A dozen warships – three of them British – mustered off the coast of Oman for the host’s action-packed annual naval workout.
Khunjar Hadd – Arabic for sharp dagger – is the principal test of the Royal Navy of Oman and its ability to work with its allies in the region above, on and beneath the waves.
Britain, the USA and France accepted the invite for the 26th iteration of the exercise which featured most aspects of 21st Century naval warfare from gunnery serials and formation sailing manoeuvres to pulse-raising exercises with French Air Force and Royal Air Force of Oman fast jets.
Flying the flag for the UK were frigate HMS Montrose, minehunter HMS Chiddingfold and support ship RFA Cardigan Bay – all based in Bahrain – working alongside ships from the host nation, plus US Navy and US Coast Guard.
For Montrose, the highlight of the eight days of Sharp Dagger was her participation in the air defence exercise. The Type 23 frigate excelled in demonstrating her capability by providing air defence as part of the task group against fast jets – French Rafales, Omani Typhoons and Hawks. In a real world scenario, the frigate’s Sea Ceptor missile system provides cover over more than 750 square miles of ocean (roughly the size of Oxfordshire), the weapon striking incoming hostile threats at three times the speed of sound.
Other activity above the waves included extensive training with Omani and US Navy helicopters – Super Lynx and Seahawks (the naval version of the Blackhawk) – board and search exercises and some live gunnery, plus some impressive seamanship manoeuvring the 12 participating ships into formation.
Beneath the waves, HMS Chiddingfold and her mother ship Cardigan Bay focused on the mine ‘threat’ – bread and butter to both, but the presence of major warships such as Montrose and the US Navy cruiser USS Port Royal and fast jets added several extra, exciting dimensions to their regular training.
“The exercise was a fantastic show of highly coordinated, collaborative force across a range of disciplines – many of which are rarely encountered on a mine countermeasures vessel and therefore we relish the chance to practise them,” said Sub Lieutenant Andrew Bonham, Chiddingfold’s navigator, aged 26 from Glasgow.
Lieutenant Daniel Fergusson from nearby Motherwell, who’s completing his officer training aboard the minehunter, added: “Working with other ships it was great to see how other nationalities practise mine hunting and other disciplines, such as air defence which we don’t normally do. For a small ship, it shows us how capable we are when required.”
The Royal Navy’s minehunting force is celebrating 15 years continuously on operations in the Gulf, expanding from two ships initially to five today (four minehunters, one command ship).
Embarked on the latter, RFA Cardigan Bay, were the staff of the Commander UK Mine Countermeasures Force, who direct and support all British mine warfare exercises and operations in the Gulf region and regularly support our allies.
“We’re here to improve our ability to work with the US, French, and Omanis – and we’ve proven this capability,” explained Lieutenant Commander Max Wilmot, chief-of-staff.
“These exercises also provide reassurance that the motorways of the sea are safe for personnel and merchant vessels to transit and allow us to conduct valuable defence engagement with our international partners.”
HMS Chiddingfold searched ten miles of sea lanes for mines, found two dummy variants and dealt with. She also ‘rafted up’ with Cardigan Bay – came alongside at sea – to take on fuel and stores.
“The exercise was extremely useful for the mine warfare department,” said Lieutenant Jason Rogers, Chiddingfold’s 35-year-old Operations Officer from Southampton. “The crew worked hard to maintain their skills throughout the execution of the entire exercise.”