Monthly Archives: March 2011

HMS Invincible leaves Portsmouth for the last time

At 8am yesterday the former HMS Invincible left Portsmouth for the last time. She is being towed to a scrapyard in Turkey, where she will be dismantled and her steel recycled.

There was a sizeable crowd lining the harbour entrance in Pompey, with plenty of people on top of the Round Tower, along the Hot Walls and down onto Victoria Pier. I could also see people over on the Gosport side and naval ratings on Fort Blockhouse turned out too. When she passed the Round Tower the tugs all gave a blast on their horns, and the assembled crowd gave three cheers. I’m sure there was a lone piper somewhere too.

Invincible was eased out of the Harbour Entrance by four buff and black Serco Denholm tugs – formerly of the Royal Maritime Auxiliary Service – to Spithead, where she was taken under tow by the Tug Sirocco. Evidently someone has a sense of humour, as ‘SOLD’ had been painted on the superstructure under the bridge in dark grey paint!

Last time I checked Invincible was heading at 8-9 knots down the English Channel, south of the Isle of Wight. By the wonders of AIS, we can follow the progress of the Sirocco/Invincible combination - click here for Sirocco’s profile on marinetraffic.com, and then click on  ‘current vessel’s track’.

All in all it was a sad but dignified exit for a grand old ship. She’s a Falklands veteran, lets remember. Several of the Harrier pilots flying from her in 1982 were killed. Let’s not forget that amidst the scramble to make a fuss over supposedly more glamorous ships.

Unfortunately due to technical issues I am unable to post any pictures, but hopefully they will be up sometime over the weekend.

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Filed under Dockyard, Falklands War, Navy, Uncategorized

America’s First Clash with Iran: The Tanker War 1987-1988 by Lee Alan Zatarain

Isn’t it funny how the same parts of the world seem to feature in military history, again and again. No doubt spurred on by rising tensions between Iran and the US, this fine book by Lee Alan Zatarain has been published in the UK by Casemate.

The book starts with a gripping account of the Exocet strike on the USS Stark, an Oliver Hazard Perry class Frigate. She was struck by two Exocets, but despite intense fires and the loss of dozens of crew she somehow survived. It’s a gripping story of an ops room that was not quite on the ball on the one hand, but then some heroic efforts to save the ship on the other. In fact several officers were reprimanded for not defending the ship, but also decorated for then saving it. There are interesting parallels here with HMS Sheffield in the Falklands.

The Tanker War in the Gulf of the late 198o’s was an off-shoot of the bloody Iran-Iraq War, between a despotic Saddam Hussein on the one side and an Islamic Revolutionary Ayatollah Khomenei on the other. Both sides depended on oil to fund their war efforts, but at the same time sought to deny the other side their supply. Both belligerents targeted neutral commercial shipping, particularly oil tankers, using anti-ship missiles, mines and terrorist tactics.

The US Navy was drawn into the Gulf to protect shipping, after a number of neutral owned tankers were re-flagged under the stars and stripes. US Frigates and Destroyers began escorting convoys of tankers through the Straits of Hormuz and up to the oil terminals in the Gulf, as far as Kuwait. In one slightly embarrasing incident, a large tanker hit a mine, but the smaller and lighter warships cowered behind her, seeking protection in her wake.

The Iranians began using small fast craft to terrorize commecial shipping in the Gulf, and also laid hundreds if not thousands of mines in the Gulf. To counter against these classic low intensity tactics, the US transferred a unit of Army Special Forces Helicopters, with advanced equipment that enabled them to operate at night. The US Navy also leased two large barges, and moored them in the Gulf as Mobile Sea Bases. These heavily armoured bastions provided a home to Navy SEALs and their fast attack craft.

