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HMS Portland deployment update

20 September 2016
HMS Portland is currently in the Operation Kipion Joint Operations Area as part of the first phase of her nine-month deployment.

After leaving UK waters she has travelled through the Mediterranean and Suez Canal, into (and out of) the Arabian Gulf and is now conducting counter-trafficking operations in the Indian Ocean.

The Type 23 frigate sailed from Plymouth in mid-June to commence her passage to the area of operations.

The journey South took her across the Bay of Biscay and around the Portuguese and Spanish coasts into the Mediterranean, passing such hallowed naval milestones as Cape St Vincent, Cape Trafalgar and the Strait of Gibraltar, en route.

Final departure from the UK brought the benefits of a full Ship’s Company and the time and freedom to determine her own programme, enabling the Ship to commence an extensive series of drills and exercises to continue to work up to full readiness.

Despite unseasonable thick fog and the unwelcome attentions of a pair of large fin whales, the Ship was were able to conduct a Combined Anti-Submarine Exercise (CASEX) against a French nuclear submarine en route, as well as practicing concurrent flying operations with the Lynx helicopter (#LastLynx) and new Scan Eagle Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. 

Although the Ship did not stop, Gibraltar afforded the opportunity to conduct a sovereignty patrol in British Gibraltarian Territorial Waters and to exercise the embarked Royal Marine and Royal Navy Boarding Teams against a locally chartered vessel.

A key role for the Royal Navy is providing Maritime Security by safeguarding the high seas for the passage of merchant shipping on which the UK and global economies both depend.  Since leaving the UK, Portland has provided Maritime Security in 3 Seas, 2 Oceans and along the coast of 3 continents.  The journey has also included transits of some of the world’s most dangerous choke points.

HMS Portland was greeted by the full force of the summer heat as she entered the Mediterranean proper, and made a short port visit to Cagliari, on the Italian island of Sardinia. Here the Ship’s Company met the homeward-bound HMS Defender and attended a series of theatre briefings onboard while also exchanging various items of equipment.

Continuing east at high speed in calm seas, the Ship made a dramatic 28-knot night passage through the Strait of Messina (of Scylla and Charybdis fame), between Sicily and the Italian mainland, before pausing amongst islands at the eastern side of the Ionian Sea to fire the main, medium-range gun and all smaller weapons on a Greek sea range.

A short hop South from here took her to the NATO naval base in the magnificent natural harbour of Souda Bay, on the north coast of Crete.  Souda Bay offers a NATO facility that allowed all weapons and sensors to be calibrated and tested prior to commencing operations ‘East of Suez’.

The Ship spent a full week there, sailing each day with a cargo of Greek scientists and their equipment onboard to conduct trials, while each evening allowing the Ship’s Company to venture to the nearby beaches or local town of Chania.

Whilst in the Mediterranean Portland supported Operation Active Endeavour, a maritime operation commanded by NATO that was formed in October 2001 following the September 11 attacks on the USA.  The primary aim is to defend, deter and protect against terrorism.  Portland contributed a visible presence for NATO as well providing intelligence to assist counter terrorist activity.

The real business of the deployment commenced in earnest after departing Souda Bay for the Suez Canal.  HMS Portland settled into her operational posture of Defence Watches, with 50 percent of the Ship’s Company on watch at any time. 

They worked in 6 or 12-hour shifts with all weapons at immediate notice, and a higher state of watertight integrity maintained.  Happily the transit of the Suez Canal, always a potential terrorist target, passed uneventfully and was remarkable only for yet another dramatic hike in temperature and humidity.

From here onwards the environmental conditions, including heat, dust, high sea water temperatures and south west monsoon winds, presented a constant challenge to both people and equipment.

On leaving the Mediterranean Portland joined Operation Kipion.  This long standing naval commitment, which dates back to the 1980’s (although then was under the name Operation Armilla), aims to promote security and stability in the Arabian Gulf and Indian Ocean, including deterring piracy off the Horn of Africa.

Emerging into the aptly named Red Sea, HMS Portland conducted a brief port visit to Safaga, in Egypt, to undertake Defence Engagement with the Egyptian Navy.

This was the first visit by a Royal Navy warship to Egypt for 7 years and was well received locally.  Arrival in the Red Sea also marked the start of operations in support of Combined Maritime Forces, a 32-nation American-led coalition focussed on improving maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation for merchant shipping in the Red Sea, western Indian Ocean and the Gulf. 

Over 40 percent of the world’s merchant traffic, by volume and value, passes through 3 strategic choke points in the Middle East; the Suez Canal, the Bab El-Mandeb Strait and the Strait of Hormuz.

The UK enjoys deputy command of all coalition forces, and also periodically provides the staff to command one of the 3 subordinate Task Forces operating in the area.

These Task Forces focus on counter-terrorism, counter-trafficking (of narcotics, people, fuel, weapons or charcoal), counter-piracy and also seek to promote security and stability.

After safely passing through the Bab El-Mandeb Strait at the southern end of the Red Sea, the Ship refuelled at sea from a German naval tanker before steaming east and then north along the coasts of Yemen and Oman en route to the Gulf.

During an intense period inside the Arabian Gulf, Portland conducted port visits to Bahrain and Abu Dhabi to strengthen ties with both coalition forces and host nations.

This international defence engagement continued at sea with joint operations culminating in a high-profile, multi-national exercise, Falcon Warrior. This exercise involved Portland’s boarding team showing off their skills by providing training in vessel search and seizure for our Gulf Co-operation Council allies, using patrol craft from the US Navy and Coast Guard as target vessels.

This included Naval forces from Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, not an easy task due to cultural and language barriers.  However it is vital for long term stability that countries in this region of the world play an active role in combating terrorism and smuggling.

Of course the Royal Navy’s role isn’t just hunting the bad guys; it is also about providing re-assurance to those in the region.  Whilst in the Arabian Gulf the Boarding party, working with the USCG and USN as part of Operation Al-Farooq, carried out numerous Approach and Assist visits monitoring patterns of life and providing support and re-assurance to the fisherman who ply their trade in the area.

The teams were welcomed onboard by the locals, shown around and even offered food and drink.  "It was great to actually board and chat to the guys out in the Gulf," says Marine Tim Hodgett (24), from Northern Ireland.  "They were all very welcoming and pleased to see us."

As Portland was about to exit the Gulf she was tasked with escorting 2 Mine Hunters, HMS Bangor and HMS Middleton, through the Strait of Hormuz. 

The convoy of ships travelled in close company under the protective umbrella of Portland’s Sea Wolf missile system while ensuring that several interested vessels from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Navy did not get too close.  

RFA Fort Victoria then met up with Portland in the Indian Ocean for a major Replenishment at Sea, before they both commenced a Gulf Anti-Submarine Warfare Exercise (GASWEX).  Next up was Muscat, Oman with a brief visit by a Royal Air Force of Oman (RAFO) Super Lynx on the transit in.

On sailing from Muscat an urgent distress call was received that an Iranian dhow was sinking with 15 people onboard.  Portland raced to the scene, cutting through heavy seas at 28 Knots, with her 2 Spey gas Turbines operating at maximum power. 

Assisted in the search by an Omani Maritime Patrol Aircraft and a nearby merchant vessel, Portland found the dhow after night had fallen, just before it sank.  Using her Rigid Hulled Inflatable Boats Portland helped transfer survivors to a second Iranian fishing dhow on the scene, ensuring all 15 crew were safely rescued. 

One survivor who was suffering from shock required medical attention in Portland before being returned to the fishing dhow for repatriation.

Portland now continues with her Maritime Security mission as she heads to South Africa for her mid deployment leave period.  The Ship’s Company will get an opportunity to fly home and see their families for a short period before embarking on the second half of their deployment.

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