HMS Defender leads the way in world's largest mine warfare exercise

Under brilliant Gulf skies, destroyer HMS Defender leads half a dozen warships as the world’s largest test of mine warfare force gets under way. Over the next three weeks, men, women, ships, helicopters and automated submersibles from around the globe will show that they can deal with the threat of underwater explosive devices should anyone try to disrupt key shipping lanes.

Run every couple of years, the International Mine Counter-Measures Exercise – shortened to IMCMEX – focuses on keeping two of the world’s most important ‘choke points’ for shipping open: the Straits of Bab-al-Mandeb, at the foot of the Red Sea, and the Strait of Hormuz – gateway to and exit from the Gulf.  

Vice Admiral Kevin Donegan, in charge of both the US Fifth Fleet and operations by the Combined Maritime Forces – more than two dozen navies committed to keeping the waters of the Gulf and Indian Ocean safe – warned of the impact on the global economy should either of those points be ‘choked’.

Showcasing our ship and our sailors is not only a great opportunity for us to demonstrate what we can do, but also a chance for our families back home to be able to see the hard work that they support us in every day.

Lt Cdr 'Millie' Ingham, commanding officer of HMS Middleton

"Nearly 20 percent of the world's oil transits through the Strait of Hormuz every day," Admiral Donegan said.

"Imagine the impact on the global economy if suddenly that oil stops flowing because of restricted sea-lanes.

“This region is clearly important to the whole world. This exercise is a great opportunity for us to build proficiency and test the latest technology available for ensuring the global maritime commons stay open and secure."

Nearly three dozen countries from six continents are involved in the three-week exercise – either directly as participants, or observing proceedings.

Eight nations have committed ships to the exercise: aside from the Royal Navy, vessels from the USA, Iraq, Japan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan are involved.

In addition seven countries have dispatched specialist teams – such as boarding parties, divers and bomb disposal experts.

All their activities over the next fortnight, ranging from the Gulf of Aqaba to the Indian Ocean and Gulf itself, come under the direction of Commodore Will Warrender – who is also in charge of all Royal Navy forces east of Suez – from his headquarters in Bahrain.

“The exercise allows us to undertake practical training and to test our equipment in an exceedingly realistic environment," he said.

Among the British warships taking part is HMS Middleton – one of four Royal Navy minehunters permanently assigned to the Gulf.

Her phase of the exercise is concentrated in waters she knows well: the central Gulf.

Dummy mines have been spread across the seabed in the exercise area for the Hunt-class ship to locate and ‘destroy’ before non-minehunters and merchant ships can pass safely.

The first stage of the clearance – including finding one practice mine which was dealt with by Middleton’s divers – was watched by some of the international media attending IMCMEX; American observers noted that the Royal Navy trains divers as bomb disposal experts, whereas the Americans teach their bomb disposal experts how to dive.

“Showcasing our ship and our sailors is not only a great opportunity for us to demonstrate what we can do, but also a chance for our families back home to be able to see the hard work that they support us in every day,” said Middleton’s Commanding Officer Lt Cdr ‘Millie’ Ingham.

“This is not the first time my crew have been challenged, so we’ve been ready for the exercise. We’re thoroughly looking forward to getting out there to find mines.”