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.