RFA Argus (A135)

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RFA Argus off the coast of Devonport.jpg
RFA Argus off the coast of Devonport in 2007.
United Kingdom
NameMV Contender Bezant
OwnerContender 2 Ltd (Sea Containers, Managers)
Port of registryHamilton, Bermuda
BuilderSocietà Italiana Ernesto Breda at Marghera
Yard number293
Launched28 November 1980
Completed31 July 1981
FateSold to Harland and Wolff, 1 March 1984
NotesRequisitioned by Ministry of Defence, May 1982. Returned to owner, November 1982.
United Kingdom
NameRFA Argus
NamesakeHMS Argus
Acquired18 March 1988
Commissioned1 June 1988
Renamed25 March 1987
MottoOcculi Omnium (Eyes of All)
Honours and
Falkland Islands 1982 (as the MV Contender Bezant), Gulf War 1991, Bosnia War 1992, Kosovo War 1998, Ebola Crisis 2015
StatusIn active service
BadgeRFA Argus ship's badge.jpg
General characteristics
TypeAviation training / Casualty receiving ship
Displacement28,081 tonnes
Length175.1 m (574 ft 6 in)
Beam30.4 m (99 ft 9 in)
Draught8.1 m (26 ft 7 in)
Propulsion2 × Lindholmen Pielstick 18 PC2.5V diesels, twin propellers; bow-thruster
Speed18 knots (33 km/h)
Range20,000 nautical miles at 10 knots
  • 80 RFA
  • 50 RN
  • (Part of the Maritime Aviation Support Force)
  • 137 RN air squadron personnel (When embarked)
  • 200 Nursing and Medical Staff (When the Hospital is activated)
Sensors and
processing systems
Kelvin Hughes Ltd SharpEye navigation radar[1]
Aircraft carriedThree spots for up to six medium helicopters, CH47 Chinooks, Westland Merlins, WAH-64 Apache or AgustaWestland AW159 Wildcat
Aviation facilities1 Aircraft lift from Flight Deck to 4-Deck number 2 hangar, 4x hangars
Argus enters Portsmouth Naval Base on 9 July 2010 with the crew lining the decks.

RFA Argus is a ship of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary operated by the Ministry of Defence under the Blue Ensign. Italian-built, Argus was formerly the container ship MV Contender Bezant. The ship was requisitioned in 1982 for service in the Falklands War and purchased outright in 1984 for a four-year conversion to an Aviation Training Ship, replacing RFA Engadine. In 1991, during the Gulf War, she was fitted with an extensive and fully functional hospital to assume the additional role of Primary Casualty Receiving Ship. In 2009, the PCRS role became the ship's primary function.[2] Argus is due to remain in service until 2024.[3]

As the ship is armed and is not painted in the required white with red crosses, the Geneva Convention prevents her from being officially classified as a hospital ship.[4][5] The ship's capabilities make her ideally suited to the humanitarian aid role and she has undertaken several of these missions. The Royal Navy has occasionally described her as a "support ship/helicopter carrier".[6]

Design and facilities[edit]

The ship was built by Società Italiana Ernesto Breda at Marghera in Italy for Contender 2 Ltd (Sea Containers, Managers) of Hamilton, Bermuda, and was launched on 28 November 1980. In May 1982, the Contender Bezant was taken-up from trade by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and given a basic conversion at HMNB Devonport to allow her to operate helicopters and Harrier Jump Jets in the transport role for Operation Corporate, the British military deployment to the Falkland Islands. She arrived in the area shortly after the Argentinian surrender and following a refit to her original configuration, was returned to her owners in November.[7]

Following the conflict, the MoD investigated the replacement of the small helicopter support ship RFA Engadine, commissioning Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering (VSEL) make a "concept study" resulting in the decision to convert a merchant ship to operate anti-submarine helicopters and with the ability to ferry Sea Harrier aircraft. In December 1983 the MoD invited British Shipbuilders of Birkenhead and Harland and Wolff in Belfast to tender on the building of a new Air Training Ship (ATS) or to purchase and convert an existing ship along the lines proposed by VSEL. By coincidence both tenders proposed converting the laid-up Contender Bezant and in March 1984, a fixed price contract was awarded to Harland and Wolff. Accordingly, she was purchased by the company for the estimated price of £18 million on 14 March 1984.[8]

After a four-year conversion, the ship entered RFA service in 1988. Having been initially designed as a container ship, she would have been too unstable when unloaded, making her motion at sea "very stiff" which resulted in a very short roll period which is not appropriate for operating helicopters. Therefore, her superstructure is deliberately heavily built (weighing some 800 tons), and she has 1,800 tons of concrete ballast carried in former hatch covers, which have been inverted to form tray-like structures.[9]

Being a former container ship, Argus does not have a traditional aircraft carrier layout – the ship's superstructure is located forward, with a long flight deck aft. The ship has a small secondary superstructure approximately two-thirds of the way down the flight deck, containing the ship's exhaust funnel. This is used by small helicopters to simulate landing on the flight deck of a destroyer or frigate.

