More than a dozen warships and auxiliaries ‚Äì four of them British ‚Äì joined forces in the Gulf haze at the half-way stage of the biggest mine warfare exercise ever held in the Middle East. The force mustered ‚Äì including command ship RFA Cardigan Bay and minehunters HMS Shoreham, Ramsey ‚Äì comprises nearly the half the participants in the exercise which ends on Friday.
Disappearing into the ever-present Gulf heat haze, these 14 warships and auxiliaries ‚Äì four of them British ‚Äì comprise nearly half the participants in the biggest mine warfare exercise ever staged in the Middle East.
The ships ‚Äì plus two US Navy Seahawk helicopters ‚Äì formed up over the weekend, half way through the fortnight-long International Mine Countermeasures Exercise (IMCMEX).
Present here from the UK are RFA Cardigan Bay (foreground right), plus three out of four of the Royal Navy‚Äôs Bahrain-based minehunting force: Sandowns HMS Shoreham and Ramsey (left and centre, astern of the lead ships), and one of the two Hunts either HMS Atherstone or Quorn (we can‚Äôt make out in the gloom).
Off Cardigan Bay‚Äôs starboard beam is the USS Ponce (pronounced pon-say), a veteran amphibious assault ship converted into a command vessel for American minehunting forces ‚Äì and from where IMCMEX is being directed.
In all 40 nations and nearly three dozen warships and auxiliaries responded to the invitation to take part in the second IMCMEX, with specialist dive teams, minehunting experts and observers, mini robot submersibles all involved. Of the 6,500 personnel participating, roughly one in ten is British.
The aim of the exercise is to show that if any nation or organisation chose to mine the waters of the Seven Seas, naval forces from across the globe could deal with that problem ‚Äì wherever and whenever.
‚ÄúMine warfare has often been neglected, particularly in large navies, but it is absolutely necessary in a balanced navy. If you want to carry out naval operations, you must be able to deal with mines,‚Äù
says the American directing IMCMEX aboard the USS Ponce, Cdre Glenn Allen.
‚ÄúMines are cheap ‚Äì a $10,000 mine can destroy a $1bn ship. And there is something evocative about someone telling you that you cannot sail somewhere where you have a right to do go.‚Äù
As well as minehunting and keeping sea lines open, a key strand of the two-week-long exercise is the general protection of infrastructure such as ports and the many oil rigs and platforms which pepper the waters of the Gulf, plus the safe passage of a convoy.
For the latter, naval vessels ‚Äì including new destroyer, HMS Dragon, the UK‚Äôs sixth and final IMCMEX participant ‚Äì and a large natural gas tanker are travelling in convoy through the Strait of Hormuz, one of the oceans‚Äô great choke points, led by mine countermeasures ships.
Thirty per cent of the world‚Äôs sea-borne oil ‚Äì 17 million barrels of oil a day ‚Äì are shipped through Hormuz, while 90 per cent of the UK‚Äôs natural gas comes from the Gulf.
‚ÄúUnderstanding how to escort merchant ships through the Strait of Hormuz is a complicated evolution,‚Äù
says Dragon‚Äôs Commanding Officer Capt Iain Lower.
‚ÄúWe all have different cultures, different languages, different perspectives represented here and I enjoy the opportunity to be able to cut through all of that for a successful mission. There is a real sense of fulfilment in that.‚Äù
IMCMEX is due to conclude on Friday.