The value of having RN ships deployed across the globe has been vividly demonstrated by the announcement that HMS Daring and HMS Illustrious will be sent to the Philippines for ‘Operation Patwin’ to provide what assistance they can in the wake of the Typhoon Haiyan which struck the Philippines on the 8th of November, one of the most intense tropical storms to ever make landfall anywhere in the world. 300 miles wide, the Typhoon ripped through the South East of the country killing, injuring and thousands of people who now need urgent help. A disaster on this scale will require a global response and the Royal Navy’s contribution, while excellent, will of course only be scratching the surface. However there is a moral imperative that we do whatever we can and the RN presence demonstrates the UK may be far away but still has a global reach that can be used to show compassion to the suffering.
HMS Daring was coming toward the end of a Pacific and Far East tour which included participation in the Royal Australian Navy’s Centenary celebrations and diplomacy visits to various Asian countries. Nowadays it is rare that RN warships are seen in the Far East and it was fortunate Daring was relatively close at the time of the typhoon. She has just completed visit to Singapore and was beginning multi-national naval exercise Bersama Lima when she received orders to sail the approximately 800 miles to the disaster zone.
Like all operational RN warships, HMS Daring’s ship’s company are trained for disaster relief operations when they pass through the exacting Operational Sea Training courses run by FOST (Flag Officer Sea Training). Although the ship cannot carry large amounts of food or repair materials, the crew have a wide range of skills and some specialist capabilities to offer and the Philippine government and its people. Obviously this includes trained engineers and medics well as being able to provide general manpower to do whatever is needed. As a The ship itself carrys 700 ration packs, 550 litres of bottled water and can make 20,000 litres of drinking water every 24 hours. She also has portable generators, fire-fighting equipment, thermal imaging cameras, floodlighting and rescue equipment. However these materials have been supplemented with additional stores embarked in Cebu.
Although Daring deployed with only a single Lynx (she can carry 2 or a larger Merlin), the helicopter will be invaluable and a second flight crew has joined the ship as the helicopter will be worked hard, initially doing aerial surveys to asses damage. Once engaged in relief activities, the Lynx can be used for light transport, lifting and ferrying personnel. Some of the weapon systems and avionics have been removed to save weight and increase carrying capacity.
Fortuitously the ship embarked a detachment of Royal Marines in Australia intended mainly for ceremonial duties but they will now prove to be useful extra manpower. There are 3 dental staff aboard in addition to the ships doctor and medically trained personnel. Although the Type 45 is very lean-manned their relatively large size provides useful extra space and proper accommodation for at least 45 extra people besides the standard 190 complement. Personnel flown out from the UK have been embarked including 14 medics and extra flight crew.
It was fortunate that HMS Illustrious was in Muscat, Oman, making a rare trip into Gulf region and thus much nearer to the Philippines than usual. However the timing is more unfortunate for her ship’s company, coming to the end of a planned 5-month Cougar13 deployment and looking forward to getting back home to Portsmouth in December. She will now almost certainly be away at Christmas which is hard on the crew and even harder on their families, although all concerned are doubtless proud of the ship and the job she will be doing.
HMS Illustrious is an ageing ship and will decommission next year. Although completing a major refit in 2011, she suffered a serious fire in an electrical breaker on August 13th, just days after she had left for the Cougar13 deployment. (Rather reminiscent, although not as serious, as the gearbox fire she suffered 27 years before at the start of the Global ’86 deployment) The excellent training provided by FOST was vindicated once again, the crew reacted well, controlling the fire and managing to avoid using water which would have hugely increased the extent of the damage. 90% fighting efficiency was restored to the ship within hours and she was able to continue with the planned exercises. In the nick of time a replacement breaker and switchboard was saved from the hulk of her sister ship HMS Ark Royal which is currently being ripped to pieces at a scrapyard in Turkey. The replacement has been sent back to the UK and will be fitted when Illustrious returns home. Hopefully this electrical issue and other mechanical problems will not hamper the disaster relief operation.
The commitment of Illustrious to the operation will be a major help to the logistical problems of distributing aid and where roads and communications are damaged. Indeed the huge American aircraft carrier USS George Washington is already on the scene and using her 23 helicopters to make a big difference. Illustrious is carrying 7 helicopters – a mix of Merlins and Sea Kings which have much greater lifting capability than Daring’s single Lynx. Illustrious also has more manpower to contribute and would be well suited as a command and control centre.
The RAF has sent a single C17 cargo plane. This limited contribution is not entirely their fault, due to the on-going commitment to support the draw-down of UK forces in Afghanistan. It also highlights the inadequate airlift capability possessed by the UK. As usual lack of funds are partly to blame but perhaps the RAF has failed to sufficiently prioritise the procurement of cargo aircraft – an important and genuinely useful capability.
Although able to carry the fraction of material carried by ships, cargo aircraft have the advantage that they can quickly get to the scene but it is already being reported that aid materials are mounting up on airport runways because it is very difficult to distribute it. The Philippines are an archipelago nation, even in normal times are very reliant on transport by sea and not all the islands have airfields suitable for cargo aircraft. With internal roads also blocked or damaged the logical conclusion is that in this case most aid will probably best be delivered directly from the sea. What state the local ports and harbours are in is unknown but in the short-term the initial aid could be delivered by amphibious vessels over the beach.
