The RFA Argus was built as the Contender Bezant by the Cantiere Navale Company in Italy and launched on November 28th, 1980. She was completed as a bulk freight, roll-on and roll-off ferry (RORO) 1108 TEU capacity container ship on July 31st, 1981. The United Kingdom's Ministry of Defense (MoD) was pressed into leasing commercial ships - or STUFT ("Ships Taken Up From Trade") - and refitting then as military ships to handle the logistical and support requirements of the British Royal Navy during the Falklands War with Argentina in 1982. The MoD realized the logistical nightmare of attempting to fight a war 8,000 miles (13,000 km) from Britain proper and it therefore became obvious that the Royal Navy lacked the number and type of support ships in-service that such a war effort required. One of the STUFT ships leased was the Contender Bezant and these were used for transporting Harrier VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) jump jet aircraft and different types of helicopters on her large container deck. She also transported war supplies such as ammunition, food, medical supplies as well as vehicles below deck. The Contender Bezant picked up supplies in Charleston, South Carolina then steamed for the Falkland Islands on June 6th, 1982.
After the conclusion of the war, the MoD purposed an increase to the ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) and purchased the Contender Bezant outright in 1984 for 18 million pounds. She was moved to the shipyard of Harland & Wolff of Belfast, England in March of 1984 where she underwent a major four-year refit to become an aviation training ship. The aft container deck was strengthened to allow a flight deck for heavy helicopters like the RAF Boeing CH-47 "Chinook" tandem rotor transport helicopter. To move equipment, helicopters and vehicles down to the lower decks, two aircraft lifts were added. Upgraded radar and ship-to-ship/intra-ship communications were also integrated into her design. The superstructure was massive, high and concentrated in a relatively compact space towards the bow of the ship. The weight of the superstructure was 800 tons and it was built substantially heavy to help counter the large aft open spaces of the ship when empty.
A smaller superstructure was wrapped around the exhaust funnel on the starboard side of the main superstructure towards the stern of the ship. One drawback proved the funnel area reduced the flight deck spots for helicopters allowing about as much lift off area as on a modern frigate. Another concern was the sea keeping of a large flat sided ship - especially when empty. The ships design allowed her to rock in heavy seas, making the crew spaces less than relaxing and dangerous for personnel on deck. The removal of some cranes and topside structures used for containers reduced overall tonnage. To increase weight, the hatch covers were converted and turned upside down then filled with 1,800 tons of concrete ballast, becoming part of the flight deck. The former Ro-Ro deck was converted to a hanger with four sliding water tight doors that could be opened and closed quickly. The Argus could replenish and refuel other ships while underway and, with her helicopters, she could also vertically lift supplies to the decks of other ships. Also added were two lifts, one elevator to the lower decks amidships and the second aircraft lift aft of the funnel superstructure.
The ship was completed in March of 1987 and entered RFA service after a changeover program that cost 45 million pounds. In October of that year, she officially began her sea trials. She was subsequently christened the "RFA Argus A135 (Aviation Training Ship)" - taking her name from the HMS Argus, a British Royal Navy aircraft carrier serving from 1918 to 1944. She sported an overall length of 574ft, 6in (175.1m) and her beam (or width) was 99ft, 9in (30.4m), drawing 26ft, 7in (8.1m) of sea water. She proved fast for her size, able to make 18 knots (33km/h) with durable range of 20,000 nautical miles (at 15 kts steady). She was completed with large internal fuel stores holding 3,000 tons to supply her diesel engines along with 1,100 tons of aviation fuel for her aircraft stock. The ship's surface displacement was 28,081 tons standard. To push her through the waves were 2 x Lindholmen Pielstick 18 PC2.5V diesel engines driving twin propellers and a bow thruster assisted in precision maneuvering when docking. Due to wind shear against her large surface area, however, tugboats were frequently required.
