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.

49 COMMENTS

  1. I appreciate that UKDJ needs to publish a steady stream of articles but this one seems to be a tad pointless. The MOD doesn’t have the money to follow through on already announced equipment purchases let alone this.

    Rightly or wrongly (the latter in my view) we will be using POW and Albion/Bulwark for this role.

    • Won’t just be POW, it’ll be both the carriers. Remember they’ll be operating the same way as Albion and Bulwark, one in reserve and one deployed.
      Prince of Wales is having the modifications to make her more suitable as an assault ship as she’s built, while Queen Elizabeth will get them during her first refit

      • POW, does not fulfill the same role of a helicopter carrier, even with its modifications. Not to mention that POW will be needed to fulfill the carrier strike role during periods when HMS QE in not available.

      • Callum,
        The Indian navy is looking at a new aircraft carrier, yes it is building one, but the QE tour of the FE, I guess is more about selling them a carrier than flying the flag.

    • The fact there is no money in current budget doesn’t alter view that we need one (two IMO) and that budgets through votes can be altered.

      POW is not a replacement despite the BS.

    • It would be handy if UFPKDJ used Like/Unlike buttons. So I could just “like” your comments rather than saying so.

  2. I would rather sacrifice the possible 6th type 31 we are getting and instead get another helicopter carrier. It is painfully obvious that lacking one puts us at a massive disadvantage. The only reason we dont is because of budget issues.

  3. How about conversion of a containership? Its a bit cheap and nasty but might be suitable for disaster relief, migration patrols and anti-piracy. after all, we converted plenty of ships in WW2 to reasonable success

  4. £45 million at 1988 prices to convert MV Contender Bezant to RFA Argus.
    Allowing for inflation say £100m at today’s prices.

  5. Whilst I like the sentiment of replacing HMS Ocean, currently the manpower from Ocean is moving over to HMS Prince of Wales and as such the Royal Navy would struggle to crew her replacement. In addition do we have the helicopters to support an Ocean replacement along with the two carriers, Albion/Bulwark and the escorts? Without an increase in the RN manpower and funding I do not see how this is possible.

  6. Is selling warships long before the end of their realistic life a form of subsidy for UK shipbuilders? As I understand it under EU rules we cannot build warships for other countries offering discount or subsidy, just to keep UK shipbuilders in work, dare I say in the politically sensitive Clyde area?

    However if we sell ships long before the shelf life date, secondhand, government to government is this a way around the rules? This has other advantages of course, UK re-fit after sale, sale of spares in the future and selling training. Good will is built up among a number of well known client states. Given too our Admirals like brand new toys, not last years model?

    I do appreciate that if Ocean were replaced, and extra manpower recruiting and retention authorized to crew the ship, could enough recruits be found and got through training to provide said crew given current man/woman power problems?

  7. Was there any validity of transferring/converting HMS Ocean to replace RFA Argus? In emergencies she could be utilised in the amphibious role again, but would have a peacetime humanitarian and training role?

    • Argus operated in part as an LPH in the Bosnia conflict. The author of the wiki page writes that her unsuitability in that role was a factor in the decision to build Ocean.

  8. In an ideal world there would be two light carriers to replace ocean and support the QE class with sufficient escorts to protect all of them on deployment at the same time but it won’t happen under this government and it certainly won’t happen if (god forbid) Cowardly Comrade Corbyn and his filthy kind get it

    • Olly – while I think the ‘Comrade’ part was a tad unnecessary you only have to go back 24 hours and PMQs (17/01) to see how Corbyn who normally keeps his anti-capitalism just under the surface in his ‘friendly old uncle’ persona when the PM got right in his face and the ‘uncle’ disappeared replaced by a snarling old Communist who then basically decried Capitalism and all it stands for. This is the man that would re-nationalise everything and control anything. A man who thinks adding £300 Bn to the annual deficit is ‘just fine!’.

      I would also suggest you go read John McDonnell’s policies and outpouring where you might see the title ‘Comrade’ is very appropriate for him. And this is the man that would be Chancellor. If you think the Tories are dad for Defence ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet’ if Corbyn gets in

        • Thanks for the response Chris.

