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RFA Argus

RFA Argus was built by Cantiere Navale in Italy, and formerly known as the container ship Contender Bezant. Following purchase by the MoD in 1985 she was converted to an aviation training ship at the shipyard of Harland & Wolff, Belfast, with the addition of extended accommodation, a flight deck, aircraft lifts and naval radar and communications suites. She was accepted into service in 1988. The name Argus comes from Greek mythology. Argus was called Panoptes (all-seeing), from having eyes all over his body. He was appointed by Hera to watch over the cow to which Io had been transformed and, whilst doing this, he was slain by Hermes. Hera, angry at the death of her watchman, took the eyes of Argus to decorate her favourite bird, the Peacock. Argus, with his countless eyes, originally denoted the starry heavens. This is the origin of RFA Argus' crest, a golden peacock, and her motto "Occuli Omnium" meaning "Eyes of All". This was especially relevant to the Argus of 1917, when aircraft were becoming "the eyes of the fleet".

RFA Argus was originally launched in 1981 as the commercially owned and operated Contender Bezant, a combination freight, roll on and roll off ferry (RORO) and container ship. She was one of the ships taken up from trade [STUFT] by the MoD for use in the 1982 Falklands War. During this she was utilised as an aircraft transport, ferrying helicopters and harriers on deck.

In 1984, a replacement was needed for the aviation training ship then in service with the Royal Navy, RFA Engadine. The vessel was near the end of her useful life, was too small to operate modern anti-submarine helicopters, and had severe limitations for deep-water operations in bad weather. Ther requirement for the replacement vessel was that it should have a larger flight deck than Engadine, be able to operate six Sea King helicopters — three of them simultaneously—and be able to operate in motion in all but the most severe weather. The Navy therefore needed command and control facilities for operating helicopters safely. These facilities, together with others, such as a self-defence system, an action information organisation and communications, were collectively known as the weapon system.

Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd. undertook a concept study, and the Navy decided that it would be feasible to meet the requirement by converting a merchant vessel. As the ship had to be able to operate six Sea King helicopters, as well as ferrying 12 Sea Harrier aircraft, a vessel of some 15,000 tonnes was needed. VSEL identified three ships that might be suitable for conversion, including the Contender Bezant, a vessel built in Italy in 1981. The Navy invited firm price bids covering two options — the purchase and conversion of an existing vessel, and a new build — so that the Navy could consider and evaluate the cost-effectiveness of both. Tenders were submitted by Harland and Wolff plc and by Cammell Laird. As Cammell Laird was then part of the nationalised British Shipbuilders, both yards were in the public sector and were thus on an equal footing. Both companies proposed to buy and convert Contender Bezant, and the Navy concluded that the Harland and Wolff proposal was the more cost-effective way of meeting the requirement. The Navy accordingly placed a firm price contract on Harland and Wolff in March 1984 to buy and convert Contender Bezant at a cost of some £49 million. Harland and Wolff bought the ship later that month and began work soon after.

For the weapon system, the Navy produced a cardinal point specification in April 1984, and Harland and Wolff ran a subcontract competition, which Racal Marine Systems won. Harland's placed the contract on that company for the ship weapon system authority in December 1984. It was thus identified as the prime contractor for both the ship and its weapon system. This change extended the build period of the vessel by nine months and raised the contract price by some £11 million. Other approved alterations, worth some £3 million, brought the final price to £63 million, with a contract acceptance date of December 1986.

Converting Contender Bezant was a major task. It involved stripping out and refurbishing and extending many of her systems, as well as major changes to her structure to change her from a roll on-roll off container ship to one with a flight deck, hangar and the services needed for helicopter operations. Harland and Wolff accepted liability for any consequential work arising from her condition. Much rectification work turned out to be needed, including major refurbishment of the main engines. The ship was eventually accepted into service as RFA Argus in March 1988, some 14 months later than the revised contract acceptance date. She was well finished and fully met the Royal Navy's requirement. Argus became fully operational with commander in chief fleet in January 1989 and was since then available for flying training operations.

In February 1987, Harland and Wolff submitted an interim claim for reimbursement of some £26 million. It claimed that those were extra costs incurred up to December 1986 for reasons that it alleged were the Ministry of Defence's responsibility. The Navy prepared a detailed rebuttal of the claim. After inconclusive discussions, the company filed a final claim for £45.3 million in August 1988. In general, the company claimed that this represented extra spending that it had to make because of actions by the Ministry of Defence. The Navy recognised that a small part of the delay and dislocation and extra cost resulted from finalizing certain requirements for communications equipment, but not to the extent that could justify the sum claimed. The Navy also held that the claim was not supported by factual evidence, as required by the contract.

