HMS Portland chases down star of the Hunt for Red October

Topic: Fighting armsSurface Fleet

Not Sean Connery, or Alec Baldwin, but the American submarine which spent most of the blockbuster movie stalking a supposedly undetectable Soviet boat.

USS Dallas played mouse and a host of warships, led by Britain’s HMS Portland, played cat in the Gulf of Oman as allied nations came together for a large-scale anti-submarine exercise.

The UK, France, USS and Australia all committed forces to what the Royal Navy calls GASWEX (Gulf Anti-Submarine Warfare EXercise) and Americans call SHAREM (Ship Anti-Submarine Warfare Readiness and Evaluation Measurement).

It’s been a while since Britain was involved in a GASWEX – but it’s an opportunity not to be missed with real assets to play work: real aircraft (French maritime patrol aircraft peppering the Gulf of Oman with sonobuoys), real hunters (HMAS Perth, two American Arleigh-Burkes USS Mason and Nitze), a real ‘high-value target’ to protect in the form of British supply ship RFA Fort Victoria, and a real submarine.

In Tom Clancy’s Cold War thriller, the USS Dallas successfully stalked the Soviet super sub Red October across the North Atlantic.

A quarter of a century later, the now veteran hunter-killer is still in service with the US Navy – and still a threat to be reckoned with as she tried to evade the dragnet across the Indian Ocean and ‘sink’ Fort Victoria.

“The chance to operate with our allies in challenging conditions with a ‘live asset’ is invaluable – the team had some valuable ‘in contact’ time with a live submarine,” said PO Stuart McLaughlin, one of Portland’s underwater warfare specialists.

“These chances are few and far between, so the whole team from the commanders down relished the opportunity – and the challenge.”

The 30-year-old from Glasgow continued: “It’s important that we learn how to work with our allies in all spheres of warfare to ensure that we can act with minimal effort should the occasion ever arise.

“At times, the exercise was a challenge, but the underwater team have all taken away some valuable experience.”

Hunting submarines doesn’t just require the concentration of the two dozen souls in Portland’s operations room, but all 200 sailors and Royal Marines on board – whether on duty or not.

“They are expected to move around the ship silently, not play loud music and avoid doing anything that might give Portland’s position away,” explained weapon engineer officer Lt Cdr Adam Robertson.

His ship is regarded the Royal Navy’s senior submarine hunter – thanks in no small part to her commanding officer, Captain Paul Stroude, in charge of his third warship.

But Portland faced some serious competition in the form of the Mason, a destroyer assigned to protect the mighty carrier USS Eisenhower – and a ship which prides itself in finding the enemy below.

“It’s no secret that we’ve been one of the better, if not the best ship in the Atlantic Fleet for a long time,” said Command Master Chief Ronn Shasky, pointing to the anti-submarine warfare ‘Bloodhound’ trophy the Mason holds. Never someone to rest on his laurels, he adds: “We love training. We love showing how much we’ve learned, how much we’ve absorbed, and continuing Mason’s great legacy as submarine fighters.”

So when other ships – mostly strangers – joined the hunt, it wasn’t too hard for like-minded sailors to collaborate.

“We started out as four ships that have never worked together,” said Lt Cdr Thomas Hobbs, Portland’s second in command.

“We came together using a whole series of common tactics and procedures we learned from our home navies and we put them into practice in a difficult area of the world for anti-submarine warfare. We improved on them and accomplished what we set out to do.”

Portland sailed from her native Plymouth in mid-June for a nine-month patrol of the Gulf and Indian Ocean supporting the international naval mission clamping down on smuggling, trafficking, terrorism and piracy.

It’s important that we learn how to work with our allies in all spheres of warfare to ensure that we can act with minimal effort should the occasion ever arise.

PO Stuart McLaughlin