This year's big deployment of the Royal Navy's Response Force Task Group is coming, so some reflections on the amphibious warfare capabilities available to the UK are in order. It is also an occasion for a quick look towards the immediate future, and a chance to look at some beautiful images as well.
I'm going to be very graphic in this article, using a variety of photos coming from current and earlier Royal Marines exercises, and highlight a few things,
Amphibiosity: for the UK at the state we talk of the ability to put ashore 1800 men or, in a major war scenario and with Ships Taken Up From Trade, a brigade of 5200 or more, with armored vehicles, artillery, helicopters and, when necessary, a number of main battle tanks as well.
The 1800-strong force is at five days' notice to deploy anywhere in the world, and that "anywhere" is quite literally true as, in theory, the Task Group can poise off the coast of 147 nations - three out of four countries in the world.
The amphibious force can get ashore quickly and can move to a crisis zone rapidly. Poising off the coast, with the ability to stay there for months, a powerful amphibious force is a formidable deterrent, and provides the government with options.
In a war situation, the huge number of potential landing sites forces the enemy to spread his forces, or to leave a weak spot undefended and open for attack somewhere.
Aircraft Carrier: the national capability in this area at the moment is limited to Apache attack helicopters flying off ships. Which is not to be undervalued, but that has plenty of limits. The Cougar 12's deployment will see HMS Illustrious deploying with helicopters, and jets available from France, as the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle will join the formation for training.
In a few years time, the Task Group will be centered around a Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier embarking Merlin HM2 helicopters for ASW, AEW and maritime security; Merlin HC4 for utility and troop transport; Chinooks for heavy lifting; Apache helicopters and, crucially, a restored airwing of high-performance fighter jets that will be able to provide air cover, air support and strategic strike to the force.
It will be a dramatic enhancement to the overall package.
Airborne Early Warning: not having an aircraft carrier does not mean you can't have AEW capability, luckily, when your AEW platform is an helicopter.
A number of hard-worked but always effective Sea King MK7 ASaC will be aboard HMS Illustrious to provide the task force with an unblinking flying eye that will detect and track enemy air and surface activity.
The Sea King MK7 will be eventually replaced with the Crowsnest programme, putting an AEW radar suite on Merlin HM2s. Crowsnest should finally enter assessment phase within the end of the year, but there are real fears that there will be a gap of several years in this vital capability from 2016, when the Sea King MK7 is expected to retire.
Hopefully, good sense will win. AEW is not a capability to be gapped. It is constantly in demand: Sea Kings MK7 are in constant operation over Afghanistan, flew around 100 missions over Libya last year (compare that with just 22 Apache sorties!), flew to protect the Olympics and will now ensure the Cougar 12 task group has clear situational awareness.
Need i to say more...?
Air Defence: Cougar 12 is to set sail without an anti-aircraft destroyer. Air defence will be provided by 2 Type 23 frigates with their SeaWolf missiles, and by a French Horizon destroyer later on once the fleets join forces.
The Air Defence capability of 3rd Commando is very basic, with just a Starstreak-equipped AD troop part of 30 Commando. It can do little more than protect the brigade HQ. Still better than what 16 Air Assault brigade can do (its own AD battery, part of 47 Royal Artillery regiment, became a UAV battery), but insufficient in any scenario in which the enemy can launch air attacks.
Of course, the Royal Artillery can supply a Rapier battery in the case, but the Rapier is showing its age, and won't be very useful against modern airplanes and weapons. By around 2020, the Rapier will be replaced by CAMM missile launchers mounted on HX60 4x4 trucks. The new missile will offer much greater range and far better capabilities. However, differently from Rapier which can be brought quickly ashore under slung from helicopters, the truck launcher of CAMM will need transport on a LCU.
In presence of enemy air menaces, bringing ashore air defence batteries would be a priority, as happened in San Carlos during the Falklands War, so that a quickly-deployable air defence system would very much improve the capabilities of the force.
In my review of CAMM, i proposed development of a pallettized vertical missile launcher exploiting the cold-lauch feature of the new missile, along with the fact that CAMM uses a secure data link to dialogue with pretty much any kind of radar to get target bearings.
