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The planned decommissioning of the Royal Navy’s helicopter carrier HMS Ocean in 2018 without replacement is a nonsensical step and puts accountancy and politics above our nation’s security and our national interests.

Article by Oliver B. Steward, a Doctoral Candidate in International Security at the University of East Anglia. This article is the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the UK Defence Journal.

It will leave a hole in our amphibious warfare and carrier based capabilities of our Royal Navy which will limit our operational range and effectiveness.

For a maritime nation is makes perfect sense that we invest and maintain our current force levels, if not to supplement it with newer ships, while refitting older ones. It is vital that our national and military interests are served by having amphibious warfare capability to enable the UK to launch far ranging geographical operations overseas.

Historically during 2014, HMS Ocean underwent a £65 million refit. The Defence Minister at the time Philip Dunne said

“I am delighted that this contract will not only ensure that HMS Ocean remains a significant, highly flexible and capable warship for years to come.”

Sadly this has become a testament to the all well known fact that rhetoric by many politicians do not match with practice.

While the MOD report it would maintain a “significant amphibious capability” including the new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers – but even those large ships will not fully enter service until 2020 leaving a capability deficit (this means they will not have functional fighting aircraft and will not be on active deployment until that time).

It is worth noting that HMS Ocean as a ship has served our nation in an exemplary fashion, and all the crews that served on her. Her actions include those in Kosovan crisis, to the 2003 Iraq War, providing logistical and tactical support for the London 2012 Olympics as well as participating with NATO exercises in the Mediterranean.

My hope is that we will witness a reversal of this decision in the context of growing international security challenged and the government looks into possibility refitting this ship to assume a more multirole function with the possibility of accommodating F35 planes. This will enable this carrier to be kept it in service until the 2020s and beyond.

The Queen Elizabeth class ships are a tremendous asset to our Royal Navy, but I sincerely believe that the evidence points to a continued carrier capability during the building and testing of the HMS Queen Elizabeth.

If a conflict breaks out in 2018, the UK will not have a current carrier with training adequate to deploy aircraft to a conflict zone.  HMS Ocean should be kept operational for at least the interim if not the long term period.

29 COMMENTS

  1. There really is no chance of us keeping her, let alone modifying her to operate F35. Nevertheless the less a good article, and interesting idea for any future helicopter assault ships.

    • let’s pretend for a moment it was free to refit ocean to support f35b operations.

      Now let’s look at what the impact would be. Realistically it seems the QE class will be used one at a time and operating around 12 jets on most realistic deployments (including wars like Afghan/ Syria/ etc)

      This would mean that ocean could potentially deploy with almost as many jets for a fraction of the price and questions would be asked again on why make the QEs. The counter argument is that the QE can support much more jets when needed, which only works if we have the jets.

      It seems to me that we are gearing up to not having much more than 1 squadron available at any one time and so the QE would be a huge white elephant unless ocean vanishes and they come the only platform for that squadron.

      Just a thought.

      • No. While I agree we need more jets QE is simply much better then ocean. It has the capacity to Carr more as you said, it has a larger flight deak to allow better handling and to allow the jets more runway, this in turn means the aircraft have the capacity to Carry more ordinance, ocean probably couldn’t even fit 12 f35, and even if it could there would be no room for the support aircraft such as Merlin, QE has a much better maintenance capacity and brilliant air traffic controller capacity.

      • modifications, an expensive at lhat, such as the deck coatings would again cost a lot and the politicians would balk at the idea of spending more money on a ship they’ve already decided they can do without. thisa reminds me of the sale of the harriers which, if they had been kept would have enabled ‘big lizzie’ to be an operational carrier now.

  2. We need a dedicated LPH that is designed for the job. Refiitting Ocean for “the possibility of accommodating F35 planes” is ridiculous as she’s far too small & would require special flight deck coatings to be able to use her flight deck. Now she’s being sold to Brazil that horse has bolted.

