by Sam Bannister
UNEASY encounters with Iranian patrol vessels, delicate refuelling operations, and constant vigilance in one of the most important shipping lanes for global oil supply.
Sailors on board the Royal Navy‚Äôs newest front-line destroyer are putting the cutting edge warship ‚Äì and themselves ‚Äì to the test in the hostile waters of the Gulf.
The News¬†has been given exclusive access to Portsmouth-based HMS Dragon and her crew as they keep up the fight to protect the world‚Äôs most vital shipping lanes.
Thousands of miles from home, the sailors are battling the heat and humidity of the Middle East to keep the waterways safe as part of a commitment to security in the region.
There has not been an incident of piracy in the Gulf or Indian Ocean for more than a year, but that does not entitle the ship or her crew to relax.
Instead, they constantly patrol the seas, deterring criminal activity, reassuring traders, and honing their skills should they be called to action.
That job is even more difficult when you consider they are operating in a new class of warship stretching her sea legs on a deployment for the first time.
Captain Iain Lower, the ship‚Äôs commanding officer, said: ‚ÄòWe‚Äôre setting a ship‚Äôs reputation, for the life of the ship, and we are able to set that trajectory which she will follow for many years to come.
‚ÄòAnd so far the deployment has been a great success.
‚ÄòThe ship has responded to everything we have asked of her. It is a very challenging atmosphere, with the heat and the humidity.
‚ÄòWe have to come out here and learn how to operate in an environment in which we may have to fight. We have proved it can be done.‚Äô
The environment of the Gulf has presented challenges itself for both the ship and those who serve in her.
Engineers have their work cut out to keep the destroyer‚Äôs power and propulsion stable in the warm waters, and helicopter mechanics are dealing with the prevalence of dust and sand in their machinery.
But sailors from all decks of the ship have spoken of their pride at building up a hefty list of achievements in their time away, setting the groundwork for the navy‚Äôs understanding of Type 45s and how they operate.
HMS Dragon is working as part of the Combined Maritime Force ‚Äì a partnership between 29 nations formed with the aim of protecting 2.5m square miles of water.
For 35 years, the Royal Navy has officially been sending ships to the region on a temporary basis for warm water and warm weather operations.
But now the service is ready to lift the lid on its Middle East commitment, and¬†The News¬†is the first UK media organisation to witness the work of the UK‚Äôs Maritime Component Command.
Mission protects nation
HMS Dragon deployed in March to calm the waters of the Gulf and keep piracy and other criminal activity at bay.
Maritime security in the region is vital, not just for the stability of the Middle East, but for the safety of the global economy.
In a typical week, more than 500 ships will pass through the Strait of Hormuz.
Around 300 of them are energy carriers, bringing 40 per cent of the world‚Äôs seaborne traded oil.
Last year, the UK imported more than ¬£400m worth of crude oil from the Middle¬†East.
In the same year, almost 30 per cent of the country‚Äôs gas imports came by sea, and more than 97 per cent of that came from Qatar and Egypt.
Piracy cost the international economy almost ¬£4bn in 2012, which is ¬£650m less than in 2011.
But the efforts of the maritime community in fighting piracy are clearly working.
As of May this year, there had not been a single hijacked vessel in the previous 12 months.
‚ÄòIt‚Äôs easy to think of warships as just hulls‚Äô
IN the past few days, I have stood on a warship‚Äôs bridge wings at night and watched a procession of fighter jets roar through the sky above,¬†says defence correspondent Sam Bannister.
I‚Äôve lost my weight in sweat climbing around engine spaces in temperatures well into the 40s, and proved my seaworthiness by not going green around the gills while being chucked around on board a fast sea boat five minutes after breakfast.
I‚Äôve even steered a minehunter through the Gulf of Oman ‚Äî for a couple of minutes, at least.
All in all, an exhilarating experience for a defence correspondent on an assignment in the Middle East, but a full-time job for those on board.
I didn‚Äôt have to stand for hours in the hazy heat, making sure refuelling procedures go off without a hitch, nor did I have to sweat in the ship‚Äôs hangar, making sure the helicopter is ready to fly at a moment‚Äôs notice.
I didn‚Äôt have to cook meals for the ship‚Äôs company, or look after the turbines, air conditioning, or fresh water supply.
And after six days, I flew home. Six days, not seven months like those on board.
It‚Äôs easy to think of warships as just the grey hulls we see passing in and out of Portsmouth Harbour on a daily basis, and not stop to consider the people who keep them afloat.
I was fortunate to meet many of HMS Dragon‚Äôs crew, from the captain to the youngest junior rating.
Everyone had their own sense of naval humour, and more than a few stories to tell, but they all had one thing in common ‚Äî a sense of pride at a job well done, and the quiet confidence which comes attached to professionals who are the best in their field.
It was a privilege to see them at work.