The sale of HMS Ocean to Brazil for £84 million marks the day in which British maritime capabilities are changing, do we require a new ‘budget’ helicopter carrier?
Some who were against retaining HMS Ocean pointed to the cost/benefits ratio of investing in a capability which is only based on ‘commercial specifications’. Others argue that it would not be worthy to spend additional money on a ship that only has a 20-year lifespan. While I myself have argued in an earlier piece that it was strategically unnecessary, and also argued the need for a new amphibious carrier.
However, the sale of HMS Ocean to the Brazilian Navy has proven one thing, that another nation has seen potential in the helicopter carrier for lighter duties, and will invest money to refit it to their specifications.
Historically we have seen Royal Navy ships sold to other nations including Royal Navy aircraft carriers such as HMS Hermes to the Indian Navy, and these ships under new commands perform adequately and demonstrate that in fact these assets could be retained if there was investment guaranteed.
While it may be the case we question the logic of the decision of the sale of HMS Ocean, the decision is made – so therefore the point of deliberation shall now turn to what can be done in the future following this acquisition, and the lessons which can be learned.
The UK has three options, (1) to use the totally unsuited HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark which are amphibious dock ships to fill the capability gap, (2) purchase a built to order ship, or (3) look at a new way of creating a ‘Budget Helicopter Carrier’.
That is why there is an increasing need for the UK Shipbuilding industry, not to mention the UK Shipbuilding Strategy to take this initiative and to be proactive.
For the United Kingdom to carry on its status as a ‘Global Power’ and retain its ability to project power across the globe with a blue water navy it must have the assets to project its capabilities. This includes the capability of projecting air, sea, and land forces. Recently HMS Ocean was the flagship for a NATO exercise, and was deemed as being an essential asset. The role of the Royal Navy is multifaceted, and for it to be seen as a credible force, it must match is credibility with the raw capabilities that it possesses. To put it simply, it must demonstrate a ‘conventional deterrence’ against potential adversaries. Therefore, it is my argument that the Royal Navy must retain helicopter functions and an amphibious capability – all of which can be served with a new class of ‘budget’ helicopter carriers with amphibious landing capabilities.
As part of our strategic national interest it is also important not to overburden those capabilities which we have such as our prized possessions the Queen Elizabeth class carriers which will have an operational lifespan for 50 years. This class of ship will be different.
Thus, a new ‘budget’ helicopter carrier would complement existing and new capabilities, by providing a logistical platform to deploy both Royal Marines and attack helicopters along with landing craft, and larger aircraft for carrying troops and supplies. This new class of Helicopter carrier, with either have Apache aircraft which are currently operated by the Army Air Corps, as well as other helicopters of the Royal Air Force, such as the larger twin rotor Chinooks. This new budget carrier, will be a platform for multi-branch operations and indeed act as a command centre. Thus, the Royal Air force working together with the Royal Navy, and also the British Army Air Corps and the Royal Marines.
The cost of building HMS Ocean adjusted to inflation based on 2016 estimates was £288 million. Therefore, a new ship would be built with the view to match this price, just like the Type 31 Frigates that are being planned. While it may be the case the price may be higher, it would not be in the billions but in the millions.
In summary, the lessons from the sale of HMS Ocean is twofold, (1) despite the economic rationale against investing in the carrier other nations are happy to invest in it to match their lighter requirements, something not feasible for the UK, (2) there is a need for ‘budget’ helicopter carriers in order to complement UK’s maritime capabilities, with the hope of attracting international business and exporting to other military forces.
The problem with all of this, though? Resources. As of writing, there’s little scope in the budget for even a vessel half the cost and crew of HMS Ocean.