If one is comparing like for like one must also take into account where we also spend our money on assets nations like Spain don’t have. SSN’s for starters.

    Examples off my head.

    No Bay class for starters.

    One must also look at more than just ships.

    A study into amphibious capability must take into account –

    Aviation. The Commando Helicopter force of 845, 846, and 847 NAS and supporting ground units.
    ( Merlin and Wildcat )

    Specialist infantry, we have the Royal Marines. Who else in Europe has a naval infantry corps several thousand strong with that degree of training and renown? Our problem here is that 3 Commando Brigade can no longer deploy as a complete Brigade. This needs urgently addressing with support assets like 29 RA and 24 RE built up properly.

    SF to conduct pre landing work, beach profiling and the like. We have the SBS.

    Other specialists like 148 Miektila Battery RA.

    Landing craft and LCAC. We have LCVP, LCU, LCAC, plus numerous smaller craft like ORC. Already mentioned I see by Gunbuster.

    The professionalism and expertise to carry out such an operation. Many countries armed forces seem to be there for show with shiny kit and not the nous to use it properly nor the political will to actually DO IT.

    BARV recovery vehicles.

    Logistics train, such as the Commando Logistics Regiment, Engineering Support, like beach matting, and a RFA to supply such a landing.

    Air Cover. Our QEC. Noted not ideal to use QEC closer to shore.

    Having a nice ship like the Juan Carlos is all well and good. What about the rest mentioned above to make the landing possible?

    I have only written this as knowing many here there will be the usual moaning and bleating at our supposed third world military which is far from the case.

    The UK is more than capable of conducting such operations as long as the LPD are retained with other assets.

  8. How would an assault work? Not sure the issue about QE not venturing close to shore is unmanageable. For example an Exocet coastal defence battery ( which in any event I would expect to be destroyed by F-35 or Wildcat) has a range of about 90 miles while Merlin HC3/4 has a range of several hundred miles. And the Chinooks on QE can carry a lot of equipment
    http://www.army-technology.com/projects/chinook/
    What with Apache and Hellfire missiles I think it is eminently feasible to secure a safe landing spot for long enough to land the heavy vehicles in numbers from the LPDs and/or LSDs.

  9. We are not getting a replacement for HMS Ocean. People need to accept that for the foreseeable future the QE class carriers will also be used in this role. It’s is more a question now of how we can get the best out of the new carriers and how they can further optimised (if possible) for the role of replacing HMS Ocean.

  10. In an ideal world we would have LPHs to work with LPDs. But we aren’t going to get the former (and may be lucky to hang on to the latter). Apparently the QE class is to be used in an LPH role as and when required, (hopefully the internal layout for any embarked force is up to it). However once the FAA, (and the RAF), get their ‘wings’, in the form of the F35, there may well be little space for LPH type Ops once the ‘sailors’ start conducting ‘Battle of Midway’ type exercises. We shall see. However, if the LPDs do go and we are left with just the Bay Class, then we could well be back to the bad old days of seeing north sea car ferries on exercise. At which stage you have to ask what’s the point anymore!

    • Each QEC can take in excess of 70 aircraft, so there is no situation I can conceive of whereby the uk will send 2 carriers with 140 aircraft on them, as I dont think we have the aircraft to be brutally honest.

      So lets assume a single carrier has 36 F35 and 36 Helicopters of various types in its maximum load out, that is pretty impressive and from a standoff position 200miles from shore I dont really see a problem with using them as a stand off force

      • The carriers can Ferry that many aircraft but not efficiently operate that many. Maximum operational capacity is 36 F-35B and 14 helos. If both carriers can attend the party we will have abundant capacity for aircraft both fixed wing and rotary but if only one of them is available we might struggle a bit with a major amphibious operation. My preferred and solution (way cheaper than a new LPH) would be to convert a Point class RoRo to a LPH(A). Extend the superstructure aft all the way to create a hanger under the bridge at deck level for 6 Merlin and fill the hull with modular bearthing for maybe 600 troops.