Such pallets could be very easily under slung by helicopters and landed around the area to protect, and they would use the data-link to be feed initial targeting data by whatever radar was available.
Allies: 3rd Commando Brigade has an historic ally and operational partner in the Dutch marines, which are assigned to the british amphibious brigade as part of NATO force arrangements. The collaboration is so total that the Dutch marines all but adopted the Bowman C4I system to be able to fit seamlessly in with the Royal Marines.
Now of course the focus is on building up the relationship with the French marine infantry, and Cougar 12 will be a big step forwards. France is sending to the exercise elements of its 9th Brigade, Marine Infantry, aboard the LHD Mistral.
France is also providing the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle with its embarked air wing, the tanker and supply ship Meuse, the Horizon-class AAW destroyer Chevalier Paul and the F70-class frigate Jean de Vienne.
Amphibious vessels: the UK currently has two Landing Platform Dock ships, the two sisters HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, but unfortunately the SDSR 2010 mandated that one of the two would be tied up in port at Extended Readiness, with the two ships alternating into service each time they hit their major refit period. Currently, HMS Albion is at low readiness, and will only return in 2016 (if there's not a rethink or an emergency before that) when the sisters will trade places.
The LPDs are excellent in terms of Landing Craft capability, as they carry each 4 LCVP MK5 and 4 LCU MK10. The first can carry 35 Royal Marines or a medium vehicle up to BV206; the second is a slow but autonomous ships that can stay out at sea on its own for up to two weeks, and with the payload capacity to take a Challenger 2 main battle tank.
The LPDs have also excellent command and control facilities and communications fits, with a 73-workstations command centre, but they have no hangar for helicopters and normally only carry around 305 deployable Marines. A further 405 could be embarked, but only in Overload conditions and for a short period.
Space for vehicles is described at times as sufficient for 33 medium armoured vehicles or six tanks, but none of the two descriptions seems accurate. Obviusly, the number of vehicles carried depends on the mix of types embarked. Navy Matters, normally extremely well informed, reports capacity for up to 6 tanks plus 6 L118 light guns and up to 67 other vehicles, probably Land Rover-sized.
In any case, the Albion class carries relatively few men and vehicles. I've found mention of the vehicle-space being just 500 lane meters, which means less than half the capacity of a Bay class LSD (1200). Vehicles can embark via a RoRo ramp on the starboard side, and there is a ramp that allows them to drive up to the flight deck, from which they can be brought ashore under slung by helicopter.
There are extensive spaces for supplies and ammunition, and the palletized supplies are embarked via ports located port and starboard at vehicle deck level.
Munitions for the embarked force are embarked and struck down to the magazine complex on their transit package using mechanical handlers and an ammunition lift.
The decision to build the LPDs without an hangar was unfortunate, in my opion, but at least they were given extensive aviation support capabilities and, during their latest refits, the two vessels have been given significant improvements to flight deck facilities, and now they can operate with two Chinooks at once on deck.
HMS Albion proved last year, during Cougar 2011, that she could operate from her deck a large Tailored Air Group made up of two Sea King HC4 and two Lynx, with a fifth Lynx joining sporadically onboard.
The lack of helicopter facilities was of course justified at the time of building with the presence in the fleet of dedicate Landing Platform Helicopter ships, which lack the well deck and have very little vehicle space but excellent aviation facilities in exchange.
In fact, the LPH ended up being one, with a planned sister actually never built. HMS Ocean is the sole ship in her class, and the lack of a second hull has been and still is balanced by using Invincible-class aircraft carriers in Commando Carrier role.
Ocean can carry a force of 480 Marines (803 at Overload for short periods), with 4 LCVP MK5 landing crafts. She has a small vehicle space for 40 Land Rovers and 34 small trailers, plus 6 L118 Light Guns, and there's a vehicle ramp leading to the sea level in the back of the ship, where a pontoon (carried on Ocean's deck when not in use) can be deployed to form a boat boarding area.
|The Pontoon can be seen here clearly as it is prepared on the Flight Deck prior to being lowered into the water.|
|Pontoon and rear RoRo ramp deployed|
Nominally the ramp can take a Viking, but this capability is very rarely tested, and only Land Rovers and Pinzgauers and perhaps BV206s are likely to move on it.
|Boarding HMS Ocean via the pontoon and rear ramp, from a LCU MK10|
HMS Ocean's main role is however that of providing hangar and support facilities for the Task Force's helicopters. She has six spots on her deck for helicopter operations and can carry 12 Sea King HC4 or Merlin helicopters and six Lynx. From 2003, the ship has been capable to embark Apaches, and has done so to great effect last year in Libya.
|The hangar and aviation facilities are the main reason d'etrè for HMS Ocean|
HMS Ocean tipically embarks a couple of Grifton 2400 LCAC(L) hovercrafts of the Marines.