In some ways it is a shame HMS Bulwark, RFA Mounts Bay or RFA Lyme Bay could not join the operation as their ability to land significant amounts of materials onto beaches using their floodable docks and amphibious landing craft would be extremely useful. RFA Largs Bay was sent to Haiti to help after the earthquake in 2010 and was able to land supplies when the main port facilities were unusable. Sadly this very new, capable and relatively cheap-to-run ship was sold to Australia as part of the ill-advised 2010 Defence cuts. There are limits to what the UK can afford to send and the already vastly over-stretched RN would be left unable to respond to other emergencies and has commitments in the Arabian Gulf. It would appear that the help on offer from HMS Daring and Illustrious will be of greatest benefit to the smaller islands and remote communities that have received no help or contact at all since the disaster. Of course the long-term recovery will be reliant on far greater volumes of food and materials which will mostly have to come by sea but it maybe months or even years before damaged ships, ports and road infrastructure can be restored to the required levels.
Calling ‘International Rescue’
As many ‘sea blind’ governments have so often had to re-learn, naval forces provide a very flexible tool for delivery of both hard power and in this case, soft power. The humanitarian aid mission is often forgotten in political discussions around the size and shape of the navy. Maybe more imaginative ways can be found to fund additional warships with contributions from other government departments besides defence. There have also been calls for an “International Rescue Force” ready to respond to large-scale natural disasters that seem to happen on an almost annual basis. Perhaps under UN control and with a mix of military capabilities, participating countries would allocate and declare specific assets available to the force for set periods. The naval component of the International Rescue group could follow the pattern of NATO standing naval groups or the multi-national force working on anti-piracy duties in Indian Ocean & Horn of Africa.
Recent history would suggest the average RN warship is more likely to be involved in a humanitarian operation than firing weapons in anger during its working life. Royal Navy vessels have been involved in disaster relief work going back decades, the number of operations too numerous to cover in detail. Some more recent example include HMS Southampton helping evacuate the population of Monseratt when the volcano erupted in 1995. HMS Chatham assisted coastal communities of Sri Lanka after the devastating Tsunami of December 2004 and this was captured in the BBC documentary ‘Shipmates’. An extremely moving moment in that documentary was when a group of nuns who ran an orphanage which had been devastated by the Tsunami describe how they were desperately praying for help when a Royal Navy warship appeared on the horizon. HMS Manchester was on hand to provide aid when St Lucia was hit by a hurricane in 2010 also recorded in a BBC documentary ‘Royal Navy Caribbean Patrol’.
Ultimately this is a story of human suffering on an overwhelming scale and our thoughts are with the people of the Philippines and we wish the RN personnel all the best in their work.
You can make financial donations to help the relief effort on the British Red Cross website.
All images courtesy of the Royal Navy Via Flickr
Follow online coverage of the Royal Navy’s relief work as the story develops collated here on Storify
Respected naval author Iain Ballantyne recently published Hunter Killers telling the incredible, true story of the Royal Navy ‘s submarines confronting the Soviet Union. The exploits of RN submarines in the Cold War is a story that needs to be told, not just to honour the men involved but to support the case for investment in submarines today. The RN submarine force is now in a parlous state, and one senses frustration amongst serving submariners that, by the very nature of their work, they can’t talk about much of what they do. Intentionally out of sight and often forgotten, there is a lack of public and political appreciation of what great national assets our submarines are.
Hunter Killers – reviewed
The story starts in the aftermath of WWII when the RN was applying lessons from captured German submarine technology, pushing to give diesel submarines (SSKs) greater underwater speed and endurance. Meanwhile the, then backward, Soviet navy was embarking on a race to become a naval giant which would see it fielding a vast and fearsome array of submarines by the mid-1980s. The author neatly paints in the political and historical backdrop to operations without hampering the flow of the submarine stories which will keep you gripped. While the world was often focused on the superpower space race, a more exciting, secret and ultimately more consequential duel was being fought in inner space. As submarine-launched nuclear weapons proliferated during the 1960s, NATO forces aimed to track and record as many Soviet submarines as possible. The Soviets built ever-increasing numbers and varieties of ballistic missile (SSBN) and attack subs (SSNs). The RN and even the US could not hope to match the sheer quantity but were far ahead in technology and in particular, the quality of the crews. The technological edge was largely maintained until undermined by the 1980s through the work of naval spy rings in the UK and the US. Also weaved into the narrative is the development of the RN’s submarines. From the first nuclear powered HMS Dreadnought, followed by the Valiants, Churchills and the world-beating Swiftsures. Also the very efficient Polaris programme to get the UK nuclear deterrent to sea and a glimpse of the wide-ranging operations of the diesel Oberon class are covered.
