The Replacement of Diligence, Argus & Ocean. SDSR's Forgotten Trio.
RFA Diligence, the Royal Navy's (RN) forward repair ship, is now 35 years old and is scheduled to be withdrawn from service in 2020. Now is the time to purchase her replacement, while the offshore oil and gas industry is depressed, the related ship building industry is short of orders and good, new or relatively new, vessels are coming onto the market. An article written by Andy Kimber of BMT Defence Services Ltd. 'Future Concepts for Repair & Maintenance @ Sea', is worthy of study. In it he lays out the history of RN repair and depot ships and then goes on to analyse and suggest a possible replacement for Diligence. The study lays a heavy emphasis on the required engineering repair facilities and mentions the operational flexibility that such a vessel should possess. While the desirability of Dynamic Positioning (DP) is suggested, the article does not, in my view, emphasise sufficiently the operational importance of this system and how robust it should be. The ability of such a vessel to hold position in relatively sheltered water, where anchoring is undesirable or not possible and at the same time take alongside one or two vessels, which may be physically larger than herself (say T45 destroyers), must be of operational value. In order to do this, the repair ship must possess sufficient power, thrust and redundancy. Also, the suggested requirement of a 25 tonne lift capacity should be available over the entire radius of the crane(s), which would suggest a far greater stated capacity at minimum radius (possibly as much as 150-200 tonnes). The commercial vessels that most often possess these qualities are the DSV/ROV seabed operations vessels that are developments of the 'Diligence' type. They are often larger than Diligence, have a much greater deck area and load capacity, ample craneage, plenty of power/thrust, a large heli-deck, 100+ personnel capacity (to commercial standards) but are still optimised for operation by a very small crew. The survey vessel option suggested by Mr.Kimber possesses some or all of these facilities but the DP system and power availability/redundancy are often less as is the craneage. Whichever option is taken, it would be better to buy a vessel now, while they are relatively cheap, rather than wait 4 years, by which time offshore oil and gas may be recovering and all of the bargains will have disappeared.
RFA Argus, the Royal Navy's 'Aviation Support and Primary Casualty Reception' vessel is, like the Diligence, about 35 years old and due to be withdrawn from service in 2024. Originally the container ship 'Contender Bezant', she was modified at considerable expense for her present role. Another commercial vessel conversion could be an eventual replacement and the type that I believe would be most suitable is the modern car carrier. These high sided, flat topped vessels have several decks within and many of them are hydraulically adjustable for height, which would aid the fitting of a modular medical facility. The exiting RoRo facility would be of much use for bringing vehicles of all types onboard and the relatively flat top would facilitate the installation of a long flight deck with possibly a ski ramp above the bridge (what more of a potential casualty than an F35 pilot requiring fuel!?). She would be more than just a hospital ship and in extremis could perform like the Jeep/Woolworth Escort Carriers of WW2 and possibly even transport an assault group.
However, the RN is about to dispose of a vessel which is not yet old and which could replace Argus.
HMS Ocean, the Royal Navy's helicopter assault ship is due to be withdrawn from service in 2018 when only half way through her potential service life (although she may remain in service until HMS Prince of Wales is commissioned, shortly before Argus is due to bow out). There are of course several reasons for this; running costs, the need to show an ongoing requirement for the 2nd.Queen Elizabeth class carrier (which will double as an assault carrier), most certainly the manning problem and possibly others that are not apparent to casual onlookers. Regardless of the reasons, it is a shame that such a useful vessel should be laid up when she still has 20 years of useful life remaining. She is in essence a navalised commercial car carrier with a flat top/flight deck. A modular medical facility could be fitted into her hanger/vehicle deck via the aircraft lifts and stern ramp. Troop accommodation could be converted into cabins for the medical staff and less critical patients. By removing much of the war fighting apparatus (but retaining the ability to re-fit it quickly) the base crew numbers could be reduced. The conversion of Ocean to replace Argus would kill two birds with one stone. It would replace the ageing Argus and at the same time, retain Ocean as a working vessel (with base crew), which could be quickly re-converted to the assault carrier role if needed, while her modular medical facility was pulled out and put into a ship taken up from trade (STUFT). A further option would be to have the converted and disarmed Ocean placed under a defaced Blue or a Red Ensign, painted white with a Red Cross on her side and have her, together with a flight of transport/rescue/medivac helicopters, paid for out of the Foreign Aid Budget (thus for the Navy, killing three birds with one stone).