          I understand hysteria around Corbyn is somewhat inevitable given the state of public discourse in this country at the moment. I would point to the Labour party’s decision to remain in favour of trident renewal emblematic of the tensions between electioneering rhetoric and political reality. If a Labour government were elected Corbyn would appoint a Secretary of State for Defence who would be somewhat qualified for the role and who would advocate for their department in the way any self-interested career politician would. It’s the height of lazy thinking to just regurgitate ‘Corbyn=Commie=No money for defence’ without acknowledging the realities of Westminster and Whitehall.

          • I had a very good discussion with an excellent Labour candidate who was former forces. She said the real bulwark against Corbyn’s anti defence instincts was the unions. Defence unions are pretty powerful within the party which I thought was an interesting insight.

            Still, only Corbyn writes the Trident letters and he’s stated he would also drop move to a no first strike rule which would have the opposite effect than intended and increase the conventional threat.

            When electing governments, even though we don’t have a Presidential system a lot sits on the shoulders of the PM / Chancellor and I wouldn’t trust either of them an inch on defence.

          • That point about the defence unions is very interesting Ian. Given Labour are in favour of increased public spending generally I find it hard to believe a Labour government would be as catastrophic for defence as some commenters are suggesting – or at least not so bad as to make continued Tory ‘stewardship’ a price worth paying. It seems like a fear of ‘the reds’ is preventing rational debate around this issue much of the time. Perhaps why Labour thought all they had to say on defence in their manifesto was ‘we’re not mental.’ But hey, I wasn’t alive during the Cold War…

          • Olly, if you listened to the defence debate led by Vernon Coaker last week it’s very clear that as a parliamentary party Labour is in a very different position from its leadership although increasingly the same might be said of Tories. There were lots of Labour grown ups in the room, all of whom would support an increase in defence spending. I speak for myself but I suspect a lot of others may think similarly when I say; I don’t trust the Tories on defence but I trust Labour (under Corbyn) even less.

  9. Use the foreign aid budget to build and operate a commercial off the shelf helicopter carrier for ‘disaster assistance’ duties. Naturally, the foreign aid budget would have to pay for a permanently assigned helicopter wing and a permanent RN/RM crew (allowing for an increase in forces personnel and equipment). Secondary duties as a Royal Navy command / amphibious warfare vessel.
    The foreign aid budget is extremely well funded, so perhaps they had better build two vessels, so that one is always available for amphibious warfare… I mean ‘disaster assistance’

  10. Basically my answer is ‘No’. And I have rehearsed my reasons many time here. Given the QEs are now coming into use if we had the budget for two ‘Ocean Mk II’ then we should buy two new ‘Albion Mk II’. (cue the ‘Karel Doorman’ crew)

    Given where we are we have no need for an LHD be it Ocean, Ocean Mk II or Wasp UK. We have far more pressing needs for our hardpressed taxpayer pounds …

  11. No… A much better use of money is to spend £3.5bn on a super-carrier and spend more money adding in more bunks and toilets and calling it an LHA

  12. I saw a USN San Antonio class up close and personal a short while ago. and while not what you are talking about she is ‘fearsome” but cost US$1 billion plus. We do need to be “seen to be believed” and if for example the Atlantic Patrol(North) was some form of Ocean MK 2 with primary duty to be counter narcotics and disaster assistance could this combination of:
    Flying the Flag
    Helping others
    Assisting other Nations with a Heli Carrier
    Use as a training Mission
    Asking the Commonwealth to “lend crew” in part to show usefulness and maybe bring orders in….

    Just some silly ideas a long way from decisions

  13. The sale of HMS Ocean is something to be ashamed of. We need the capability, the carriers with their length, beam and deep draft are designed to project air power from deep water, the smaller ocean with shallow draught is designed to operate in coastal waters supporting amphibious operations. Cancel the sale, and save the taxpayer a lot of money simply be maintaining the asset you already have and recruit the manpower the RN needs as a whole!

  14. Patients are treated in car parks due to lack of hospital beds. The armed forces are a hollow shell. Police numbers are cut by 20,000 while crime and terrorism rise. Yet the UK’s Foreign Aid budget is up 51% in 5 years to £13.4 billion in 2016. This is equal to 30% of the entire Defence budget. The joke is much of this Aid is wasted or given to countries that detest the UK. The Dept for International Development (DFID) tries to keep confidential how and where the money is spent. India and Pakistan get nearly £500m and they both have their own SPACE programs and spend more on nuclear weapons than the UK. China even got £50m aid.
    The UK provides 25% of the EU aid budget but gets no credit from the EU or benefiting countries. In 2015 France gave 0.37% and Germany 0.52%. We should reduce the aid budget to the EU average of 0.5%. This would provide nearly £4 billion a year to alleviate the crisis in the NHS and Defence. That is £77 million per week.
    Additionally DIFD could purchase Ocean and some helicopters, class it as an Emergency Aid and Relief asset and operate under their budget, to be readily available for disaster relief. This would help support the political requirement of maintaining an inflated Aid budget, to placate the Aid Industry, while providing access to a helicopter carrier in times of crisis.