Although the books They Come Unseen and the US equivalent, Blind Man’s Buff gave fascinating glimpses into this world of undersea duelling, being published more than a decade earlier, they lack the level of detail Hunter Killers reveals. The book is mainly based on the tales of a few key RN submarine commanders who talk candidly about their experiences for the first time. What is clear is that for most of the Cold War period RN submariners were effectively operating on a war footing, on occasions taking extreme risks in getting close to other submarines, operating in the Barents Sea and penetrating Soviet waters. The book details many amazing operations some of which were supreme triumphs as well as some near disasters. The collision of HMS Warspite with a Soviet submarine (1968) rolled her over to 65° and traumatised many of the crew. HMS Sceptre sustained severe damage in another collision (1981) which ripped off her forward casing and part of the fin. For all the publicity around RN submarines operations in the Falklands War, most submariners regard their exploits in Northern waters as more daring, demanding and rewarding.
Make no mistake, the constant pressure on the Soviet navy from the RN and USN not only acted as an ongoing deterrent against the use of nuclear weapons but helped win the Cold War. The intelligence gathered was invaluable in keeping NATO ready to strike back in the event of Soviet aggression. The Soviet response to Western superiority was to try to out-spend them, ultimately bankrupting and hastening the collapse of the Communist bloc. The book concludes fittingly with specialist intelligence-gathering Frigate HMS London, commanded by a submariner entering Murmansk for a friendship visit with the old foe at the end of the Cold War. The author was aboard and witnessed the ship having to take avoiding action to dodge a ‘friendly’ practice torpedo fired at the ship by a Russian sub! This book is a ‘must-read’ for naval enthusiasts and historians, it will probably become required reading even for serving personnel. There is no better book on the submarine aspects of the Cold War.
Precious few hunter killers in the 21st Century
As has historically has so often been the case, victory was the reward for the Royal Navy’s dedication and sacrifice in the Cold War. With scant gratitude or foresight, politicians in the early 1990s, foolishly thinking that the era of conflict was over, started slashing defence spending. This foolishness has continued pretty much until the present day and the RN submarine force has declined proportionally, losing all its SSKs and now down to around just 7 SSNs. (See previous post for more on this sorry tale). Today the RN’s attack submarine force has its hands full with a wide variety of tasks. Its primary job of escorting and protecting the nation’s nuclear deterrent carried aboard the SSBNs ensuring they are not trailed by other subs remains. On top of that, the advent of the submarine-launched Tomahawk missile means the UK tries to keep at least one boat East of Suez ready to launch Tomahawks and this commitment is a big stretch. There are many other very useful tasks that RN subs undertake on a daily basis – gathering intelligence on potential foes (and probably allies too), listening to communications, photographing coastal installations and providing information back to the UK on criminal, terrorist, and military activity. While they may not have to take quite the risks they did against Soviet submarines, tracking and recording the unique acoustic signatures of other submarines and warships helps maintain a data library vital to a submarine operations. In the event of a future naval conflict it is likely submarines will pose by far the greatest threat to the vulnerable merchant ships that the UK is so dependent upon. The Cold War may appear to be over but Putin is determined to restore superpower status to Russia and is building new generations of SSNs and SSBNs. At a time when many nations across the world are investing in greater numbers of new submarines, particularly quiet SSKs, the case for building more than the 7 Astute class submarines planned, or even some conventional submarines, is stronger than ever. Meanwhile the RN does what it has always done and make the best of its very limited resources. A sign of the RN’s professionalism is that despite constant dangers, calculated risks and daring operations, the RN has not lost a submarine at sea since HMS Affray in 1951. Furthermore it is an incredible achievement that no Royal Navy SSBN has ever been detected since patrols began in 1968.
As a footnote to the amazing story of the RN’s Cold War efforts, every single one of its retired nuclear submarines remain intact today. Currently there are 7 decaying hulks in Rosyth and a further 8 in Devonport with more decommissioned T class subs coming soon. The MoD has been dismally slow to dispose of these vessels, which have been hanging around far too long and pose a small risk of radiation leaks. A plan to dismantle them in both locations looks to be inching slowly forward. On top of a string of reports of minor failures on nuclear safety in recent years, an electrical failure at Devonport in 2012 created a serious risk of a nuclear incident with reactors deprived of coolant supplies. This kind of incompetence and negligence puts lives at risk and gives CND, the Greens etc a field day to undermine our nations defence. This must be a top priority for the MoD and its contractors. There can be no shortcuts, no economies and no excuses on nuclear safety of RN submarines and their supporting infrastructure.
Related online resources
- Iain Ballantyne website
- Cold War cat and mouse games put us on red alert says submarine commander
- HMS Conqueror’s biggest secret: a raid on Russia
- Decision to test the dismantling of nuclear submarines in Rosyth ‘right’
- Second Russian nuclear submarine spotted off US coast in three months
- Happy 350th birthday Royal Marines, but mind the gap
- Review: the Royal Navy 2013 – 2015
- Maritime Media Awards 2013: Securing the Seaways
- Mercy mission to the Philippines – in the finest traditions of the Royal Navy
- We will remember them – Remembrance 2013
- A story that needs telling – Royal Navy Submarines in the Cold War
- 10 good reasons UK should NOT take military action in Syria