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Minehunter crews mark 15 years of achievement on key Gulf mission

Minehunter crews mark 15 years of achievement on key Gulf mission
13 June 2022
Sailors who have kept the Gulf free of mines for 15 years non-stop will celebrate their achievements aboard Nelson’s flagship today.

Thousands of Royal Navy sailors – not just mine warfare experts but chefs, engineers, logistic specialists and seamen – have spent months on end in the searing temperatures of the Middle East (as high as 55°C at the peak of summer) ensuring no harm comes to shipping and trade flows freely.

With its supplies of liquefied natural gas and oil alone the region is crucial to the economy of the UK, but it is also a hub of international seagoing trade – cars, luxury and electronic goods, food and more – between the Indo-Pacific and Europe.

The slightest disruption to that flow of traffic would cost as much as £6bn every day.

So since the end of 2006, the Royal Navy ships with their specialist teams and cutting-edge sonar and sensors have surveyed seabed covering an area more than five times the size of Greater London – more than 3,500 square miles – to both remove any mine threat along key shipping routes and provide a clear understanding of key Gulf waters, making it easier to spot any changes in the future.

To sustain the force in the punishing conditions of the Gulf for more than a decade and a half, the minehunters each complete a three to four-year tour of duty before returning home to the UK, while their crews of 40-45 souls have traded places with their colleagues on sister vessels training in home waters.

The mission, originally called Operation Aintree, today Operation Kipion, began with two minehunters dispatched to Bahrain to help deal with the aftermath of a quarter of a century of conflict and tension in the region and ensure key routes were mine-free.

The force was subsequently doubled in size, given a mothership and a dedicated command/battle staff and, since 2018, has enjoyed a permanent new home in the form of the UK Naval Support Facility Bahrain.

In all, the Bahrain minehunters have completed 617 missions and their crews have collectively spent 2,800 months (more than 230 years) deployed to the Gulf.

Among the hunters’ first and most important missions was opening up the waterway to Iraq’s key port of Umm Qasr at the head of the Gulf in 2008.

The Khawr abd Allah was heavily mined in both Gulf conflicts. Together with the US Navy, the RN force made a concerted effort to declare the waters safe. Over six weeks they located and classified 2,000 underwater contacts over an area spanning the size of the Isle of Wight.

Lieutenant Commander Neil Skinner was involved in that effort aboard HMS Blyth… and is back in Bahrain 14 years later in command of HMS Middleton.

“To have found myself entering an Iraqi waterway and undertaking live Operations so soon in my career was an exciting experience, and something that was shared by the entire crew,” he said.

“It is fascinating to see how things have evolved. Some very young and junior sailors who were with me in HMS Blyth are now back out here now in much more senior positions, having spent most of their careers in the Gulf supporting this enduring enterprise.

“Whilst facilities, supporting infrastructure and amenities in Bahrain have dramatically improved in this time, the value in maintaining a forward deployed mine warfare presence remains unchanged – and it is the ever-impressive sailors of the mine warfare community who have ensured its continued success.”

Commander Daniel Morris, the current commander of the mine warfare force in the Gulf – roughly 300 Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary sailors – added: “Fifteen years of unbroken tasking is a monumental achievement and I am hugely grateful for the hard work and support.

“I’ve been part of the mine warfare community for a little over 16 years, so I very much feel part of this commitment. I’ve seen first-hand the effort from the crews, and I’ve seen the organisation evolve.”

Aside from their core role, the RN minehunters have worked extensively with their US Navy counterparts – also based in Bahrain – plus other navies either based in the region or with a vested interest in its safety and security.

The British ships regularly take part in combined exercises with the Americans, as well as Oman’s premier annual naval workout, Khunjar Hadd (or ‘Sharp Dagger’), and the signature International Maritime Exercise which draws in like-minded mine warfare experts from around the world annually, playing a vital role in honing the collective skills of over 30 nations to keep shipping lanes open for the free flow of global trade.

To thank minehunter crews and their supporting staff, Gulf veterans are being invited aboard HMS Victory today in Portsmouth where Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Andrew Burns will celebrate the successes of the past 15 years.

And those deployed in the Gulf gathered before the Royal Navy’s senior commander in the Middle East, Commodore Adrian Fryer, the UK Maritime Component Commander, to receive his thanks for their often unsung efforts.

“The continuous presence of Royal Navy mine countermeasures vessels in Bahrain is a real representation of the UK’s enduring commitment to stability in the region, which includes some of the most important maritime trade routes in the world,” he said.

“It would be wrong to underestimate the amount of work required to maintain this capability, with our ships being ready for operations on a continuous basis, often in punishing environmental conditions.

“Many of the sailors in this community have deployed multiple times over the past 15 years and I pay tribute to their commitment, and that of their families, in keeping the Royal Navy at the forefront of mine countermeasure operations alongside our partners and allies.”

Petty Officer (Mine Warfare) Luke Brady from HMS Middleton is among the sailors who’ve served in the Gulf on multiple occasions:

“It is great that we are able to celebrate a full 15 years of continuous mine warfare presence in the region,” he said. “Kipion deployments have formed a major backbone of my career and personal development over many years.

“Over that time I have seen my ability to perform in the mine warfare sphere rapidly develop while also over time gaining a greater understanding of why our presence in the region is as vital today as it was 15 years ago.”

Over the past 15 years, advances in technology have allowed minehunters to integrate remote mine disposal systems alongside traditional clearance divers.

With both the Royal and US Navies investing heavily in uncrewed systems – keeping human beings out of the minefield – the future of operations in Bahrain will be a blend of the traditional and the autonomous: crewless vessels, run from a portable operations hub either on land or sea, towing sonar, rapidly surveying stretches of water and, if any mines are found, dealing with them.

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