Royal Navy Sends Its Weirdest Ship to Fight Ebola
RFA ‘Argus’ is part copter-carrier, part hospital—and a movie star
The British Royal Navy is deploying the auxiliary ship RFA Argus to Sierra Leone in West Africa in order to help health officials contain the deadly Ebola virus.
If you’ve never heard of Argus, you’re not alone. She’s an odd, obscure vessel—an ungainly combination of helicopter carrier, hospital ship and training platform.
But you’ve probably seen Argus, even if you didn’t realize it. The 33-year-old vessel played a major role in the 2013 zombie movie World War Z, as the floating headquarters of the U.N.
U.K. defense secretary Michael Fallon announced Argus’ deployment on Oct. 8, as part of the intensifying international response to Ebola’s rapid spread across West Africa. The U.S. military is sending thousands of doctors and logisticians to Liberia to help train and support local health workers.
“We are deploying troops, helicopters and a ship—army medics and Merlin helicopters supported by RFA Argus—to provide direct support and reassurance,” Fallon said.
The 575-foot-long Argus launched in 1981 as a civilian container ship. In 1982, the Royal Navy chartered the vessel to support the Falklands War … and subsequently bought her to function as an aviation training ship, launching and landing helicopters.
Argus’ long flight deck features an odd, interrupted layout, with a structure—including the exhaust stack—rising out of the deck near the stern.
Weirdly, the deck’s imperfect arrangement is actually an asset in the training role. Student aviators on Argus must get comfortable landing in close proximity to obstacles, which helps prepare them for flying from the comparatively tiny decks of frigates and other smaller ships.
During the 1991 Gulf War, the navy added what it described as a “fully equipped 100-bed medical complex” to transform Argus into the U.K.’s main casualty-evacuation vessel. In a pinch, the hybrid training-medical ship can also support Apache attack copters, Royal Marines and Special Operations Forces.
Argus could be the ideal vessel to help combat Ebola. Her primary mission off Sierra Leone will be to support three Merlin helicopters, which “can carry a substantial weight of supplies or over a dozen equipped personnel a great distance in to remote communities,” according to Ian Keddie, an analyst for IHS Jane’s.
The Merlins could allow “pre-emptive actions to be taken to ensure local people can be aware of the disease and prevent further spread,” Keddie added.
Fallon said the U.K. is building Ebola treatment centers and an “Ebola training academy” on the ground in Sierra Leone. In a pinch, Argus’s medical staff could probably treat patients on board the vessel, as well.
“This new package will further support the country’s stretched public health services in containing the disease by helping up to nearly 8,800 patients over a six-month period,” Fallon said.