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.