The Royal Navy’s part in the UK response to Hurricane Irma

There has been considerable criticism of the UK’s response to provide aid to the British territories in the Caribbean after being hit by the most severe hurricane in a generation. This is entirely unfair. Naval assets were already pre-positioned in the region for just such an eventuality and are now part of a considerable tri-service effort by the UK armed forces and other agencies.

The ever-sensible Thin Pinstriped Line Blog has brilliantly deflated much of whining about the UK ‘not doing enough’ and Sir Humphrey’s excellent 2-part analysis of the actual response can be read here and here. The British aid effort in the Caribbean has been outstanding, given the resources available. Highlighting this is not some Tory conspiracy to make the government and MoD look good. Every credible independent defence source is saying the same.

The UK armed forces and the RN, in particular, are well trained, well prepared and have a proven track record of responding to natural disasters all over the world. Since 2010 the RN has participated in several significant HADR (Humanitarian Assistance & Disaster Relief) operations; Hatai Earthquake (2010), Relief work in wake of Typhoon Haiyan, Philippines (Operation Pawtin 2013), Ebola disease containment, Sierra Leone (Operation Gritrock, 2015), Migrant rescue, Mediterranean (Operation Weald, 2015).

The RN has maintained a presence in the Caribbean in support of British interests, almost continuously since the second World War. The number of ships stationed in the West Indies has declined in proportion to size of the navy. Despite the shortage of available vessels, the Naval Service has still managed to maintain this commitment, officially known as Atlantic Patrol – North (APT(N)) right up till now. These vessels are a sign of tangible government support for the region and in case of disaster, are ideal on-scene first-responders. In recent years APT(N) has unusually been undertaken by a Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship although the much smaller OPVs HMS Severn and HMS Mersey were sent in 2015 and 2016 respectively. Ships on this task conduct counter-narcotics patrols and provide welcome reassurance to UK territories. They regularly plan and exercise disaster relief work with local officials in an area notorious for its hurricanes.

RFA Mounts Bay arrived in the area in July 2017, replacing RFA Wave Knight. Of all the ships available for disaster relief, RFA Mounts Bay is especially well suited to the role. With a helicopter and a floodable dock, she can unload heavy stores directly onto the beach using her Mexflote (A modular self-propelled raft that is lashed to the side of the ship when underway).

The UK military response has now been designated “Operation RUMAN”. On 7th September it was decided that HMS Ocean would be re-assigned from leading Standing NATO maritime Group 1 in the Mediterranean to join RUMAN. She arrives in Gibraltar today for a 24-hour stopover to embark stores and more helicopters. HMS Ocean, not known for her great speed, will have to cross the Atlantic and is unlikely to arrive in the Carribean before 22nd September. Her aircraft and stores will provide a much greater impact than RFA Mounts Bay but underlines how useful it is to have a ship already in the region. Ocean’s role is more likely to be focused on helping in the reconstruction efforts after the hurricanes have passed.

In pictures – the story so far…

RFA Mounts Bay was already in the Carribean when Irma struck. She carries a specialist disaster relief team – drawn from the Royal Engineers and Royal Logistics Corps – as well as heavy plant for moving emergency kit and shelters. Also on board are the Royal Navy’s Mobile Aviation Support Force – aviation specialists, meteorological advisors and flight deck crews.

RFA Mounts Bay arrived first in Anguilla on 7th September, delivering six tonnes of emergency aid to using her Mexeflotes

Operations officer from RFA Mounts Bay liaises with a member of the Anguilla disaster relief organisation.

RFA Mounts Bay arrived in Tortola Roads Bay on the morning of 8th September and straight away commenced flying Ops. The Wildcat helicopter flew in, picked up the Governor, the First Minister and key island personnel for a meeting onboard.

Personnel from 815 Naval Air Squadron unload DFiD stores from the Wildcat helicopter at Tortola airport.

The Wildcat delivers a ton of fresh water made on board RFA Mounts Bay to Tortola. Delivering water by helicopter is hardly efficient or a long-term solution, but fulfills an urgent need rapidly.

Engineers from RFA Mounts Bay helped stop a potentially-dangerous fuel leak at Anguilla’s main petrol dump, restore power to the island’s sole hospital and hand out shelters providing temporary homes for people left homeless by the storm. They also cleared the runway which was declared safe for relief flights.

The Wildcat helicopter flew Governor Tim Foy on a flight over the island to survey the damage from during seven hours of continuous flying. The reconnaissance found widespread damage to infrastructure, schools, government buildings and power supplies. As a result of the sortie, the island’s leaders and ship’s team decided to focus efforts on supporting the police headquarters as the hub of the relief effort, get the hospital on its feet again, and reinforce two shelter stations – particularly important with Hurricane José now heading towards the region.

RAF A400M aircraft flew Alpha Company, 40 Cdo Royal Marines to Barbados before onwards travel to the British Virgin Islands. They were due to have joined HMS Ocean as SPTG (Special Forces Task Group) but instead, together with 24 Commando Royal Engineers, they will have the specialist task of repairing infrastructure and reopening damaged routes.

Alpha Coy, 40 Cdo are now on the ground in Road Town, Tortola, the capital of the British Virgin Islands and one of the worst effected regions after the category 5 storm struck. They will start joint patrolling and reassurance with the local police before Hurricane Jose arrives.

Marines from Alpha Company work to move a collapsed radio mast within the police station on Tortola, British Virgin Islands which has been blocking crucial access.

Meanwhile, in the Mediterranean, a planning meeting is held to discuss HMS Ocean’s new tasking. She will switch from being flagship on a NATO group to conducting relief operations on the other side of the world.

A member of HMS Ocean’s ships company conducts an audit of tools for use by shore parties prior to arrival in Gibralter to embark more stores and equipment.

Two RAF Chinooks are already aboard HMS Ocean rehearse vertical replenishment procedures.

Four more RAF Chinooks, along with an RN Merlin, have flown out to Gibraltar bringing supplies for HMS Ocean. Arriving on Sunday night, they are seen being unloaded at RAF Gibraltar.

HMS Ocean Vehicle deck on seen loaded ready for NATO mission will have to be re-configured in Gibraltar for the relief mission. This is an example of maritime platforms demonstrating their versatility – Ocean will be turned around and back to sea in around 36 hours. This also underlines the strategic importance of Gibraltar, being available to support naval logistics at short notice.

The aircraft hangar on Ocean being prepared for the new mission. The ship will take on 200 pallets of UK Aid and 60 pallets of Emergency Relief Stores (ERS) in Gibraltar. These contain power tools to help rebuild communities, emergency shelters for those left homeless as well as items such as water purification kits and nappies.

HMS Ocean arrives in Gibraltar this morning to collect stores and aircraft.

Trucks donated by the government of Gibraltar are loaded via the stern ramp onto HMS Ocean.

The advantage of ramps (which are not fitted to the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers) – palletised supplies are driven straight onto HMS Ocean’s vehicle deck in Gibraltar.

HMS Ocean will be carrying two Chinooks from 18 Squadron RAF Odiham, two Merlin helicopter’s from RNAS Yeovilton and Wildcats from 847 NAS based at RNAS Culdrose.

Store ship in the time-honored way. Items to be loaded include timber, buckets, water, bedding, clothing, food & baby milk. Approximately 350 extra personnel will be joining HMS Ocean in Gibraltar for transit out to the Caribbean.

Eighteen Royal Navy medics of the Role 2 Afloat Medical Team flew out to the Caribbean from RAF Brize Norton today to join the medical team on RFA Mounts Bay.

All images: MoD ©Crown copyright 2017