RFA ARGUS – The Fighting Hospital Ship Argus


RFA ARGUS – The fighting hospital ship Argus


Tom Adams MBE


In the pre-Coronavirus days there had been much industry and pressure group talk about building a British hospital ship although little is said about operating her other than the headline of  ‘a ship designed to promote Britain and undertake humanitarian aid’.  However, humanitarian aid is like a lifeboat or a fire station – not needed every day but expensively has to be maintained, with scarce specialist crewing, rapidly ready for storing and work when called upon. Here the author looks at Britain’s current solution of a multi-purpose ‘grey hospital ship’ – the Royal Fleet Auxiliary ARGUS.


Fighting Hospital Ship Argus

Original profile of ARGUS 

[Author’s collection courtesy H&W]



In the years following the Falklands conflict of 1982 investigations were undertaken by MoD on a suitable replacement for the small and aging helicopter support ship RFA ENGADINE. Vickers Shipbuilding & Engineering Ltd (VSEL) were commissioned to undertake a ‘concept study’ including identifying the type and size of a ship that would be suitable. This result was a decision to convert an existing merchant ship capable of operating up to six Sea King Anti Submarine helicopters and ferrying 12 Sea Harrier (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) aircraft.


An unusual naval procurement


During December 1983 the MoD invited two public sector companies – British Shipbuilders (Cammell Laird, Birkenhead) and Harland & Wolff, Belfast – to tender on one of two options –

  • the building of a new Air Training Ship (ATS), or
  • the purchase and conversion of an existing ship.

   By coincidence both tenders proposed converting the laid up CONTENDER BEZANT. A ship previously used by the MoD in the South Atlantic. In March 1984 a fixed price contract was awarded to Harland & Wolff for the major task of acquiring the CONTENDER BEZANT and converting her into the ATS.

   Within weeks Harland & Wolff, under job number 5500, purchased the CONTENDER BEZANT for an estimated £18M; the Bill-of-Sale was dated 14.03.1984 with registered owner shown as Harland & Wolff Ltd, Queen’s Island, Belfast. 26.07.1984 her registry was transferred to Port of Belfast, official number 701433. December.1986 is given as her ‘Contract Acceptance Date’. By 04.09.1987 a Bill-of-Sale shows ownership as Her Majesty represented by the Secretary of State for Defence, London SW1. She was re-registered in Belfast as ARGUS and under the Order-in-Council 121 of March 1911 (as amended by Statutory Instrument 489 of 1964). Later in 1984 this procurement contract became a ‘whole ship procurement’ when MoD amended it to include the selection, purchase and commissioning of the ship’s weapon systems. Harland & Wolff sub-contracted this to Racal-Decca of New Malden, Surrey.


Conversion to Air Training Ship


The four year conversion of ARGUS into an ATS can be summarised as:

  • five landing spot flight deck to land Sea King helicopters,
  • two aircraft lifts from flight deck to the hangar
  • operations room with computerised command and control system (Racal Cane) + Type 994 surveillance radar + plus navigational radars, automatic chart tables and IFF.
  • military communications outfit, and
  • additional accommodation.

This involved the building and installation of a rather unimaginative 800-ton steel block amounting to a seven deck structure added to the after end of her existing bridge. This was topped with a 24-ton mast. Overall this provided RFA crew and naval accommodation for 254 personnel (79 RFA, 38 permanent Naval Party and around 137 RN embarked for training), helicopter and weapon controls, a centralised galley, 6-bed hospital with dispensary and dental facilities; increased reverse osmosis system and sewage treatment plants.

The ship’s Ro-Ro vehicle space was converted into a hangar; the ship’s original hatch covers were reversed and the shallow honeycomb trays filled with an estimated 1,800 tonnes of concrete. This was laid under a five landing spot 113.5m steel flight. This also permitted upper deck equipment to be fitted in walkways on either side of the flight deck in order to avoid obstructions.   

 Her original port funnel was removed and all exhausts re-routed to a starboard side funnel built within a small aft superstructure. Her original container handling arrangements were removed. A 25-tonne aircraft recovery/RAS crane was fitted at forward end of the flight deck and two 18-tonne hydraulically operated cantilever aircraft lifts installed. One was located forward on the starboard side and the other amidships on the port side. Her original hydraulically operated rear door and ramp (on starboard quarter) was retained to maintain her useful Ro-Ro transport ability.

