Royal Navy auxiliary landing ship dock RFA Mounts Bay served as the test bed for a mobile US Navy minehunting force during a recent test off the coast of Virginia.
The test included helicopters, divers, remote-controlled boats and automated surveying machines and was intended to see whether a task force without a minehunter assigned to it could hunt mines by sending out a mobile team with all their kit – and to see whether it could be done on a British ship.
Around 120 US Navy sailors, civilians and contractors formed the ‘mine countermeasures mission module’ assigned to Mounts Bay, which has spent the winter hunting drug runners in the Caribbean.
In just three days at the US Navy’s main Atlantic base in Norfolk, Virginia, the support ship – designed to land Royal Marines and their equipment during amphibious operations – was turned into a makeshift hub of minehunting.
Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 28 – known as the Dragon Whales – flew their MH-60S Sea Hawks aboard. The helicopters are equipped with a new laser system to detect mines below the surface of the ocean as well as a new piece of kit which can neutralize them from the air.
In addition, the Textron Unmanned Surface Vehicle was loaded aboard; it can be sent off on missions lasting hundreds of miles, searching for mines or submarines. This was one of the first times it has been successfully operated from a ship at sea.
After all the planning and theory, Commander John Haase, commanding the US detachment aboard the British ship, said his team relished the chance to put all that into practice.
“There is an increased sense of realism and urgency with operating real systems off RFA Mounts Bay against simulated real-world threats,” he added.
“I have nothing but high regard for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary – they have been superb at assisting all aspects of this experiment; no request was regarded as too difficult.”
The ten-day exercise was eight months in the planning and organisers say it confirmed that ‘mobile minehunting’ is feasible – and that ships like the Bay class are well suited for such missions.
“At short notice Mounts Bay was reconfigured to operate as both a mine counter-measures command platform and a sea base to launch and recover manned and unmanned systems,” Captain Jed Macanley RFA, Mounts Bay’s commanding officer, said.