MP Penny Mordaunt has proposed that some of the foreign aid budget be used to build hospital ships to provide humanitarian aid in disaster zones.

In a letter to Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson, a copy of which has been seen by the Daily Mail and reported on here, Mordaunt claims that the ships could take the place of vessels such as RFA Mounts Bay, which has been stationed in the Caribbean during the hurricane season.

Mordaunt is the Member of Parliament for Portsmouth North. She has served as Secretary of State for International Development since 2017 and Minister for Women and Equalities since April 2018. Before becoming an MP, Mordaunt worked in business and communications and is currently the only female MP who is a Royal Naval Reservist.

Currently the UK uses Bay class vessel RFA Mounts Bay in a disaster relief role and the contribution of the vessel and hew crew cannot be understated, however, she was wasn’t designed for this task.

RFA Mounts Bay in the Carribean last year.

The Bay class are operated by the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and are officially designated as ‘Landing Ship Docks’. Each Bay class vessel is capable of carrying up to 24 Challenger tanks or 150 military trucks in 1,150 linear metres of space. The UK operates three Bay class vessels after selling the fourth to Australia.

RFA Mounts Bay deployed to the Caribbean to provide support during the 2017 hurricane season. She was tasked to assist in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief operations at Anguilla, British Virgin Islands, and Turks and Caicos Islands in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in September 2017.

The UK can also call upon RFA Argus as according to the Royal Navy, the principal role of Argus is to serve as a Primary Casualty Receiving Ship (PCRS). The vessel also once served as an Aviation Training Ship however a ramp for casualty transport replaced one of the aircraft hangars and the PCRS role became the ship’s primary function.

RFA Argus

According to the Ministry of Defence, as the ship is armed and is not painted in the required white with red crosses, the Geneva Convention prevents her from being officially classified as a hospital ship.

Despite that, the vessel has a fully equipped 100-bed medical complex on board, which can be tailored to deliver treatment afloat. The vessel has sailed before to support potential humanitarian operations during the hurricane season, with a primary mission to support the British Overseas Territories should they require assistance but again, she was not designed for this.

Argus started life as the commercially owned and operated Contender Bezant, a container ship. In 1985 she was converted to an aviation training ship at Harland & Wolff, Belfast, with extended accommodation, a flight deck, aircraft lifts and naval radar communications suites, say the Royal Navy.

Would a new, dedicated vessel be a better solution? Maybe.

Last year, a team of British military medics joined the USNS Mercy (the image above is the Mercy, with a silly bit of modification to the image, of course) to deliver health care and aid to Asian and Pacific nations.

According to a press release issued by the Royal Navy at the time:

“It’s only the second time Brits have taken part in the deployment. Back in 2016, five RN dental personnel spent five weeks treating the mouths of Vietnamese and inhabitants of the Republic of Palau. Two years down the line and not only is the UK involved in the mission, it’s in charge of half of it.

Peter Olive, who’s previously commanded frigate HMS Argyll and minehunter Ledbury, is the deputy commander of Pacific Partnership – the first time in its 13-year history that a Brit has been given the role. Captain Olive will take charge of the other ship assigned to the deployment, the fast-cat ferry USNS Fall River.”

The Mercy is a converted oil tanker, typically crewed by 70 civilian and military personnel – rising to nearly 1,300 souls on front-line operations. The vessel has beds for 1,000 patients – making her similar in size and with all the facilities you’d expect to find in a major city hospital.

74 COMMENTS

  1. The issue I see here is that some of the territories listed are Overseas Territories of Britain as for not foreign and so you cannot use said budget for that purpose.

    • Why not Tom? Anything that ensures the aid budget works harder to deliver some tangible benefits to the UK has to be applauded.
      This topic is exactly what many people who post on this site has been asking for for years. Use the aid budget to rebuild the RFA and RN helicopter carrier force label them as disaster relief vessels that just so happen to have a useful secondary role.
      With a £14 billion per year budget this could easily be done with just 5-10% of that massive giveaway.

    • i’d disagree with that, the allocation of funding for such ships, is done through the foreign office, foreign aid and benefits from it ,is subject to a yearly assessment, the monies are used by whatever is identifiable within this nation’s political climate is at the time. the aid has been used to build hospitals in africa, why not for humanitarian purposes at home?