3 March 1988 is considered ARGUS’s completion date when MoD(N) London, finally took delivery. Her conversion reportedly finally cost £65m – the first RFA with an all contract crew and to operate under the ‘whole ship concept’.

Aviation support workshops and stores are located on the hangar deck. These included engine and gearbox shops, electronic and instrument maintenance facilities together with naval stores. The hangar was also fitted with an overhead 3-tonne electric travelling crane. This precise-action crane was to enable helicopter maintenance and repair work to be undertaken.

Aviation support included an 812,700 gallon AVCAT stowage and handling system, a liquid oxygen plant, air stores and air weapons stowage and handling arrangements.

To meet damage control and Lloyds’s requirements the hangar was sub-divided into a number of spaces by use of transverse watertight bulkheads. Access between these spaces had to allow for aircraft handling and this was achieved by use of large sliding watertight doors.

Her main engines were refurbished, the main and auxiliary engine rooms separated by a bulkhead. Monitoring and warship standard firefighting arrangements installed. The ship has been provided with a limited NBCD capability with citadel arrangements.

Lifesaving arrangements included, in SOLAS (safety of life at sea) high-viz orange, four 80-man semi-enclosed lifeboats. In addition there are clusters of inflatable liferafts, high speed rescue boats, such as the Navy’s Pacific 22.

 Not surprisingly, during this conversion, the shipyard experienced a range of difficulties, such as the presence of asbestos, lead-based paint and reducing of the ship’s stability. A roll stabilization system was fitted – a roll damping system that was particularly effective at slow speeds.

3 March 1988 she was handed over to the MoD(N) under Director of Fuel, Movement and Transport (Naval) for crewing and management as a Royal Fleet Auxiliary under operational direction of Commander-in-Chief Fleet and at the time was the largest ship in the Naval Service. She underwent extensive ship and helicopter trials before replacing ENGADINE on 3 October 1989, as the Navy’s air training ship.


RFA Argus A135

The Royal Fleet Auxiliary ARGUS (A135)

Primary Casualty Receiving Facility/Air Training Ship

[US Navy]


Primary Casualty Receiving Facility


October 1990, with the build-up for the first Gulf War (Operation Granby) plans were drawn up jointly by Director General Surface Ships and Operational Medical Services to rapidly fit an emergency medical facility into ARGUS. In just three weeks Devonport Management Ltd fitted her forward hangar into a seaborne field hospital. This was achieved by installing a serious of containers, based upon PortaKabin™ structures. She then deployed as a Primary Casualty Receiving Facility (PCRF) with: 76 ‘low dependency’ beds plus a 10-bed intensive care unit and a 14-bed high dependency unit; four operating positions with support services, with X-rays and laboratories; staffed with up to 136 medical personnel and supported by the ‘sand coloured’ Sea King helicopters of C and D flights 846 NAS for casualty evacuation.

Having spent longer in the northern Persian Gulf than any other British or American ship she then redeployed on Operation Haven. Here she provided humanitarian relief to Kurdish refugees on the Turkish/Iraq frontier. 1992/93 on Operation Grapple in the Adriatic together with HM Ships to support UN Protection Force in the former Yugosavia. Here ARGUS worked as an interim LPH embarking a Regiment of Royal Artillery their 105mm field guns, supporting locating assets and military personnel.

The 1998 Strategic Defence Review called for the upgrading of the hospital facilities and by November 2000 a multi-million pound contract was awarded to Cammell Laird, Birkenhead. This was for drydocking and upgrading ARGUS with a more ‘permanent’ hospital – a NATO ‘Role 3 medical support facility’ providing a range of general hospital capabilities:

  • 10-bed intensive care unit,
  • 20-bed high dependency unit,
  • two 35-bed low dependency wards with 4-bay emergency and resuscitation arrangements and four operating tables,
  • all supported by X-ray and CT imaging services, infection control laboratories, blood transfusion, dental care, physiotherapy support, pharmacy and mortuary arrangements.

In January 2003 ARGUS again deployed to the Northern Persian Gulf in Operation Telic (Second Gulf War) embarking two Sea King helicopters of 820 NAS and with her SOLAS orange lifeboats were painted grey. Here she earned the nickname ‘BUPA Baghdad’.  


Reversal of operational roles


Following extensive planning she returned to A&P Group at Falmouth where in 2005 she commenced Phase One of a service life extension programme (SLEP).

