RN AMPHIBIOUS OPERATIONS
Byline: Richard Gardner / London
While the UK waits impatiently for its new aircraft carriers and F-35Cs, the Royal Navy and Royal Marines are now taking the lead in providing Britain with a global intervention capability, as APDR’s Richard Gardner reports from HMS Bulwark.
Traditionally in the UK, Conservative governments have been regarded as more sympathetic to the needs of the armed services than Labour governments, and certainly campaigned when in opposition for more defence spending. However, the UK’s Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), which emerged as the framework for a revised defence policy in November 2010, following a change in government, imposed even more radical cuts in spending as a result of the need to plug an enormous £35 billion gap in the defence procurement budget which had been inherited from the outgoing administration. While the resulting cuts in the number of front-line aircraft and ships caused major controversy, one area that has emerged relatively unscathed has been amphibious warfare capability. This includes helicopter carriers (LPH), Assault ships, (LPD),Landing ships (LSD) and smaller support ships as well as the 26,000 ton helicopter training and hospital ship RFA Argus, which can also be used in an operational support role. Providing vertical lift in the Commando role is a fleet of Sea King and Lynx helicopters, soon to be replaced by Merlins and Wildcats, flown by Royal Navy and Royal Marines aircrews. RAF-flown Chinooks and Army and Royal Marines-piloted Apaches are also regularly deployed to the helicopter carriers for training and operational tasks.
Late in 2011, unusually fine autumn weather in Southern England allowed helicopters and surface ships to provide a variety of demonstrations depicting how UK amphibious forces can provide a rapid landing and forward operating base capability, with the ability to deploy anywhere in the world. One aspect of this was put to the test earlier in 2011, for real, off the Libyan coast, when the LPH HMS Ocean was deployed at short notice, using Apache attack helicopters in a close support role using their guns and missiles against ground targets.
While comprising just 4.4% of UK military manpower, currently the Royal Marines provide 43% of front-line “badged” UK Special Forces. Their ability to deploy using helicopters, fast boats, hovercraft and landing craft, as well as land vehicles, gives them a combat agility and command capability that is ideal for expeditionary operations that are such a feature of today’s warfighting and peacekeeping tasks. The so-called Arab Spring, last year, and the growing threat to world trade from pirates, has only served to underline the uncertain nature of modern military operations and the need to retain capability to deal with short-notice as well as more strategic threats. Providing purpose-built warships with large helicopter decks and boat-launching docks that can operate and sustain operations in all climates and for extended periods, requires not only the right mix of ships and aircraft, but also the training and logistical support that will allow safe and successful operations thousands of miles from fixed facilities, and with highly trained, skilled, personnel. The added command and control functions that must accompany these global missions means that every aspect of deployment must be planned and provided for, so that truly self-contained force levels can become established and protected with minimum delay. This includes such areas as taking sophisticated, networked, satellite communication-equipped command centres into remote locations, building “beachhead” refuelling depots and HQ facilities for forward helicopter detachments, and providing the shipboard repair and maintenance facilities needed to keep them serviceable.
HMS Bulwark’s commander, Captain Alex Burton RN, told APDR that his LPD is available at 2-days notice to deploy, or five days to sail anywhere overseas for continuous operations lasting up to four years. With a crew of 350, the 20,000ton ship can carry over 300 fully equipped troops (with over 300 more in a surge state) and over 60 heavy vehicles. A maximum of up to 900 people can be sustained for nine months. The ship has extensive de-salination facilities to produce 150 tons of drinking water each day, hospital and catering facilities, massive internal accommodation spaces and on-board workshops. He said that the ship could deliver to an overseas theatre of operations the equivalent cargo capacity of 100 C-130s or 33 C-17s. The rear flight deck, which covers the rear-loading boat dock, is capable of operating three Merlin helicopters, two Chinooks, or more Lynx, but it does not have an aircraft hangar and so protected maintenance would normally be provided aboard an accompanying ship such as the carriers or Fleet Auxiliaries. HMS Albion is the sister ship to HMS Bulwark and both vessels are relatively young, having been introduced in 2003 and 2004, and are exceptionally well equipped with all the necessary communications to direct a major deployed coalition operation.
The class of two ships has a twin role: amphibious warfare and command and control. They can be used as battle headquarters, interfacing with other ships, land forces and airborne air assets, and are the platform of choice for UK Joint Headquarters. The onboard command centre is fitted out with video conferencing facilities as well as large multi-screen command and control areas where a detailed tactical or strategic picture can be displayed, with the ability to show real-time imagery collected from airborne, radar and satellite sensors giving commanders the maximum situational awareness for timely decision-making to take place in rapidly evolving campaign scenarios. Alternatively, these facilities can be put to good use co-ordinating relief efforts over a wide area in time of natural disasters, when much local communications and transport infrastructure may have been destroyed.
HMS Ocean does not have a built-in dock for landing craft, which are carried externally, but it can carry and support up to18 helicopters, with a large hangar available. HMS Illustrious is nearing the end of a major re-fit and will replace HMS Ocean at sea while that helicopter carrier (LPH) has her re-fit. Capt Burton describes HMS Bulwark as “The Swiss Army Knife” of amphibious capability as it can be used for just about any major role from deploying armour and troops by using helicopters and landing craft, to acting as a floating hospital or humanitarian relief HQ ship. He said, “Bulwark defines global expeditionary capability. We have been to Malaysia recently and can deploy on our own for four months if need be.” Increasingly, the ship is active in the anti-piracy role, as demonstrated in the Solent, when Royal Marines used fast boats launched from the LPD to intercept and board a “suspect” pirate ship, while a Lynx provided reconnaissance and an overwatch gunship capability to “keep heads down” or, if necessary, destroy a hostile vessel. RM Commandos are trained to board ships from Sea King Mk 4s, or Lynx, a role in which they have been active since before the Falklands War, almost 30 years ago. The Westland SK4s, universally known as “Junglies”, have given outstanding service and were given a comprehensive upgrade before being deployed to Afghanistan. This included additional self-defence measures, new rotor blades (increasing performance in hot temperatures) upgraded communications and avionics. Loved by their crews, they are extremely tough and reliable and pilots claim they can deliver underslung loads and troops and return to the air faster than any other tactical helicopter in service. The decision has been taken to replace them by 2015 with Agusta Westland Merlin Mk 4s. Royal Marines aircrews will continue to fly alongside RN crews on both the Merlins 4s and the new Agusta Westland Lynx Wildcats that will replace the current shipboard Lynx. Today the Lynx HAS MK 8 remains the standard light general purpose helicopter in the Royal Navy, also serving in AH7 form with the Royal Marines as a reconnaissance and utility helicopter.
When setting up Forward Operating Bases (as with Air Groups at sea) the RN helicopters work closely with other UK joint-force helicopter assets, depending on the requirements. This can include RAF Chinooks and Army Apaches, but clearly, training for these operations requires considerable investment in exercises working up the special skills needed for flying safely off ships at sea. No 848 Naval Air Squadron is the RN training squadron for the SK4 squadrons, Nos 845 and 846. No 847 NAS operates the Lynx AH7s. Oshkosh tactical aviation refuelling tankers, carrying 15,000 litres of fuel each, are carried aboard HMS Bulwark and Albion and are deployed to the beach-head aboard large landing craft (LCUs) or Mexi-floats loaded inside the ship’s dock or in accompanying amphibious support ships. Large air portable fuel bladders can also be set up at the FOBs and an SK4 can carry two as an underslung load. The recent demonstration day showed a range of specialist vehicles and beach command and support facilities set up after arriving by LCUs and helicopters. A complete beach-head command and control headquarters can be set up very quickly, complete with satellite equipment and local area radar and radio communications. Wide area airborne surveillance, warning and control can be provided by Sea King Mk 7 helicopters fitted with the advanced Searchwater radar, which although designed for air defence early warning are now used for overland as well as overwater surveillance and target tracking, being capable of multi-target identification and tracking of moving surface vehicles and small vessels, as well as UAVs and helicopters. They have a key role in providing coordinated airborne data to surface forces and can be based on land or on suitable ships. The UK has used them extensively in Afghanistan.
The Royal Navy is looking forward to when it can call on the support of its new aircraft carriers, the biggest ever at 67,000 tonnes. Although it had already ordered a small batch of VSTOL F-35B Joint Strike Fighters for evaluation, the UK now intends to switch its production orders for up to 138 to the naval version, the F-35C. In the meantime, the Royal Navy intends to make full use of its comparatively young fleet of amphibious warfare ships.