    The QEs need to concentrate on strike carrier duties, not be jeopardised sitting close inshore during amphibious ops. That’s what a more expendable LPH is for.

    The RMs are one of our most effective, elite units with skills unmatched within the UK. We should not be throwing away their assets as they’re of huge value for all sorts of expeditionary warfare.

    • Sadly the Chancellor will push across the table a folder marked ‘Military Budget’ and say to the Defence Minister, ‘It’s up to you how you spend this but that’s it.’ Suddenly, all the emotions and rationality begins to freeze and a shark reality steps in. How would we the general public react? I do share all the worries about the UK’s ability to defend its self going into the future, but fiscal pressures call for a talented team of experts to be allowed to make the right decisions, the question is, will they be given the opportunity?

  3. HMS Ocean is twenty years old. She was built to commercial standards with a limited projected lifespan. It certainly wouldnt be sensible to refit her for F35s and I’m not sure you could if you wanted to. You can suggest replacing her with a similar ship but you’d only do that if your intention was to retain the rest of the “significant” amphibious capabilty. There is no point in maintaining an amphibious capability unless you commit to a critical mass of ships and equipment sufficient to conduct an amphibious landing of useful proportions. My view (not the popular one) is that we should focus on building up carrier strike capabilities, including enough escorts and aircraft to do that properly. We should build the attack submarine force and ASW aircraft sufficient to support them and the carriers. We can’t do everything you want to do without increasing the budget. If something has to go, make it the amphibious capability. Keep the Marines and deliver them by different means. Realistically, compromises must be made unless more money is made available.

    • Nick, You are right, without increasing the defence budget something has to go.
      The question is what should go.
      We have a budget in the UK of a certain size. The budget pays for NHS, education and so on.
      It is also used to try to pay down the deficit.
      What politician would wish to tell their constituents that they will have reduced spending on NHS, education etc. – with the money instead been used for defence.
      Not too many.
      Those interested in the Navy, and defence in general, see it differently.
      Defence is seen as an insurance policy.
      When budgets are tight, what payment is usually the first to be reduced, or cut?
      Insurance.
      Unless a fire, ill health (or War) is on the horizon, politicians have always cut spending on defence first and deepest.
      So the reality of our current defence predicament is not “We need everything, and more money”… but what can we save from the cuts and how can we motivate the public/politicians to do that.
      Blue sky dreaming of larger fleets and budgets is just that… stop dreaming; start petitioning your local politicians!

        • Good point Andy, but it’s the only thing we can do that will make a difference,
          (apart from talk amongst ourselves).
          There is another way to look at this.
          It is an opportunity to inform politicians, both new and entrenched, why defence expenditure is important (even if it’s just bluntly reminding them in your letter that xyz defence company is in their constituency).
          Politicians, like most people, like to hear their own voices above all else.
          Give them a reason to be interested (jobs/wider profile etc.) and then when there is more money in the budget, they will start to potentially see more benefits in defence.

  4. You got it, Ivan. Those of us who strongly support our military and spend time trying to understand the balance of power and our role in it can be guilty of “blue sky dreaming”, as you suggest. The truth is that there is limited enthusiasm for increased defence spending in parliament and still less on the streets. The general population does not understand defence enough to make spending more a vote winner. I had a recent defence minister write to me to tell me as much, in response to my requesting more money for this and for that.

    The conclusion must be that we should lobby to protect the existing level of defence spending. That existing funding only covers so much ground. So, if you have to have a replacement for Ocean and you have to retain Albion and Bulwark, be prepared for the consequences. In my view, they could be a reduced rate of F35 procurement, the cancellation of the seventh Astute and/or a couple of Type 26 frigates and a significant reduction in the size of our (already too small) army. Pick your poison. Mine is the amphibious capability, at least in the traditional sense of LPDs with landing craft or hovercraft. I would resist any cuts to the Royal Marines at the expense of virtually any of the kit I’ve mentioned. If any aspect of HM armed forces has proved its worth more than he Commandos, I don’t know what it is.

