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HMS Daring deploys to the Gulf

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HMS Daring, the first Type 45 Destroyer, deploys to the Gulf tomorrow. She is due to pass the Round Tower at 12.30pm, according to QHM Portsmouth. Replacing the Devonport based Type 23 Frigate HMS Argyll, she will be responsible for patrolling the Persian Gulf. Tensions have been rising in recent weeks, after Iranian naval exercises in the vital straits of Hormuz. The deployment has been seen in some quarters as inflammatory, yet the MOD insists that the deployment has been long-planned. Hence it could hardly be called a ‘show of force’, as the Telegraph is describing it.

This is the first time that one of the Type 45 Destroyers has embarked on an active deployment, and will be keenly watched by many, in Britain and worldwide. As much as I have criticised the cost and small number of ships in the Daring Class, they are fantastic ships by all accounts. Their anti-air missile system, Sea Viper, is among the most advanced in the world, and the SAMPSON radar is phenomenally powerful. They should prove to be more than a match for anything that the Iranians could throw at her in terms of aircraft or anti-ship missiles. It is only in terms of her own anti-surface and anti-submarine capabilities that she is lacking. Mines might also be a concern, but there are considerable allied mine countermeasures forces in the Gulf, including HMS Ledbury who left Portsmouth yesterday.

Save The Royal Navy has highlighted a very amusing article in a nondescript website, that describes Daring as a ‘floating target’ for Iranian forces. Accompanied by a picture of a Batch 1 or 2 Type 42 Destroyer, the text is badly researched and in places laughable. The Iranian military might be increasingly large and belligerent, but their inventory is rather out of date.

The Straits of Hormuz are a critical choke point. The only maritime entrance to the Persian Gulf, a large amount of the world’s oil transits through the 34 mile wide straits – about 14 tankers pass through a day, carrying 15.5m barrells of crude oil. This represents 35% of the world’s seaborne oil shipments. Closure of the straits, or any significant problems, would starve the world of oil and create havoc on the global oil markets. During the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988 the US and British naval forces patrolled the Gulf, ensuring security for merchant vessels. The RN presence has continued ever since under the Armilla Patrol.

What the Royal Navy cannot afford is another incident like that that occured in 2007, when two RIB’s from HMS Cornwall were detained by Iranian patrol boats and the sailors and marines held captive by Tehran. Although it is difficult to argue with the fact that they could not have done much differently – shooting would have created a major international incident – it was bad seamanship to let themselves be captured in the first place. Although accusations of the Royal Navy ‘going soft’ are wide of the mark, pictures of sailors and marines being paraded in Tehran are hardly good for fighting reputation.

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The Hidden Threat: Mines and Minesweeping in WW1 by Jim Crossley

I mentioned in my last book review that the naval war between 1914 and 1918 witnessed the advent of some new aspects of warfare that had never been seen before. Alongside the submarine and the aeroplane, the naval mine made its debut in this conflict.

I must confess I had never really understood just how extensive mining was during the Great War. Large tranches of the North Sea, including the German and British coasts, were mined by the allies and the Germans. In particular,shipping routes were heavily targeted, such as the British North Sea coast and the areas around ports in the low countries.

The important thing to understand is that was not just the threat that a ship might strike a mine that made presented such a problem, it was the sheer inconvenience that there might be mines anywhere, and the limitations it put upon the enemy. Ships could only move freely in swept channels, which of course required much effort and danger to clear. Its the threat that mines MIGHT be there that really causes the damage – even if you know that there probably arent, you have to assume that there are until you know otherwise. Mines severely restricted and impeded the free maneouvring of naval forces. And compared to the vast cost involved in building a Super Dreadnought, they were also relatively cheap.

Much like the submarine, to begin with British naval circles scoffed at minewarfare, somehow thinking of it as ‘un-British’ – I suppose its similar to the popular clamourings for a Trafalgar-esque, Nelsonian pitched sea battle – all very nostalgic, but Trafalgar was over a hundred years ago. But by 1918 the Royal Navy had, slowly, and somewhat unconventionally, developed significant experience and expertise in both laying and dealing with mines. In anti-minewarfare in particular, much use was made of smaller ships, such as Trawlers. Paddlesteamers were also utilised for their maneouvreability.

I think its quite telling that whereas the Royal Navy has long led the field in mine counter measures warfare – perhaps motivated by her experiences in the Great War, and her geographical status as an island nation dependant on the free movement of shipping. By contrast, the US Navy never really mastered the concept of the mine, right up until the 1980’s when several of her ships were severely damaged by Iranian mines in the Gulf. Incredibly, the largest and most powerful navy on the seas did not possess its own MCMV force. Yet after the armistice, each  of the allied nations was alloted an area of the North Sea to clear of mines. One of them – the US Navy.

This is a very interesting book, and contains a number of salient points not just about mines, but about naval warfare in general. I enjoyed reading it very much. It is extremely well written, and complements the historiography of the Great War at Sea perfectly.

The Hidden Threat is published by Pen and Sword

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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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HMS Lancaster heads to the Gulf

HMS Lancaster

HMS Lancaster

HMS Lancaster sailed out of Portsmouth today on a 7 month deployment to the Middle East. She previously only returned from 6 months in the Northern Gulf in late February. After an 8 month period of maintenance, training and trials, she is back out again.

If any evidence that the Navy is overstretched, and that it is madness to cut the number of Frigates and Destroyers, this is it. Previously it would have been unheard of to send a ship and its crew on two long deployments within the space of a year.

In times gone by many Royal Navy ships spent years away at sea, when we maintained fleets abroad around the Empire. But in modern times, we have little need to send our servicemen away for so long, and in any case our ships simply arent designed to spend more than 6 months away from Port. Modern warships are higher in technology and require much more maintenance.

That our ships are being expected to carry such a workload shows how underfunded and overstretched our Armed Forces are.

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