A day at sea: up close with the Royal Navy

Oct 26, 2011   //   by NavyLookout   //   Articles, blog  //  Be the first to comment

HMS Sutherland sails from Portsmouth

HMS Sutherland sails from Portsmouth This photo: Steve Wright   A full set of photos can be seen here
Leaving Portsmouth
View from the bridge – leaving Portsmouth

Together with a few others, I was recently given the rare privilege to observe the Royal Navy a close quarters by spending a day at sea aboard HMS Sutherland. There was a warm and friendly welcome as soon as we came aboard and it was obvious that the ships company are immensely proud of their ship and keen to show off what they can do. The commanding officer and executive officer were particularly enthusiastic, clearly relishing their work and the captain freely admitted he had “the best job in the world”.

Bridge Team
The bridge team

Observing the bridge team at work, there is an atmosphere of calm professionalism (with a little friendly banter), commands are passed and repeated back and so there is no room for misunderstanding. During tricky evolutions such as entry and exiting of harbour, nothing is left to chance. There are a surprisingly large number of people on the bridge each with particular roles, acting as lookouts, taking bearings, reading charts and managing communications.

Sutherland is a Type 23 Frigate and together with the Merlin helicopter she is one of the best anti-submarine warships in the world. For slow-medium speed she runs on electric motors powered by diesel engines that are above the waterline. Below decks there is very little engine noise compared to most ships, only outside on the upper deck can you really hear the diesels. This is a great asset when hunting submarines because it’s harder for her to be detected by submarines and there is less self-generated noise interfering with the passive listening sonars. For higher speeds she starts up the Spey gas turbines and of course noise levels increase substantially. Sutherland is currently the ‘duty towed array frigate’. She can be called on to deploy quickly to investigate suspicious submarine activity around the UK. One of just 8 frigates with towed array, (the other 5 will not be fitted as a cost saving measure) the Type 2087 towed array sonar is a highly effective active and passive sonar streamed from the stern of the ship that can detect quiet submarines at long ranges.

Merlin helicopter
Merlin helicopter and pilot on the flight deck

Even though the Type 23 was designed to take the Merlin helicopter, it still looks huge on Sutherland’s flight deck and it takes considerable skill by the pilot to land this large aircraft on a moving ship. The aircraft can be folded down and fitted snugly in the hangar where the maintainers can work miracles changing engines etc in the cramped space. The 3-engined Merlin has the sophisticated sensors and avionics to greatly enhance the range that the ship can hunt and destroy submarines. Its radar picture can be fed back to the ship, vastly extending the radar horizon. In addition to search and rescue and general transportation, the Merlin can be used for anti piracy and carries machine guns and powerful cameras that send real-time footage back to the ships ops room.

We witnessed a fire fighting drill, a crucial skill that must be practiced by all RN ships at least every 4 days. Fire is a great hazard at sea and warships with their maze of complex wiring are prone to electrical fires. Sutherland suffered 2 minor fires in the last year – both put out in under 2 minutes – a testament to the quick reactions that repetitive training builds. The operations room is quite unlike the rest of the ship. The warfare team sit in semi-darkness at consoles that display radar and sonar information and co-ordinate the fighting of the ship. We saw a demonstration air defence exercise where an incoming anti-ship missile was detected, chaff decoys fired (which failed to seduce missile away from the ship) and finally 2 Seawolf missiles were fired and destroy the target, although everyone is advised to “brace, brace, brace” as the speed of missile is such that fragments are still likely to impact the ship even if destroyed. Sutherland has had the SWMLU (Seawolf Mid Life Update) which means she should be able to deal with the latest generation of supersonic and highly manoeuvrable anti-ship missiles (Which make the Exocets encountered in the Falklands War look like a toy firework). She also has 2 remotely controlled (although not radar-guided) 30 mm cannons for close in defence. Mainly for ship protection and usually manned in confined waters against the threat of terrorists in small boats, she has no less than 6 GMPGs (General Purpose Machine Guns) and 2 x minguns mounted on the upper deck.

RIB recovery
Recovering the RIB after boarding exercise

Also on show were seamanship skills – the swimmer of the watch went overboard in a drysuit to rescue a dummy ‘man-over board’ while the ships boats were lowered for a boarding exercise on an obliging tug with air cover provided the ship’s Merlin. Down below the head Chef gave a brief talk on the challenges of catering for up to 200 men on £2.20 per day/per man in a small galley, often in heavy seas. Apparently every dietary need is now catered for – halal meat is available, together with vegetarian options and even gluten-free food can be provided. The ship is usually steered from the bridge but, like all RN ships since the 1970s, the SCC (Ship Control Centre) is where the ships engines are controlled from as well as the generators and electrical services. There will be someone on watch in this space continuously unless the ship is shut down in a dockyard.

The ship served off Libya as part of Operation Ellamy in the early phases of the campaign, opening fire on land targets with her 4.5″ gun as well as mounting boarding operations. Of course there were also a multitude of other tasks for the Sutherland and more about the flexibility and diverse roles of surface escorts can be found in this article. Sutherland was relived off Libya and then deployed East of Suez as part of the long-planned Operation Cougar, exercising with other nations. On return to the UK she recently participated in Exercise Joint Warrior, hunting submarines in mostly very rough conditions off the North of Scotland. The sailors versatility was demonstrated by changing from ‘warfare mode’ to ‘diplomatic mode’ when she arrived London (video here) for a hectic series of formal and social engagements promoting the Royal Navy. After this weeks Maritime Combat Power Visit (MCPV) operating from Portsmouth, she is due to head to the Bay of Biscay for a multi-national ASW exercises. Later there will be BOST (Basic Operational Sea Training), hopefully some Christmas leave and then another lengthy deployment East of Suez in the new year.

Watching over the flagship HMS Bulwark
Watching over the flagship HMS Bulwark

Sutherland’s busy programme, which often changes at short notice, reflects the current pressure on the Royal Navy to do more and more with less and less. With a tiny frigate & destroyer force of just 19, the pressure on ships has never been greater. In spite of the pride and dedication of the ships company, it is unsurprising that some admitted morale on board is fragile. With a few men leaving the ship in November having been made redundant, the rest of the crew struggle to take the 6 weeks leave per year they are entitled to under the constant pressure to go to sea. This takes its toll on personal relationships in particular and leaves many questioning whether they are willing to keep serving in the Navy in the long-term.

For the ambitious young officers the reduction in the number of ships inevitably means that opportunities for promotion and ultimately sea-going commands are going to be more limited in future. (4 more frigates have only recently decommissioned) The optimists may look forward to 2020 when the RN should have a very modern, small but very capable force of 2 new aircraft carriers, 7 Astute submarines, 6 Type 45 destroyers and the Type 26 Frigates arriving to replace the Type 23s. However there is plenty of time for politicians to screw this up and in the next 5-10 years the RN will contract further. Do they stay in the service and work exceptionally hard to make it as one of the lucky few who will get a command of their own, or leave now and pursue a career in the civilian world where there may be better opportunities? This over-stretch is grossly unfair to serving personnel and the blame must be laid firmly at the feet of government who are eroding the Navy as a great national asset, which (for the moment) still has the track record of the most successful fighting force in history.

My sincere thanks to the crew of HMS Sutherland for their hospitality and whose dedication and professionalism is a fine example of what’s best about this country.

A full set of photographs can be seen here

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