    • The rules were changed recently regarding using disaster relief and long term reconstruction aid for overseas territories – regardless of their wealth. Whether or not this could include assets for reacting to such disasters is the question but suspect may be the case.

      https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-46052502

    • True that some of the ships would go to assist Oversea Territories, but not all. The UK routinely assists now-independent nations such as Belize, Bahamas, and Jamaica as well as French and Dutch territories in the Caribbean Sea. There is probably enough wiggle room to enable at least part of the cost of hospital and disaster relief ships to come from the foreign aid budget. Its worth a try. (Forgiveness is easier than permission. )

  2. An excellent idea – I would be far less critical of the foreign aid budget if it included funding for this type of humanitarian work.

    1. Build the ship(s) in the UK
    2. Marine Crew them with RFA
    3. Mission equipment provided by UK companies
    4. NHS Doctors and nurses utilised on a secondment basis in and out on rotation
    5. Not just disaster relief but medical care provision to West Africa/Caribbean

    CAPEX for each – 150M GBP per ship – build 3
    OPEX annually – 15-20M GBP

    Against a 14 Billion GBP annual budget this should be quite affordable for the DFID.

      • What? The US has two hospital ships – the Mercy and the Comfort. The Mercy is in good shape but the Comfort needs to be replaced since a refit seems to be too costly. The Navy has no idea what to do next and, frankly, probably can’t find the money to do anything. Comfort probably does not have that long.

    • God yes! Have written to the DFID etc before with exactly the same suggestion. Build two of them at least and have them stationed in disaster areas and when needed they can be repurposed in time of national crisis at home or in Gulf of Mexico arc. Buy all the helicopters etc from them from Yeovil and have hen manned by navy, airforce and army when deploying to disaster zones. Cheaper than sending an aircraft carrier and also dual use if ever needed. It helps support U.K. industry and you ca. Pack it with best of British industry and use it as soft power projection – stick UK aid on it too. Also do the same with 2/3 x a400m for a flying hospital or eye treatment facility. Again stimulus for U.K. yards and keeps skill ready for when needing to build complex ship so that they are cheaper.

    • Absolutely agree with the above, what an excellent direct use for our aid money …

      I would love to see three such vessels built, allowing two to be deployed and fully operational.

      Excellent idea…

  3. Has this not been kicking about since the Falklands War when a dedicated hospital ship was one of ‘the lessons learned’. There was even a project team at Abbey Wood at one time? Last time I heard the project was on hold because of legal problems with Geneva Convention, states hospital ships cannot carry crypto, as we know any crew member or medic with a mobile can have this classified a crypto? May be needs to be classified as a merchant ship?

    • there was talk after the falklands that a new colour designation other than white, might be worked by the u.n. yellow was the consensus but the current arrangements should be enough, as they are tried and tested during the falklands canberra carried out the role superbly. but it was clear that a dedicated ship with a sizeable capacity would be far more preferable , the mistral class h.lp is fitted with a big hospital with all the mod cons you’d expect for your nearest one.kitting out argus cost millions, at the time it came from the navy budget, now, i’d hope foreign aid would fund it.

    • Hi Helions,

      Certainly they do and they have done frequently in the past – generally topside conversions for VLCCs to FPSO’s (on the Tyne).

      However I would propose build from scratch.

      • Thank you Billy.
        Building from scratch would probably be a good idea both jobwise and to meet the latest maritime standards (double hull etc). Having said that, there are probably a lot of bargains out there tanker wise. This last year saw record numbers of tankers being sent to scrap by companies seeing a reduced demand for oil. However, many of those hulls are probably pretty worn out. It would be a boost for the British ship building industry either way with a lot of well paying jobs being created.

        Cheers!

        • Tankers are scrapped for many reasons.
          The price of Oil is a driver as the profits from shipping it need to be maximised.
          New tankers and updated tankers are getting many upgrades to increase fuel efficiency. Paint, props, Silver bubble generators, shrouded prop hubs even sails etc…they all add up to big 5-20% fuel savings.
          The decline of FFO ( Cheap!) as a fuel source and the use of Marine Dieso ( Expensive!) are the drivers. Other drivers are SO2 scrubber fits and ballast water processing fits which are IMO requirements . If a ship cannot get these conversions then its easier to scrap them.
          Any conversions will need to be of fairly modern and sustainable vessels that are not going to face obsolescence issues in the short to medium term.

    • Hi GWM,

      Just recruit – there is not usually a shortage of merchant marine officers for the RFA as they are civilians that come and go from other shipping and offshore companies.