  11. I am an enthusiastic amateur but just some observations.
    To exclude the Bays and at least one QE class but include Mistral Class, which are built to commercial standards, is a distortion. Also Spain has 2 Enforcer ships (Bays) and the Italians have the 3 small LHD’s.
    Taking Ocean out of service without a replacement is a mistake but there needs to be a fair comparison. Also, UK fleet replenishment capabilities are orders of magnitude greater than our European allies. There is also the Point Class and, at a pinch, Argos.
    A package of one QE (from 2), with a mixed load of fixed wing and helicopters, one Albion (from 2), one Bay (from 3), 2 Tide (from 6, if Wave are included), one Fort (from 3) and a Point (from 4) is a more capable package than anything that can be provided by Spain, Italy or France and that still leaves Argos. The package would be protected by 1 or 2 SSN, arguably the World’s best air defence destroyer(s) (Type 45) and, hopefully, the most modern ASW ships (Type 26).
    All this assumes that there are no cuts on the horizon.
    The Mars SSS’s are a big opportunity. Multiple (more than 3) large ships with a substantial flight deck and a well dock could make a huge difference.
    The big issue is getting better value from the defence budget. Spain does well on a much smaller budget

  12. Peder the French have a fine Navy but I don’t think their are many neutrals who would claim it was superior to the RN. The problem with many French warships is they look a lot better on paper than they do on missions. The prime example would be the Charles De Gaulle.

    • David Peder is a troll. Check his posts over the weeks. He cannot be reasoned with.
      He seems to loathe the UK, typical symptoms.

  13. Order get real. The French are useless at expeditionary warfare and are struggling in Mali with heavy lift and special forces. It is all about the quality of the men rather than just the size of the ships. The Royal Marines can out fight and defeat an enemy force twice their size and have deep routed capabilities in multiple areas that France does not have.
    A expeditionary force of Royal marines with artillery, armour back up and Apache/ Chinooks will be damn impressive.
    Just so long as we do not scrap our LPDs or LSDs.
    Ocean needs to be replaced, I am hopeful that the new defsec Williamson can sort this out within the next 5-7 years.
    We could easily get an optimised Izumo class flat top or two to do the role. Useful escort carrier/ ASW secondary function

    • Actually the French are very good at expedition warfare. Especially airborne and mountain light infantry warfare. What they lack is heavy air lift in order to sustain a long term action. The issues they are having in Mali have nothing to due with a lack of special forces. They have a very proportion of them as countries go. But like the rest of Europe they have gotten used to the US or UK providing logistics particularly since the Cold War ended.

      On the French Navy? Not a very inspirational track record and well France has always been better at Army’s than Navy’s. People just never seem to remember anything other than WWII when looking at the the French Army. Their record before excellent, their record after exceptional in multiple airborne actions. With their airborne being one of the best equipped and trained outside of the US and Russia.

      • Elliot sorry but in a real battle and not a counter insurgency at Dien Bien Phu (1954) their airborne forces along with other army units were totally over run and forced to surrender. Nearly 12,000 of them. The largest defeat of a western nation since WW2.

        • Dien Bien Phu has often been played up however what people forget to mention is they were outnumbered over four to one and had a idiot political general in command (Navarre) who had received promotion to lieutenant general solely because he was a resistance member in WWII and seen as politically reliable. Who also did not understand the principle of combined arms and in the end viewed the colonial troops and especially the legionaries as expendable losses. This combined with the officer who wound up in field command colonel de Castries being an incompetent bungler who owed his command to family wealth and legacy. A very lucky mortar killed the far more experienced and competent colonel Gaucher.
          In short it is better to judge based off the numerous other operations their airborne conducted in Asia and Africa. Also what combat organization has not had it’s black eyes. War is after all the worlds oldest democracy. No matter how good you are the enemy gets a vote.

          Also a “real” battle? Airborne is not meant for those operations unsupported by follow up units. For a example of a large operation in the same jungle conducted successfully see Op Junction City. For one by the same units who were at Dien Bien Phu see Na San. A truly massive Airborne assault is extraordinarily rare. Their greatest or at least most used function is to be flexible rapid response forces.

        • Dien Bien Phu was over 60 years ago, and was a land battle. The French have learned since then, and their navy has 3 Mistral class LPHs with command and control facilities. Given the way France seems to operate, the Mistrals would be used to mount large raiding forces, not a Falklands-type invasion.
          The UK should build 2 large LPHs combining the capabilities of the helicopter carrier and landing platform, when the LPDs are paid off.

  14. What is the point of comparing to our allies when , by definition, we’re unlikely to ever be in opposition. Surely, if you want to do an exercise like this, you should be comparing with the Russian and Chinese navies.