As an auxiliary support vessel, the armament of the Argus was purposely minimal and rather outdated with 2 x 20mm Oerlikon/85 KAA cannons under manual crew operation. Close-ranged suppression came in the form of 4 x 7.62mm general purpose machine guns. Also 4 x Seagnat chaff launchers are mounted forward port and starboard on the superstructure for basic countermeasures support. When she was sent into hostile waters, the Argus has required missile destroyer protection due to her limited defensive punch. Her cargo spaces below deck were designed to hold 12 x BAe Sea Harrier FA2 series VTOL aircraft and up to 6 x Westland Sea King HAS helicopters or (like types). Her aircraft inventory could also be replaced with vehicles as required. Along her flight deck were five dock spots for the medium-class RAF CH47 Chinook 2/2A helicopters or five Westland Merlins, Westland Sea Kings, Westland Lynx or Hughes WAH-64 Apache helicopters.
If the mission required, the helo deck could accommodate up to six Sea Harriers. To access the four hanger decks there were a pair of aircraft lifts integrated to the flight deck and built during the four year conversion. The vessel required 50 base crewmen while the optimal complement was 22 officers and 58 sailors. There was further space available for 137 Air Squadron crew members in addition to 300 medical staff. The medical staff was a mix of Royal Navy personal and reservists located throughout Great Britain.
The Falklands War highlighted such a need for the Royal Navy when 258 British servicemen were killed and 775 were wounded in the conflict - requiring the Ministry of Defense to lease a STUFT ship - the SS Uganda - that was equipped with a helicopter pad and a hospital ward. Additionally, 3 x Royal Navy HMS Hecla-class survey vessels were converted as casualty ferries and hospital ships for this action. However the treating of the hundreds of causalities with less than state-of-the-art facilities proved inadequate for conditions. A 100-bed emergency medical facility with x-rays, a CAT scanner, and ICU ward was added to Argus late in 1988 in time for her to be sent to the Persian Gulf in 1990, providing aid during the Persian Gulf crisis. In April 1991, during "Operation Haven", Argus was sent to give humanitarian assistance to Kurdish refugees fleeing the Turkey and Iraq borders.
Late in 1992 Argus steamed to the Adriatic to support British forces assigned to the UN Protection Force "Operation Grapple" in the former country of Yugoslavia. She had onboard four Seeking helicopters and was part of an RFA flotilla with the Sir Belvidere and Resource. The Argus was again assigned to the Adriatic in 1993 for operations in Bosnia. In April 1994, while Argus operated in the Ionian Sea, she fired 105mm field guns being transported for the Royal Artillery from her flight deck showing she could be used as a fire support platform if needed. In September 1994, while steaming from Brittany, England, she rescued the crew of a yacht that had run aground. In April of 1996, she sailed from Portland to take part in naval war games with the US Navy under the name of "Exercise Purple Star".
In June of 1997, Argus was positioned off the west coast of Africa with her helicopters covering "Operation Tiller" in Sierra Leone, as the possibility existed that British citizens would have to be evacuated from the continent due to ongoing fighting. In February of 1998, a Spanish container ship - the MV Delfin Meditteraneo - was adrift in heavy seas in the deadly North Atlantic. The RN Air Station Culdrose sent three RN helicopters to Argus where they were able to rescue 12 members of the crew before the ship sank 100 miles off Maderia. The Argus medical detachment was utilized off the coast of Freetown in 2000 in support of British operations against an armed rebel group in Sierra Leone during "Operation Barras". The rebel force was defeated by British units in September. Argus was sent back to the Persian Gulf for the 2003 US-led Invasion of Iraq, and was given the nickname "BUPA Baghdad". She operated as a hospital for coalition and hostile troops in support of the British amphibious assault on the Al-Faw Peninsula.
A number of her missions required Argus to operate as a Landing Pad Helicopter (LPH) ship which she was not designed for and in this role she fell short of the MoD's expectations. The MoD then decided to update the medical facilities on Argus and move her away from LPH-type mission. The decision to use Argus as a causality ship was timely and lead to the thinking at the MoD to change her primary role from the Aviation Support Vessel to a "Primary Casualty Reception Ship".
The MoD allocated 37 funds to this new initiative in 2007 and the upgrades are proposed to extend her operational life until 2020. The MoD expenditure was seen as necessary due to a current shortage of ships that could support heavy helicopter lift capability in both the RN and RFA Navy's. This shortfall was expected to continue until 2018 by which time new aircraft carriers and LPH/D's were expected to enter service. RFA Argus is expected to help fill the void until her replacements come online.
