Nine-minute rescue – analysis of the recent Royal Navy and special forces operation

More details are emerging about the operation on 25th October to free the crew of the MV Nave Andromeda in the face of violent stowaways. Here will examine the incident and the role played by the Royal Navy in protecting commercial shipping and the waters of UK.

The backstory

The 42,000-tonne crude oil tanker, Nave Andromeda sailed from Lagos, Nigeria on 23rd September bound for Southampton. Her complex management arrangements are typical of the commercial shipping world, a being Liberian-flagged tanker, operated by Navios Maritime Holdings, owned by a Greek company and having a multi-national crew. Seven stowaways managed to board the ship in Nigeria and planned to either make an illegal entry or claim asylum in Europe.

It has emerged the crew became aware of their unwanted passengers at some point several days before they entered UK waters. The ship was off the Canary Islands on 5th October before continuing North, taking a detour into French waters near Saint-Nazaire on 20th October. It has come to light that the French authorities refused the permission for the ship to berth and disembark the seven men. The master then chose to continue as planned toward the UK. On arrival off the South Coast, the passengers became violent when they learned they would not be allowed to quietly disappear into the country. A master is obliged to report the presence of stowaways to the authorities under normal maritime protocols.

MV Nave Andromeda proceeding slowly, south of the Isle of Wight during the morning of 25 October.  She was sailing in ballast and bound for the Fawley oil terminal on Southampton Water. (Photo used by permission of Island Echo)

The incident

The stowaways became aggressive and began a stand-off with the 22 crew members who retreated into the ‘citadel’. Many merchant ships now have safe rooms where the crew can lock themselves in if the ship is subject to pirate attacks or hijacking attempts. There is fresh water and food for a few days, access to communications equipment and an independent power supply. It is reported that in this case, the captain managed remained in control, locked in the bridge with the chief engineer locked in the engine room.

The master put out a mayday call around 0900 on Sunday morning requesting immediate assistance as stowaways had surrounded the ship’s bridge and he was attempting to keep them calm. This was received by the coastguard and passed to Hampshire Police. The tanker zig-zagged slowly off the south coast of the Isle of Wight and by the afternoon the Police had formally requested military assistance. An exclusion zone was enforced around the vessel which was monitored by coastguard helicopters and RLNI boats through the afternoon.

The crews actions were in line with an obscure manual called Best Management Practices to Deter Piracy and Enhance Maritime Security, 5th edition (BMP5) This document was originally developed by the RN and other agencies to advise mariners how to prevent and, if necessary, respond to piracy and boarding attacks in the Gulf region.

The response

Contingency planning by the military probably began at an early stage in the day as it was clear how things would likely develop. Preparation using all available intelligence is a cornerstone of special forces operations and being in communication with the master would have been a big help in determining the location of the suspects. The ship’s owner would also likely have provided plans of the vessel to help understand the layout.

For the operation the RN deployed 16 members of the Special Boat Service (SBS), carried in two Merlin helicopters, supported by two Wildcat helicopters and the frigate, HMS Richmond. The Merlins Mk4s of 845 and 846 NAS have capacity for up to 24 fully laden troops but two aircraft provides a back-up and allowed the SBS to land in separate parts of the ship to surround the suspects. The Merlin is fitted with a powerful winch for rescue work and securing point above the door for roping. When in use, the winchman has the ability to take a limited degree of flying control from the pilot using a small joystick just inside the door.

The Maritime Interdiction (MI) Flight is part of 815 Naval Air Squadron, consisting of double-manned Wildcat flights held at high readiness to support UK Special Forces. It is available for Counter-Narcotics, Counter-Piracy and Maritime Counter-Terrorism (MCT) operations. The MI Wildcats may be used to provide top cover or troop insertion/extraction for Special Forces. A 43 Commando Maritime Sniper Team (MST) or SBS Sniper is usually embarked for these operations.

The 4 aircraft of the Commando Helicopter Force took off from RNAS Yeovilton at around 1545 and arrived at the SBS headquarters in Poole. Chinook helicopters from RAF Odiham, were also in the air during the afternoon, probably collecting personnel and equipment from the Special Forces Support Group (SFSG) at St Anthan and delivering them to Poole.

On Sunday HMS Richmond was at anchor in Tor Bay during a break in Fleet Operational Sea Training and was conveniently placed to assist. It is possible that Richmond’s Pacific 24 RIBs were launched, on hand to rescue anyone who might have ended up in the water. The frigate could also shadow the tanker if the master had lost control and it began to move off. It could also refuel helicopters if the operation became extended and could act as the on-scene command and control facility.

