In recent years, with the rapid reduction in the number of surface vessels available to the Royal Navy, increasing pressure has fallen upon the Royal Fleet Auxiliary to pick up the slack and fulfil various missions across the globe that would otherwise have been completed by a warship. Despite this increased requirement, however, funding has not been brought up to match and the RFA has been at least as stretched as the RN in its operations despite the skill of its personnel.
Many of the RFA’s new taskings are, naturally, of a less military nature; with migrant patrols and disaster relief appearing high in the order and the ships deployed are acting admirably as symbols of British resolve to meet various crises.
Good will alone, however, will not be enough to sustain Britain’s commitment to taking action in the face of disaster and as more ships are retired the ability to continue these missions will suffer. The RFA has already lost several capabilities, such as at-sea repair, without the provision of any replacement and whilst several fine new ships have been brought in hull numbers continue to decline.
In a time of tight budgets it is understandable that funding should be directed towards the RN surface fleet, but it would be dangerous to suggest that the RN could operate alone without the logistical support provided by the RFA.
Thus, it could be argued that the funding for certain RFA elements could be treated differently; acting as they are as tools of British foreign policy in support of disaster riven areas there is a strong argument that funding for certain ships could be provided from the newly-protected Foreign Aid Budget.
The Foreign Aid Budget has become something of a controversial outlet for government spending; since it gained a protected status there have been numerous allegations of mishandling, and the loss of much of the money spent to bureaucracy at home and corruption abroad. One way to ensure that the money was sent to the right people would be to use it to directly supply aid, rather than to do so through third parties.
Britain can currently deploy one ship, RFA Argus, in a medical support role and as the ship is armed she cannot be classed as a hospital ship. Building a dedicated hospital ship would grant the UK a far fuller capacity to respond to international crises, and be a strong demonstration of our intention to do good on the world stage.
A dedicated hospital ship would free up other naval elements for military taskings, grant a greater capacity for action in the face of emergencies, and also provide useful training for medical staff. It would also ensure that aid was properly delivered to those who needed it, and would essentially be an investment in Foreign Aid spending for the long-term results it could deliver.
This line of thinking need not stop with hospital ships; Royal Navy and RFA ships are often called to disaster relief missions; helping to repair damage done by hurricanes, landslides, and other natural disasters. Building a couple of ships equipped with the machinery and supplies needed to quickly respond to such events would also be an asset, and once again allow such tasks to be conducted by dedicated elements and free-up existing craft for their usual duties. RFA shipping tasked with the heavy machinery needed to clear up disaster sites would also be useful for supporting land-based operations by the Royal Marines, and setting up new operational areas.
The Royal Fleet Auxiliary are often the forgotten force in the British military, but it would be folly to forget the importance of such logistical craft, particularly as the reliance placed upon them for patrol duties increases. By using vital support ships to fill support positions, such as using RFA Mounts Bay to counter smuggling, the number of ships readily available to face a military crisis is reduced and the Navy would be harder-pressed to act swiftly. The creation of dedicated ships to meet civilian crises would be a vital asset both to the military and to the world; as disasters of any kind could be better met by the appropriate tool.
Naturally, Save the Royal Navy have published a fine piece on this:http://www.savetheroyalnavy.org/the-case-for-building-a-british-hospital-ship/
ThinkDefence has also written this extended piece on adapting ships for non combat use by the armed forces: http://www.thinkdefence.co.uk/a-ship-that-still-isnt-a-frigate/initial-considerations/