HMS Illustrious is currently used as Commando Carrier, but lacks the LCVP capability, the rear ramp and boarding area and the vehicle deck. 300 to 600 Royal Marines can be taken aboard.
Illustrious will be decommissioned in 2014, leaving Ocean alone until HMS Queen Elizabeth is fully operational. HMS Ocean herself might be decommissioned as early as 2018, and any hope for a dedicate replacement has long been lost. LPH(Replacement) has been a dead program since at least 2006.
Under the "Carrier Enabled Power Projection" heading lays the expectation that the Queen Elizabeth carrier(s?) will be used as a Landing Helicopter Aviation (LHA) ship, carrying Royal Marines (up to 600) plus an F35B squadron and up to 30 helicopters. CVF's hangar is big enough to take over 40 folded-up Merlin helicopters.
It will be crucially important to get both carriers in service, so they can rotate in and out of deployment as the center of the future Royal Navy task groups. Bringing back a fixed wing aviation capability, they will massively expand the possibilities of the Task Force. Major improvements that they will offer include hangar and lifts big enough to comfortably take the Chinook helicopter: having no folding rotors, the Chinook currently cannot be lifted down into the hangar of Ocean or Illustrious. On CVF, it'll be easy.
Sure, folding rotors would still help using space in a more intelligent way, though...
The Queen Elizabeth carriers in their Commando Carrier role offer a rear boat boarding space (not accessible with vehicles however, differently from what happens on Ocean) accessible by stairs going down from the Hangar level.
It is not clear if the carriers will have davits capable of taking LCVPs. One drawing would seem to show LCVPs embarked, but i've been unable to obtain a clarification on this point.
|This image, clearer and larger, also clearly shows a couple of RHIBs. Worth remembering that the blue lines represent the hangar and aircraft lifts of the Invincible class carriers, shown for comparison purposes.|
Assault Squadrons Royal Marines: each amphibious ship has its own Assault Group Royal Marines as part of its core crew.
4th Squadron is HMS Albion's
6th Squadron is HMS Bulwark's
9th Squadron is HMS Ocean's
The exact current composition of an Assault Squadron is not entirely clear, but the formation mans the landing crafts and also provides a Beach Party that provides vital services early in the first phases of an amphibious landing.
The Assault Squadrons on the LPDs are, for obvious reasons, much larger than Ocean's one. An LPD's Beach Party is equipped with:
1x 'Hippo' Beach Armored Recovery Vehicle - there are only 4 such vehicles in the armed forces. 2 are permanently embarked, one on each LPD, with the other 2 used by 11 Trials and Training unit Royal Marines. The Hippo is a modified Leopard 1A5 tank fitted with a wheelhouse-like raised superstructure to operate constantly in deep water (up to 2.95 meters of depth). It can tow a 50 tons vehicle on the beach, or push back in the water even a 240 tons LCU MK10 if it becomes grounded.
|HMS Albion's Hippo parked on the vehicle deck. BV206s can also be seen.|
2x Medium Wheeled Tractor (Winterized/Waterproofed) - At least one Medium Wheelie will be fitted with a Beach Trackway Dispenser unit, with which it will be able to lay down, in very short time, 50 meters of Class 30 trackway that will make soft ground safe for vehicles weighting up to 30 tons. The other MWT(WW) will probably be fitted with a earthmoving bucket.
|The two Medium Wheeled Tractors on HMS Albion. In foreground, the one fitted with Beach Trackway Dispenser system, with the drums of Trackway piled up ahead.|
Other vehicles and kit - The Assault Squadron probably also has a MAN HX60 6-ton truck and a Land Rover, and possibly other vehicles. On the ship there will also be quite a reserve of drums of Trackway in both Class 30 and Class 70, plus other useful equipment.
|Here the HIPPO is seen coming ashore from the PACSCAT prototype, trialed extensively last year to refine the requirements and targets for the future Fast Landing Craft.|
The Apache is generations ahead of earlier gunships available to the Marines: the amphibious brigade used to get support "only" from Lynx AH7 of 847 Naval Air Service squadron armed with TOWs, with a flight of Gazelle helos providing reconnaissance and targeting.