      • Think they have been doing this for a while but still shortages hence a number of RFA’s being tied up for long periods,the new tankers seem to have priority.

        • Sounds more like warm stacking to keep costs down than a shortage of crew. When the ships are not required – stack them to keep costs down. Everyone does it.

  4. If she means to outright replace Mounts Bay, then absolutely no way at all. If it’s to relieve Mounts Bay and other Bay class ships of their humanitarian duty, then I’m all for it

    • By the time the ships will be built the Bay Class will likely be due for replacement themselves anyway. For the number of large support ships the RN operate its hard to understand why the government cannot commit to a steady build cycle that repeats every 25 years. Its not complicated the government just like to make short terms savings by no ordering anything for 4 years which breaks the cycle and results in capability gaps unless the ships are ordered overseas like the Tide class.

    • I read that as, to replace Mount Bay in the humanitarian role, rather than to actually replace her. I could be wrong.

  5. More funding should be provided from the foreign aid budget to cater for projects like this as well as providing additional transport aircraft, helicopters, and engineers on the ground.

    Replacing ships like RFA Mount Bay with newer ships would equally be welcome. £18 billion allocated this year alone while we bugger about delaying the in-service date of our Type 26’s (2027 for the first) and skimp on the required number originally asked for.

    Any news on a decent Anti Ship Missile capability??? Or can’t we afford it?????

    If you want young people to join our armed forces, give them the kit and pay they deserve.

  6. If it supports British shipbuilding I’m all for the idea, I also think we should build a new royal yacht for the same reason.

  7. I agree with the concept but why a dedicated hospital ship, why not something that could be requisitioned if required? Perhaps one dedicated hospital ship, 1 similar to Ocean for lifting and 1 similar to the Bay class.

    Also surely the stationing should be depending on needs, if UK hospitals were stretched during a bad winter then the NHS should have use of it/them.

    • It would not work as well as an NHS resource (but good idea) as you need the capacity close at hand not parked somewhere on the coast, although it could be used in a port town, just no help elsewere.

      Not sure I’d want to staff it with NHS staff either, it’s lovely for staff to have a busmans holiday, but creates merry hell when your ED consultant fucjpks off for a bit of fun etc.

      • Most UK major cities are on the coast or estuary. I’d only suggest this in crisis situations, we don’t need to have a 100’s of hospital beds ‘just in case’ that’s really inefficient and not good use of funds so a ship or ships such as this would give surge capacity when needed.

      • Just a question Jonathon- no criticism intended and you are entitled to your opinion. Have you ever done disaster relief work? I have and it is often difficult, stressful, long-hours and exceptionally emotionally, physically draining- hardly a holiday dealing with poly-trauma patients in makeshift substandard settings. I applaud any NHS staff willing to give up their annual leave (holiday entitlement) to go off in their own time (holiday entitlement) to support efforts at helping those most at need.

  8. Taking the NHS to the World rather than the World coming to the NHS !!!!! Seriously though, Great Idea and a great Advert for “Global Britain”.

      • Exactly!
        +industry stimulus
        +help keep skills current =cheaper complex war ships
        +jobs
        +soft power projection
        +nhs staff extra options and opportunities to learn other skills
        +helps people that needed it
        +dual use could be requisitioned for national crisis (extra hospital or two in any coastal U.K. city) or in times of war

        Can’t think of minuses!

  9. I think the polititians have become a little confused as to the difference between Mt’s Bay and Argus. Mt’s Bay is an amphibious assault ship presently assisting in disaster relief and narcotics interdiction, here are no medical facilities other than a normal size sick bay, to replace her with a hospital ship is out of context. Yet Argus is basically a combat casaulty ship ( secondary to aviation training ship) her wartime role would be to enter the war zone and act as initial recieving ship, defend herself whilst treating snd dispatching casualties to hospitsl facilities including dedicated hospitsl ships, hence she remains grey. I fear it either were to be replaced by a dedicated White hospital ship we would lose a significant flexible asset and gain one inflexible asset that can only be used under strict Geneva convention rules as a neutral hospital ship. They can’t be arsed for self defence nor be involved in sny political activities. I think the solution should be a government owned disaster relief support ship, run along the lines of SD Victoria, or chartered commercisl ship.

    • As you said Basil, A Dedicated Hospital Ship is totally different to the Mounts and Argus. Great to have In addition but not as a replacement/replacements. The three Mounts can carry two dozen C2’s each for a start.

