Al Faw and the Operation to Open the Iraqi Port of Umm Qasr
The areas around Umm Qasr and the Al Faw peninsula in Iraq were subject to a range of amphibious and mine clearance activities in 2003, it was a vital component of Operation TELIC.
Before the conflict, the port of Umm Qasr was responsible for two-thirds of the United Nations Food for Oil programme imports into Iraq, but as a port, it had seen better days. Much of the infrastructure was neglected, many of the approach channels had silted due to lack of dredging and wrecks littered the general area.
It was functional though, and so formed part of the operation, considered to be vital in maintaining the flow of basic commodities like food and medicine following the initial combat phases. The port itself was divided into North, Middle and South with 22 berths and a range of cargo handling and storage facilities.
Some berths are dedicated to bulk materials like grain and so would be difficult to use for other general cargo.
The deepest draft was 12.5m but most berths were between 2m and 7m at low water. High levels of silting required continual dredging to maintain working depths.
In order to dock at Umm Qasr, a vessel would need to navigate the 41 miles of the Khor Abdullah waterway which in the approach channels had a depth of between 7 and 10 metres at Celestial Low Water (CLW).
Before coalition forces could use the port, this waterway would need to be cleared of enemy forces and suspected mines.
Build Up in Kuwait
Although not directly related, it is worth recounting the build-up in Kuwait as it demonstrates the importance of maximising utilisation of existing ports.
As coalition forces were being built up in Kuwait in January, port space was at a premium at the main port of Shuaiba. There were a large number of vehicles to offload from chartered RORO vessels and the berths available for 24×7 operation (No 11 and 12) had no slipways or RORO link spans available. The port also had a wide tidal range
Some kind of floating link span would be needed.
527 Specialist Team Royal Engineers (STRE) were tasked with sourcing one and consulted with the Engineer and Logistic Staff Corps (E&LSC), a network of senior civilian engineers. E&LSC is a little-known organisation comprising senior executives of sixty British logistics and engineering organisations that retain military rank but have no military duties or pay. They exist purely to provide expert advice, often characterised as ‘all rank and no file’
After consulting with E&LC, the Royal Engineers turned to Transmarine in Newcastle, the same company responsible for FIPASS in the Falkland Islands. They faced a tough challenge, the link span had to be in place by the planned arrival date of 24th February 2003.
After examining potential options, Transmarine decided to purchase a pontoon in Bahrain and design and fabricate the superstructure and bridge deck in Dubai.
The final link span consisted of a 28m by 14m steel pontoon with two additional 4m x 7m flotation sponsons permanently fixed to the pontoon.
The superstructure and hinged 17m bridge deck could be set at an angle to accommodate ships with stern ramps and different tidal ranges. The assembled construction was secured to the quayside by a series of tensioned rope moorings.
It could accept the heaviest and largest military vehicle loads including Heavy Equipment Transporters (HET) towing a trailer with Challenger 2 Main Battle Tanks and variants. Difficult and awkward cargo such as Chinook helicopters could also be accommodated.
The whole thing from start to finish cost £1.2 million.
A Mexeflote was also used to transfer ammunition from RFA Fort Rosalie over a nearby beach at the Port of Shuwaikh in Kuwait in order to meet the Net Explosive Quantity (NEQ) regulations in place at the time.
Assault Al Faw
On the night of the 19th of May US SEALS and Polish GROM, forces secured the offshore oil terminals and the onshore manifolds on the Al Faw peninsula.
The MoD publication, ‘Operating in Iraq – Lessons for the Future’ records the assault on Al Faw as;
Supporting the assault forces was 148 Battery Royal Artillery who were involved with three distinct activities; the initial assault, countering an Iraqi counter-attack against 40 CDO and Op JAMES, an attack on Basra.
From 148 Battery RA commander’s notes;
The first phase was to secure the oil facilities against sabotage.
Defending the area was a Naval Coastal Defence battalion reinforced with artillery and anti-aircraft guns.
The Royal Marines airborne assault would come from two locations; A, B and C Company from Tactical Assembly Viking in Kuwait, and D Company, from HMS Ocean
Throughout the night and into the morning the assault continued and by morning USMC and RM artillery, naval gunfire support from RN and RAN vessels and helicopter launched TOW missiles from the CHF’s Lynx’s enabled the main force to achieve their objective.
Naval Gunfire Support consisted of 17 fire missions and expended 155 4.5″ and 5″ rounds.
The assault on Al Faw is often characterised as an amphibious RM only affair but this was very far from the truth, combined arms and combined nations forces achieved the objective of securing the oil installations at Al Faw and allowed the port and its approaching waterways to be used without fear of being attacked from the peninsula.