For the 1991 Gulf War Argus was fitted with a fully functional hospital, which has since been modified and extensively augmented with specialist equipment, providing 70 beds.[10] The ship is equipped with an intensive-care unit, and can provide medical x-ray and CT-scan services. Casualties can be quickly transferred from the deck directly into the assessment area. In recent years the ship's role as a Primary Casualty Receiving Ship, rather than her aviation training duties, has been considered her primary role.

In 2007 the ship was refitted with upgraded hospital facilities (replacing the forward aircraft lift with a ramp for emergency exit for hospital trollies and patients as well as two 50-man passenger lifts that lead to a new structure erected on the flight deck), generators and aviation systems (the ship is due to receive an upgrade to its night-vision capabilities enabling the use of WAH-64 Apache helicopters) to give an operational life until 2020.[11]

Service history[edit]


As the MV Contender Bezant, following conversion the ship left Devonport on 20 May 1982 and calling at Charleston, South Carolina en route, arrived at Port William, Falkland Islands on 19 June 1982. She returned to the United Kingdom in August.[7]


Argus entered service with the RFA in 1988, replacing RFA Engadine in the aviation training role. The ship deployed to the Persian Gulf in 1991 for service in the Gulf War (Operation Granby),[12] and later provided humanitarian aid for Kurdish civilians in Operation Haven.[7] Argus also saw service in the Adriatic in 1993 and 1999 supporting British operations in Bosnia and over Kosovo respectively. During this period, Argus operated in part as a LPH. Her unsuitability for this role was a major factor in the commissioning of HMS Ocean. On 2 February 1998, three helicopters based on Argus rescued 12 members of the crew of MV Delfin Mediteraneo from their life rafts when the ship sank in the Atlantic. Flying had been abandoned due to bad weather but the rescue went ahead in 60 feet (18 m) waves, earning three Air Force Crosses and six Queen's Commendations for Bravery in the Air for the aircrew.[13]


During times of war RFA Argus acts as a floating hospital with two fully equipped wards and mortuary. The hospital was utilised in this way off the coast of Freetown in 2000–01, in support of British operations against the rebel West Side Boys.

A project to replace Argus called the Joint Casualty Treatment Ship (JCTS) was put on hold in December 2001 after passing initial approval. The Integrated Project Team (IPT) managing the project was subsequently disbanded in 2005. Argus was most recently stationed at her home port of Falmouth in Cornwall, England, though being an RFA ship means that she also uses the former naval dockyard on Portland in Dorset, England.

In 2003 Argus was deployed again to the Gulf as a Primary Casualty Reception Ship during Operation Telic. A 33 ship fleet supported a British amphibious assault of the Al-Faw Peninsula.

In 2008 she deployed to the Middle East to act as a platform for Sea King ASaC7 helicopters. On 13 July, the ships of the deployment seized 23 tonnes of narcotics in the Persian Gulf[7]


In June 2011, Argus was operating in the Middle East around Yemen.[14] By August she had returned to Falmouth and was filmed for the film World War Z.[15][16] Originally she was to portray the fictional "USS Madison (LHD-19)" but in the final cut of the film, appeared as "U.N. Command Ship USS Argus."

In mid-May 2012 the vessel, with embarked forces from the Royal Marines and Fleet Air Arm, including an embarked Super Lynx helicopter and the newly formed Humanitarian and Disaster Relief Team, set sail for North America to support potential humanitarian operations during the hurricane season. Their primary mission was to support the British Overseas Territories should they require assistance in the hurricane season as well as maintaining the constant Royal Navy presence within the wider region. Before commencing her disaster relief mission the ship engaged in multinational exercises and celebrations commemorating the War of 1812 with units from the US Navy[17] as part of OpSail 2012.

In 2013 the ship was used for training with the AgustaWestland Wildcat, the successor to the Lynx.[18]

In 2014 the ship participated in the annual Exercise Joint Warrior, practising Medical Evacuation and Treatment.[19][20] On 8 October 2014, UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond announced that the RFA Argus would travel to Sierra Leone to assist with the 2014 Ebola outbreak.[21] On 30 October of the same year, the vessel docked in Sierra Leone, with three Merlin helicopters embarked.[22] Their work of establishing shore-based medical facilities and transporting aid to outlying areas earned the ship an Admiralty Board Letter of Commendation and 167 Ebola Medals for Service in West Africa were awarded to crew members.[7]

In mid-2017 Argus was host to four Wildcat helicopters from 825 Naval Air Squadron for initial training off the coast of Portugal which lasted for three weeks.