While that large and complex claim was being considered, proposals for privatising Harland and Wolff began to emerge. The Government regarded it as a matter of urgency to achieve a viable private sector solution, and one of the many issues that it was felt important to resolve before the transfer of the business to the private sector was the outstanding claim on the aviation training ship. The Ministry of Defence had a particular interest in the successful privatisation of Harland and Wolff because the firm was the prime contractor for the design of the auxiliary oiler replenishment vessel and buildt the first of class, RFA Fort Victoria. The Navy considered it right, taking into account the wider circumstances of the privatisation and the need to safeguard the AOR program, to make a settlement of the claim. The Navy finally settled on a figure of £22.5 million to be paid to Harland and Wolff plc. That was entirely without prejudice to our legal position and without admission of liability.

It is clear from that account that the £22.5 million payment was not a subsidy to Harland and Wolff and it certainly had no bearing on the original competition some six years earlier. The settlement of £22.5 million was made with the public sector Harland and Wolff plc to clear the way for privatization and was used by that company to repay grants from the Northern Ireland Department of Economic Development. It was therefore not funding for the private sector firm Harland and Wolff Shipbuilding and Heavy Industry. While it is possible to argue that, had Cammell Laird won the ATS competition, it would not have made the same claims on the Ministry of Defence in respect of the ATS, it is equally possible that it would have, or that Cammell Laird would have made claims that Harland's did not. It is all quite hypothetical.

Argus is a very good ship. She was effectively an aviation support ship operating aircraft from her former container deck with the RORO vehicle deck converted to an aircraft hangar. A Primary Casualty Receiving Facility was added before Argus was sent to participate in the 1991 Gulf War. Another role of RFA Argus is that of RORO vehicle transport with vehicles carried in the hangar and on the flight deck, a role she performed in support of United Nations operations in the former Yugoslavia. During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Argus was again present in the Persian Gulf as an offshore hospital for coalition troops, earning the nickname "BUPA Baghdad".

As part of a major upgrade and life extension RFA Argus was converted to reverse roles with the new primary role of Casualty Receiving ship, with the secondary task of helicopter training vessel. Major equipment upgrades were also undertaken to increase capability and align with future regulations for SOLAS, Sewage Treatment Plants, Fire & Watertight Integrity. The first part of the work was undertaken by A&P in 2006 with the balance being completed in 2009.

This 10 month, £37M project involved A&P in carrying out a major conversion of the vessel including one of the vessel’s two helicopter lifts being removed, a task never previously undertaken on a military vessel. This area was then modified with 300 tons of fabricated steel, building an extension of the PCRF with new access, two casualty lifts and hospital refit and upgrade, including new CT Scanner, new reception area and, to increase capacity, wards and intensive care facilities were also refitted. During Phase Two, RFA Argus also underwent a number of major structural modifications.

Although she carried a hospital facility, Argus is a "Primary Casualty Receiving Facility" and not a "Hospital Ship" as she does not meet the definition given by the Geneva Convention for such a unit. This was a deliberate decision by the MoD to give Argus greater operational flexibility. As a hospital ship she would be unable to simultaneously perform other logistics roles in support of military operations, or return troops back to theatre. It also gives the Argus the ability to operate much closer to the front line therefore shortening any time it takes for casualties to reach the Ship. When operating in a PCRF role, Argus embarks 250 hospital staff including doctors, nurses, medical assistants and Royal Marine bandsmen. The bandsmen are not present as musicians, but to act as stretcher bearers and casualty handlers. In the hospital facility there are four operating theatre tables, 10 intensive care beds, 20 high dependency beds and 70 general ward beds. Argus is also one of the only Ships in the world to have a CT scanner. She also has digital x-ray equipment and comprehensive laboratory facilities.

Argus19811988 2020
[as of Jul 2006]

[as of Feb 2003]
RFA Argus Ship Details
Crew  80-82 RFA and 50-69 RN personnel       
Length 175.1 metres
Breadth  30.4 metres
Draft   8.1 metres
Displacement 28,081 tonnes
Speed 18 knots
Aviation 5 spots for Chinook, Merlin, Sea King, Lynx, Sea Harriers or Apache
Armament  4 x 20mm GAMBO, 4 x 7.62mm Machine Gun
Fuel: 3,700 sq m

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Page last modified: 14-05-2013 19:27:49 ZULU