The Ministry of Defence has announced that HMS Duncan is being sent to join HMS Montrose protecting merchant shipping in the Arabian Gulf. Here we take a look at how events in the Middle East that have placed a spotlight on the strength of Royal Navy.
Action off Gibraltar
On 4th July, under the direction of the Gibraltar government, the tanker MV Grace 1 was impounded in Gibraltar waters. Royal Marines of 42 Commando and Royal Gibraltar Police, took control of the vessel. The Marines were delivered onto the forecastle by rapid-roping down from a Wildcat helicopter flying from RFA Tidesurge. The Grace 1 was believed to be delivering oil to Syria which is banned under an EU policy of economic sanctions against the Assad regime. It soon emerged the tanker and its cargo was Iranian, signalling wider international implications. The arrest of the Grace 1 was perceived as ‘piracy’ by Iran which quickly threatened take retaliatory action against British merchant ships.
There is some dispute as to whether the US requested Britain seize the tanker as part of their economic stranglehold on Iran, or the action was an entirely unilateral decision by the UK and Gibraltar to uphold EU sanctions. The UK’s stated foreign policy is to maintain the Iranian nuclear deal and try to avoid being drawn into Trump’s growing conflict with Iran.
On 10th July HMS Montrose was escorting the BP tanker MV British Heritage through the Strait of Hormuz. Close to the Iranian-held island of Abu Musa, three Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) boats attempted to intercept the tanker. HMS Montrose trained her 30mm guns on the boats and warned them off by radio and the boats wisely withdrew. Protection of trade is the Royal Navy’s most fundamental role and the incident demonstrates the value of vessels on the scene to provide deterrence and reassurance to merchant vessels. For whatever reason, the MoD has refused to release imagery of the interaction with the Iranians. This seems like a missed opportunity to corroborate their version of events and to clearly demonstrate to the British taxpayer how the Royal Navy is delivering at the sharp end. There seems to be little hesitation about releasing imagery of RAF Typhoons intercepting Russian aircraft during tense encounters, why is this scenario any different?
A change of plan
Following this incident, on 12th July the MoD said: “As part of our long-standing presence in the Gulf, HMS Duncan is deploying to the region to ensure we maintain a continuous maritime security presence while HMS Montrose comes off-task for pre-planned maintenance and crew change over.” This is slightly misleading, until the recent rise in tensions the plan had been that HMS Montrose would be the sole escort in the Gulf region. When she had to come alongside there would not be any other RN vessels to provide a ‘continuous maritime security presence’, hopefully, coalition warships would be available to assume the task.
HMS Duncan sailed from Portsmouth on 9th March for what was expected to be a 6-month deployment in the Mediterranean and her third visit to the Black Sea in two years. As the nearest Royal Navy vessel to the Gulf, it is understood she had been on standby to go East of Suez for a few days but completed her participation in the NATO/Ukrainian exercise ‘Sea Breeze 2019’ before transiting the Bosphorus on the afternoon of July 12th (Main image above). A journey of nearly 4,000 nautical miles from the Bosphorus to Bahrain will take HMS Duncan about two weeks before she can reinforce or relieve HMS Montrose.
Arriving in Bahrain during April, HMS Montrose will spend the next 3 years based at the UK Naval Support Facility with her crew swapping every 6 months or so. The ship’s company of HMS Duncan, who might have expected to be home in August, may now be away for a considerably longer. The new crew of HMS Montrose trained together in UK waters aboard HMS Monmouth, before flying out to join the ship in the Gulf. Swapping the entire crew of HMS Duncan for that of another Type 45 to extend her time in the Gulf might be theoretically possible, but not something the RN is prepared for right now.
The Type 45 destroyers have been routinely operating East of Suez and in the Gulf for the past 5 years. Minor workarounds and operating restrictions, developed under the Equipment Improvement Plan (EIP), has allowed them to successfully deploy in hot climates, despite propulsion issues. (HMS Dauntless will be the first Type 45 to have the Power Improvement Package (PIP) engine cure when she is towed to Cammell Laird this Autumn to receive three new diesel-generator sets.)
The arrival of HMS Duncan will be a considerable increase in capability, although should not be interpreted as a sign the UK wishes to escalate the conflict. The powerful radars and air defence system carried by the destroyer will be a welcome asset but against the asymmetric naval warfare tactics employed by the Iranians so far, for deterring small boats the two DS30M Mark II Automated Small Calibre Guns (ASCG) may be the most effective weapons. Duncan also carries a Wildcat helicopter and it is unfortunate that the Martlet Lightweight multi-role missile (LMM) will not enter service until next year. The Wildcat when eventually armed with up to 20 of these missiles, would be a good antidote to a swarm of small boats.
The laying of sea mines or further attempts to place limpet mines on merchant ships by IRGC special forces should not be ruled out. The 4 Royal Navy minehunters and RFA support ship based in Bahrain are effective, well trained and integrated with coalition forces, although would need protection in action.
Even if both warships are available they would have their hands full escorting every British-flagged vessel in the area and co-operation with US and other aligned nations protecting shipping will be needed. There was widespread satisfaction that the arrival of HMS Montrose meant an escort permanently assigned to the region and seen as a sensible way for the RN to balance its resources. Unfortunately, recent events have highlighted again just how slender those resources are, however wisely deployed. An escort force of just 19 vessels, of which around 7 or 8 are operational right now is simply inadequate and can’t be remedied quickly. The redeployment of just a single destroyer from a stretched force, attempting to balance global commitments, will affect ship’s programmes across the fleet and impact summer leave arrangements.
While campaigning to win the Tory leadership, Jeremy Hunt has been arguing for greater defence spending. He recently said “It’s time to put our money where our mouth is on defence funding, starting with the Royal Navy… when you look at this week’s events it shows that in recent decades we have run down the navy too much”. The son of Admiral Sir Nicholas Hunt is absolutely correct, although such strong public support for the Navy was not so forthcoming during his many years as a cabinet minister. Unfortunately, our new naval advocate seems to have little hope of becoming Prime Minister, given the popularity of Boris Johnson amongst the Tory faithful.