The RN’s third major humanitarian mission in three years

In a state of civil war and with no clear government to police its borders, migrants can pass easily through Libya to its coast where people traffickers promise to get them into Europe. Migrants have been attempting to cross the Mediterranean in flimsy boats for many years but numbers are rising sharply, at least 170,000 arrived in Italy alone last year with at least 200,000 estimated this to arrive this year and up to a million travelling or waiting to try to cross. Even in summer, crossing the approximately 220 nautical miles from Libya to Sicily in a small boat would require care. Unscrupulous traffickers are launching unseaworthy boats, usually overloaded with people and lacking food, water and shelter from the sun and often abandoning them at sea.

The migrants mostly come from Africa desperate to escape conflicts and poverty. Technically most are ‘economic migrants’ and would have difficulty in claiming political asylum. However unwelcome they maybe in Europe, one can only feel sorry for most of them and admire their courage enduring incredible dangers and deprivations to escape appalling conditions in their native countries. Even the apparently neutral label migrant subtly de-humanises a diverse group of people including many women and children who mostly just want a chance to live in peace and the chance for a better life.

These migrants are the ‘lucky’ ones who were fortunate enough to raise considerable sums of money required even to make the journey. It is sobering to think they represent just the tip of the iceberg of human suffering.

The Italian Navy ran the very effective operation Mare Nostrum from 2013-14 which dramatically reduced deaths at sea. Around 150,000 arrived in Europe during this period but it became politically unpopular and Italy rightly felt it was unfairly carrying the financial cost. The EU then agreed to fund Operation Triton but it lacked the assets and expertise of the Italian Navy and deaths began to rise sharply. When at least 1000 people died in just 2 shipwrecks in April 2015, EU leaders were forced to take more positive action, and on 23rd April promised to triple to funding and the scope of the rescue effort. The UK took a leading role with David Cameron personally offering HMS Bulwark, 3 Merlin helicopters and 2 UK Border Force cutters.

Something must be done…

The Prime Minister appeared suitably decisive and statesman-like by pledging to send the Royal Navy’s flagship. Unfortunately this crisis has been gathering momentum for years and another knee-jerk response to distressing TV pictures betrays the lack of long-term planning or a developed strategy to deal with a known issue.

The UK needs far more effort devoted to defence, security and foreign policy contingency planning, properly funded and working across government departments.

The renewed focus on the Mediterranean also highlights Europe’s insecure southern maritime border. There has always been some criminal activity, trafficking and smuggling but with the Middle East mired in conflict, the threat from across the Mediterranean is increasing. ISIS are already active in parts of Libya and are keen to export their brand of Islamic terror to Europe. It would not be difficult for them blend in with the large numbers of migrants to gain entry to Europe.

(This page has been updated as the operation progresses).

May 10th-14th

HMS Bulwark was already in the Mediterranean for the WWI Gallipoli centenary commemorations when she was ordered to join this multi-national effort. There was a delay while the British government negotiated about what will be done with the rescued persons, something that has still not be resolved to the complete satisfaction of the Italians. When this hurdle was overcome, the UK contribution, Operation Weald quickly delivered results and in the space of just 4 days between 10th and 13th May, HMS Bulwark recovered 614 people. She docked briefly in the Sicilian port of Catania on 14th to unload those she had rescued but sailed the next day to resume operations. Again the RN is demonstrating its flexibility and ability to respond quickly, performing another humanitarian task with customary professionalism and care.

May 28th-30th

HMS Bulwark found 400 migrants crammed into a wooden boat in waters just north of Libya on 28th May. 5 of Bulwark’s 8 landing craft were launched to rescue the migrants, 50 of whom were small children. This was the busiest period so far for Operation Trition conducting 5 major life saving operations also involving warships and coastguard vessels of from Italy, Germany and Ireland. On 29th May a total of 4,200 migrants were rescued in the Mediterranean, but 17 dead were found on various vessels.

The UK Border force cutter, HMC Protector which has now joined Operation Triton, also rescued 100 migrants south of Sicily on 30th May.

HMS Bulwark is acting as a ‘rescue hub’ with 741 people delivered to the ship. She arrived in the Italian port of Taranto on 30th May to disembark the latest group of migrants. While docked briefly, the ships company was hard at work clearing rubbish, loading fuel, food and medical supplies. Bulwark sailed again on the same day to resume the task. With a fine weather period it is expected there will be many more boats attempting the crossing and in need of help.

