Anglo-American mine warfare ‘jigsaw’ ensures Allies are ready in Gulf

Britain and America threw the might of all their mine warfare forces into a major exercise in the Gulf.

The Royal Navy’s entire presence in the Middle East was committed on Mine Countermeasures Exercise 18-2, designed to see how the navies of Britain and the USA can combat the 21st-Century mine threat.

Three times a year, the UK and US merge their mine warfare forces in the Gulf to create a formidable task force capable of taking on advanced mine threats.

Exercise 18-2 (no.1 was actually held late in 2017) focused on a scenario similar to one naval forces dealt with in the 1980s during the so-called ‘tanker wars’ when the Gulf was sown with mines in an attempt to disrupt free trade and the stability of the region.

The combined task group was commanded from RFA Cardigan Bay – which normally serves as a mother ship for RN minehunters – by the Commander UK Mine Counter Measure Force, Commander Ashley Spencer and his 19-strong staff.

Under their direction in addition to the four RN ships stationed in Bahrain – HMS Ledbury, Middleton, Bangor and Blyth – were two robot minehunters, one American minehunter, British and American frogmen, specialist minehunting helicopters and a team of Royal Navy medics who set themselves up in Cardigan Bay’s sick bay, using the operating theatre and intensive care unit to show how the force would cope with mass casualties.

 

Cardigan Bay is awesome, offering me the space and flexibility to host and sustain a multitude of systems in a dynamic environment

Commander Ashley Spencer, Commander UK Mine Counter Measure Force

“As mine warfare experts, we never rest on our laurels,” Cdr Spencer explained. “Expeditions need access from sea to land and that’s our business.”

Leading the way as the exercise got under way were the Americans as unmanned boats of the US Mine Hunting Unit moved through suspected minefields, sparing divers the danger.

And ahead of crewless boats, giant MH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters, dragging side-scan sonars behind them, rapidly sweeping areas ahead of the minehunters and elite dive teams move in to clear underwater devices.

Both navies use either Seafox – a remote-controlled submersible – to identify and safely detonate a mine, or they send divers into the water to do the same, placing a small charge which is set off from a safe distance.

But not always.

“Conditions and weather weren’t with us, and the diving and mine recoveries were challenging to say the least, but we’ve been getting the job done,” said Diver David Kerrigan from HMS Ledbury.

His ship – as did the others – used Cardigan Bay to take on extra fuel and supplies, ensuring they can stay out of port and remain in the hunt for extended periods.

“Cardigan Bay is awesome, offering me the space and flexibility to host and sustain a multitude of systems in a dynamic environment,” Cdr Spencer added.

“With new technologies embarked, my staff must piece together the warfare jigsaw of ships, aircraft, boats and unmanned systems to defeat a simulated mining event in the region. We are ready.”