As night fell the ship is surrounded by boats and helicopters a few minutes before she was boarded. (Photo used by permission of Island Echo)

The action

The action to recover the ship began after dark at around 1945. The master was clearly acting under instructions and turned the ship onto a westerly heading into the wind to assist the helicopters in the hover. Observers on the Isle of wight also saw the deck floodlighting extinguished.

It is unclear if the ship was boarded using small assault craft and troops scaling the sides using grappling hooks, a demanding task in darkness and moderate seas. What is certain is that four helicopters arrived over the ship The noise, downdraft and blinding searchlights are a useful way to disorientate the adversary and the SBS quickly descended from the two Merlins by rope onto the deck. Snipers in the back of the Wildcats provided covering fire, should it have been needed.

The stowaways were apparently quickly apprehended and gave up without resistance, caught in a pincer movement by the small SBS teams in a single group, together on the central part of the upper deck. Once the ship was secured, the suspects were handed over to police and the SBS quickly withdrew. In all the operation had taken just 9 minutes with no injury or loss of life. The ship is now safely docked in Southampton and is subject to a police investigation. How the stowaways boarded the ship, when the crew was first aware of them and the actions of the French authorities will be of interest.

The seven men have been detained at Police stations in Hampshire, arrested on suspicion of seizing or exercising control of a ship by use of threats. (Under the provisions of the hijacking section of the 1990 Aviation and Maritime Security Act). This is an offence that can carry a prison-term, potentially up to life sentence.

The Shakies

While the SAS are world-famous and subject of enormous fascination, their sister and rival special forces formation, the SBS is much less well known. They were originally part of the SAS but separated and became the Special Boat Squadron in 1943. In 1983 they were renamed the Special Boat Service and given particular responsibility for maritime counter-terrorism – protecting ports, shipping and offshore energy infrastructure. They have also served in many land campaigns, most recently distinguishing themselves in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nicknamed Shakies, the SBS is akin to the US Navy Seals and specialises in maritime operations. Selection for the SBS is open to all UK forces personnel and they share a common selection process with the SAS (and the 90% failure rate). Unsurprisingly, SBS applicants are predominantly Royal Marines and the unit has around 200 operators in 4 squadrons; C,X, M and Z. The SBS has a wide variety of specialisms including support of amphibious operations, operating small boats, canoeing, diving, underwater demolitions and beach reconnaissance. Like all SF units, their activities are rarely officially acknowledged and many of their operations that have directly protected the UK may never become public.

The analysis

This cannot be described as a terrorist incident or even a planned hijacking, rather a spectacularly bungled attempt at illegal immigration. It would appear the stowaways became frustrated at the prospect of being denied to opportunity to enter the country covertly. The requirement for expensive military intervention was prompted by both the need to protect the crew and to ensure that a tanker in UK waters remained firmly under control.

From the perspective of the SBS, the incident was probably not altogether unwelcome, providing some action and an opportunity to demonstrate their abilities, conveniently close to their base in Poole. In this example, the much greater risk factor was roping from helicopters onto a ship at sea in the dark, rather than from a few unarmed migrants.

Special Forces involvement means the MoD will only make very limited comment on the incident and refused to issue any imagery of the action. For the RN it was a chance to demonstrate its ability to deliver maritime security very close to home and in the public gaze. This was a definite awareness and PR win, especially as nothing excites the British media more than stories involving special forces.

While the media focus may be on the men in black abseiling onto the ship, executing an operation like this is more complex than it may first appear. A warship, four helicopters, the SBS and their equipment had to be brought together at the right time and place. This required headquarters to co-ordinate and liaise with various government agencies and get authorisations from politicians and senior commanders, all in a tight timeframe.

This action is very similar to the incident that occurred in the Thames Estuary in Dec 2018. An SBS team descended on the MV Grande Tema in the Thames Estuary after stowaways threatened the crew. The prompt response by authorities to in these events helps provide reassurance to merchant crews and the shipping industry that help will be close at hand, especially in UK waters. Despite another good result, merchant shipping remains a vulnerability. A more professional terrorist group that took control of a vessel could pose a much more serious threat to UK ports, waters or overseas interests. Maritime security demands 24-hour readiness, vigilance and preparedness from the Royal Navy.