    • Well said Nick.
      Letter writing to help lobby support, and generally attempting to make friends/others aware of the defence situation is our best hope at the moment.
      Once the UK has a clearer picture of our financial future, then we will find more political willingness to allocate more funds towards defence.
      This been especially true if an awareness can be developed that defence spending also creates jobs, benefits exports and implies solid defence support to allies who in turn will be more open to giving us better trade deals.
      We can then potentially see our dreams turn into reality.

  5. Oceans time is up and I don’t think we need a like for like replacement.

    We need to be smarter with the RFA fleet and get behind fully loading the QEC’s to extract maximum value out of them.

    Currently we have an RFA fleet of 4 Tides (on way to replace already decommissioned vessels) and will have a requirement for another 6-8 logistics vessels in the next 10-20 years.

    The amphibious fleet is being reduced (again) but is currently Ocean, Argus, Albion, Bulwark, and 3 Bays.

    Going forward the requirement for both fleets could be provided by an additional 4/5 Tides and then create a UK version of the Karel Doorman JLSS and build 8/9 of these. The KD’s have a flight deck for 6 merlins and hanger for 6 as well and I am sure we could configure and build these to be more suitable for our needs.

    We need a plan to get more funds into front line escorts and to get our support fleets modernised and more useful – they are easy targets for cuts if they are under utilised because they are too specialist and constantly alongside. Best to have a fleet of large joint support/amphibious vessels that we can use in a number of roles (hospital, humanitarian, MHV mother ships, solid supplies and amphibious)

    This type of ships is a compromise but I think one we are uniquely placed to make work for us.

  6. How about this as an alternative.

    Remove the RM from the RN TLB and put them in the army, as 3 Cdo Brigade as now.

    Removes 5,500 odd from the RN which desperately needs manpower for ships it has.

    Now cut army by similar amount.

    Army in reality keeps numbers, gains a brigade, and RN budget has a massive saving.

  7. Not a particularly well researched article, it is easy to say “Lets keep Ocean or she had a £65 million refit in 2014” but there is no real investigation of what that means.

    As already pointed out HMS Ocean was built to commercial standards with a projected twenty year lifespan. Now in-itself people don’t fully understand what that means. First of all that it was built to commercial standards with a projected twenty year lifespan doesn’t mean it can’t be kept in service longer but it would mean at an exponential increase in cost.

    In respect of the 2014 refit that was not a strip back to the bare hull rebuild with new systems, it was the work required to get through to her OSD. More often than not involved refurbishment and refit as required to keep her going. In respect of being built to commercial standards what that actually means is they built her using off shelf systems and technology. To keep the costs down many of these systems from pumps through to winches were ‘End of line’ in that the were being discontinued by the manufacturer and being sold off cheap. All very well but that has introduced maintenance issues in the long-term. For the MOD that means they can’t just go to industry and buy a replacement part off the shelf easily. They have to repair, refurbish, source from an ever dwindling industry spares holding, request a new one to be made or replace with an alternative. As the spares were end of line many manufacturers would sell them on to middle companies who can now charge what they want. Making a new part as a bespoke option is even more costly.

    After that her engines by all accounts are worn out and in need of replacing, not a cheap or easy job especially as the model used is not in production anymore. Finally her fire suppression system is rusted through and a maintenance headache by all accounts.

    Now that could be sorted but it would involve a significant capital investment and you get into is it worth spending it territory.

    Now that being said HMS Ocean even in her worn state would be useful for the Brazilians as a stop gap to keep their toes in carrier operations (except for fixed wing) until they are ready to start building their indigenous carrier. HMS Ocean whilst worn will be cheaper and easier to maintain than the floating death trap that was the ex Foch/Sao Paulo.

