10:36am Wednesday 15th February 2012
By David Barnicoat
A major medical exercise involving the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Argus will take place next month when naval doctors and nurses will be put through their paces.
The biggest test of naval medics at sea in two years will be played out off the south coast when around 150 personnel from the medical world will converge on Britain’s dedicated casualty treatment ship, Argus, for the three weeks of Exercise Medical Endeavour.
Argus, one of four “cluster” ships assigned by the Ministry of Defence to Falmouth as a base port for repairs, sailed from here two weeks ago to participate in military exercises off the coast of Devon and Cornwall.
Medical staff on Argus will be expected to deal with the full range of injuries they might expect in a 21st Century conflict – in this instance conflict off the fictional country of Gwamalia in the Horn of Africa: wounds caused by gunfire, home-made bombs, burns and also troops psychologically traumatised by war.
Many of the medics are freshly returned from Afghanistan and will use their experiences dealing with battle casualties in the field hospital at Camp Bastion in a similar facility aboard Argus.
Purchased by the MoD in 1985, Argus was converted to an aviation training ship at the shipyard of Harland & Wolff, in Belfast, with the addition of extended accommodation, a flight deck, aircraft lifts and naval radar and communications suites. She is now effectively a helicopter support carrier operating aircraft from her former container deck with the RORO vehicle deck converted to an aircraft hangar.
A Primary Casualty Receiving Facility (military parlance for a hospital) was added before Argus was sent to participate in the 1991 Gulf War. During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Argus was again present in the Persian Gulf as an offshore hospital for coalition troops, earning the nickname “BUPA Baghdad”. Although she carries a hospital facility, Argus is not a hospital ship as she does not meet the definition given by the Geneva Convention for such a unit. This was a deliberate decision by the MoD to give Argus greater operational flexibility. As a hospital ship she would be unable to simultaneously perform other logistics roles in support of military operations, or return troops back to theatre. It also gives the Argus the ability to operate much closer to the front line therefore shortening any time it takes for casualties to reach the ship.
The Argus features a state-of-the-art treatment centre – split over three decks, with an operating theatre, CT scanner, X-Ray facilities, an intensive care unit, high-dependency ward and two general wards. In all, it can cope with 100 patients.
The aim of the medical centre is to provide life-saving support and stabilise the wounded so that they can be flown back to the UK for long-term care – just like in Helmand. The facility was last used for real during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but even in peacetime it has a permanent staff to look after it and is at five days' notice to be activated.
Staff will also be expected to cope with equipment breaking down and the evacuation of Argus by putting casualties on special stretchers and lowering them down slides into liferafts. It is the first time any attempt has been made to evacuate the complex.
The exercise is due to reach its climax over five days, beginning on March 12.
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