Navy's No.1 submarine hunters rise to challenge in fjords

Navy submarine hunters spent a fortnight tracking underwater foes in Norway’s narrow fjords as they honed skills to meet the growing Russian challenge.

Trainee and experienced aircrew from 824 and 820 Naval Air Squadrons spent a fortnight near Bergen trying to track down two elusive submarines – using the world’s number one submarine-hunting helicopter.

With the Royal Navy – and NATO – re-focusing their efforts in the North Atlantic in light of increased Russian activity, anti-submarine warfare in the Royal Navy – typically delivered by a combination of Merlin helicopters, Type 23 frigates and Trafalgar or Astute-class hunter-killer submarines beneath the waves – is undergoing a renaissance.

Culdrose squadrons decamp to Sicily every year for NATO’s Mediterranean submarine hunt, Dynamic Manta, testing their ability to track underwater foes in warmer climes.

To come here and operate against a foreign submarine in their own backyard is both a privilege and a challenge.

Sub Lieutenant Micky Hutton RN

And for the past couple of years, Merlin Mk2 crews have taken advantage of Norwegian hospitality for their Rogue series of anti-submarine exercises – last year Rogue Wizard, this year Rogue Falcon.

The Norwegians offered their main naval base at Haakonsvern, just south of Bergen, as home to the Merlin detachment, plus the frigate Roald Amundsen at sea, for the fortnight-long exercise.

Two Merlins with air and ground crew were sent from Culdrose via Prestwick and the Shetlands to Norway – a journey of nearly 950 miles which allowed rookie pilots, observers and aircrewmen to plan a lengthy flight through busy UK airspace instead of the five-minute hop to their normal training areas off the Lizard peninsula.

Lurking in the North Sea and fjords around Bergen – where the water temperature is similar to that off the Cornish coast, but depth and salinity are completely different – were two diesel-powered submarines: Norway’s Utsira and Germany’s U-36.

The Merlin crews flew daylight sorties to locate, track and attack the submarines, first in open waters, then in the more confined environment of the narrow, deep fjords of the Hordaland region.

“To come here and operate against a foreign submarine in their own backyard is both a privilege and a challenge,” said Sub Lieutenant Micky Hutton, a student observer – in charge of the submarine hunt by operating the hi-tech suite of sensors in the back of the Merlin.

“We’re extremely thankful to the Norwegian and German crews for the opportunity to further develop our skills.”

Working alongside him as a sonics operator was trainee leading aircrewman Will ‘Tugz’ Brown: “The environment is just so different from that off Cornwall – the deep fjords mixed with the fresh water glacial runoff make locating submarines extremely challenging.

“Thankfully, training in our aircraft and simulators prepared us well for the exercise.”

Student pilot Lieutenant Callum Moir said the two weeks in Norway had been a “fantastic boost” for everyone involved.

“So far in our careers we have only operated in the UK and it’s testimony to our years of training that we have been able to deploy two aircraft across the North Sea and operate them effectively against foreign submarines in the deep Norwegian fjords.”

Downtime with the German and Norwegian submariners also gave the aviators a different view of the hunt, as student observer Sub Lieutenant Nik Wielbo explained: "It was very helpful to hear how helicopter anti-submarine warfare tactics affect submariners. I gained a really valuable insight into our work as a result.”

Detachment Commander Lieutenant Hannah Best said the fliers returned to Cornwall having learned invaluable lessons.

“The North Atlantic remains one of the most important areas of operation for the Royal Navy,” she added.

“The techniques and experiences are transferrable across a range of environments and the excellent training opportunities, sharing deep specialist knowledge, contributes to maintaining our tactical edge.”