By June 2008 BMT Defence Services Ltd had completed a study and worked with A&P for SLEP Phase 2. The intention being to reverse ARGUS’s primary role from that of an Air Training Ship to that of a Hospital Ship providing capabilities envisaged from a previously planned project known as a Joint Casualty Treatment Ship.

The pre-planning and material procurement was already well in hand when the MoD announced, in January 2009, that ARGUS was to undergo this upgrade to a ‘Casualty Receiving Ship’ with an air training capability. She re-entered A&P Falmouth in 2009 to undergo this work. With 100 days in drydock this involved significant structural changes, safety stability, fire safety, casualty transfer and evacuation. Changes to hangar and flight deck arrangements involved removal of the forward aircraft lift and installation of arrangements for the triage and sanitisation of casualties with improved routing into the ‘hospital’ complex. This complex changed from modular to permanent arranged over a number of decks beneath the flight deck with access via two newly installed passenger lifts and a trolley-friendly ramp. This was to make casualty transfer easier with safer and improved SOLAS standards for evacuation of the area in event of an emergency.

The ‘hospital’ configuration was officially given by the Defence Medical Service as 4/4/10/20/70, meaning: 

  • 4-bay emergency and resuscitation arrangements,
  • 4 operating tables,
  • 10-bed intensive care,
  • 20-bed high dependency,
  • 2 x 35-bed (70) low dependency wards.

All is comprehensively supported by: CT scanning – 3-D imaging and X-ray services – pathology and infection control laboratories – dental facilities – pharmacy – haematology – physiotherapy support – a newly installed oxygen concentrator and mortuary arrangements. Blood transfusion service includes holding arrangements for hundreds of units ranging from red cell concentrates and frozen plasma to fresh blood from donors on board.

This SLEP adjusted her flight deck size reducing it to three landing spots; refurbishment and upgrading of crew and embarked personnel accommodation and communal areas including a new central galley. Air conditioning and refrigeration plant was replaced, reverse osmosis and her sewage treatment systems have been upgraded and comply with International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships 1973 and Protocol of 1978 (MARPOL). Her fire safety and watertight integrity was improved including four new watertight doors in the hangar with approximately 20-ton of steel per door.

SOLAS escape and evacuation upgrades included the installation of aviation type inflatable evacuation systems from Life Raft Systems Australia. Each with a 100-person capacity, two each have been fitted on either beam. However, for ship observers the most visual change was her modified bridge structure. This was expanded with a new front and improved bridge wings.

However, her role as an air training ship continued and in February 2011, 824 NAS conducted flying trials with the Merlin helicopter and by November 2011 she was hosting trials with the new Wildcat helicopter. 2012 deployed as Atlantic Patrol Task North on counter-drugs and Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief work in the Caribbean.

 In January 2013 this aging ship commenced a refit under the MoD’s through-life support ‘cluster’ contract with A&P in Falmouth. This covered:

  • a medical upgrade and refurbishment that included installation of a Philips Ingenuity 64-slice CT scanner.
  • overhaul of main engines and new engine control systems,
  • upgrade of power systems and switchboards,
  • installation of incinerator and shredder,
  • upgrade of her lifeboats and
  • a 5-year paint and preservation package.

June 2013 she demonstrated a further versatility when she played the ‘USS ARGUS’ (vice MADISON) in the American film ‘World War Z’. 

October 2014 deployed on Operation Gritrock with 350 UK tri-service medical and support personnel to combat the Ebola epidemic crisis then emerging in West Africa. She embarked three Merlin helicopters of 820 NAS, 539 Assault Squadron Royal Marines with two of their LCVPs Mk5, three offshore raiding craft and six inflatable raiding craft, 30 Toyota 4 x 4s plus 80 Service medical personnel. June 2016 the Ebola Medal for service in West Africa was approved by HM The Queen and 167 were awarded to the complement of ARGUS.

In 2018, she completed a refit that has extended her life to 2024 and deployed with 845 NAS’s Merlin HC4 helicopters and 847 NAS’s Wildcats supporting amphibious training in the Baltic.


General remarks


ARGUS has been described as a very good ship, but unlike previously RFA – crewed ‘hospital ships’ (BERBICE and the three MAINEs) she is not defined as a hospital ship nor is she permitted to externally display the Red Cross in accordance with the Geneva Convention. This is because of her obvious operational facilities, and the carrying of self-defence weapons.