Another disaster befell the US Navy when the USS Samuel Roberts found herself stuck in an uncharted Iranian minefield. After striking a mine the crew managed to back their way out of the area while keeping the ship afloat; an extraordinary achievement for the Captain and crew. In fact one US Laboratory modelled the mine strike on the Roberts, and each time the ship sank within minutes. That the Roberts survived was no doubt due to some very able officers and men, and a first-class leadership culture.

The Roberts incident contrasts starkly with the situation that allowed the Ticonderoga class Aegis Cruiser USS Vincennes to shoot down an Iran Air Airbus after wrongly identifying it as a Iranian Air Force Phantom. How the most technically advanced ship in the US Navy managed to make such a fateful decision is startling. However videos shot on the Vincennes at the time show sailors in shorts and t-shirt milling around on the bridge, and whooping with delight at the missile strikes. Earlier that day she had been in action against some Iranian surface vessels, and it is believed that her gung-ho Captain had let his offensive spirit kick into over-drive. Whats more, before reaching the Gulf he had re-arranged his command team, a move which made it more difficult for air warfare to be properly managed.

The Vincennes incident in particular is very well investigated and summarised by Zatarain. And this is a book that naval history enthusiasts and indeed naval officers should enjoy, particulary in this world where we face a multitude of low-intensity asymetric wars on the one hand, and a resurgent Iran on the other. It poses interesting questions about naval units were handled in trying circumstances, only a couple of years after the lessons of the Falklands War.

Iran: The Tanker War 1987-1988 by Lee Alan Zatarain is published by Casemate

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Filed under Book of the Week, Navy, Uncategorized

New Royal Navy ice patrol vessel announced

The Ministry of Defence has announced that the Icebreaker MV PolarBjorn (Polar Bear) has been selected to become the Royal Navy’s new ice patrol vessel. PolarBjorn will be re-christened HMS Protector while in Royal Navy service. The last  HMS Protector was also an antarctic patrol vessel.

Heres the spiel from Rieber’s website:

The ‘Polarbjørn’ is purpose-built for undertaking both long duration Antarctic expeditions, and offshore subsea support duties.  With her large public areas and accommodation capacities, helicopter deck and DP2 class, the vessel is well suited for undertaking flotel- and base ship functions on offshore fields and other operations. The vessel’s large deck areas and cargo holds offers ‘unlimited’ storage capacity for ROV and related equipment. The ship’s 50-ton knuckle-boom crane and the A-frame offers efficient solutions for handling equipment over the side and over the stern.

A few facts and figures about Polar Bjorn:

  • 90 metres long
  • 18 metres beam
  • 9.05 metres draught
  • Gross tonnage 4,985 tons, deadweight of 3,700 tons

She is currently owned by Rieber Shipping, and was launched in 2001. Until recently she has been working under a Norwegian flag on the ‘spot’ tendering market in the North Sea and Arctic offshore oil fields. Apparently during 2010 she was only being used 33% of the time due to the economic downturn, so her chartering by the MOD will be welcome to her owners. Official announcements by Defence Minister Lord Astor suggest that she will be leased for three years while HMS Endurance‘s fate is decided, but I would suggest that it is likely that Endurance will be scrapped and PolarBjorn/Protector purchased once the lease runs out. The same happened with HMS Endurance herself.

Amusingly, apparently members of the HMS Protector Association had known about the acquisition since January, but had been sworn to secrecy by the ship’s new CO, Captain Peter Sparkes. The Association’s newsletter also announces that she will be formally commisioned on 23 June 2011 in Portsmouth.

According to some sources she will be arriving in Portsmouth for the first time in April or May. At that point she will undergo a refit to install naval equipment, such as communications and limited weaponry. Apparently her up-front helicopter deck is going to be removed, and a new landing pad installed nearer her stern. This will probably necessitate the removal of some of her crane capability, which she will probably not use fully in RN service in any case. She will also need a hangar, given the manner in which she will operate independently in the ice.

