The 2015 UK Strategic Defence Review earmarks HMS Ocean for retirement in 2018 as a cost saving move. The Royal Navy will not get a similar replacement; instead, one of the new Queen Elizabeth-class carriers will assume the duties. The vessel is not old, having been launched in 1995 and commissioned in 1998. There is every reason to assume the vessel could serve ably until at least 2040. The Royal Navy will lose a valuable asset, but there is no reason the asset need be lost to NATO.
Canada has no similar capability, despite having talked about “Big Honkin’ Ships” for some time. Flirtations with the purchase of the two Mistral class originally slated for Russia showed that Canada had a serious interest, but we came up empty-handed. Despite the distances Canada has to traverse for most military operations, it is noteworthy that the Royal Canadian Navy has no dedicated transport capability for Army vehicles. It is an odd oversight; it was just such a capability that made the first peacekeeping mission possible. Much of the vehicles and equipment for Canada’s peacekeeping operation in response to the Suez Crisis were transported aboard HMCS Magnificent. The flexibility of having an aircraft carrier was a large part of the success.
There will, of course, be some concern about purchasing a used RN vessel. The experience with the Upholder-class submarines suggesting that we might receive ‘lemons.’ There are two important facts to consider though. First, Canada dithered over the purchase. This contributed to an over-long storage period without proper preparation. Secondly, it was Canadian insistence on a significant refit that would be instrumental in a delay entering service. Costs of the Upholder-class coming into service as the RCN’s Victoria-class might even be considered the first victim of the loss of experience that is now plaguing fleet recapitalisation in the NSPS. Simply put, we misjudged out of inexperience just how big a task that we were facing and how much it would cost.
Were Canada to purchase HMS Ocean, this would not be a similar situation. First, we would acquire the vessel straight out of RN service. The ship could leave RN service and be decommissioned, then a day or two later sail for Canada. A Canadian crew can train onboard even while the vessel is in RN service, as a ‘going concern’ any fears of over-long storage are moot.
The weapon fit gives no great cause for concern either. The Phalanx CIWS mounts are familiar to Canada, although we may need to have them standardised to match our existing CIWS fits. M-134 minigun replacement with Canadian-familiar variants is simple, as is the replacement of the General Purpose machine guns. That leaves only the DS30M Mk2 30mm remote weapons stations. This is easy to deal with as Canada is acquiring 25mm remote weapons stations for the Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships. Weapons then will not be a big concern.
The electronics fit may be something else. The RCN does not use the radars and communications systems fitted to HMS Ocean. An early commitment to acquiring the vessel would serve Canada well in this regard. With sufficient lead-time, it should be easy to devise a refit plan so that HMCS Ocean would see limited down time. It is easy to assume that the fit featured in the refit of the Halifax-class frigates under the FELEX program would feature prominently.
The amphibious capability of HMCS Ocean might be a cause for concern, except it is a nascent capability at best. Ocean is not equipped for directly landing a Marine contingent except by air in anything other than the most permissive of conditions. Ocean can deploy a ‘steel-beach’ float, but does not carry heavy landing craft or LCAC’s to land large vehicles. As far as ‘getting our feet wet’ in amphibious operations HMCS Ocean would be almost ideal.
The aviation section of HMCS Ocean might be the biggest stumbling block. The RCAF simply does not have sufficient maritime capable helicopters to make best use of the capabilities afforded by such a vessel. The solution here is to have HMCS Ocean carry an organic air wing just large enough to maintain the required onboard skillsets. RCAF tactical helicopter squadrons would qualify aboard HMCS Ocean and deploy as required to support current operations. Future considerations would include the possibility of acquiring maritime transport helicopters, either as a stand-alone purchase or more likely as part of the eventual CH-146 Griffon replacement.
HMCS Ocean would afford the RCN the transport capability long missing. It would serve as a platform to deploy RCAF tactical helicopter assets in operational order and to transport army vehicles to whatever part of the world where they might need to be. Such a capacity would be invaluable to the RCN in NATO operations, UN Peacekeeping and in the humanitarian response and disaster relief operations that are such a part of Canadian tradition.
Acquiring HMS Ocean would, quite literally, open an ocean of possibilities.