Now the Gazelle is gone and the AH7 era is over: 847 is currently using the Lynx AH9A for Afghanistan operations, and next year will be the first squadron to convert to the new Wildcat AH1.
Once, 847 NAS had been planning to get Apaches directly, but the reduction from over 90 to 67 attack helicopters meant that ambitions had to be reduced massively. Luckily, the UK still went ahead with several modifications for its Apache fleet, which included much greater all-weather capability and folding rotors for ships operations.
|Apache gunships on HMS Illustrious for Cougar 12|
Artillery: there's the unpleasant rumor going around that 29 Commando Royal Artillery will be badly hit by cutbacks as part of Army 2020. 148 Bty Meiktila and a Gun Battery might be disbanded, and it would lose the brigade a lot of firepower and capability.
Meiktila battery is made up by Fire Support Teams capable to direct artillery, mortar, air and naval gunfire strikes. They are parachute trained, and a couple of the teams are also trained for underwater insertion from submarines, via Chalfont (british name for the US Swimmers Delivery System MKIII).
Army: since 2008, 1st Battalion The Rifles Regiment is part of 3rd Commando Brigade, but it will likely move away from it as part of Army 2020.
BV206: the smaller and lighter, unarmoured predecessor to the Viking is still fundamental to the Commando brigade. It is used in a wide variety of roles, including Mortar Carrier, Electronic Warfare (a BV206 variant carries the ODETTE EW system for Y Squadron, 30 Commando IX) and Satellite Communications, with the REACHER-Medium terminal (capable of 2 MEBs) mounted on two BV206 plus trailers.
The Royal Marines would like to finally retire the venerable 206s, and tried in 2008, but the All Terrain Vehicle (Support) requirement was killed in just a month, while Warthog was procured as UOR instead.
Will Warthog go to the Marines at the end of operations in Afghanistan...? It is amphibious, all terrain, armoured and is built on the same concept as the BV206 and Viking. We shall see.
|BV206 Mortar Carriers of 42 Cdo in action|
|A BV206 personnel carrier of 45 Cdo in Norway|
Commando Helicopter Force: the Commando Helicopter Force will, in a few years time, say goodbye to the Sea King HC4 to transit onto the Merlin HC4 instead, and it will be a great step forwards in capability.
The Merlin HC4 is a variant (yet to be fully defined) of the Merlin HC3 currently in service with the RAF. It is planned that the HC3 and 3A airframes (28 in total) will go through a Mid Life Upgrade that will include some navalization measures, prior to being handed over to the Navy for use in the "Junglies" squadrons of CHF, the numbers 848, 845 and 846.
A forward fleet of 25 is anticipated.
The Merlin offers the advantages of modern avionics, younger aiframes, a rear ramp that the Sea King never had, greater payload and the capability to carry 24 troops.
The full extent of the upgrade is still being planned out, as is the extent of the "navalization". It has long been anticipated that the need to keep costs down will probably mean that the tail won't be modified, and so won't be foldable, unlike with the naval HM2 variant of the Merlin. This will mean using up more deck space, but with the enormous Queen Elizabeth carriers on the way, this is no longer seen as a problem as urgent as before.
In the last few months training for naval personnel on the new helicopter has been making big steps forwards with the first flights of a Merlin HC3 with a sole-Navy crew.
RAF personnel will be out of the Merlin activities by late 2014 or 2015, and 846 NAS will be operative on transferred Merlins already in 2015.
The machines won't be upgraded and navalized to full HC4 standard before January 2017, however, so the phasing out of Sea King, the arrival of Merlin and the upgrade of Merlin will all be gradual, and will need some careful planning. 846 NAS is anticipated to be the first (frontline) squadron getting the Merlin HC4.