  15. Great conversation guys, makes me wonder how only a couple of months ago there was talk of reducing the RM and taking away this capability almost fully. I suspect Gavin Williamson and the guts on the DSC have done a great job in preventing what would have been a tipping point for me.

    If the government did this I would never forgive them or support them again.

    • Things are definitely looking up aren’t they. I think Mr Putin may well have inadvertently helped us out here as well.

  16. We will not be getting an LPH anytime soon but when the Type 26s and 31s are definitely ordered then planning for two LHDs (25-30,000t) to replace the LPDs in the late 2020’s or early 2030’s should begin. In the meantime the LPDs are fine and if we could squeeze some further airlift capability out of an Argus replacement and replace the LCU’s as was planned then great. The LHDs to be named Eagle and Ark Royal!

  17. QE and POWs will take on Oceans’ aviation role.
    Replacement of the amphibious shipping isn’t feasible at this current point. The aim should to be keep the current amphibious fleet intact and operational.
    Priorities have to be an increase in the number of sailors especially in engineering/speciality roles.
    Then the replacement of the Type 23 with the new Type 26/31 has to be met .
    Also the SSS shipping needs to be sorted.
    And the further increase in F35B numbers.

    Meanwhile planning will need to begin on the mine warfare replacements and future SSN with hopefully an Increase in SSN numbers at some point.

    On replacement of the amphibious shipping a thorough examination of what is best for the RN needs done and how to meet these requirements.
    There is a range of options from seabasing with high speed connectors , traditional shipping like the French Mistral and also there is port opening options.

    The Bays’ have proved very versatile and useful ships only disadvantaged by lack of proper hangar facilities.
    This should be kept in mind in future planning.

    With proposed Strike Brigades and deployable Division planning should be around how these forces can best be delivered to theatre and sustained in theatre.
    It’s not an easy nut to crack without the proper resources in personnel and budgets.

  18. The biggest issue with this article is the comparison of Albion class LPDs to the Wasp class LHAs. The American equivalent is the San-Antonio class LPDs and the upcoming LXR program.

  19. So just one mistral has more helicopter landing spots and can just about carry more trucks and tanks thank both albions combined and for one quarter of the manning requirements?

    The albions need replacing with mistral-like vessels. The spreadsheet will be telling Phil this.

    • Andy that technology moves on is understood but the scrapping of vessels early is unsustainable as the capital costs are enormous to build new. We have just spent £90m on Albion and hopefully we will upgrade Bulwark soon. They are fine vessels and will serve us well until replaced alongside the excellent Bays.

  20. So you strip out the three Bay class LSD’s as RFA are not for assault, better tell the RFA that then. You compare the Wasp and America’s but then say that the Queen Elizabeth class don’t count. Is the mistral class some how immune to submarines?

    We have and Ocean repalcement it’s called HMS Prince of Wales, two CVF’s operating with 24 F35B’s and upto 60 helicopters is moe than enough capability.

    Plenty of other things to spend the money in than an LPH. Ultimately we will get an LHD Mistral style vesells when the albinos are stood down however the capability we have now is far better than anything we have had since the 70’s and better than the rest of Europe put together.

  21. If MARS SSS ever gets going (and I hope it does soon) what do people think that might bring to amphibious capacity?

    Early renders, pretty much concept drawings, showed a 2 spot flight deck and hangars for what looked like 3 Merlin. The general chatter at the time was no well deck because of cost. Who knows what the design when it finally comes out will bring but judging by the Tides I suspect that MARS SSS will be big ships, possible around the 40,000t mark or even a bit above.

    If MARS SSS ends up as a bit of a Bay-Class-on-steroids (with RAS and other stuff essential to its core role of course) that might give a worthwhile addition to amphibious capability although if the plan stays at building 3 I suppose there might be no capacity for anything other than the core role. Adding extra MARS SSS hull(so) to replace Argus (I would say Dilligence too but that is history now I think so probably quietly forgotten and completely out of the equation) might make sense.

  22. I think the article is missing out on a major point: Whatever their personal feelings about the situation, the RN is clearly planning on using the QE as an LPH, so the article should have included it. The RN are never going to deploy LPDs or LSDs or any other type of landing craft in a contested area where there may be ASMs or similar. We cannot afford to lose that amount of men or material, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. We didn’t even take those kinds of risks on D-day. So the concerns about bringing QE closer to the shore to allow for helicopter deployments are, in my opinion, moot because we wouldn’t be putting a dedicated LPH or any other landing vessel of similar size there either.

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