    We are doing Brazil a favour here and we a solid amount of money for it whilst British industry get to help sustain her for many more years. Brazil is also looking for international partners to help develop their future Aircraft Carrier so selling them another flattop certainly helps them in their thinking about whom to pick for that task.

    • Fedaykin,

      I must agree with your comments above. HMS Ocean was built to a budget (cheap) and it shows. She has served the Country well and it is about time a replacement was planned and sourced. The National Ship Building Strategy (NSBS) was I believe, a solution to the cost over-runs and multiple delays in procuring new vessels. Should this not include all ships, not just frigates etc?

      The beauty with Ocean is that she is a flat top which brings inherent flexibility to helicopter operations. Compared to the Invincible class her hangar is larger and better laid out. She is only lacking a well-deck to make her truly flexible. The Karel Dorman/Albion class vessels are a compromise in helicopter operations, because you have to be very astute controlling aircraft when they’re landing or taking off. However, they do have well decks which means the sea doesn’t have to be like glass for cross decking like it does with Ocean via floats. But then having a well deck will compromise on the hangar space available, again the eternal conundrum.

      Personally, I believe we need a couple of Mistral style vessels that can also be used for disaster relief, hospital ship etc. Having both a well deck and a flat top allows increased flexibility and speeds up the delivery of troops or logistics to shore.

      Perhaps we should petition the Minister to seriously start the process for replacing Ocean and Albion/Bulwark and adhering to the ethos of the NSBS before thinking about selling them off?

      • I have talked about this elsewhere but this starts to get into a question about what kind of capability do we want? Rather than retype my musings here is a copy and paste of what I said on the Savetheroyalnavy site, it was a bit controversial for some but does touch upon what you are thinking about:

        “Yes but it would be challenging, also a general observation amongst all the hysteria these are rumours of options (have a look at this to understand what that means: https://thinpinstripedline.blogspot.co.uk/2017/10/these-are-your-options-minister.html) rather than a plan to fully disband the Royal Marines.

        The option offers up cutting the RM by 1000, cutting the LPD and shifting to a force that is more embedded with the escort fleet. Which is a return to what the RM were doing prior to WW2, I think that is worth exploring at least as an option.

        By all accounts the RN as the parent organisation is getting pretty exasperated with the RM, who have after 15 or so years fighting in a land locked sandy country become in effect another branch of the Army (a very brave, effective and well trained one cetainly) and not very interested in being nautical. With the cuts to the escort fleet and the large resources tied up by the LPD to allow an opposed landing onto a beach against a peer rival there are those within the fleet who are starting to harbour a fair amount of ill-will to the RM. That is a terrible state of affairs that needs to be remedied.

        If anybody searches Google for my handle and the word Falklands and they will find that I was a fierce defender of the Amphibious assault capabilities, my reason always being “What about the Falklands and you can’t predict the future”. I was a firm believer in the insurance policy argument, my view has shifted more recently.

        I am not saying that we should drop the amphibious assault capability but I do think we need to look at what form it takes. The Falklands are not a problem so what other scenario might we face where that requires are current amphibious assault capabilities. Those who start talking about disaster and humanitarian relief my answer is do we need an LPD to do that? We have QE class, Albion and Bulwark (at the moment), we have the RFA and their vessels. Are not helicopters the most useful thing in that scenario? We can get helicopters out to places and does it need an LPD to do it?

        I think we need to look at the RFA replacement program for the Solid stores ship and compare to what the Dutch are doing. They are doing interesting things, their latest Destroyers/Frigates have flex decks that their Marines can operate off, very effectively in anti pirate operations recently. Both T26 and T31 are being scoped out with that capability. The Dutch Hnlms Karel Doorman is fascinating, it is a dry stores supply ship with secondary tanking capabilities, it has a large helicopter deck, large vehicle decks that can be configured with modular hospitals or command facilities and it even has a well deck. When the designs are being finalised for the Solid stores ship replacement they really need to have a close look at conceptually what the Karel Doorman is doing.