848 NAS is the OCU squadron.
|This Sea King HC4 is seen with a L118 Light Gun under slung. The Merlin HC4 will replace the Sea King in 2016.|
|Marines boarding Sea Kings on HMS Illustrious|
|Above, a Merlin HC3 working in Afghanistan. Below, a photo of the AAR trials in 2008.|
Along with 847 NAS with its Wildcat helicopters, the Merlin squadrons will keep the CHF effective and relevant well into the future.
This Special Forces insertion mini-submarine (should be available in 3 units) used by the Special Boat Service is a capability that has been quietly gapped for years, since HMS Spartan, last submarine modified to take it, was retired in 2009.
With the Astute era, however, Chalfont returns to full glory, as all Astute submarines are ready at build to embark the Dry Deck Shelter and the mini-sub carried into it. The Astutes also have a lock-out chamber to allow divers to go in and out without the submarine having to surface, and the new SSNs also have 11 spare bunks, with the possibility to carry a significant number of special forces operators and additional personnel.
HMS Astute was fitted with the Chalfont during its trials.
|Chalfont seen on HMS Spartan|
The Swimmer Delivery Vehicles have been procured from the US in 1999, while the Dry Deck Shelter used as part of Chalfont is british designed and built. The Hangar was designed and built under 'Project Alamanda'. It is around 40 feet long, 9 wide and 9 high. Weight is likely to be around 30 tons, so Chalfont is air portable on C17 and, almost certainly, it will be capable to be carried by the A400 Atlas when it enters service.
It is said to be separated in three compartments, one for storing the SDV, kayaks or rigid raiders, another to allow passage into the main submarine and a forward compartment for decompression and treatment of divers.
Special forces operators, Fire Support Teams and beach reconnaissance parties could use the Chalfont to go ashore undetected ahead of an amphibious operation.
Engineer support: unfortunately, 3rd Commando Brigade took an hit from Army 2020 with the killing of the plan for standing up a proper engineer regiment.
24 Commando Engineer Regiment formally stood up in 2008, with the aim of building up an additional squadron (56 Sqn) to be added to 24 HQ & Sp Sqn, 59 Sqn and 131(V) Reserve squadron. In reality, 56 Squadron was never formed, and the cuts of Army 2020 imply the disbandment of 24 Regiment and the return to the sole 59 Indipendent Commando Squadron Royal Engineers, plus 131 (Volunteers).
This despite the call and need for more engineer support.
|There is really not enough engineer capacity for the Amphibious Brigade, but the Commando Engineers that remain provide all the capability they can.|
Force Protection Craft
The Royal Marines have a requirement for a dozen combat boats which have to carry at least 8 fully equipped soldiers and be able to land them ashore, but that must also be very fast, very maneuverable and well armed, to provide fire support and force protection, particularly against enemy fast boats. The boats should start arriving in 2015 and be in service by 2017 and replace part of the LCVP MK5s, of which they will share the general dimensions, so that they can be deployed by the same davits and carried on LPDs and Bay-class LSDs.
To build experience and determine their full list of requirements and wishes, the Royal Marines have borrowed a number of CB90 combat boats from Sweden. The trials campaign is ongoing, and i reported about it quite extensively in January.
The Force Protection Craft would also introduce a much greater Riverine Combat capability for the Royal Marines: the US have selected the CB90 for their own Riverine Command Boat requirement.
Operations in Brown waters and along rivers and strategic waterways are expected to be a lot more common in the future, and the RM's experience of riverine combat in Iraq made clear that LCVPs and simple RHIBs are not quite enough in such demanding and dangerous environments.
|The CB90 is indicative of what the Royal Marines want as their new combat boat under many aspects, but not quite what the Marines want.|
Fast Landing Craft
The LCU MK10 is a good landing craft, but it definitely is not fast. They can land a Challenger 2, or carry 120 Marines, or deploy Hippo BARVs, or deploy 5 Vikings at once, and so along. They can operate autonomously for 14 days with a crew of 7 and have a range of 600 naval miles.
But they struggle to travel at 9 knots of speed. They are slow, slow, slow. They force the amphibious vessels to go closer to the shore than we would like, and slow down the operational tempo.
