Whilst the blogging world has been wetting its pants over Osama and that mystery stealth helicopter there has been some interesting activity in the waters off Misrata, the kind of interesting activity that doesn’t get any coverage because it’s not very ‘warfighter’
The activity is making sure that the port of Misrata stays open for humanitarian supplies and the evacuation of civilians and the wounded.
The sea mine is the IED of the maritime environment, cheap, easy to deploy and with a tactical and strategic effect out of all proportion to the resources expended.
Standing NATO Mine Countermeasures Group 1 (SNMCMG1) formerly known as Mine Countermeasures Force Northern Europe (MCMFORNORTH) and before that as Standing Naval Force Channel (STANAVFORCHAN) was formed in Ostend on 11 May 1973. It is one of two standing mine countermeasures forces maintained by NATO. Area of operations includes the waters of Europe from the North of Norway to the Mediterranean and from the Irish Sea to the Eastern Baltic Sea although it has also operated beyond these boundaries. As with most NATO forces, operational command rotates through the contributors to the force, these being Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, and United Kingdom (providing ships on a continuous basis) and Denmark, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania as other commitments permit.
On the 4th of February, Dutch Commander Herman W. Lammers took command of SNMCMG 1 from the Polish Navy.
In March this year, HMS HMS Brocklesby joined the rest of SNMCMG1 (ships from Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and Poland) for Exercise Noble Mariner around the Straits of Gibraltar. Noble Mariner involved 20 warships from 11 different NATO countries and was designed to test a task group sent to keep sea lines of communication free in disputed waters. HMS Brocklesby identified and recovered five dummy mines in her area of operations, which is the most recovered by any ship in SNMCMG1 during this exercise, MCM really is an RN speciality.
SNMCMG 1 currently consists of the following units: ORP Kontradmiral X Czernicki (Flagship- Poland), HMS Brocklesby (UK), BNS Narcis (Belgium), FGS Datteln (Germany) and HNLMS Haarlem (The Netherlands).
On conclusion of Noble Mariner, the next task for SNMCMG1 was Operation Active Endeavour
On April 21, SNMCMG 1 entered the Port of Alicante marking the end of its participation in NATO’s anti-terrorist Operation Active Endeavour for ORP Czernicki and FGS Datteln. The duty period had begun five weeks earlier when SNMCMG1 left the port of Malaga, March 14 for the Central Mediterranean, sailing along the North African coast and contributing to OAE by compiling a patterns-of-life picture. Following a period in mid-March establishing Maritime Situational Awareness in the Central Mediterranean, the initial strength of SNMCMG1 was changed as the nations decided to transfer Hr. Ms. Haarlem, HMS Brocklesby and BNS Narcis to participate in Operation Unified Protector.
However, NATO decided that SNMCMG1 would continue to participate in the important OAE mission so on 31 March, FGS Datteln and ORP Czernicki, resumed Operation Active Endeavour along the North African coast. Apart from a maintenance visit to the Port of Palermo, SNMCMG1 dedicated the rest of its assigned time in OAE surveillance operations and patrolling the maritime approaches to North Africa. The two ships also carried out extensive training programmes at every opportunity.
The Hunt Class and HMS Brocklesby
The current RN MCM fleet consists of the Sandown-class (single role mine hunting) with the variable-depth multi-mode 2093 and the Hunt class (sweeping and mine hunting) fitted with the hull-mounted 2193. Supporting NATO operations, amphibious operations, securing Sea Lines of Communication, providing harbour defence and clearing legacy munitions the current fleet (even accepting recent reductions) is highly effective.
Recent introductions include the Hydroid Remus 100, Remus 600 and Atlas Elektronic Seafox C unmanned systems. The Hydroid system, the larger Remus 600 is called the Recce UUV, support detection and classification whilst the Seafox C is a compact disposable one-shot neutralisation UUV. Ultra Electronics delivered the Seafox system in partnership with Babcock for the Royal Navy. Seafox was instrumental in the clearance operations for Operation Telic around Umm Qasr.
Another UOR was the Shallow Water Influence Minesweeping System (SWIMS) designed to operate in the small rivers and waterways in the south of Iraq. SWIMS consists of a towed magnetic and acoustic source, a tow/power delivery cable, a power conditioning and control subsystem, and an external or palletised power supply. Its small size and reduced weight require minimum handling equipment, and it is deployable from a helicopter or surface craft by two personnel. 12 QinetiQ modified remote-controlled Combat Support Boats (CSB) were also used to tow Australian Defence Industries (ADI) Mini Dyad System (MDS) and Pipe Noise Makers (PNMs) ahead of the RN minehunters as part of the SWIMS payload. It is worth noting that the system demonstrator was available within 3 weeks of order placement, a truly remarkable feat.
The Remus 100 is remarkably low cost, less than a quarter of a million pounds each and is seen as a derisking stepping stone towards future capability.
The last combined influence sweep system deployment was in 2005 (the link provides a great rundown of the history of RN mine countermeasures)
There is also a great deal of expertise in mine countermeasures in other European naval forces, the legacy of two major conflicts means that even today, sea mines in European waters remain a very real threat to shipping and sailors.
