UK-US Mine Counter-measures Exercise

Six Royal Navy and two American ships, plus helicopters and mini-robot submarines joined forces for the year’s first major mine warfare exercise in the Gulf.

Three of the UK’s four Gulf-based minehunters – HMS Quorn, Ramsey and Shoreham – their mother ship RFA Cardigan Bay and two Royal Navy frigates, Northumberland and Monmouth, linked up with US forces for eight days.

The aim of the training with American Avenger-class minehunters USS Scout and Devastator was to sweep a corridor of sea free of mines so a (fictional) important ship could safely sail through it.

Before there could be any thought of beginning the training, however, the force had to wait for a shamal to pass. The seasonal wind, which blows across Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, brings sand and dust.

At worst, that means sandstorms; at best, the high levels of dust in the air can severely reduce visibility, putting great strain on bridge teams as small vessels often do not loom out of the gloom until they’re particularly close.

With the storm passed, the exercise could begin in earnest, directed from Cardigan Bay by the Royal Navy’s Cdr Jim Buck and the Mine Warfare Battle Staff.

Cardigan Bay was designed as a support ship for the Royal Marines amphibious operations. Right now, however, she’s serving as the support vessel and command ship for the Royal Navy’s Gulf minehunting force.

For this eight-day workout, however, she also embarked an additional 70 personnel, two US Navy sea boats and underwater unmanned vehicles – mini-robot submarines – and their associated kit.

That allowed the force to use the full panoply of mine hunting skills and equipment such as the RN’s Sonar 2193 which can detect objects on the seabed as small as a tin can; the Seafox submersible – long in service with the Royal Navy and now being introduced by the Americans – which identifies and destroys mines; Fleet Diving Unit 3, who are experts in bomb disposal; clearance divers from HMS Atherstone, the only RN Gulf minehunter not partaking in the combined exercise.

The divers and submersibles made use of Cardigan Bay’s loading dock, floating in and out of the cavernous feature on sea boats, while US Navy Seahawk helicopters flew on to and off the ship’s flight deck.

Fulfilling her role as a mother ship, the Bay-class ship provided fuel, water, food, ammunition, stores and supplies to the five minehunters – basically anything they required (within reason). That was delivered by bringing the small vessels alongside Cardigan Bay, a manoeuvre known as rafting up.

While the mine warfare teams were doing their bit in the warm, sandy waters of the Gulf, for added excitement frigates Northumberland and Monmouth entered the fray to test Cardigan Bay’s responses to attacks.

These forays were met with stiff resistance from the ship’s company, plus US riverine patrol boats which were operating from the loading dock as protection for the task force.

“Once again Cardigan Bay and her crew have shown themselves to be fully capable of supporting coalition warships in a demanding operational theatre,” said Capt Paul Minter RFA, the auxiliary’s commanding officer.

“We’ve demonstrated our versatility as an integral part of the Naval presence in the Gulf region.”

The eight-day exercise was part of an intensive period of training for the RN’s Gulf-based mine warfare forces leading up to a major exercise in May.

Navies and forces from more than 20 nations spanning four continents will come together for International Mine Countermeasures Exercise 13, the biggest event of its type in the Middle East region.

It follows the inaugural such exercise – IMCMEX 12 – over ten days in September which saw 3,000 personnel from over 30 nations working together across 1,000 miles of ocean.

Once again Cardigan Bay and her crew have shown themselves to be fully capable of supporting coalition warships in a demanding operational theatre.

Capt Paul Minter