In focus: the Royal Navy presence in the Caribbean

Supporting British Overseas Territories in the Caribbean is a permanent commitment for the Royal Navy which has maintained a presence in the region in various forms for centuries. Here we look at how the modern navy deploys its limited resources to fulfil this task.


Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat and the Turks & Caicos Islands are the six overseas territories in the region under the jurisdiction and sovereignty of the UK. (Note: Bermuda is outside the Caribbean region). Although seen by many as a ‘remnant of empire’ these islands are self-governed but rely to the UK for defence, foreign policy and assistance in many matters. Since 2002 their populations have full British citizenship and the presence of RN vessels is a reassuring sight for communities that have virtually no military capability and are vulnerable to natural disasters. There also Commonwealth states of Antigua & Barbuda, Belize, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, St Kitts & Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and Trinidad & Tobago in the region which welcome occasional RN visitor.

During the Cold War period, the RN maintained a small naval base in Bermuda (HMS Malabar) to support warships in the Caribbean area under the command of the Senior Naval Officer West Indies (SNOWI), established in 1951. To serve as SNOWI or on his staff was a popular appointment, working in a benign colonial environment in the Bermuda sunshine. The RN fleet of the post-war years would often have several warships operating in the region but numbers were gradually reduced in line with the shrinking navy. The post of SNOWI was disbanded in 1976 and Malabar was finally closed in 1995 but at least one vessel was always assigned to be West Indies Guard Ship (WIGS), typically a frigate supported by an RFA. WIGS was renamed the Atlantic Patrol Task North (APT(N)) on 1 November 1998, reflecting the wider operating area which included West Africa. In parallel, the Atlantic Patrol Task South (APT(S)) was established for the warship and RFA deployed to the Falkland Islands and South Atlantic.


In the wake of the 2010 Defence Review that unhelpfully dispensed with another 4 frigates, the RN almost abandoned the practice of a warship permanently assigned to APT(N). Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels took over the role to a large extent. Only two frigates have been to the Caribbean since 2010 and there has been controversy about “auxiliaries having to do the job of a warship”. In the low threat environment, the large RFA vessels with an embarked helicopter and plenty of spare capacity for personnel and stores have actually proved better suited to the job in some ways than the warships, particularly for disaster relief operations.

HMS Severn was the first OPV to be sent to the Caribbean in 2015, her successful deployment covering 56,000 nautical miles and visits to 24 different ports proved these vessels were up to the task. HMS Mersey followed in 2016. The small increase in vessels that the RN has gained by retaining the 3 batch I OPVs, will allow the new batch II OPV, HMS Medway, to be permanently deployed on APT(N) this year. The RN is increasingly utilising forward-deployment to maximise availability and Medway is likely to remain in the Caribbean for several years with her crew rotating on a 3-watch system. There is no permanent base for RN vessels in the area but there are many friendly ports where the ship can be replenished and conduct self-maintenance periods. For more major refit work the RFAs deployed for an extended period in recent years were sent to Detyens shipyard in Charleston, South Carolina.

It is interesting to note how the number of RFA vessels (highlighted in grey) increased after 2007 and with rotating crews they were generally deployed for much longer periods than the warships. HMS Iron Duke holds the record (4 deployments totalling 23 months) for the most time spent in the Caribbean by an RN warship in the 21st Century but HMS Medway will exceed this.

Partnership and engagement

Naval vessels deployed to the region have three main tasks. The primary job is to provide (1) a tangible UK presence to support overseas territories and UK interests in the region while also available to offer emergency (2) Disaster Relief during the hurricane season. (3) A final priority is to conduct maritime security missions, primarily counter-narcotic (CN) operations to disrupt the trade in illegal drugs from Central and South America.

Hosting a cocktail party in a sun-drenched island paradise is perhaps the stereotypical image of how the Royal Navy ‘shows the flag’ in the Caribbean. Defence diplomacy carried out by the RN globally is far more in-depth and effective than just a few drinks receptions for local dignitaries, although this is still one of the ways to build good relationships. The ships’ programme is outlined a few months ahead if possible by planners at the Maritime Operations Centre at Northwood. There are many stakeholders who are keen to request RN visits including governors or defence attaches from the region, the International Policy and Plans department at the MoD, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Home Office.

On arrival in Caribbean port, a capability briefing is often held that explains to local government officials and emergency services what the RN can offer in terms of disaster relief in the event the territories suffer a natural disaster. Outline plans maybe drafted about how the ship may respond to a hurricane impacting the island that season. In some cases, the ship may also offer immediate practical help with small parties of sailors going ashore to assist with community projects. RN personnel may also help train local military or law enforcement personnel and conduct small scale exercises to help improve their skills and experience. There may also be sporting events with the ship forming a football, rugby or cricket team to take on the locals. Sailors may also occasionally perform ceremonial duties in support of anniversaries or commemoration events. The ship may also be used to host trade delegations to promote UK or local industry as well as conduct wider engagement with UK allies including the US, French and Dutch navies that have a permanent presence in the Caribbean.