Extensive planning took place in a new design with upgraded hospital facilities to be incorporated into an existing ship. An enclosed triage area was built on the flight deck level with a wide door so casualties could enter and be evaluated then moved to the correct medical level for treatment. To accomplish this, the forward amidships aircraft lift was removed so a wide switchback ramp could be added allowing hospital trollies and patients to be moved quickly to the appropriate medical care unit as directed by medical staff. Also, within feet of the triage area, were two 50-man stainless steel passenger elevators that lead to the four lower decks, giving access to the surgery, ICU, labs, general ward, and the morgue. The removal of the aircraft elevator also required a new bulkhead in the forward machinery space needing four new steel 20-ton hanger watertight doors.
In 2009, RFA Argus continued her refit begun in 2007 with a number of modifications. The original cramped bridge was expanded out for additional space and new windows were added. The crew spaces were gutted allowing for a larger deluxe galley plus new accommodations, not only for the crew, but the Royal Marines and air crews. The hull, flight deck, and hangers, were painted - a massive project in itself. The electrical fire system was replaced throughout the ship along with the station-to-station communication system needing a new switchboard. The PCRF received a new CT scanner and reception area and the wards and intensive care facilities were upgraded. A new 3D X-ray imagery machine was added to ICU along with the latest scanning equipment and a new sterilizing machine. The air-conditioning and refrigeration plant was updated to meet the Montreal protocol standards. For fast movement, a new marine evacuation system was added on the flight deck along the port side. The overall upgrades required 600 tons of new fabricated steel and 10 months to complete.
As a Primary Casualty Receiving Facility, Argus can now accommodate 100 casualties at any one time. The new design of the PCRF is designed to save lives of wounded personnel moving them from the helicopter to the surgery in minimal time. The patient-friendly design and state-of-the-art medical facilities make Argus one of the ships soldiers require in combat zones. She has four operating tables, 10 intensive care beds, 20 emergency room beds and 70 general ward beds. New digital x-ray equipment and comprehensive laboratory facilities and a blood bank are also provided.
In November of 2002, as a Sea King Helicopter from 848 Naval Air Squadron was taking off from the ship in Lyme Bay, the helicopter blade struck the ship and crashed. The crew escaped unhurt from the aircraft but three deck hands were injured by flying debris and airlifted to the Dorset County Hospital, Dorchester England. The Argus had the medical facility to treat the wounded but she lacked the required medical personnel at the time. In January 2003 Argus was sent back to the Persian Gulf for a six month tour supporting "Operation Telic" with 2 Sea King helicopters with 820 troops on board. The Canadian submarine HMCS Chicoutimi was near Ireland in October of 2004 and reported an onboard fire and Argus responded with her helicopters and medical staff.
In 2008 RFA Argus was again in Persian Gulf waters and supported the HMS Chatham, HMS Montrose, and HMS Edinburgh with her fast craft and helicopters in seizing 23 tons of narcotics. After a long tour of duty, Argus entered dry dock for a needed refit at Falmouth, England. In 2009, during the repairs, a fire broke out below deck and this was promptly extinguished by fire fighters. In mid-2010 she was back on station in the Gulf of Aden with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to repress piracy off the coast of Somalia. In March 2011, the civil war in Libya was expanding and Argus was off shore to assist with the rescue of British nationals. Leaving the Libyan coast, she proceeded to Cyprus to load provisions and to embark 40 Royal Marines commandos. She then steamed to the Gulf of Aden to conduct counter-piracy patrols. In June of 2011 she was sent to the Mediteriterrian and berthed at Gibraltar. In November of 2011, the new RN Westland Lynx Wildcat Helicopter was assigned to Argus for aviation trials. Argus moved to the south coast of England for four weeks of trials for Wildcat air and ground crew. The Wildcat is a new variant of the long-running Westland Lynx helicopter that has seen service since 1974.
In June of 2012, Argus sailed to the coast of the United States to join OPSAIL during Fleet Week in New York City, designed to celebrate the Bi-Centennial of the War of 1812. Argus was birthed in Brooklyn and allowed thousands of visitors onboard for above- and below-deck detailed tours by informed officers and crewmen. After leaving New York, her mission called her to provide humanitarian aid and disaster relief to British Territories about the Caribbean islands during the 2012 hurricane season. The RFA Argus has a unique design allowing her to complete varied and meaningful missions for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA).