Royal Navy warships and sailors are playing key roles in the largest naval exercise in the Middle East of the year – and the largest global hunt for mines in three.
More than 5,000 personnel, 30 ships and more than 50 nations are committed to the fortnight-long IMX 19 (International Maritime Exercise) workout, spread across a vast area from the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean and Gulf.
All participants share a common enemy: the sea mine. And all share a common aim: to ensure the sea lanes remain open, by sharing knowledge, equipment and experience to defeat the practice mines scattered in the ocean.
Two of the four British minehunters based in the Middle East – HMS Brocklesby and Ledbury – are involved in the exercise, plus a battle staff, specialist dive team and support ship RFA Cardigan Bay.
The latter normally acts as a mother ship to the Royal Navy’s minehunters, providing them with fuel, food and ammo to sustain operations for extended periods.
Instead, for the duration of the exercise – the third such international meeting of minds on mines – she has become the ‘United Nations of Divers’ with teams from ten different nations embarked, including the UK’s Fleet Diving Unit 3, their focus on the ‘underwater battle’ in finding, identifying and neutralising any mines found beneath the surface of the Gulf.
In the case of FDU3 – normally based at Horsea Island in Portsmouth, but with a permanent three-strong team supporting Royal Navy operations in the Gulf – they also ‘exploit’ mines, safely recovering the devices for investigation to help colleagues cope should they encounter them in the future.
The divers deployed en masse to Bahrain to join the auxiliary, bringing with them a portable recompression chamber to practise recovering and treating any diver brought to the surface suffering from the bends.
In November the water temperature (30C) is higher than the air temperature (28C) – the heat poses the biggest challenge to both the divers and their equipment.
“Anywhere we go is a challenge,” said CPO(Diver) Les Cockerton. “In Iceland we have beautiful clear waters, in Norway you can almost see the mine the moment you enter the water, but the environment is harsh on you and your equipment.
“Out here, it’s the heat. But see it as another challenge to overcome. We always find a way to make it work – and it makes our job exciting.
“Diving is a great job, there’s incredible camaraderie. Whatever lies ahead, we get on with it, and we get to travel the world doing it.”
Lieutenant Koji Oda’s team of divers from Yokohama in Japan operates much of the same equipment as his British counterparts, such as the REMUS automated sonar scanner; the French Navy have brought impressive hand-held sonars which give divers a real-time scan of the seabed in front of them; and the US Navy have deployed both divers and remote-controlled fast boats towing sonar which can find mines without putting a human being in the danger zone… but cannot yet neutralise the threat.
“It’s great having 130 different military personnel from ten different nations on my ship, all working together. It’s a fantastic opportunity to build on old partnerships, forge new ones, make new friends,” said RFA Cardigan Bay’s Commanding Officer Captain Karl Woodfield.
“I like to think of my ship as the UK armed forces’ secret weapon – she’s incredibly versatile, whether she’s supporting the minehunters or hosting divers and their equipment from ten different nations.”
The first week of IMX 19 is largely devoted to getting the many different participants to work together seamlessly, stepping up a gear next week, using a fictional scenario to help focus the collective response to mine threats in the region.
“When you have all the plates spinning together, it makes it pretty exciting,” says Commander Simon Cox, in charge of the British battle staff aboard Cardigan Bay directing the dive team element of the exercise.
“This exercise has grown enormously since those held in 2014 and 2016. This has been 18 months in the planning with more nations taking part than before.
“Mines remain a threat. A mine costing relatively little can inflict damage far beyond its cost.”