    • Perhaps not as basic as the light carrier proposed by the author but something along the lines of USS Wasp Class LHD.

      As for the QE & PoW, I’ve always questioned the logic of only being able to operate F35 type aircraft. It would have been so embarrassing if the US had cancelled it. Then they would be WHITE ELEPHANTS.

    • Gotta disagree Farouk.

      Island nation, power projection, coalition commitments and more than anything protecting the north flank of NATO.

      Dual (land / sea) use F-35s is a really great use of limited resources for a brilliant asset.

  15. “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’.”

    Actually it has four options . The fourth being do nothing and as previously announced use POW to fulfill the role.

  16. The decision has been taken not to replace Ocean like for like. Time to get over it and move on to discuss how POW and/or the LPDs and other assets would be used in various scenarios.

  17. I think we don’t need a new helicopter carrier, espeically given the fact that the helicopter force is has had 50-60% cuts to its numbers with many current assets obsolete, knackered through over use or too small in their numbers.

    Additionally, we have perfectly good ships tied up. the Navy and Airforce need a 20% increase in personnel and I think this is now understood and with a requirement for a Cyber force these forces really needs another 30k people.

    I have stated a lot on this site that we have a fleet of 75 major vessels and these need to be re-aligned to our new world paradigm. For me that means more escorts (38) a fleet of (9) Karel Doorman Style amphibious logistics Vessels (ALV’s), a matching fleet of Tides(9), with our minesweeping fleet, RFA and all non standard/core assets being retired as they go end of life (including all Rivers).

    the minesweeping can be conducted from an ALV or Escort using the MCM suite (Atlas) and we need to adopt lower end assets such as CB90’s and Safebaots Mk6’s in relatively high volumes to give us an asymmetrical threat against a peer ( CB90’s could deploy from escorts with 20 marines onboard).

    This plan is clearly full of compromises – and it does do away with a wide array of different platforms to give us hull and parts commonality in the hope of bringing down costs.

    A T31 can do minesweeping with an Atlas setup – it is probably higher risk as its hull is clearly metal, but it can stand off and let the USV’s do the work.

    Likewise a KD style ALV can take 2 chinooks or 6 Merlins (each) and I am proposing 9 of them. We dont have 54 Merlins that we can put on these without a bigger defence budget. and a Carrier force with 2 of these in it would be something.

    So no to a dedicated helicopter carrier and yes to a larger force of smart solid stores ships.

    • Few points.

      We don’t have dedicated minesweepers. The hunts where converted to hunters a while back and lost the ability to conduct combined influence sweeps. They still have the winches but that is a weight and stability issue.

      Future USVs may be able to sweep from a mother ship but sweeping has advantages and disadvantages against hunting.
      Sweeping doesn’t always kill a mine. The sneaky gits have counters on them and computer controlled profile matching for acoustic, magnetic and pressure . You may sweep 5 or 6 times or more and on the pass that has a real ship with you the mine goes bang. If you hunt, its slower but if you find a mine you kill it there and then.

      CB90s and Mk6…stay away! They are a complete nightmare to maintain and operate. Even the US Navy has cut the Mk6 order…they have them now and now don’t know what to do with them. Anyway 15mil dollars for a Mk 6…I can think of better ways to spend the money

  18. Lots written on here which is wasted effort. Have any of you written to your MP or other politician with your concerns? I have never voted Labour. That said, I see Labour criticised but are the Conservatives any different? I don’t vote for them either.

    • I regularly write to my MP on a variety of subjects. I sometimes think I can see his shoulders droop as he sees ‘O no not another letter from …’. To his great credit he or his assistants always reply directly or forward my letter to the appropriate ministry for a detailed reply. I have to say it is something of a privilege to live in a democracy that listens to the individual. I do try not to whinge and to make comstructive suggestions even when these are clearly ‘left of centre’ when my MP is a conservative. Whichever party is elected the principle is that in government they serve everyone and the interests of the country as a whole. Use your vote.

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