Following the news RFA Argus will be extended in service beyond 2030 it has been confirmed she will be upgraded to perform in the Littoral Strike Ship role (LSS). Here we look at the background to the decision and consider the pros and cons of the conversion.
The Defence Secretary had implied on 6th July that the RN was still considering its options for LSS, but on 11th July the Defence Minister told Parliament “Upgrading RFA Argus and operating her alongside the Bay-class RFAs in their current configuration represents the optimum solution to support a forward-deployed Littoral Response Group. This will provide a sustainable air manoeuvre, surface manoeuvre and command and control capability with the ability to manage availability as platforms undergo maintenance”.
The LSS concept was first publicly announced in early 2019, although the idea has been around for some time. Early indicators were that a chartered commercial vessel might be adapted for the role. Subsequently, the 2021 Integrated Review (and the later National Shipbuilding Strategy refresh) stated that £50M had been allocated to modify one of the Bay class LSDAs to become the LSS (South) based in the Gulf and Indo-Pacific region. The concept has been de-scoped again with Argus earmarked to become the primary LSS, although the implication is she could be periodically relieved by an available Bay-class.
Before becoming RFA Argus, MV Contender Benzant had served in the Falklands War. She was hurriedly converted in Devonport from a container ship to a helicopter carrier with a makeshift hangar and flight deck. She was returned to her British owners, Sea Containers Ltd after the war before it was decided to convert her permanently as an aviation training ship.
Following the Falklands War, it was realised the RN still needed helicopter Assault Ships (LPH) and a formal staff requirement was issued in 1985. A proposal by British Aerospace and naval architects Hart Fenton (owned by Sea Containers ) emerged for a radical conversion of Argus’ sister, MV Contender Argent. The ‘Aviation Support Ship’ (Insert your own acronym) would provide the LPH capability and was optimistically priced at £85 Million. The ship would be almost entirely rebuilt with a full-length flight deck, able to carry 12 Sea King Helicopters and 800 troops.
The Aviation Support Ship floundered for lack of funding amid the post-Cold-War ‘peace dividend’ but Argus had entered service and between 1992-94, was pressed into the LPH role during operations off the former Yugoslavia. Although flexible and having good capacity it was clear that Argus was unsuited as a helicopter assault ship. As a result, the RN was eventually able to commission a true LPH, HMS Ocean although on a bare-bones budget. Ironically, RFA Argus, the Italian-built merchant ship will be around for more than twice the time HMS Ocean served in the RN. In light of recent discussions about increasing firepower, it is also interesting to note that in April 1994, while operating in the Ionian Sea, Argus fired Royal Artillery 105mm field guns secured to the flight deck, demonstrating she could be used for close-in fire-support. A modern equivalent utilising vehicle-mounted GMLRS could perhaps provide better reach and accuracy.
The LSS concept envisages the deployment of much lighter strike groups or special forces and not the equivalent of the LPH, designed to carry 800 troops and land companies of Marines in waves of simultaneous helicopter lifts. However, there are parallels as amphibious ships intended to operate primarily in the littoral environment. Most will agree the LSS concept is the consequence of lack of resources and in an ideal world, the RN would have been much better off retaining and LIFEXing HMS Ocean. For a while, the RN even flirted with the idea of configuring one of the QEC aircraft carriers as an LPH but fortunately, this misguided idea was abandoned around the time the LSS concept was born.
Available personnel was the biggest single factor that led to the sale of Ocean, having a core ship’s company of 285 (Compared with just 80 RFA sailors for Argus). The number of Royal Marines has declined and brigade-scale operations, amphibious or otherwise, are no longer envisaged. The Future Commando Force (FCF) concept emphasises small numbers of troops equipped for precision strikes using high mobility, modern C4ISR, and networked autonomous systems.
LSS goes large
The decision to retain Argus and modify her to act in the LSS role in rotation with the Bay class is something of a compromise. There are some advantages in terms of flexibility and capability but some downsides. From an aviation perspective, Argus is far better equipped than the Bay class or even a converted Bay which might have had hangar capacity for two Merlins. Her aircraft lift and hangar provide plenty of space to accommodate aircraft, well protected from the elements. Some minor upgrades could provide workshop facilities and space for deep maintenance or Merlins or Wildcats. The hangars also allow plenty of stores to be carried on an ad hoc basis such as vehicles, relief supplies, containerised PODS, uncrewed systems etc, which can all be loaded or unloaded via the aircraft lift.
Argus may have the capacity for lots of helicopters but there are just 25 Merlin Mk4s and helicopters and aviation assets are spread thinly under Joint Helicopter Command control. It is unclear how many aircraft, aircrew and support personnel will be available to permanently allocate to the two Littoral Response Groups. The LSS concept is primarily about delivery of troops by helicopter but there are plenty of scenarios where boats are needed to transport heavier items and especially in humanitarian or evacuation-type operations. Argus lacks the very useful well dock of the Bay-class designed to operate LCVPs and the rather under-appreciated mexeflote. Landing craft can be loaded on the flight deck using the 25-tonne crane but embarking stores and people on and off becomes much more complicated and limited to very benign weather conditions. It is possible davits could be installed on Argus by re-configuring the lifeboat arrangements. This would allow LCVPs with a full load of personnel to be safely launched and recovered.
High on the list of modifications needed to make Argus into a viable LSS will be improving the command and control, communication and information facilities. Argus does have a basic operations room but improved spaces for mission planning and control will be needed. This may come at the expense of some accommodation but there are spaces in the superstructure that could be adapted for this purpose. Facilities appropriate for a UK Special Forces 1 star or OF5 level task force headquarters was envisaged in the original LSS concept. As the LSS will have to be deployed in higher threat areas than Argus has recently operated in, self-defence weaponry will need to be upgraded from the rather minimal outfit she is fitted for. Expect to see two Phalanx CIWS mounts, two 30mm guns supplemented with soft-kill decoys and possibly enhanced electronic warfare capabilities.
The LSS concept included a basic medical facility and it is likely Argus will retain her more capable Role 3 capability. It is the embarked medical personnel that determine the level of care available and the facility is not routinely fully staffed. It the LSS role perhaps a small medical component will be embarked but with the option to scale this up so Argus could be re-deployed in the PCRS role if needed.
Argus’ civilian crew consists of 22 officers and 58 sailors living in relatively spacious cabins. It is unclear at this stage exactly what the intended full complement would be in the LSS role and how the sleeping and messing arrangements will be set up. As currently configured, there is accommodation for about 130 personnel from the air group plus up to 300 medical staff. Assuming at least 250 troops need to live on board, potentially for extended periods they will probably occupy the medical staff’s accommodation. Additional sleeping, catering or recreation spaces may be needed which might be achieved by converting part of the aft hangar, but this is just conjecture.
At some point, Argus will have to undergo a substantial LIFEX refit to extend her service up to her 50th birthday, as well as make some or all of the modifications outlined above. Finding spares for her existing machinery, or even replacing her engines while maintaining her to modern safety standards will be a challenge. There is unlikely to be much left over from the £50 million originally allocated to modifying a much newer Bay-class vessel.