Recently committing a naval task force to the eastern Mediterranean Sea in support of Israel’s ongoing response to Hamas’ incursions earlier in October, the UK has sought to demonstrate its political commitment to Tel Aviv.

However, the composition of the force, which will see RFA Lyme Bay and RFA Argus deployed along with amphibious-capable Royal Marines, was less discussed. Central to the deployed force will be RFA Lyme Bay, one of three remaining Bay-class landing platform dock vessels still operational in UK service, which will host much of the deployable capability, including troops and related vehicles.

The Bay-class are workhorses of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, able to perform a wide-range of roles and act as a mothership for a deployed force. One vessel is permanently stationed in the Middle East, usually leaving one vessel available for European/Atlantic operations, with the other in refit or maintenance.

However, the role of RFA Argus is perhaps the most intriguing, as it serves as the UK’s Primary Casualty Receiving Ship with a 100-bed hospital in times of conflict, with secondary roles as a training vessel for helicopter training. In addition, the auxiliary deploys on counter-narcotics and humanitarian aid/disaster relief duties and can support amphibious operations.

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Originally due to leave service in 2024 with no apparent replacement, RFA Argus has instead seen its operational life extended beyond 2030, with the unique capability it provides UK services unable to be 100% replicated by other vessels. The vessel hosts a Role 3 medical facility including resuscitation and surgical facilities, while also having radiology equipment and an on-board CT scanner.

Although it cannot permanently host rotary wing platforms, the large aft flight deck is able to lily-pad or act as a landing area for helicopters. Displacing 28,000 tonnes and 175m in length, RFA Argus is an exceptionally stable vessel, particularly when operating in the littorals of the Mediterranean Sea.

The deployment of these specific capabilities is in contrast to the approach taken by the US, which has sent two entire carriers strike groups to the region as a show of force. Unlike the US hammer and anvil, the UK’s deployment of RFA Argus and RFA Lyme Bay appear to be more of a scalpel, perhaps chosen specifically to fulfil a potential capability niche.

When contacted, the UK MoD declined to comment over the specific roles that the Royal Navy task force had been assigned or could be required to undertake in the weeks ahead.

Israel creates al-Mawasi ‘humanitarian zone’ in Gaza Strip

Israel has mobilised hundreds of thousands of personnel in response to Hamas’ 7 October incursions into Israel, which left more than 1,300 Israelis dead and dozens kidnapped and forcibly taken into Gaza. Airstrikes have rocked Gaza in the days since, causing significant damage to infrastructure and loss of life.

The Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) Southern Command stated on 17 October that “multiple” reserve battalions had been mobilised for “defensive missions in the communities in the area surrounding the Gaza Strip”, with its 252nd Sinai Division making “preparations for wider combat operations”.

So far, the percentage of those reporting for duty among the reservists in the division is around 120%, the IDF stated.

It is likely a matter of time before ground operations get under way, with the IDF on 18 October recommending all Palestinian civilians make their way to a dedicated ‘humanitarian zone’ in al-Mawasi, in which “humanitarian aid will be provided as needed”.

The IDF has circulated this image showing the area of the ‘humanitarian zone’ in the Gaza Strip, into which it has encouraged Gazan civilians to travel. Credit: IDF.

“The IDF continues to call on the residents of the northern Gaza Strip and Gaza City to evacuate towards the area of Al-Mawasi, south of Wadi Gaza. The IDF recommends evacuating to the open areas in western Khan Yunis, in the area of Al-Mawasi,” the IDF stated.

The al-Mawasi area runs alongside the southern coast of the Gaza Strip, located just a few kilometres west of the Khan Younis urbanised area. It also offers one of the few relatively large areas of farmland, and as such is outside of the intense urban combat that is expected to ensue when Israel crosses into Gaza.