June 5th-7th

Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon was visiting HMS Bulwark to see the migrant crisis for himself when Bulwark received reports there were a around 3,000 migrants adrift in several boats off the coast of Libya. The operation started at 4am and was still going late into the night with all 8 of her landing craft in use, saving people from at total of 14 boats located by her Merlin helicopters. 11 European naval and civilian ships were involved in the biggest rescue operation so far. HMS Bulwark later arrived in Catania on 8th June to disembark 1,145 migrants.


The combination of HMS Bulwark’s landing craft and her floodable well deck are ideal for rescuing small boats in calm weather. When there is no swell the landing craft can lower their bow doors. People can step off their boats and then be taken straight into Bulwark’s flooded-down dock and walk off the ramp into the ship. In rougher conditions, the recovery of large numbers people from potentially floundering boats could be far more challenging.

Merlins ride again

The RN’s Merlin helicopters were deployed from HMS Illustrious for the post-typhoon relief operation in the Philippines (Operation Patwin) in December 2013. From October 2015 to March 2015, 3 stripped-out Merlins flew transport sorties from RFA Argus in support of the anti-Ebola work in Sierra Leone (Operation Gritrock). 3 are now based at Naval Air Station Sigonella, Sicily employed on surface search sorties looking for migrant boats. The Merlins and aircrew of 814 Naval Air Squadron will take this kind of work in their stride but there is no doubt that the small fleet of 30 aircraft is being run hard. Airframes are racking up flying hours and this kind of tasking also erodes the time available for maintaining precious anti-submarine skills.

HMS Bulwark lacks a hangar but the Merlins will ‘lilypad’ on her large flight deck for rest and refueling between sorties. The Merlin is designed as a specialist anti-submarine helicopter but also excels in surface search, equipped with Blue Kestrel radar potentially able to search about 200,000 sq km in a 4-hour sortie. This radar is designed to detect objects as small as submarine periscopes so will have little difficulty in locating migrant boats. A High resolution MX-15 electro-optical infra-red camera is also carried that can send live pictures back to the ship for assessment and to aid command decisions.

There were rumors that the Scan Eagle UAV would be deployed on the operation, certainly a far cheaper way of providing sustained surveillance than using the Merlins. At the time of writing, only the Type 23 frigates and RFA Cardigan Bay in the Gulf have operated them and HMS Bulwark does not have one embarked.

Deploying the RN’s flagship and 3 helicopters is a grand gesture but an exceptionally expensive way to conduct this work.

It was confirmed in Parliament on 4th June that the additional costs to the MoD of this operation will be borne by the UK Aid budget, as it is eligible as Official Development Assistance.

With the RN working in cooperation with several European navies and the Italian coastguard, undoubtedly more boats will be found and many more people saved. There are also at least 3 charitable organisations; Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)Sea Watch and Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) operating specially equipped boats dedicated helping migrants. Civilian vessels are quite capable of doing search and rescue work at a fraction of the cost of a large warship.

2 UK Border Force cutters, HMC Sentinel and HMC Protector, were sent from the UK and arrived in Mediterranean in May. 42 metres long, capable of 26 knots, carrying a usual compliment of 12, they will eventually replace Bulwark which has been allocated to Operation Weald for just 2 months. The cutters have far less capacity for rescuing large numbers but can provide a more affordable and sustainable presence in the long run. Usually dedicated to patrolling UK waters, they have limited experience of this kind of work apart from rescue of a very few migrants attempting to cross the English Channel in rubber dinghies. Having to borrow 2 of the UKBF’s cutters for work overseas illustrates the RN’s alarming lack of small and simple vessels. It further reduces assets available to police UK waters at a time when we have no Maritime Patrol Aircraft and 1 of the RN’s 3 OPVs usually dedicated to home waters is deployed to the Caribbean.

Related Video

Long term crisis, short term solutions

In contrast to the RN’s normal deployment in the emergency phase of disaster relief operations (which is then followed by then a rebuilding phase and eventual recovery), the issue of migration has no end in sight. This complex issue can only be solved on land, not by actions at sea. On 18th May EU leaders approved a plan to go beyond just search and rescue and take military action against the people traffickers on the coast of Libya including confiscating and destroying boats. Removing the financial incentive while increasing the risks for these predators should reduce the numbers putting to sea but will not solve the migration problem as a whole. This is more complex legal territory and will require UN approval and co-operation from the government of Libya, such that there is. Unconfirmed reports say the force would be spearheaded by 200 Royal Marines based aboard RFA Lyme Bay.

Clearly the solution for the inhabitants of failed states trapped by poverty and conflict is not for large numbers of them to move to Europe. Further migration into Europe will increase tensions and problems for all and needs careful control. International agreements and long-term work to improve conditions in the countries from which the migrants come can be the only answer.

Related articles