Royal Navy’s Minehunters Join American Counterparts in Major Minehunting Exercise
Six Royal Navy and RFA ships, plus specialist dive teams and Fleet Air Arm squadrons joined their American counterparts in a major minehunting exercise in the Gulf. The joint workout – billed as the most extensive of its kind in several years – saw the two allies work together to clear a path through a practice minefield for a large cargo ship, fending off any surface threats as they went.
Royal Navy minehunters cleared a 1,000-yard-wide ‘path’ through the Gulf for a cargo ship in one of the largest Anglo-American exercises of its kind.
Eleven ships, plus specialist dive teams, miniature robot submarines, fast patrol boats and helicopter squadrons joined forces for several days. US and UK naval forces work side-by-side in the Gulf region on a daily basis, and combined minehunting exercises are reasonably commonplace.
But the scale of the latest joint link-up and the variety of ships, aircraft and other assets available took things to the next level.
Three of the Royal Navy’s four minehunters based in the region – HMS Ramsey, Shoreham (which specialise in finding mines in shallower waters) and HMS Atherstone (designed to hunt mines in deeper seas) – joined three of their American counterparts, plus support ships (RFA Cardigan Bay and Diligence from the UK, the USS Ponce from the USA), Fleet Air Arm surveillance Sea Kings and Lynx, American Sea Dragon minehunting helicopters, clearance divers, and British and American teams operating Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (small remote-controlled submarines equipped with sonar to scan the seabed).
For added realism, the threat of surface ships attacking the slow-moving mine force was thrown into the fix.
On hand to fend off this threat were frigate HMS Montrose, destroyer USS Bulkeley and fast US Navy riverine combat boats, plus helicopters directed from the operations rooms of the Bulkeley and Montrose.
Rather than clear an entire minefield, the principal aim of the exercise was to clear a route through a stretch of sea sown with mines sufficiently wide – about 1,000 yards – for a very large cargo ship to pass safely with her escorts.
“This is the largest scale UK-US MCM exercise in recent memory – partly for its sizeable inventory and partly for its complexity,”
explained Capt Richard Hayes USN, directing the exercise with his Anglo-American staff aboard the command ship USS Ponce.
“It is a very busy picture.”
The Royal Navy minehunters used their sonars to scour the seabed and water column for any suspicious items – and once a ‘contact of interest’ was located, the ships launched their disposal system Seafox to identify it, courtesy of the live TV feed the small robot submersible sent back to the mother ship.
In the operations room mine warfare ratings such as Able Seaman Josh Batty monitored the contacts.
“The exercise has been a really good experience.
“This is my first ship and I only arrived on the Wednesday, we sailed on Friday and so it has been a real baptism of fire.”
If the contact turned out to be a mine, a Seafox armed with an explosive charge is sent in – or the ship’s clearance divers – to neutralise the threat. In the case of practice mines, it fell to the divers to recover them and bring them back to the ships.
“We identified and recovered several suspicious contacts,”
said HMS Shoreham’s Leading Diver Ian Rowe.
“When you see the mine coming up – even when it is a dummy, designed for training use only – it makes the job worthwhile.”
As well as conducting mine clearance, one of the key tests was the ability to sustain the minehuntings for sustained periods by berthing next to larger ships – such as Cardigan Bay – for fuel, water, ammunition, supplies and food, a process known as ‘rafting’.
“It has been a good learning experience, with plenty of training benefits as we continue to practice our routines with the UK mine counter-measures vessels – and refreshing similar procedures with the US ships,”
aid Cardigan Bay’s navigator 1st Officer Gordon Peebles from Falkirk.
“Rafting with the Americans was a real highlight.”
Built as an amphibious ship to support Royal Marines’ operations, Cardigan Bay is acting as the mother/command ship for the Royal Navy’s Gulf minehunters.
She’s home to the UK Mine Warfare Battle Staff, led by Commander Neil Marriott, which directed activities on the surface of the Gulf for this exercise, including dictating the search patterns for the minehunters.
Also using the Bay-class ship as a base were the US riverine boats and a Lynx of 815 Naval Air Squadron which carried out security patrols, while Airborne Surveillance and Control Sea Kings looked down on the waters of the Gulf and monitored traffic with their radar.
Completing the British presence on the exercise was floating repair ship RFA Diligence was on hand to meet the day-to-day engineering requirements of the mine force, bolstered by a specialist team of minehunter engineers: Fleet Support Unit 2, which is normally based in Bahrain, the hub of Royal Navy operations in the Gulf.
“We work closely with the marine and weapon engineer officers on the ships to identify any issues,”
explained PO Matt ‘Waggy’ Wagstaff, support unit team leader.
“Our primary role is to ensure the ships are at their full capability, be it through maintenance support or defect repair.”
Lieutenant Commander Simon Rogers, HMS Atherstone’s Commanding Officer said,
“Overall the Anglo-American workout had been challenging for my ship’s company and offered a chance to develop our skills with the US.”
“The exercise has been extremely valuable – long periods of mine hunting to test the equipment and my personnel.
“This allows us to improve continuously our skills, to ensure the Royal Navy remains at the forefront of global mine counter measure performance.”
Press Release, October 08, 2013; Image: Royal Navy