The Royal Marines want something better for the future, without daring to walk down the very expensive road traced by the americans with their huge hovercrafts.
The Fast Landing Craft must have the same dimensions as the LCU MK10, and the same general payload capabilities, so to immediately fit into the fleet and into already well-known practices. But it must be much faster.
Enter the PACSCAT (Partial Air Cushion Supported Catamaran) prototype, extensively trialed last year to refine the requirement and design for what is hoped will be the LCU MK11.
The PACSCAT has the same general sizes as the MK10, and roughly the same payload capabilities, but during trials it made 19 knots carrying a Challenger 2 MBT, and nearly 40 knots when unladen. Like the MK10, it is a RoRo craft with ramps at both ends. Replace a LCU MK10 with a PACSCAT, and your operational tempo improves dramatically. Especially since they have almost exactly the same footprint, so Albion and Bulwark would still carry four each.
The PACSCAT was trialed extensively from the LPDs, and proved successful. It was used to carry the Hippo, the Challenger 2, packets of 5 Vikings or 4 HX60 trucks and the Terrier engineer vehicle.
Even more relevant than speed is the ability of the PACSCAT to operate on an higher number of beaches thanks to a more favorable Beach Gradient requirement.
An hovercraft like the US LCAC is normally able to access almost all beaches (roughly 70% of the world's coastline is suitable for LCAC operations, it is estimated), but a conventional LCU has considerably less choice.
In 2003, the armoured vehicles for 3rd Commando brigade were planned to go ashore on a US LCAC because the planned beach landing point was not accessible for the old LCU MK9.
It is evident that a landing craft able to menace more beaches make defence even harder and more expensive for an enemy.
The Royal Navy plans to retire from service the mighty Goalkeeper CIWS in 2015, since there will be too few systems in service to make it cost-effective to support it any longer.
The Goalkeeper is installed in pairs on HMS Albion and Bulwark. Another 3 such systems are on HMS Illustrious, and will retire with her in 2014.
Each of the four Type 22 Batch 3 frigates scrapped by the SDSR had a Goalkeeper too.
The MOD aims to sell to other navies the Goalkeepers removed from the ships which have been withdrawn. It is not clear what will replace the Goalkeepers on Albion and Bulwark in 2015, but probably they'll just be fitted with Phalanx.
However, there would be better uses for the Goalkeeper systems available: each of the 3 Bay-class LSDs of the RFA is fitted-for-but-not-with Goalkeeper. Their Dutch "sister ships" (not identical, but of the same design family) are regularly fitted.
Fitting the Bays with the available Goalkeepers would mean making good use of 6 out of 7 mounts that will be otherwish ship-less by 2014, and it would of course make the Bays much more survivable and well protected.
Currently, the Bays deploying to the Gulf are fitted with Phalanx guns on their cargo deck, but this wastes valuable space and does not provide arcs of fire as good as the intended Goalkeeper positions.
The Goalkeeper is, of course, more complex and more expensive, and penetrates one deck, while Phalanx is bolt-on, but Goalkeeper's firepower is considerably greater in exchange.
It's a shame to waste a precious and already available resource.
|The first Goalkeeper well|
|Second Goalkeeper well|
Hovercraft: the marines recently renewed their small fleet of armored hovercrafts, with four Grifton 2400TD. It can fly at up to 45 knots over water and over any kind of terrain and clear vertical obstacles 0.8 meters tall, carrying a 2-ton pallet of supplies or a squad of 16 fully equipped marines, with a crew of 2.
The craft is armored, armed with a machine gun and fitted with thermal cameras for operation in all weathers, day and night. It is an excellent vehicle allowing raids to come, quickly, from unexpected directions.
They are known as Landing Craft Air Cushion (Light) and are operated by 539 Assault Squadron RM. They can also be transported by air on C130, A400 and obviously on C17.
There have been mentions here and there of a Royal Marines' interest for a LCAC (Medium), but very little is known about this. Unclear even what its role would be within the Task Force.
Logistic ships: the Bay class Landing Ship Dock (Auxiliary) are operated by the RFA and complete the list of the proper "amphibious" vessels available to the UK. Once, up to 6 were envisaged, but only 4 were effectively built and, unfortunately, the SDSR 2010 took the disasterous decision of selling Largs Bay to save a paltry 12 millions a year in running costs.