The PCRF is maintained by a small permanent cadre of  personnel. In addition a number of appointments to her are pre-identified in the MoD’s Hospital Units to provide command and control of the facility, eg, Commanding Officer of MDHU Derriford (Plymouth) is also the Medical Officer-in-Charge PCRF.

 When ARGUS’s hospital is fully crewed up to the NATO Role 3 she could have around 36 doctors (consultants, registrars and house officers), 78 Nurses and Medical Assistants, 42 from the Royal Marines Band Service who undertake the roles including casualty handlers and stretcher bearers and a Chaplain from HMS DRAKE. The required clinical staff are largely drawn from within the Armed Services and the MoD Hospital Units embedded in the NHS, eg, Birmingham (Selly Oak) and Plymouth (Derriford) and from the NHS staff who are Service Reservists.


RFA Argus stern view

ARGUS – showing the sheer size of this ship, her main mast topped with Type 994 radar scanner, CVS style flyco (just below the satcom dome), funnel superstructure to starboard, her continuous mooring deck incorporating her original mooring pockets.  [Author’s collection]


When the PCRF is not required for operations or on the annual ‘Exercise Endeavour’ which tests her medical facilities she routinely operates as an Air Training Ship primarily involved in specialist deck landing training, such as, for submarine hunting Merlin helicopters that are assigned to Type 23s and to the new QE class aircraft carriers. 

A Freedom of Information request in 2015 revealed that her average annual operating cost (excluding aircraft costs) was £8.8m.

There are no public plans to replace this extremely versatile ship and the soft power of the UK that she represents. She has remained in the Navy List as an Air Training Ship.


Technical particulars


Displacement (fl) 28,081 tonnes; 26,421 grt, 12,220 dwt; length 175.12m (567.07ft) oa, 163m bp; beam 30.4m (100.06ft); draught 8.19m (26.10ft). 


Complement and accommodation:


Her original container ship accommodation was only for 30 crew. As an air training ship this was increased to 79 RFA + 36 permanent RN support (NP4167) + embarked Fleet Air Arm training detachment from 810 and 702 NAS of up to 42 officers and 95 ratings.

The command team is led by her Commanding Officer (RFA Captain) with the staff of the Hospital facility under the Medical Officer-in-Charge replicating the approach established on the previously RFA-crewed ‘hospital ships’ BERBICE and the MAINEs.  

As a registered British merchant ship, since 1999 she has been required to be fitted with INMARSAT (commercial satellite communications) and post-1990 refitted with  the GMDSS (Global Maritime Distress and Safety System) as laid down by changing international regulations. However, the primary remit of a front-line military ship is an ability to maintain radio contact with MOD and with the fleet this requires her to carry naval equipment comparable to a warship and including the cryptographic mechanisms associated with those systems. Clearly some systems that are not permitted under the strict Geneva Convention (international law) definitions for a hospital ship.




Initially designed for 6 Sea King helicopters, carry up to 12 Harriers and Chinook capable. An aircraft carrier style Flyco, with a quite good view of the flight deck located at rear of superstructure block. This is supported by full briefing, operations, meteorological, air engineering and air weapons workshops and stores. Landing aids included ‘deck approach projector sight’ and ‘glide path indicator’ originally for 5 deck spots. AVCAT storage for 1,000-tonnes with in-hangar fuelling and defuelling, on-deck fuelling arrangements and HIFR (helicopter in-flight refuelling) capability fitted port side aft. Much of this is managed and supported by a tailored team deployed from the RNAS Culdrose based Maritime Aviation Support Force (MASF).  In addition to the full range of Royal Naval and Commando Helicopter Force helicopters ARGUS’s flight deck is also approved for use by RAF Chinooks and Army Apache operations.


RFA ARGUS flight deck

Merlin helicopters deployed on RFA ARGUS’s large flight deck. The edges of her aircraft lift are clearly visible.  [Author’s collection courtesy AgustaWestland]


Self-protection arrangements


Other reasons why this versatile high value ship she is not a ‘conventional’ hospital ships is because she fitted for twin 30mm cannons, two 20mm Oerlikons, mountings for machine guns and miniguns plus four 6-barrelled NATO Sea Gnat chaff decoy launchers with a passive electronic warning system. Underway protection is provided by Sonar Type 182 a towed acoustic torpedo decoy. 


Battle Honours


A number of  ships of the Royal Navy have bourne the name Argus and several have won Battle Honours –



This is an edited version of a paper published in ‘Warships’  edition 187 (a World Ship Society’s magazine).