      • I’m all for the idea but just don’t see how a hospital ship (by Geneva definition) can exist anymore surely a laptop or phone can easily count a secure communication. IMO to do the role the MP is suggesting we essentially need a supersized Argus preferably with 400-500 medical beds, with a small well-deck and Ro-Ro facilities too maximise the number of ways you can get aid ashore. Have to come up with a snappy acronym Disaster, Helicopter, Dock, Vehicle, Medical, Relief, Ship DHDVMRS ?

  10. Awesome idea! Will help public confidence as we hear many reports of money being lost due to fraud etc. If we can keep see the tangible benefits then we know that the people who need it are getting the support they need.

    It would be cool if the design facilitated swing role, for use by the RN/RM at times of National emergency.

  11. Absolutely brilliant idea that is well overdue. Well done Penny. I can’t see why anybody should object to this proposal. An extension of real overseas aid U.K. soft power. An announcement as we “go Brexit” would be perfect. Let’s back her up guys.,Only needs an email.

  12. Great if it happens. A step in the right direction. As well as a hospital ship, I would like to see an engineering base ship paid for by DfID. Something that can carry building materials, cranes, diggers, transport helicopters, fire engines. All the stuff you need to rebuild a disaster zone. A good dual use bit of kit.

  13. They managed to spend quarter of a billion of the foreign aid budget on an airport for St Helena that barely works, so there should be an issue using for the benefit of other oversea territories in the form of a humanitarian aid/hospital ship.

    • It works fine, It’s just in the wrong Location with the wrong type of Weather and not enough cargo or Passengers !!!!

  14. Should come with assurances that all vessels will be built in UK yards.

    Great Idea, targeting funds directly where needed, in such areas as disaster relief…
    What’s also stopping us from purchasing more A400Ms under the same proposal?

    • 2/3 A400 as a rapidly deplorable hospital, or eye treatment centre as per that charity. Use as much as possible U.K. equipment, stick big U.K. aid sign in the side….

  15. A very interesting suggestion, but I don’t know that the Mercy’s are a good starting point. For one thing even the US navy, with it’s prodigious resources, can only afford 2 (not 25 as some have suggested) and notably, they’re often put at extended readiness (aka mothballs).

    What’s perhaps needed is a specific joined up consideration of what is needed in the caribbean region generally, and perhaps there is a single ship (or group of ships) which could if carefully designed as a system, along with local basing, could provide suitable support. What I’m suggesting is that rather than post hoc justify a particular capability by shoe horning it imperfectly onto a task, we start with the tasks (or set of local tasks) and see what vessel or vessels (and crew) might best support that.

    So, what’s needed?
    1 Hurricane rescue
    Hurricane recovery
    Smuggling patrol

    Three pretty different tasks
    1 needs a mix of self contained medical, power generation, aviation and small boats, and large stores capacity, and a scalable crew and accomodation capacity. And excellent command and communications.
    2 needs vehicle and personal accomodation, stores, long range and sustainable deployment.
    3 needs aviation, medium boats (with decent range) or long range at a decent speed, and good sensors.

    I wonder, who else might have territories in similar areas with whom we could pool resources? The French and Dutch I think, but others too?

  16. I’ve said before why was the MoD the only department tasked with supporting an industrial strategy to rebuild an industry. So will the unions get behind this idea seeing it’s being proposed by a Tory MP.

    • Let’s press the unions and write to DFID etc. Same reason why a new Royal Yacht is needed. Soft power projection, jobs creation etc etc.

  17. Couldn’t agree more with this suggestion apart from the fact DFID should be paying the RFA to operate these assets on behalf of DFID. These ships need to be based upon a Karel Doorman design so that we can use them for solid stores/amphibious/LHD’s.

    Whilst we are at it the fleet of Puma’s should be sold to DFID to operated from these ships and be replaced in military service by new Merlins.

    The RFA could operate 11 Karel Doorman style ships for the Navy and DFID providing a huge level of flexibility.

    As I have said on another thread, we can build containerised homes, provide Land Rovers (instead of Toyotas) etc that are British built and paid for and deliver them through our own humanitarian fleet.