The Bay are excellent vessels, with very low running cost and great flexibility, so much so that one is always kept in the Gulf as a support vessel for the Mine Countermeasure flottilla forward deployed in Bahrain.
With a crew of 59 and accommodation for 356 Marines, the Bay offers a well deck sized for a single LCU Mk10 and 1200 lane meters of space for embarking vehicles. Its cargo deck can be used to carry 24 standard 20' containers or a wide variety of other stores, boats, vehicles and equipment. The ship has an ample flight deck, but no hangar. It can, however, be fitted with a shelter for aircrafts built on the cargo deck, if deemed necessary. Two LCVP Mk5s can be carried on davits.
The number of troops can be increased to 500 using undesignated spaces, and in overload 700 Marines could squeeze aboard.
The cargo deck comes with two large 30-tons cranes, while two large mexeflote rafts are carried secured to the hull, port and starboard.
The vehicle deck is big enough for 24 Challenger 2s or up to 150 smaller vehicles.
|Cargo deck crammed with boats, Rhibs, containers, vehicles and stores, Mexeflotes secured to the hull. The Bays are true workhorses.|
|And the well dock.|
Workboats: the four workboats of the Royal Logistic Corps (17 Port and Maritime regiment) are perhaps the less known bits of kit in the armed forces, but they are very much in demand and part of the action.
Procured in 2007, the current four boats (Storm, Diablo, Sirocco, Mistral) are used as deployable mini-tugs to help operating Mexeflote rafts and to town unpowered rafts and do a variety of other tasks. One workboat was at the Jubilee's river pageant, another was part of the effort for protection of the Olympics, and one probably is part of the Cougar 12 deployment.
Their favorite way to get to the area of operations is, you guess it, on the cargo deck of a Bay!
|You should have no difficulties spotting the Army workboat on the deck.|
Mexeflote: simple and unglamorous. Perhaps even ugly. But it works! Mexeflotes are pontoons made of welded steel construction with flush sides, that can be assembled to build different sizes and shapes of floating structures. There are bow, centre and stern sections that can be assembled together.
Once formed in a Maxi-Mexeflote raft, which is the one normally carried by the Bay class LSDs, a Mexeflote can carry almost 200 tons of vehicles and stores, even with waves of 1.5 meters.
Fitted with special outboards engines, they can be made into powered rafts, usually commanded by a NCO and with a crew of 5.
If the ship can go close enough to the shore, Mexeflotes can be assembled to form a causeway allowing vehicles to drive ashore directly.
Think Defence has written some very clear description of the Mexeflote raft, so i suggest you read it. It should answer all your questions.
Like the Workboats, Mexeflotes are provided by 17 Port & Marittime Regiment RLC.
|In this photo from Think Defence, a Mexeflote is used to unload vehicles from the rear ramp of a Point-class RoRo transport.|
|Inside the ship in this photo we can see the propellers and engine units for the Mexeflotes, stored.|
|Here the Mexeflote raft is deployed into the water|
|Assembling the engines, and then a container unit will be lowered in the middle as wheelhouse|
|Now the work is for the ship's crane, lowering vehicles from the cargo deck onto the Mexeflote.|
|The powered raft can also just drive into the well dock and let vehicles roll on and off directly from the vehicle deck.|
|Deploying vehicles ashore. Also note the trackway Class 30 deployed to overcome safety the soft ground.|
Point-class RoRo ships: these invaluable vessels were delivered early and on budget, and proved themselves immediately, when four of them alone, just delivered, carried roughly 11% of all the equipment shipped to the Gulf for Operating Telic in 2003.
They offer 2606 lane meters for carrying vehicles, or can take 668 TEU containers, with 30 reefered. They have a 40-tons crane.
I've in the past written a detailed overview of these strategically invaluable transports.
Royal Logistic Corps: we have seen already examples of the importance of the RLC to amphibious operations, with the workboats and mexeflotes. The RLC also lines a substantial fleet of Combat Support Boats, and a flottilla of large landing crafts, the Ramped Craft Logistic. This large kind of craft can carry two fully laden containers or other loads. 2 are based in Cyprus, the others at Marchwood.