Caught Red Handed
With the initial assault completed, follow on operations were conducted to secure the area as a precursor to opening the port.
Providing maritime security in the area during this initial phase were two US Navy Cyclone Class patrol boats (USS Firebolt and USS Chinook) and two US Coast Guard cutters (USGC Aquidneck and USCG Adak)
During the night of 20th March 2003, all four patrol vessels spotted a number suspicious vessels coming down the Khor Abdullah and decided to intercept them. It was not possible to conduct a detailed search during the night and so the vessels and crews were held until morning. In the morning, a number of UK and US forces boarded to investigate, what they found was nothing short of incredible.
The tug Jumariya had a barge with carefully concealed mine storage and launching facilities and the Al Raya had disguised mines and a specially constructed stern flap for covert launching.
The Jumariya barge was carrying 20 Manta and 48 LUGM mines ready to launch and on the deck of the Al Raya, 18 LUGM mines with cut oil drums as covers. The LUGM is a conventional buoyant contact mine with the familiar Hertz horns and 200kg explosive filler. The Italian made (Now Rheinmetall) Manta mines were much more dangerous as they are both acoustic and magnetic triggered with a 140kg warhead.
Luck as ever played its part, it was not lucky that the US Navy and US Coast Guard intercepted the two tugs, that being a testament to their professionalism, but luck, in so much that the Iraqi forces decided to indulge in a spot of mining on the same night as the initial assault.
Timing was all, a day or two earlier and the next phase may have been very different.
The combined force eventually made them all safe and removed their crews for detention.
Soon after, the task of clearing the port and approach lanes commenced.
Clearing the Port
The composite force for port clearance consisted three teams, one each from Australia, the UK and USA. They drove into the port on the 24th of March, with security provided by USMC and Polish forces.
Australian Clearance Diving Team 3 (AUSCDT 3) was the only coalition unit with established harbour clearance SOP’s so they were tasked with clearing the berths and associated facilities at Umm Qasr to enable berthing of vessels. The Australian force also noted that US Navy MCM forces arrived without ammunition or explosives so had to be sustained by the Australian force. The US Navy team did not have any NBC equipment either.
The port was a difficult environment, strong tidal currents and extremely poor visibility being the two main problems and because of the extremely cluttered sea bottom environment, conventional detection using sonar was almost impossible.
It often came down to touch.
To provide some sense of the problem of demining a busy port as opposed to a pristine beach this quote from an Australian Army spokesman, Lt Col Pup Elliot;
One of the first finds was a sunken PB40 minelayer with four LUGM mines still aboard. The US dive team set to work removing as much of the vessel as possible to allow the mines to pulled clear and disposed of on land. Because of the time pressure and potential for booby traps any suspicious contact was usually just exploded in situ, just in case.
The team were also involved in clearing the port buildings and disposing of all manner of munitions and on one occasion destroyed a cache of 25 mines found outside the town.
Port clearance at Umm Qasr also saw the operational debut of the REMUS 100 autonomous underwater system, brought with them by the US Navy team.
The combined team used the REMUS 100 to conduct 10 missions, surveying 2.5 million square metres and identifying 97 contacts using on-board sensors, thus enabling the clearance divers to concentrate on other more difficult contacts.
The Remote Environmental Monitoring UnitS (REMUS) was developed by the US Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in the early nineties and subsequently manufactured and further developed by Hydroid Inc., now Kongsberg. REMUS 100 is a compact device, weighing on 39kg and 1.6m long but it can operate for 14 hours before needing to be recovered to be ‘re-charged’
Clearing the Approaches to Umm Qasr
In parallel with port clearance activities, the Royal Navy led the approach channel mine clearance operation in conjunction with US Navy and US Coast Guard assets.
It was a considerable volume of difficult water to clear.
Safe lanes were cleared by a multi-vessel group as per the diagram below.
Leading the column were a pair of SWIMS unmanned clearance boats being controlled by operators on HMS Brocklesby. USS Dextrous acted in the role of Command MCMV, gathering data from the others and plotting likely seabed contacts for interrogation by the other MCM vessels.
The cleared channel was then gradually widened.
HMS Roebuck also provided invaluable survey capabilities and was in fact, the first Royal Navy vessel to dock at Umm Qasr.
Commenting on the task, HMS Roebucks commander said;
Clearing the waterways involved a range of UN and USN forces, everything from the rapidly introduced SWIMS system and One Shot Mine Disposal System to the hugely impressive CH-53 Sea Dragons, even the famous US Navy dolphins played a part.
The Shallow Water Influence Minesweeping System (SWIMS) was designed to operate in the shallow waters in the south of Iraq and was obtained as an Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR)
Australian Defence Industries are now Thales Australia and this system has evolved into a comprehensive package called the Australian Minesweeping System (AMS).
