Here be dragons – one of the US Navy Sea Dragon helicopters in the exercise.
By Gavin Carr
Faslane-based Royal Navy mine-hunters HMS Blyth and HMS Shoreham had a recent encounter with dragons during a Gulf training exercise.
The beasts in question were Sea Dragons from the US Navy’s Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron 15, nicknamed the “Blackhawks”.
The giant MH-53E aircraft are the US Navy’s primary aerial mine countermeasures aircraft and were working alongside UK allies during the training in the central Gulf.
And for exercise purposes, the region this particular “fellowship” were operating in was dubbed “Middle-Earth” by the participants.
Upwards of 500 British and American sailors rolled out their full panoply of mine hunting equipment for the combined training, with Portsmouth-based HMS Ledbury, USS Devastator, USS Sentry and RFA Cardigan Bay also joining the fictional fray.
As well as the US Navy Sea Dragons the exercise also featured robot boats and unmanned underwater vehicles, all on the hunt for dummy mines.
“This ‘mixed golf bag’ approach allowed us to use several different sonars in the same area and clearly demonstrated our ability to conduct integrated, high-tempo mine-hunting operations,” said Commander Steve White, who was in the charge of the Mine Warfare Battle Staff on board RFA Cardigan Bay.
Despite technological advances, the process of finding a mine is complicated and long, beginning with the highly-skilled operations room team who work around the clock analysing detailed displays of the seabed to look for anomalies.
Action stations – Faslane takes on the US Navy Sea Dragons.
If they find something, they take a closer look, using the data gathered to determine an object’s size and shape, even if partially-buried in the sea bed.
From there, Seafox – a remote controlled submersible – is launched to dive down to the suspicious object to take a closer look, beaming images back to the mine-hunter’s operations room.
If the operators are satisfied the object is a mine, bomb, torpedo or some other discarded ordnance, they can use Seafox to blow it up – or ask the ship’s dive team to enter the water to place an explosive charge on the device and safely detonate it.
“It is great to work with such advanced technology,” said Able Seaman Lily Brindley, a mine warfare specialist on board HMS Shoreham.
“The thrill of finding something hidden in the sea and then preparing to launch Seafox is great. It’s even better when you’re part of the team that finds and disposes of a real threat!”
Both the UK and US maintain a permanent, sizeable mine hunting presence in Bahrain, taking their forces to sea three or four times a year as part of a regular cycle of training.
The exercises have been run for many years, so there is a wealth of corporate knowledge in both navies – and despite it being an exercise, Commander White said sailors rose to the challenge.
“Joint training opportunities enhance our collective effectiveness, helping to ensure unfettered shipping movement throughout the Gulf region,” he said.