In June 2018, following a year-long refit, she embarked Merlin HC4 helicopters of 845 Naval Air Squadron and Wildcats of 847 NAS which practised amphibious landings in support of exercise Baltic Protector in the Baltic Sea.[23]


In April 2020, the Royal Navy dispatched the Argus to the Caribbean region to support British Overseas Territories, if required, during the COVID-19 pandemic, and in preparation for the upcoming hurricane season.[24][25] This is contrary to some previous media reports in the tabloid press, which stated that she would be deployed to London to assist with the coronavirus outbreak in the UK.[26]

Argus is expected to retire from service in 2024.[27] Her functions are likely eventually to be taken over by a combination the new Fleet Solid Stores Support Ships and Multi Role Support Ships proposed for acquisition in the 2021 defence white paper.[28][29]


  1. ^ "New navigation radar system for Royal Navy". www.gov.uk. Retrieved 30 May 2017.
  2. ^ "Casualty Ship (RFA Argus)". royalnavy.mod.uk. 2013. Retrieved 14 July 2013.
  3. ^ "Navy Command FOI Section - Release of Information" (PDF). assets.publishing.service.gov.uk. Ministry of defence. 10 December 2015. Retrieved 31 May 2020.
  4. ^ "World Wide Hospital Ships". Global Security. Retrieved 26 September 2015.
  5. ^ "ADF Health" (PDF). Australian Department of Defence. Archived from the original (PDF) on 14 November 2012.
  6. ^ "RFA Argus and HMS Medwey Combine on Caribbean Disaster Relief Exercises". Royal Navy. 15 June 2020. Retrieved 1 October 2020.
  7. ^ a b c d e "RFA Argus". www.historicalrfa.org. RFA Historical Society. Retrieved 31 May 2020.
  8. ^ Adams, Tom. "RFA ARGUS - The Fighting Hospital Ship Argus". www.historicalrfa.org. RFA Historical Society. Retrieved 31 May 2020.
  9. ^ Brown, D. K. & Moore, George (2003). Rebuilding the Royal Navy : Warship Design Since 1945. Chatham Publishing. p. 146.
  10. ^ "Casualty Ship (RFA Argus)". Royal Navy. Retrieved 26 September 2015.
  11. ^ "Refit of navy ship RFA Argus ends". BBC News. London: BBC. 12 May 2007. Retrieved 14 July 2013.
  12. ^ "Select Committee on Defence – Written Evidence – Further memorandum from the Ministry of Defence". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. 11 July 2007.
  13. ^ "UK Bravery awards for Navy crew". news.bbc.co.uk. BBC. 7 May 1999. Retrieved 31 May 2020.
  14. ^ "Marines on standby to evacuate Britons in Yemen". The Guardian. London: GMG. 7 June 2011. ISSN 0261-3077. OCLC 60623878. Retrieved 14 July 2013.
  15. ^ Bentley, David (2 September 2011). "Navy crew tell of working with Brad Pitt for World War Z". blogs.coventrytelegraph.net. Archived from the original on 2 October 2011. Retrieved 14 July 2013.
  16. ^ "The Zombies are coming". historicalrfa.org. 2013. Retrieved 14 July 2013.
  17. ^ "RFA Argus will be a MASF help". royalnavy.mod.uk. 25 February 2012. Retrieved 14 July 2013.
  18. ^ "Navy Wildcat joins RFA Argus at sea for trials". Royal Navy. 18 October 2013. Retrieved 26 September 2015.
  19. ^ http://web202.ssvc.com/news/articles/navy/2527 Archived 8 April 2014 at the Wayback Machine
  20. ^ "Medics practise life-saving skills". Ministry of Defence/Health. 7 April 2014. Retrieved 26 September 2015.
  21. ^ "Ebola outbreak: UK sending 750 troops to Sierra Leone". BBC News. 8 October 2014. Retrieved 17 October 2014.
  22. ^ "The Royal Navy's ship RFA Argus arrives in Sierra Leone". BBC News. 30 October 2014. Retrieved 26 September 2015.
  23. ^ "RFA Argus takes part in front-line operations". 10 June 2019.
  24. ^ "RFA Argus sails for Caribbean to support British Overseas Territories". UK Defence Journal. 3 April 2020.
  25. ^ "RFA Argus dispatched to support the Caribbean region". www.royalnavy.mod.uk. Royal Navy. 2 April 2020.
  26. ^ David Axe (26 March 2020). "No, the Royal Navy Isn't Sending a Hospital Ship to London". The National Interest.
  27. ^ "No plans or funding to replace Royal Navy's RFA Argus".
  28. ^ "Up arrows and down arrows – reflecting on the Defence Command Paper | Navy Lookout".
  29. ^ "The Defence Command Paper and the future of the Royal Navy | Navy Lookout".

External links[edit]