The former ice patrol ship HMS Endurance is being withdrawn from service after suffering serious damage when she flooded in the South Atlantic in 2008. Since then the Offshore patrol vessel HMS Scott has been standing-in in the South Atlantic, but this is far from ideal as she is not an ice-breaker, and takes her away from her other role.

It will be good to see a new ship entering Portsmouth for a change.

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Filed under defence, Falklands War, Navy, News, Uncategorized

Reports that RAF requested a carrier for Libya

Today’s Portsmouth News contains a report that the RAF has asked the Ministry of Defence to reinstate one of the Royal Navy’s axed Aircraft Carriers, along with the Harrier GR9 aircraft to fly from them.

According to defence analyst Francis Tusa, senior officers in the RAF asked for an aircraft carrier to help enforce the no-fly zone over Libya, but the request was turned down by 10 Downing Street for political reasons:

“I’ve been told by grade A1 sources that the RAF wanted a flat-top but Number 10 simply wouldn’t allow it. I think they’d rather cut their own fingers off before that happened”

Mr Tusa goes on to explain that the Tornado jets flying missions to Libya are costing £35,000 per hour to fly, and that Italy is also charging allies ‘eye-watering’ costs for using its bases. Again, these figures are believable. It just goes to show what those with more than half a brain cell have known all along – aircraft carriers are the best value  piece of Defence equipment for what they can do. Not limited to friendly bases or overflight restrictions, aircraft carriers can go anywhere – what genius! The concept was only invented back in 1918….

Bringing back an Aircraft Carrier and the Harriers would be hugely embarassing to the Government, so soon after the Strategic Defence and Security Review decided that we could do without carrier-borne air cover for 10 years. The RAF, apparently, had argued that they could provide air cover from any land bases, thus making the carriers un-necessary. Less than 6 months later – if these reports are true – the RAF has basically admitted that its argument was ill-founded, and therefore based on self-preservation rather than British defence interests.

Sadly, the only carrier that could be brought back – Ark Royal – has been decomissioned, and largely gutted while tied up in Portsmouth dockyard. All of the living accomodation has been removed, and no doubt they will soon start on the plant and electronics. I suspect this has been done quickly to make it impossible to bring her back and spare any embarrasment. You only have to look at how quickly the Nimrod’s were butchered to see that axed Defence equipment is being shredded with un-nerving haste.

Of course a Downing Street spokesman has denied that any request has been made, but we only have to look at the fate of John Nott’s political career after the Falklands War to see what backtracking on defence reviews can do to the frocks. Sadly, while in 1982 Admirals Lewin, Leach and Fieldhouse were able to save the Navy’s future and liberate the Falkland Islanders, as the Nott cuts had not yet taken full effect.

I have to say I would not be suprised if it was true. And if so, it must call into serious question the ignorance of politicians, the apparently devious advice given by Air Marshals during the Defence Review, and once again the Royal Navy’s inability to fight its corner.

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Filed under Navy, News, politics, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized

HMS Invincible to leave Portsmouth for the last time

HMS Invincible, one of the Royal Navy's flagsh...

HMS Invincible in happier days (Image via Wikipedia)

The Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Invincible is due to leave Portsmouth for the last time later this week.

At 0800 on Thursday (24 March) she will be towed out of Portsmouth Harbour on her way to the breakers yard in Turkey. She has been laid up in No 3 Basin in the Dockyard for almost 6 years, after being decommisioned in 2005. She was sold to a Turkish shipbreaker earlier this year after an ebay-style auction. It seems she is being sold off in order to clear space for her sister ship HMS Ark Royal, who decommisioned last week.

It really is the end of an era with the departure of Invincible. She first arrived in Portsmouth in 1981 brand-new from the shipbuilders. My Dad was working in the Dockyard at the time and worked on her when she was dry-docked for the first time, apparently one of the underwater sonar transducers took an accidental dink that needed fixing.

