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Bay Class Landing ships

It was a busy day in Portsmouth Harbour earlier today, as RFA Mounts Bay and RFA Largs Bay left and arrived in the Naval Base respectively.

Largs Bay and Mounts Bay are two ships from the Bay Class of LSL (Landing Ship Logistics) vessels, manned by the Royal Fleet Auxilliary. The Bay class ships were ordered to replace the ageing Round Table class Landing ships, all of which saw service in the Falklands War, with Sir Galahad being sunk and Sir Tristram being seriously damaged. They are considerably larger, weighing in at 16,000 tons.

The Bay class have a similar role to their predecessors – to support amphibious landings, and provide amphibious capability alongside HMS Albion, Bulwark and Ocean. Between them, the Navy’s seven amphibious ships are capable of lifting the entire 3 Commando Brigade.

In any amphibious task group, the key vessels are the LPH (Landing Platform Helicopter) and LPD (Landing Platform Dock) ships. These provide the landing craft and helicopters to allow the first wave to secure the beachead. The LSL’s can then offload their heavy vehicles. To do this the ships have two 30 ton cranes on deck.

The Bay class ships have a large vehicle deck, which opens out at the back of the ship to a stern door and internal dock. Landing Craft, carried by Ocean, Bulwark of Albion, can drive right up to the vehicle deck. The vehicle deck can accomodate 24 Challenger Tanks, or more than 150 light jeep type vehicles. This is almost three times the capacity of their predecessors. They can also carry 350 troops for long periods, or up to 700 in the short term. The large helicopter dock has two landing spots, capable of operating two medium sized helicopters such as the Merlin. There is no permanent Hangar, but some of the ships have a retro-fitted aircraft shelter.

They have no weapons of their own – presuming that escort vessels would provide air defence – but have emplacement for 30mm guns and Phalanx systems should the need arise.

I’ve been onboard Mounts Bay and the vessel is designed very much like a roll on roll off ferry, everything is designed to allow for ease of getting on and off as quick as possible.

They are very light on crew, carrying only 60 officers and men of the Royal Fleet Auxilliary. This is somewhat cheaper than them being manned by the Royal Navy. Also, when not in use for amphibious operations the ships have a secondary role of transporting vehicles around the globe.

That the Royal Navy insists on having such a powerful amphibious force is strange. We have stronger assault capability than we had during the Falklands War, but we have only a tiny fraction of the escort vessels and submarines needed to defend such an operation, and our potential to provide air cover via aircraft carriers is also hanging in the balance. It is no doubt impressive to see so many capable ships in the Navy’s listings, but curious given how imbalanced it makes Fleet. Perhaps the Navy sees itself in the role of deploying forces by sea into troublespots around the world, which is very sensible but troubling given that we lack the Frigates and Destroyers and also the supply vessels to make this possible.

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