        A Royal Marines embedded with the Escort fleet and QE class configured as Commando carrier with the RFA operating a joint support ship would allow the UK to drop troops onto a beach against a near peer rival.

        In the other thread when I put forward these thoughts somebody poo pooed it as “A nice try” and then said what about the Parachute Regiment as if I was sparing them this thinking as well. To that I say NO lets talk about them! Are we going to be doing large parachute drops behind enemy lines? We use up a large amount of resources to keep that capability. The Parachute Regiment requested to do a parachute drop in 2001 as part of the Afghan operations, the response from Northwood was “Quaint and no”! Doing large parachute drops is insanity now as it requires Hercules/Atlas/C17 to fly within the envelope of some lethal Ground Based Air Defence Systems. I have relatives on my sister in laws side who have seen combat in the Eastern Ukraine who can tell you how nasty some of the latest GBAD are like Pantsir. So lets have the debate, maybe the Parachute Regiment should drop the parachute bit and become purely a rapid mobile force that can be deployed quickly via helicopter or transport outside the FEBA.

        The wailing and nashing of teeth is all very well but it is masking some honest questions that have to be asked. People are so desperate to protect platforms and weapon systems that they are not asking wider questions about effectiveness. On another forum I witnessed a huge argument about Harpoon being dropped with the two year extension being seen by some as a huge victory for the Navy. More sensible voices were saying that actually the Navy had probably been forced to keep a system they don’t want and don’t dare use because of ROE, lobbing heavy weight fire and forget anti ship missiles over the horizon that are largely ineffective against the ships fitted with the latest defensive systems yet will happily sink civilian flagged vessels is not exactly a useful activity.

        These debates need to be had without all the emotion!”

        • I have no problem with reviewing what we do now and how we might do things in the future but when you spend £90m refitting a ship then immediately talk about scrapping it then all talk of evolving strategy, new priorities and having a debate about things in a rational manner are total and utter bollocks. Sorry for the language but what is currently going on has nothing to do with planning sensibily for the future so let’s not pretend it is. Our military require protection from further cuts and not experts making suggested changes based on their own particular views and ideas. By the way my last line is not aimed at you but our leaders

        • Good post Fedaykin. That last part about fire and forget Harpoons reminds me of all the investment in the RAF to keep a fleet of bombers active and then saying let’s find some targets. And we do that whilst not remembering that we will likely have to pay for the rebuild later in cash, and in the blood of our peace keeping troops.

          I would have more Paras if I could but I wouldn’t like to choose an operation bigger than a 300 man drop. Likewise for the RMs, I would have more of them if I could but the amphib capability for me is not to assault a defended beach with only 4 MBTs. It would be to land equipment over a day on a spot where we don’t have a port.

          • The last operational parachute drop, which was a night drop, in a hostile country was carried out by our forces in Afghanistan. It did not involve the Parachute Regiment! I wouldn’t say it was a full regiment drop but more a pathfinder drop. We should always keep that option open, especially as the methods for insertion depend on not only the environment but also what hostile forces are to be expected but also the mission’s intent. There was talk a while back about combining the roles of the RM and Para’s but I’m not sure how that would work especially how tied the RM are to Naval duties, such as force protection, anti-piracy, oil rig security and of course Arctic and Mountain warfare. If there are moved in to the Army structure, who takes over this role?

            The Italian Navy are building a new LHD called the Trieste. This is like a French Mistral class, in that the ship combines a flat top helicopter deck with a well deck. They researched what their needs are at present but also designed in some future development. In that at present it will operate with a mix of helicopters and Harriers, but aim to replace these with 10 F35Bs, hence the size. She is of similar displacement to HMS Ocean, but a much more flexible design. She has a dedicated hospital, separate storage for vehicles with access to the well deck as well as the aircraft hangar. But she is to be armed with three dual use “Strales” 76.2mm guns. These guns will be used for not only shore support but can also be used for anti aircraft /missile defence.