I really hope that people turn out to mark Invincible’s departure. Amongst all of the political sprawling for brownie points with the departure of Ark Royal, we should never forget the role that she played in the Falklands War in 1982. Men died flying Sea Harriers from that ship. What a pity that the Harrier’s have been scrapped, so she cannot even get a flypast to see her off. But then again I doubt the Government or the MOD will want to make a big deal out it.

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Filed under Falklands War, Navy, News

UN approves no-fly zone over Libya

Muammar al-Gaddafi Mouammar Kadhafi Colonel Qu...

Image by Abode of Chaos via Flickr

The United Nations has approved the imposing of a no-fly zone over Libya, in an attempt to prevent Colonel Gadaffi and his forces launching air-strikes on dissidents unhappy with his rule. Gadaffi promptly announced a ‘ceasefire’, although whether this is genuine or simply to buy time remains to be seen.

In a rare attempt of the UN moving quickly, last night the Security Council passed a resolution approving a no-fly zone over Libya. A no-fly zone is probably the most appropriate way in which the outside world can intervene in Libya, without putting troops on the gound – that would be unthinkable after Iraq. Preventing Gadaffi loyalists from flying aircraft over Libya should give the freedom fighters some breathing space. If in the future troops are to go into Libya it would be better if they came from African and/or Arab countries, to avoid the cat-calls about Western imperialism.

It’s a feather in the cap for the UN, which all too often in modern times has been found to be slow and ponderous. The resolution emphasises that the no-fly zone is to safeguard the majority of Libyan civilians who no longer want to remain under the rule of an erratic and mentally questionable dictator. This sort of scenario is exactly what the UN is there for. Credit as well to France for actually voting for the resolution for a change, rather than vetoing it.

Exactly what part the UK can play in such a no-fly zone is open to question. Any RAF aircraft will be operating at maximum range from either Malta or more likely Cyprus. 10 years ago we could have quickly moved an Aircraft Carrier and its task group to the North African Coast, complete with a squadron of the proven Sea Harrier. Even the vision of a British Carrier over the horizon would probably be enough to rein Gadaffi in. But thanks to the RAF undermining the Fleet Air Arm, and now the ConDem Government axing the aircraft carriers, that can’t happen. And to think they told us the cuts would not mean a loss in capability.

There was an interesting post on Think Defence the other day highlighting the aircraft in the inventory of the Arab League. Some basic research has shown that the member states making up the Arab League possess over a thousand fighter aircraft (including F-16′s, F/A-18 Hornets, Mirage 2000′s and Typhoons) , 10 tankers and 13 AWACS-type surveillance planes. Why then are European and other countries even needing to get involved?

So, what Air Forces can Libya put into the air? Information is patchy, but Global Security lists the following:

  • 29 Mirage F1 (two defected to Malta after being ordered to bomb protesters)
  • 45 Mig-21 ‘Fishbed’ (most believed to be grounded, two known to be shot down)
  • 115 Mig-23 ‘Flogger’ (most believed to be grounded, at least 13 captured)
  • 94 Mig-25 ‘Foxbat’
  • 53 Su-22 ‘Fitter’ (one lost crashed, others claimed captured)
  • 6 Su-24 (two believed lost)
  • 7 Tu-22 ‘Blinder’
  • 37 Mi-24 ‘Hind’ (at least 7 lost)

The Libyans also possess around 216 Surface to Air Missiles, including the Russian SA-8 ‘Gecko’, SA-6 ‘Gainful’, SA-5, SA-3 ‘Goa’ and SA-2 ‘Guideline’. Some of these are capables systems, but whether the Libyans have the electronics and radars in order, enough missiles and good enough training to use them effectively is another matter.

Those are the raw numbers; we can probably half them at least thanks to airworthiness, lack of spare parts, and problems with maintenance and ground crew. Serviceability has been drastically affected by years of embargos and sanctions. The US State Department estimates that around half of Libyan aircraft remain in storage, including the Tupolev Bombers and most of the Migs. We also know very little about the Libyan aircrew’s training standards: probably nothing to worry too much about. And technologically there is nothing there to match the modern NATO-standard fighters.

