Ships thwart mass attack as autumn war game begins

The week began with a bang for Royal Navy warships taking part in the UK’s biggest war game of the autumn.

Ships leaving Faslane to begin the two-week-long Joint Warrior exercise faced swarms of attacks from fast boats – the weapon of choice of terrorists looking to attack shipping in the Middle East.

The cry “Quickdraw, quickdraw, quickdraw…” echoed through Royal Navy warships negotiating the confined waters of the Clyde estuary, summoning gunnery teams to their weapons to fend off massed assaults by fast-moving speed boats.

It’s precisely the sort of attack ships fear – lots of attackers, confined and congested waters – and practise regularly for; gunnery training focuses on this ‘asymmetric threat’, including using laser targeting to improve accuracy against fast-moving, zig-zagging, erratic foes.

It’s tense but this is what the Fighting Clan thrives on.

Lieutenant Commander Tom Knott, Sutherland’s Second-in-Command

Portsmouth minehunter HMS Hurworth followed by frigate HMS Sutherland, based in Plymouth, were first out of Faslane to run the gauntlet as the pair headed for the Cumbrae Gap.

The Fighting Clan launched her Merlin Mk2 helicopter, call sign Highlander, to watch over the duo as they slowly made their way down the Clyde estuary (Hurworth’s top speed is 17 knots – 20mph).

The eyes in the sky of the Merlin – from 814 Naval Air Squadron, based at Culdrose in Cornwall –provided timely warning of the impending ‘swarmex’ (swarm exercise), as speedboats emerged from a small inlet, intent on causing havoc.

Warning messages were broadcast over the radio, but when these were ignored, the onus fell on the ship’s protection teams on both ships to fend off the swarms using machine-guns and Mini-guns (hand-held Gatling guns), with Sutherland also able to weigh in with her 30mm automatic cannon. And Highlander added to the hail of steel raining down on the fast inshore attack craft with her aircrewman manning a 50 calibre machine-gun picking off the enemy from on high.

“We really dialled up the complexity of this ‘beat-’em-up’ exercise – multiple fast-attack craft, the close proximity of land, our helicopter providing machine-gun support and a minehunter for us to protect – this is realistic and highly-valuable training,” said Lieutenant Commander Tom Knott, Sutherland’s Second-in-Command.

“It isn’t as simple as bringing guns to bear, however. We must consider Rules of Engagement and the implications of opening fire versus the escalation of diplomatic tensions. It’s tense but this is what the Fighting Clan thrives on.”

The ‘swarmex’ was the first test of Joint Warrior 19-2 for the participating naval forces. Run in the spring and autumn, the exercise – directed from Clyde naval base – tests the ability of air, sea and land forces to work together.

A dozen NATO nations are committed to this latest Joint Warrior which will involve 3,725 personnel (2,771 of them sailors and marines, 635 from air forces and 319 troops on the ground) 16 warships, three submarines and nearly 60 aircraft, three quarters of them jets.