The vessels are maintained by Serco Denholm under a PFI contract. Serco also provides the Royal Navy with all tugs and port support ships (see here for details.
Complement 6 (2 NCOs)
Length 33.3 m
Beam 8.3 m
Maximum draught 1.5 m (laden)
Displacement 290 tonnes (laden)
Carries around 100 tons of stores max, normally four TEU containers, troops, one Challenger or four Scimitars
Engine 2 x Dorman 8JTCWM diesel
Maximum speed 10 kts (laden)
Number Name Year Homeport
L107 Andalsnes 1984 Cyprus
L109 Akyab 1984 Cyprus
L110 Aachen 1986 Marchwood
L111 Arezzo 1986 Marchwood
L112 Arromanches 1987 Marchwood
L113 Audemer 1987 Marchwood
Unfortunately, these vessels are to be all decommissioned in the next few years, one per year, and there is no replacement in sight.
One solution might be to give the LCU MK10s to the RLC (they are still quite young) when the Royal Marines receive the new Fast Landing Craft.
Supply ships: the new MARS FT tankers on order for the RFA will also have the task of ensuring that fuel can be delivered ashore to support the troops.
The next phase of MARS is the purchase of 3 new Solid Support Ships to replace the Fort-class vessels. These SSS vessels will have the task of delivering food, ammunition, spare parts and other consumables to ships at sea and, crucially, they are also required to support troops on land. The new vessel might be given a vehicle deck and a well dock and RoRo arrangements to help in this.
Smart Defense: the UK will be leading two projects under the NATO Smart defence umbrella. The most fascinating and relevant to amphibious operations is the Theatre Opening Capability project which seeks to develop a multinational capability for expeditionary operations to establish a port of debarkation and conduct cargo handling and movement operations.
The scope of this initiative is potentially very ample, depending on the level of ambition that will be set. We are looking, potentially, at a true re-edition, in modern key, of the Mulberry Harbour pre-fabricated port of D-Day memory, depending on the level of existing infrastructure envisaged as requisite for “establishing a port of debarkation”.
I've looked into this subject here.
Tanks: amphibious forces, differently from air assault forces, have the realistic capability of deploying immediately with meaningful quantities of vehicles, included tanks. The capability to land Challenger 2s on the beach was demonstrated early on in the life of HMS Albion and of their LCU Mk10 landing crafts: 4 Challenger 2s, in fact, were landed on the US coast on 3 July 2004. They were from 1st Troop, A Squadron, 1st Royal Tank Regiment, and they were landed in support of 42 Commando as part of exercise Aurora. The tanks were actually borrowed from The Queen's Royal Lancers. Since then, the ability to beach heavy armor has been (relatively) frequently trialed and demonstrated.
Soon, the Navy hopes to have UAVs flying from ships and helping naval operations.
The Royal Navy has launched a 40 million UOR for the acquisition of a Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, and probably the Scan Eagle (or its newer, bigger and more capable incarnation, the Integrator) will be selected.
The Navy validated Scan Eagle on Type 23 frigates already back in 2006, and in the Gulf the Bay-class LSD Cardigan Bay has been operating with a US Scan Eagle battery aboard. Soon enough, the Royal Marines could well have access to embarked UAVs that would help make the brigade even more effective.
In the longer term, the Royal Navy expects to put into service an unmanned helicopter with much greater capabilities, possibly including that of carrying under slung loads and employ weapons.
Unfortunately, the selection of the STOVL path for the aircraft carriers makes it harder to plan for the long term, where ideally there will be larger UAVs (Scavenger?) and UCAVs roaming the sky.
|Scan Eagle comes back to the ship|
|Wire caught, drone successfully recovered.|
Viking: recent and most welcome news is the contract for the reconditioning of the Viking fleet, exhausted by the use in Afghanistan.
For now, this is the list. There are countless other things that could and should be mentioned, from Tomahawk missiles to MCM capability. But one point is, i think, very clear by now: the flexibility and effectiveness of amphibious forces, with all the options they do offer.
Amphibiosity is an area where i'd definitely put my investments.
And one thing that i think was really, really stupid in the SDSR, was the withdrawal of Largs Bay.