Royal Navy helicopters key to £105m drugs bust in Indian Ocean

The Navy’s eyes in the sky helped seize £105m of hashish after a two-day hunt in the Indian Ocean.

Sea King Mk7 from RNAS Culdrose

Fliers from RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall spent two days searching hundreds of miles of ocean before they located the suspicious dhow.

The helicopter crew guided Australian frigate HMAS Warramunga to the vessel; the ship’s boarding team discovered more than 3½ tonnes of illegal narcotics hidden aboard – the Aussies’ second drugs haul in a week.

The drama began shortly before New Year with the Sea Kings of 849 Naval Air Squadron and their home, British support ship RFA Fort Rosalie, enjoying a festive season break in Salalah in Oman.

The ship sailed two days earlier than planned when alerted to the possibility of a drugs runner in her area and launched her Sea King helicopters to begin the search on New Year’s Day.

Fitted with specialist radar, the Sea Kings are able to track incoming aircraft as well as any movements on the ground or on the surface of the ocean – down to individual vehicles or vessels.

The helicopters were used to help Allied air power knock out Iraqi tanks in 2003 and helped track the movement of terrorists, insurgents, drugs and arms smugglers in Afghanistan.

There was a massive effort from all parties involved from both Fort Rosalie and, ultimately, Warramunga

Lieutenant Commander Dan Breward, Sea King detachment commander

The January 1 searches drew a blank, but when the hunt resumed at first light the next day, a dhow was found on its own far from usual shipping routes.

The Sea Kings kept an eye on the vessel using their radar, waiting for darkness for the Australians to close in and swoop to catch the trafficker unawares.

“There was a massive effort from all parties involved from both Fort Rosalie and, ultimately, Warramunga,” said Sea King detachment commander Lieutenant Commander Dan Breward.

“As long as drugs and weapons continue to be trafficked to aid terrorism, we will be here with the coalition members to stop them; we have a track record that we aim to build upon.” 

This was Warramunga’s fourth drugs seizure since arriving in the Middle East region to support the international effort to stop illegal activity in the Indian Ocean and Gulf region. Her crew have bagged 11½ tonnes of hashish and 69kg of heroin – worth nearly £350m on the streets of the UK.

“The Royal Navy helicopter was able to guide us to the suspect vessel that Warramunga’s boarding party searched at night, in difficult conditions. The boarding party did a first-rate job and was able to locate and seize more than three and a half tonnes of illegal narcotics,” said Commander Dugald Clelland, Warramunga’s Commanding Officer.

Both ships and the helicopters are working for Combined Task Force 150, an Australian-led international force of warships which patrols 2½ million square miles of Indian Ocean on the lookout for illegal activity – most of which funds terrorism and insurgency.

Task group commander Commodore Mal Wise, based in Bahrain, said the help of the Sea Kings and Fort Rosalie was “essential to locating the suspect vessel”.

He continued: “This highlights the excellent teamwork from nations contributing to our operations in the Middle East, and has a significant impact on the flow of illegal narcotics that fund terrorist networks.”