Royal Navy’s Gulf force gears up for world’s biggest minehunting exercise

Silhouetted against a golden sunrise in the Gulf, Royal Navy divers head out to deal with mines in the curtain-raiser to the world’s largest mine warfare exercise.

Four British ships – plus several American – took part in a warm-up for next month’s International Mine Countermeasures Exercise with four days of round-the-clock action on, above and below the waves.

Frigate HMS St Albans, mienhunters Middleton and Bangor and their mother/support ship RFA Cardigan Bay were put to the test alongside the American minehunter USS Gladiator, while the military tug USNS Catawba sowed the waters of the Gulf with practice mines for the hunters to find, neutralise or recover.

Over the four days of the workout the international force was tested on its ability to work together, fend off air attacks, blow up targets with their guns, conduct boardings and searches of suspicious vessels, put divers in the water as well as clearing the mock minefield.

“This is a perfect example of how successfully a multi-national force can integrate and work together to hone its skills in difficult and changeable environmental conditions. Understanding the nuances of each area is key as we work maintain freedom of navigation and ensure safety in the region,” said Commander Jools Howe, in charge of the Mine Warfare Battle Staff which was directing proceedings from support ship RFA Cardigan Bay.

The Royal Navy has been a part of this series of exercises for many years, and it is a real demonstration of how quickly ships can join together and work effectively

Commander Rich Hutchings

While the minehunters were engaged in route clearing, HMS St Albans repeatedly fought off a series of air raids from a number of fast jets. The frigate worked tirelessly with her allies to successfully defend a ‘high-value asset’ – a key ship in the formation – from wave after wave of simulated bomber and missile attacks.

The Portsmouth-based frigate’s combined boarding team of Royal Navy and Royal Marines also had the opportunity to work closely with their international counterparts.

During a series of exercises, which involved securing compartments and searching personnel, HMS St Albans’ team were able to demonstrate the techniques which the ship has used to great effect during her deployment so far; she’s been away from home since before Christmas spending most of her time searching the Indian Ocean for terrorists, pirates and smugglers.

“The Royal Navy has been a part of this series of exercises for many years, and it is a real demonstration of how quickly ships can join together and work effectively,” said St Albans’ Commanding Officer Commander Rich Hutchings.

British sailors also took part in friendly sporting competitions with the other participating nations on the eve of the exercise.

“Taking part in the tug of war was awesome, as well as watching the volleyball and soccer games,” said Able Seaman Scott Hulme from HMS Bangor.

“It goes to show how we’re all on the same team. It was definitely a great and friendly way to help build relationships with the other nations.”

The Royal Navy’s Bahrain-based minehunting forces – four hunters plus Cardigan Bay – will be heavily engaged in the latest IMCMEX which runs for three weeks from April 4.

Staged every two years, it’s billed as the biggest test of mine warfare forces in the world – and possibly the world’s largest naval exercise given its size and scope. Around 30 nations are signed up for the 2016 incarnation.