    It’s a no brainier for me

  18. I thought that the US Navy wasn’t able to afford to run ships like this? If they can’t then surely this seems like a waste of money

  19. Its about time that an MP used their brains. However I have often wondered if a full blown hospital ship is the best resource or would it be better to buy HMS Albion and Bulwark from the RN and convert them into disaster relief vessels with a major onboard hospital. The money that the RN get for these vessels could then be reinvested towards two-three LHDs. Then again two to three hospital ships built in the UK would be good for the ship building industry and a good use of the international aid budget while promoting UK soft power. I also agree that some of the soon to be scrapped C130Js could also be used in the role of dedicated emergency relief aircraft. Albion’s and Hercs used in this way would take a large workload of the armed forces whilst acting as a useful reserve in times of major conflict.

    • Using the armed forces for such roles helps keep the budget with the armed forces. I’d rather Albion and Bulwark be kept in service for what they were designed for.

  20. That’s a great idea. It would have to be crewed with merchant mariners, though. The RN and RFA are short-handed as it is.

  21. I wonder how much synergy with the upcoming FSS builds might be possible. If it was build from scratch then at the very least trying to see if the FSS design could be such that at least the hull and basic machinery (engines, generators, etc) could be common would seem to make sense. If it’s a dedicated humanitarian aid asset then the aid budget should also pay for the appropriate additional annual staff costs to crew and maintain the extra vessel and if those extra technical crew and maintainers, trained at foreign aid expense, also had transferable skills applicable to the other FSS that could only be a good thing and give more flexibility in personal allocations, covering staff absences etc. Also, the closer it can be made to the core FSS design the more possibility of repurposing it as a FSS in a war situation.

    • Very interesting idea Julian- use the FSS hull-form and fit them out as hospital and disaster relief vessels- lots of mexifloat, airlift and containerised supplies handling capacity. 4 helicopter hangar, able to deploy a RM and disaster relief detachment of 400-500 personnel, carry 20,000 tons of supplies and ideally have the ability to pump fresh water desalinated onboard onto land- the FSS hull form proposed is easily capable of delivering such a couple of very useful “base” vessels. If the ship also has a hospital capacity of 100+ beds including ICU, theatres, X ray, CT and MRI scanners than that would be brilliant.
      I would think something in the £450-500 million each area would cover this requirement. So less than 3.2% of the annual foreign aid budget each- small change folks whilst offering huge benefit to British industry, global Britain and a secondary support vessel for the RN to conduct ship to shore operations.

      • Precisely. And with the current FSS plans still stuck at, as far as I’m aware, 2 vessels definite and maybe a third hopefully added then just perhaps by adding two hospital/disaster-relief (h/dr)variants to the planned FSS build it might be enough for economies of scale to push things over the line so that we do get 3 FSS rather than just the two with, as you say, the added flexibility of being able to re-purpose the h/dr variants as additional RN support vessels if required.

        If the FSS ends up with what seems to be the fairly standard RFA weapons fit of 2 x Phalanx + 2 x DS30 those stations could even be installed and wired up on all vessels. They’d obviously need to be left unpopulated on the h/dr vessels, a legal requirement if they are going to be painted up and designated as hospital ships, but in time of emergency a coat of grey paint and fitting the weapons would presumably be possible.

  22. I think there needs to be a clear distinction between RN/RFA amphibious / casualty receiving vessels that on occasion can support disaster relief operations and a purpose built dedicated disaster relief/ Hospital ship crewed by NGO style crew. Having military ships undertaking dedicated disaster relief and foreign support will start to blur the lines of political interference. Just imagine if China or Russia started turning up with military forces in disaster relief ships in storm struck sensitive developing countries which then leads to additional infrastructure development etc…
    To prevent this countries should build & deploy NGO operated vessels, which do not have secondary military roles, or may carry weapons for ‘self defence’, thus removing any political interference. I fully support the idea of having a LPD type vessel either purchased from a military or purpose built for the role.

    • Basil that was a bit of a left wing softy answer. Sorry. I think the military is easily capable and experienced enough to man and deploy these vessels (as they do now) for disaster relief. There is no blurring of lines- the ships are deployed by Parliament to support the wishes of the foreign power or area afflicted by disaster following a formal request for said support.
      Having done disaster relief work I can definitely state the support of the military is crucial to ensure the NGO, NHS, volunteer civilian specialist deployed are protected as UK citizens and do not end up hostages to some gang or despot who uses a disaster as the ideal opportunity to seize power over an area or crucial asset like an airport, port or logistics forwarding base.

  23. If we do this, which I support. Let’s make sure the ships are built in the UK to support UK industry and jobs and allow our shipyards to expand and compete for international orders.
    If you agree that the UK should build its own naval support ships please sign my petition at
    https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/235377 or write to your MP. Mine has signed the pettion

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here