Lets compare against what a US Aircraft Carrier of the Nimitz class carries as standard:

  • 24-28 FA/18E and FA/18F Super Hornets Fighters
  • 20-24 FA/18C Hornets Multi-role
  • 4-6 EA-6B Prowler Electronic Warfare
  • 4-6 E-2C Hawkeye AEW
  • 2 C-2 Greyhound logistics
  • 8 S3-B tankers
  • 6 Sea Hawk Helicopters

Formidable indeed. A US Carrier Group off the Libyan Coast would have Gadaffi cowering in his tent. Add in a Marine Expeditionary Force – they carry a singificant number of aircraft – and its even more formidable. It just goes to show, the utility of the aircraft carrier should not be underestimated (yes that means you, Dave and Gideon).

Therefore we can see that although the Libyans do not have any first class air-defence to write home about, they do possess a large number of basic but effective ground attack jets and helicopters. Getting these off the backs of the anti-Gaddafi forces would be a significant move to toppling the man without going in ourselves.

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Wootton Bassett to be given Royal prefix

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A cortege passes through Wootton Bassett (Image by stuff_and_nonsense via Flickr)

The town of Wootton Bassett is to be known as ‘Royal Wootton Bassett’, the Prime Minister announced earlier today. The honour has been personally approved by the Queen.

David Cameron told the House of Commons that the Queen had agreed to the tribute as “an enduring symbol of the nation’s admiration and our gratitude to the people of that town”. He also told MP’s:  “Their deeply moving and dignified demonstrations of respect and mourning have shown the deep bond between the public and our armed forces.”

Mary Champion, Mayor of Wootton Bassett, said: “This is a great honour for our community as the repatriations move away from Wootton Bassett.Whilst we have never sought recognition for our simple act of respect I am certain that this will serve to reinforce the pride and gratitude we feel for the members of our armed services who will always be in our thoughts.”

Fallen British servicemen and women are repatriated from Afghanistan to nearby RAF Lyneham. A cortege – and there have been over 150 of them to date- then carries them through Wootton Bassett on their way to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, via the M4. Initially the corteges drove through the quiet streets. Then several ex-servicemen turned out with medals to pay their respects, and before long the whole town was coming out to mark the return of fallen servicemen and women. Now, thousands of people travel from all round the country to pay their respects, in what has become an incredibly moving ritual. Its impossible not to be moved by the sight of so many people lining the streets.

RAF Lyneham is due to close in 2012, however, and as from September this year repatriation flights will be moving to RAF Brize Norton. This is a fitting tribute for a remarkable town in modern British history, and is only the third time that a town has been given the royal prefix, after Royal Leamington Spa and Royal Tunbridge Wells. Bognor was granted the suffix ‘Regis’ by George V after he recovered from illness in the town. It is thought that initially the people of Wootton Bassett had refused the honour, but that the looming closure of RAF Lyneham has fortunately brought about a rethink. I’m glad – it puts down a lasting marker for history.

I think its fair to say that until recently the British Government – and indeed the British public – did not really get remembrance. Sure, we all wore our poppies every November, but when the Iraq War took place in 2003 the vast majority of people felt a serious disdain for the then Government and how it committed the military to action on very dubious grounds. There was a very real risk of the reputation of the military becoming entangled in that, and the remembrance of today’s casualties could have so easily been forgotten.

Yet alongside initiaties such as Help for Heroes, Wootton Bassett has been at the forefront of a real shift in British culture. There is a very clear dividing line now between what we think of the Government on the one hand, and what we think of our serving sailors, soldiers and airmen on the other. People really do care now about our men and women on the front-line. The last time you could have really felt this was back in 1982 immediately after the Falklands War. It must make a world of difference to know that millions of people back home really do give a damm about you.

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Filed under News, Remembrance, Uncategorized