Current replacement plans seem to point to a single class of vessel about 100m in length and between 2,000 and 2,500 tonnes displacement. These will deliver on the MCM, survey and patrol requirements using a range of off-board systems like USV’s, UAVs and UUV’s. This concept recognises the synergies between survey and mines countermeasures and the desirability of unmanned systems. The RN is not alone in moving in this general direction, many nations are travelling the same road; the US Navy, Royal Australian Navy and French Navy (Système de Lutte Anti-Mines – Futur (SLAM-F)) all have similar projects and with the recent Anglo-French defence cooperation treaty it is likely that a joint project of some sorts will emerge. France is the lead in an eleven nation European Defence Agency project on Maritime Mine Countermeasures; perhaps a consensus could be reached to harness the undoubted collective expertise in this area within European nations. The US Navy is also deploying the high-speed LCS which will have MCM capabilities as part of its modular approach.
The Royal Navy maintains a permanent presence in the Gulf
On Friday 29th May the Dutch Ministry of Defence announced that HNLMS Haarlem was commencing mine countermeasures in the waters off Misrata;
As of today, HNLMS Haarlem will start searching for mines in the waters off the coast of Libya. Any detected mines will be destroyed by the Dutch minehunter. The deployment takes place at the request of NATO.
On Friday 29 April, a number of sea mines were discovered in the approach to Misrata by a French frigate, causing humanitarian shipping to be obstructed. Two of these mines have been cleared in the meantime. The search for the exact location of the third mine that was observed is still under way. HNLMS Haarlem will join the search for this explosive device as soon as an order to this effect has been issued by the Commander of the NATO mission.
Although HNLMS Haarlem is only now joining the sea-mine detection and clearing effort, it had been in the area for some time. The Dutch government decided on 22 March that the Netherlands would participate in the NATO enforcement of the UN arms embargo against Libya. The minehunter has been deployed in this operation, which is called Unified Protector, since 28 March.
HNLMS Haarlem will hunt for mines by mapping the area with the aid of hull-mounted sonar. When a mine is detected, it can be detonated by the Seafox Combat, a remote-controlled mine-destruction charge.
Minehunters of the Royal Netherlands Navy can be deployed worldwide for the detection and destruction of explosive devices which obstruct the safe passage of shipping. In addition, they are frequently called upon to clear explosives from the First and Second World Wars.
On May 3rd the Guardian newspaper in the UK reported that no aid vessels had been able to enter or leave the port area.
“We know the only way to keep Misrata alive is to keep the harbour open,” said Hafed Makhlouf, the controller and ship pilot of the port. “Gaddafi realises this too, and knows that the only way to extinguish the revolution is by starving the people.”
According to Makhlouf, the rebels had received a tip on Thursday from Zleten, a town 30 miles west of Misrata, that three small microbuses had been spotted dropping off a crew of frogmen near the harbour. Makhlouf said he passed on the warning to the two Nato warships stationed off Misrata.
At 4.30am on Friday, while he was asleep on the chair in his office, his radio crackled to life.
It was Nato, saying it had spotted four small dinghies approaching Misrata at speed.
“I asked Nato to act as I was sure it was a plot to destroy the warships, or other ships coming into Misrata,” said Makhlouf.
He was right. The loyalist naval team was carrying several floating sea mines aboard two of the dinghies, which they sank about 1.5 miles offshore, directly in the shipping lane to Misrata.
Nato said it had intercepted three mines, and disposed of them.
Using her sonar and underwater mine disposal system, Seafox, HMS Brocklesby successfully located and destroyed a buoyant mine just one mile (1.6km) from the entrance to the harbour.
The mine, containing more than 100 kilogrammes of high explosives, had been crudely placed by pro-Gaddafi forces using an inflatable dinghy to transport it out to sea.
The combined efforts of the mine countermeasures vessels from (HNLMS Haarlem, HMS Brocklesby and BNS Narcis) have effectively countered this port denial activity allowing the humanitarian aid ship Red Star One to deliver 180 tons of aid and rescue around many migrant workers from the city.
Lieutenant Commander James Byron, Commanding Officer of HMS Brocklesby, said,
In helping to keep the port of Misrata open we are ensuring the continued flow of essential medical assistance and allowing the evacuation of innocent civilians from the country. This is exactly the kind of operation my crew have trained for: dealing with live mines posing a threat to legitimate shipping within sight and range of shore bombardment. My team have handled themselves superbly in the execution of this mission reacting stoutly to the very real threat posed by rockets and artillery ashore.
A job well done I think but this video shows the complications of not having a joined-up anti denial strategy, held back by political restrictions the port remains in peril.
Another report on HMS Brocklesby here at BFBS including footage of Seafox in action and an image of the mine/inflatable combo below
A second mine was disposed of by another NATO vessel, either HNLMS Haarlem or BNS Narcis, and one remains at large.
It’s not all fun though, whilst the mine countermeasures vessels have been getting into the news, exercise Arabian Gauntlet 11 has been underway in the Gulf. This was the UK led multinational exercise that is designed to practice a range of mine countermeasures skills. Participating in the exercise are RFA Lyme Bay (Bay Class), HMS Grimsby (Sandown Class), HMS Pembroke (Sandown Class), HMS Chiddingfold (Hunt Class), USS Gladiator (Avenger Class), PNS Munsif, PNS Muhafiz and a US Sea Dragon minehunting helicopter. A number of PNS and USN vessels also took part in the exercise.
The large Bay Class LSD(A) was used as a floating support and command facility, yet again underscoring the usefulness of these ships.
Misrata has demonstrated the ease by which even an unsophisticated enemy can deny access to the sea using mines and despite the UK and The Netherlands reducing their capability in this area, it is something we must protect even against the budgetary pressure created by higher-profile projects.