            Funny how we have not armed LPH/LPDs in similar fashion, especially as they will be operating within view of the shore line! Perhaps having France offer their services will be enough of an impetus for the MOD to do something other than just cut our Amphib’s.

        • Hi Fedaykin

          As you probably know I am a massive fan of the Karel Doorman concept as it just offers so much flexibility. Yes its a compromise but the specs are very impressive – it can deliver solid stores, fuel, aviation fuel, water, ammo and has 2000 metrs of lane and a stern beach. It can handle 6-12 Merlins with relative ease and as you have pointed out can be configured in a number of ways.

          For me I think we should probably buy 4 more Tide class FFT and then replace all other RFA and amphibious vessels with this type of vessel. Eventually giving us a fleet of 8 Tides and 8 Aegir JLSS.

          Not only does this standardise our big support ship support fleet onto a single platform – I also think it should all be under the RFA flag for day to day operations (which will generally be logistics support or humanitarian). Schedule these into the NSS at 1 every 18 months and that will allow continuity of drumbeat for the yard selected.

          I believe the FSL is moving to this way of thinking and for me it is a no brainer as it is just too easy to pick off highly specialised assets like LPD’s etc.

  8. Strategically nonsensical? – that basically describes our entire defense policy. The policy is for a first class ‘war winning’ military with global reach, but on a budget that’s less than shoestring.

  9. Got to say some excellent post on here today. So all I will add is that I disagree with the author’s article in almost every detail especially his proposed future use of Ocean.

    HMS Ocean delivers 18 helicopters and 4 × LCVP Mk5B landing craft (of which we have just 19!). A QE can deliver far more helicopters plus F-35s if necessary. That is a substantial extra part of the ‘What If’ scenarios we are discussing. The key to my argument is keeping Albion and Bulwark and, if possible, initiating a 2 ship class of ‘Albion MkII’ LPDs to work with QEs on amphibious assault style operations.

    Given the timeframe of Ocean’s retirement (by ‘2018’ they mean ‘end of 2018’) HMS Queen Elizabeth will be a very capable warship. The already very experienced 460 RN / FAA / RAF crew and helicopter assets from Ocean are easily assimilated onto a QE and, again in that timeframe, will fit the demands of PoW perfectly as she works up to sea trials. PoW has after all been altered to make it more ‘amphibious’ than QE. The LCVPs would go to support Albion / Bulwark assets.

    So basically by the end of 2018 Ocean will be redundant to our needs. I wish Ocean well in Brazil.

  10. Theres a couple of comments on here about Para’s and RM and I think they should be merged into a single Commando Force that operates like the Seals or even the French Foreign Legion.

    I dont mind them keeping their badges (as well as the Gurkhas for that matter) but it really is time we have a single elite force structure under one command (JSOC)

    Another potential solution is to have a heirarchy where there is no direct entry into the Paras and that you go through the RM, then Paras and finally SFG. This would see the Para’s reduce in size over time and the RM grow – but also get us to a tiered elite force.

    This is clearly part of my overall drive for the UK to have a single force and command structure as with circa 250k personnel (far less really) it is wasteful to have so many senior officers when the rank and file are being decimated on an annual basis.

    • No thanks why not reduce the number of our basic infantry Regiments and increase the number of RMs, Paras and Gurha units. These elite units do not seem to suffer with poor recruitment and in he most likely scenarios we face they are the forces we will deploy. Hit hard with your best troops and get out, then let other counties do the baby hugging and peacekeeping.
      If we cannot afford quantity then some more quality would help. The peacetime army should be a small cadre that forms the nucleus of any increase required in the very unlikely event of a large conflict.

  11. Good Evening!
    No replacement? Completly incompetent. It see HMG have and are willing to ignore the dangers east! Russia’s military investment should be matched! 2% is far from acceptable ! Wake up before it’s to late!

    The Cold War has returned! Pick up your buried heads from the sand and react!
    Nick

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