For many sailors, time spent in the West Indies made for the most memorable and enjoyable deployments. Sailors are not sent overseas to work on their tans but a variety of runs ashore in exotic places makes for a more interesting career and a reward for long periods away from home and duties that are sometimes monotonous. For a navy that is struggling to retain enough people, it is important that it can offer a variety of overseas trips and alternatives to the Persian Gulf or ploughing the North Atlantic.

  • HMS Severn at anchor off Montserrat, February 2015.

  • Palm trees and blue skies, classic Carribean scene – HMS Manchester alongside in Tortola, British Virgin Islands, 2003.

  • Procedure alpha onboard HMS Ocean as she enters Martinique in April 2007, part of a 4-month deployment which included visits to West Africa and the Caribbean. RN capital ships rarely visit the region, although Ocean was sent at short notice to help provide emergency aid to the British Virgin Islands in 2017.

  • RFA Wave Knight participates in Exercise Trade Winds 2017 off the coast of Trinidad. This multinational exercise focused on security operations and humanitarian assistance and disaster response. Participants included the US, Canada, France, the Netherlands and many Caribbean nations.

  • In the wardroom of HMS Lancaster, officers brief officials from Bermuda on the RN’s disaster relief capabilities, Jul 2007.

  • Whilst alongside in Trinidad, sailors from HMS Manchester helped refurbish a school for orphans after it was badly damaged by fire. November 2003. Visiting RN vessels frequently assist with small projects to support local communities in the Caribbean.

  • HMS Cumberland intercepts a ‘go fast’ boat carrying around two tonnes of cocaine worth about £17.6 million, Western Caribbean, October 2005. Since 2000, the RN has been involved in around 60 major drug busts in the Caribbean and prevented hundreds of £millions worth of drugs reaching the streets.

  • Sailors from HMS Lancaster enjoy some downtime at Stingray City in Grand Cayman, June 2013. Good runs ashore are a very important part of maintaining good morale as well as attracting and retaining the personnel the RN needs.

Counter Narcotics

When conducting counter-narcotics operations the RN works with the Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF-S) which is based in Key West, Florida. This is a multi-national organisation headed by the US that runs a continuing operation Martello to monitor and intercept drugs trafficking and illegal activities in the Caribbean. With a huge area to police, the RN contribution is extremely welcome and is seen as a reliable and highly professional force with experience of hundreds of high seas drug seizures. Defeating the drug trafficking organisations (DTOs) requires a network of intelligence gatherers that report to JIATF-S which will then brief the RN vessel to make the interception. Typically drugs are transported in ‘go-fast’ speed boats that can make up to 50 knots, although in recent years DTOs have also attempted to build their own semi-submersible craft to try to avoid detection.

Boardings and interceptions are made under the authority of the US Coast Guard and RN or RFA vessels typically embarked an 8-man USCG Law Enforcement Detachments (LEDET) for theses operations. When the ship arrives in the Caribbean, the LEDET spends a couple of days familiarising itself with the ship’s company, RN equipment and procedures. These operations require a good understanding of the complexities of local territorial waters and international maritime law but this is largely managed by the US so the RN does not have to worry about the detail of this. The trust between the agencies is increasing, a US Coast Guard helicopter with a US marksman was embarked aboard RFA Wave Knight in 2014. The effort to disrupt the drugs trade in the Caribbean benefits the UK by weakening the criminal networks which have a destabilising effect on UK overseas territories as well as reducing the flow of narcotics into Europe.

Disaster relief

The Caribbean hurricane season is officially 1 June – 30 November. Mid-August to mid-September is the time of greatest risk to most of the British overseas territories and Commonwealth islands in the eastern area. (In the western area the peak is mid-August – November). There are considerable variations in intensity and impact across different years but it is confidently predicted that climate change will only increase the violence of future storms. Typically, tropical cyclones form off West Africa and cross the Atlantic, gathering energy from the warm sea surface before impacting on the Caribbean and then heading north toward the US.

The RN has been responding to the effects of severe storms in the region for several decades but 2017 was an especially bad year, two category 5 hurricanes, Irma and Maria hit the Caribbean. (Category 5 is defined as wind speeds greater than 157 mph). In August 2019 Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas with winds peaking at 185 mph, the most powerful hurricane on record in the Atlantic. In both 2017 and 2019 RFA Mounts Bay was prepared and pre-positioned ready to respond to these disasters. (The magnificent work by RN, RFA and Army personnel to help islanders who had lost everything is well documented elsewhere)

  • The picturesque Caribbean conditions give no clue to the terrible devastation ashore. RFA Mounts Bay involved in her second major disaster relief operation in two years delivers aid to the Bahamas in the wake of Hurricane Dorian, September 2019.