SWIMS comprised two main components, the towing boat and payload.
The towing boat was a rapidly modified Combat Support Boat, in service with the Royal Engineers and Royal Logistic Corps. Modifications included telemetry and remote control equipment and additional power generation and power distribution equipment.
The SWIMS payload consisted of multiple towed bodies in an array that was designed to simulate the acoustic and magnetic signature of a ship, and would thus, fool the mine into detonating, possibly destroying the unmanned system rather than a real ship. In addition to floats and connecting equipment, the payload array consisted of two towed bodies, a Pipe Noise Maker and Mini Dyad. Pipe Noise Makers are simple and robust systems that do pretty much as the name suggests, make noise. Mini Dyads sound small, but at 7.7m long and weighing in at 1.6 tonnes, they are not. They are simply a steel tube containing multiple steel and ferrite disc magnets with multiple Mini Dyads arranged to simulate different magnetic signatures
The MoD selected the ADI system because it was the only one available that did not need additional power and could operate in shallow waters. The system was ordered in late December 2002 and delivered in late January, they were hired for 12 months and the acoustic generators purchased outright. One complete array comprised 2 Mini Dyads and 2 Pipe Noise Makers.
The US Navy Mk 105 minesweeping sled is towed by a Sea Dragon MH53 helicopter and these were used, although with mixed results.
The Royal Navy also used the Seafox one shot disposal system and over this initial period 450 contacts were detected and investigated, 15 of which were mines.
Although 12 tonnes of supplies reached Umm Qasr by truck, overland from Kuwait, the bulk of humanitarian supplies were planned to be through the port and the delay in clearing the port and its approaches was contributing to rising tensions in the city. The Polish logistic support vessel Kontradmirał Xawery Czernicki escorted RFA Sir Galahad for much of the initial journey and then as she approached the Khor Abdullah formed up into a convoy with a number of other vessels for the final journey to Umm Qasr on the 27th of March 2003.
RFA Sandown led the convoy, arriving on the 28th March 2003, Berth 5, with 232.3 tonnes of humanitarian supplies, gifted by Kuwait.
RFA Sir Galahad was followed by RFA Sir Percivale a few days later.
However, ten days after the first port visit Lloyds were still refusing to insure civilian vessels, or at least at a rate that was affordable. This lack of insurance meant larger vessels carrying the thousands of tonnes humanitarian supplies needed by the people of Basra remained on ships in the Gulf until much later.
The Spanish vessel The Galicia berthed after Sir Percivale and the channels were widened until larger ships could dock.
17 Port and Maritime Regiment RLC under the command of Lt Col Paul Ash were responsible for bringing Umm Qasr back into service. Most of the damage had been caused by neglect and under-investment rather than military action by the Coalition, spare parts for machinery were unavailable and most of the Iraqi civilian workers had been dispersed. The waterways had little or no safe passage markers and the surrounding utility infrastructure was in poor condition.
By early May much of the immediately repairable damage had been repaired and in conjunction with a number of civilian contractors, shipping traffic increased.
The 2,000 tonne displacement US Coast Guard Juniper Class Buoy Tender Walnut installed 34 navigation buoys, the existing ones being either damaged or dangerously out of position. 25 of the existing buoys were also removed. Interestingly, the USCGC Walnut history page indicates that they knew of the deployment on 14th November 2002 which contrasts with the notice available to UK forces. USS Grapple carried out a great deal of wreck salvage and on Friday 2nd of May 2003, a United Nations World Food Programme ship docked at Umm Qasr and offloaded 14,000 tonnes of bagged rice, contrasting starkly with the couple of hundred tonnes landed by the RFA vessels and the Galicia.
Longer term rehabilitation would include all wreck removal, a more permanent dredging capability, crane repairs, installation or repairs of aids to navigation, storage, parking and utility services. Equipment ranging from large heavy lift barges and salvage vessels to self-propelled dredging pontoons (Versi Dredge 5012L) were deployed. The port of Umm Qasr was handed back to the Iraqis in May 2003 after which the slow process of full rehabilitation continued.
Even the trains were brought back into service.
The final dredged depth of 12.5m was achieved in 2010.
Opening and rehabilitating Umm Qasr was a significant feat that involved collaboration between US Navy, British Army, Royal Navy and Royal Australian Navy, Polish Navy and US Coast Guard. The follow-on operation to expand the port and complete all salvage tasks would also have been impossible.
This all occurred against a backdrop of operations ‘elsewhere’ and so the whole effort was relatively un-newsworthy, but it was a perfect example of joint working that combined, survey, mine clearance, the deployment of a link span and broad range of salvage and electrical and mechanical engineering capabilities.
A perfect example, hardly anyone knows about!
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