Royal Navy mine warfare experts tested to limit in three-week Gulf exercise

The full panoply of Anglo-American minehunting forces was rolled out in the Gulf for a major three-week workout.

Exercise 17-1 was the biggest test of the two Allies’ ships, systems, sailors and airmen this autumn as well over 500 experts in their field dealt with every conceivable underwater device planted to challenge them.

All five of the UK’s mine warfare vessels based in Bahrain put to sea: HM Ships Bangor, Penzance, Middleton and Chiddingfold, plus RFA Lyme Bay which serves as a command/supply/depot ship for British and Allied minehunters.

Like the Royal Navy, the Americans maintain a permanent force in Bahrain ready to respond should anyone try to mine the three main ‘choke points’ for shipping in the region – Suez, the Strait of Hormuz, gateway to the Gulf, and the Bab el Mandeb at the foot of the Red Sea – particularly as two fifths of the world energy needs are met by the natural reserves of the Gulf.

The US Navy committed three of its minehunters – USS Devastator, Gladiator and Dextrous, which are similar to our Hunts in ability (even down to the Seafox submersibles used by both to detect and destroy mines), but considerably larger and fitted with wooden decks.

They also detached a unit of giant MH53 Sea Dragon helicopters (seven tonnes heavier and 20ft longer than Royal Navy Merlins), unique in the western world as ‘flying minesweepers’; they can trail a cutting wire through the ocean to cut mines from their tethers, befor – such as REMUS, the seabed scanner, and Seafox which is used to locate, identify and destroy waters – were all in action, as were traditional ordnance clearance divers as the Brits and Americans neutralised a simulated minefield.

“The exercise was a great opportunity to prove our minehunting skills – and for me it has been both interesting and challenging as I got my first chance to dive on a buoyant mine,” said AB(D) Daniel Mulholland of HMS Middleton.

His ship specialises clearing shallower waters of mines. To discover those lurking further below requires a Sandown-class with a detachable sonar, like HMS Penzance. Her team made a vital contribution to the coalition’s understanding of the oceanography and environment of the Gulf by conducting sea bed surveys.

Her Commanding Officer Lieutenant Commander Neil Griffiths found the three-week exercise. He said, “an enjoyable and challenging period for my team in what are the most challenging environmental conditions for a mine counter-measures vessel. Working in close proximity to one another alongside our sister ships and allies builds on our confidence and experience, allowing us to reassure the maritime community in this region.”  

The exercise was planned and directed by the UK mine warfare force commander, Commander David Morgan, and his battle staff, who were aboard RFA Lyme Bay throughout.

Despite the common aim and some common equipment, the two navies still need to run regular combined exercises to ensure the sum is greater than the individual parts.

“My overall objective is to enhance surface and underwater mine hunting proficiency using various assets from the Royal and US Navies,” Commander Morgan explained.

“17-1 is one of several annual joint exercises which allow the coalition forces stationed in the Gulf to hone our skills and be able to respond to any mine threats.

“By continually training together the MCM component of the Combined Maritime Forces can help to safeguard the free flow of commerce in and out of the Gulf.”