  • This is what a Caribbean island looks like after being hit by a category 5 hurricane. A Wildcat helicopter from RFA Mounts Bay conducted an aerial reconnaissance of Great Abaco island to assess the damage caused by Hurricane Dorian, September 2019.

  • First responders – a joint RFA, Army, Royal Navy and Royal Marines team help deliver aid brought ashore from RFA Mounts Bay to the community of Fox Town, Little Abaco. The town was cut off from the main island when the connecting bridge was washed away during hurricane Dorian, Sept 2019.

  • HMS Ocean at anchor off the Virgin Islands having been redeployed at short notice from the Mediterranean to join in the post-hurricane Irma relief operation, Sept 2017.

  • Lynx from RFA Lyme Bay delivers essential supplies to the isolated village of Campbell, Dominica in the wake of hurricane Joaquin, September 2015. Subsequently, Lyme Bay was also involved in relief operations in Crooked Island, Bahamas and the search for the lost cargo ship El Faro.

  • RFA Largs Bay assisting the World Food Program (WFP) as part of the UK’s contribution to the relief effort for the people of Haiti following devastating earthquakes, January 2010. Here a Mexflote is used to deliver 6 tons of beans, 32 tons of rice and 275,000 packs of Meals Ready to Eat (MRE) to the remote community of Anse a Veau.

  • This is a mock-up of our concept for a UK Aid Ship (based on a Bay class), government-funded through DFiD and perhaps semi-permanently deployed in the Caribbean in the hurricane season, relieving or supporting the RN in this task.

  • British Maritime Aid is a non-government, crowd-funded project to build an aid vessel based on a civilian ro-ro ferry design. Should this effort be successful, this is another potential solution to the requirement for a regular disaster relief ship in the Caribbean.

The future

Maritime disaster relief operations require manpower, good stocks of food and water, tools and transport and, above all, a means of delivery from ship to shore. The bulk of the materials need to be landed either over the beach using landing craft or mexeflote or with the ship alongside a jetty. Port and jetty facilities of sufficient size may either be damaged or simply non-existent in small island communities. The Bay class RFAs are ideally suited with internal dock for landing craft, a flight deck and aircraft shelter. Unfortunately with just 3 of these precious ships, keeping one permanently in the Caribbean leaves the Royal Marines with only a single ship based in the UK to perform their core amphibious role (a third ship is permanently deployed as a mine warfare support vessel in the Gulf). At the time of writing the 4th Bay class, foolishly by the UK sold to Australia in 2010 and renamed HMAS Choules, is employed on disaster relief operations responding the bush fires.

Batch II river class OPV, HMS Medway, is about to sail to for the Caribbean, replacing RFA Mounts Bay. The two previous OPVs deployed were not sent during the hurricane season and Medway is expected primarily to carry out maritime security and defence diplomacy tasks. Medway has some limited disaster relief capability and has a small crane that can embark two TEU 20 shipping containers of relief supplies, plus accommodation for 50 extra personnel. Forward-basing is a sensible plan to maximise use of fleet assets and reduces the time, wear and tear and expense of long voyages across the Atlantic and back. However, it seems likely Medway will need to be joined on station during hurricane season by a larger vessel (possibly RFA Argus later in 2020) that has far greater capacity.

The Batch II OPVs are modern, comfortable and well-equipped ships that benefit from having a flight deck but it is very hard to understand why the RN did not specify a hangar be incorporated in these expensive vessels at the design stage. (There are several foreign equivalent OPVs of similar displacement that have a Wildcat-size hangar). A helicopter based ashore might be able to work with the ship on a part-time basis, ‘lily padding’ using the flight deck, but without shelter, it is difficult to protect and maintain an aircraft at sea for long periods. The helicopter is central to the CN and HADR missions in the Caribbean, able to provide reconnaissance over a vastly wider area than the ship and able to outpace and cripple high-speed drug-running boats. In the disaster relief role, the helicopter provides valuable initial aerial surveys as well as light transport of supplies and personnel.

From both a geographical and financial perspective, the Caribbean is in a particularly difficult position to address climate change and it is incumbent on the UK to provide assistance to its territories and Commonwealth partners. Not all natural disasters are obligingly predictable as cyclones. Haiti was devastated by earthquakes in January 2010 and on the island of Montserrat the Soufrière Hills volcano erupted in July 1995, destroying the capital city of Plymouth. (RFA Largs Bay sailed from the UK with relief supplies for Haiti and HMS Liverpool was on hand to assist with the evacuation of Montserrat). A dedicated civilian ‘UK aid ship’ based in the region might a more efficient and cheaper long-term solution that would relieve pressure on the RFA.

The work of the Royal Navy in the Caribbean looks set to continue long into the future and we wish HMS Medway every success on her maiden deployment.


For further reading, the MoD’s Joint Doctrine Publication (JDP 3-52) Disaster Relief Operations Overseas: the Military Contribution is available here.