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Operations in Iraq: Lessons for the Future

CHAPTER 4 - THE MARITIME ENVIRONMENT

Key Lessons

  • The performance of Royal Navy (RN) forces in successfully accomplishing their objectives confirmed the development of the RN's joint and expeditionary capabilities since the SDR.
     
  • The operation underlined the strategic value of the sea for the application of combat power, early theatre entry and power projection. This took the form of amphibious forces, sea-based helicopters, cruise missiles, and the use of naval fire support and logistics during the Al Faw operation.
     
  • Developing UK carrier and amphibious doctrine needs to take account of US experience during the operation.
     
  • The operation showed the potential value of sea-based sustainment of land forces.
     
  • The RN's Mine Counter Measures effort helped maintain sea lines of communication and succeeded in opening the port of Umm Qasr for the delivery of essential humanitarian aid.
     
  • The operation validated the importance currently being placed on developing the UK's future afloat support capability as part of the Military Afloat Reach and Sustainability (MARS) and Joint Casualty Treatment Ship projects.

Introduction

4.1  The Royal Navy's main role in the Iraq operation was to deliver amphibious forces into theatre to conduct the assault on the Al Faw Peninsula as described in First Reflections6. Other roles were to ensure the safe transit of personnel and equipment to theatre by sea, to ensure access for joint forces, and to help sustain maritime and joint forces. The RN Task Group's performance showed the Service's inherent expeditionary capability in the context of modern coalition operations. The operation confirmed the strategic value of the sea for the application of combat power, theatre entry and power projection in the form of sea-based helicopters, submarine-launched cruise missiles, amphibious forces and naval fire support.

The Amphibious Task Group arrives in the Gulf
The Amphibious Task Group arrives in the Gulf

4.2  The main threat to coalition naval forces came from mines, anti-ship missiles and asymmetric attack from fast, inshore attack craft. Coalition maritime patrol aircraft underlined the value of their littoral anti-surface warfare capability by maintaining regular patrols against the latter threat. RN Lynx helicopters fitted with a night vision capability, provided under UOR procedures, also provided a vital capability against this threat. As the Iraqi navy was largely ineffective or non-operational during this operation, the capability of the RN ships was not fully tested. Nonetheless, as outlined in Chapter 3, the RN played a key role in the initial assault and led the coalition's mine countermeasures campaign in which our personnel and equipment proved to be second to none. Precursor hydrographic surveys leading to new chart production by the UK Hydrographic Office helped assure navigational safety and a considerable expansion of operating areas for coalition naval forces. The support role offered by our fleet in the Gulf was also highly successful, providing logistic supply to UK forces deployed ashore as well as significant tanker support to the US Navy. This underlined the importance of sea-based logistics, independent of host nation support, as a force enabler in expeditionary strategy. In particular, it validated the importance currently being placed on developing the UK's future afloat support capability as part of the Military Afloat Reach and Sustainability (MARS) and Joint Casualty Treatment Ship projects.

4.3  HMS ARK ROYAL and HMS OCEAN and their respective air groups were both used to support helicopter operations, including the initial assault as well as surveillance operations in support of the land forces. Three frigates and three destroyers, with their own embarked Lynx helicopters, and other aviation assets embarked in RFAs and HMS ARK ROYAL provided critical force protection to all maritime forces. In addition to their protection duties, some of these ships supported land operations during the initial assault by providing naval fire support for the first time since the Falklands Conflict, firing 156 rounds against areas of the Al Faw peninsula that were out of range to the Army's artillery.

4.4  During the deployment phase, we were conscious of the potential asymmetric threat. The RN accordingly committed significant resources to protect from potential terrorist attack 60 UK chartered merchant ships bringing in over 90% of all UK military equipment that could not self-deploy, as well as 16 high-value RN and RFA vessels, over a 5000 mile route. Over 50% of the deployable fleet was engaged in escorting duties along this route.

Support to Amphibious Landings

4.5  The high mine and anti-ship missile threats around the Iraqi coast meant that the initial assault onto the Al Faw peninsula was reliant on helicopter support. The plan was to insert 40 Commando (Cdo) first using RN and RAF helicopters to seize the oil infrastructure at the base of the Al Faw peninsula. In order to protect 40 Cdo's northern flank, 42 Cdo was to be inserted a short time later using US Marine Corps helicopters. Build-up of combat power, in particular light armour and logistics, was to be achieved by US heavy lift hovercraft because the very shallow beach gradients did not allow the use of conventional landing craft. The assault by 40 Cdo in conjunction with US forces, went according to plan, but the early crash of the US CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter carrying the headquarters of the Brigade Reconnaissance Force caused the second helicopter insertion to be aborted in the appalling and deteriorating visibility. It was hastily re-planned and executed six hours later using RAF Chinook and Puma helicopters. In view of extensive mining of the beach area it was decided not to risk the hovercraft. Consequently the light armour supporting 3 Cdo Brigade had to be inserted by a landing craft ferry north of Umm Qasr, some 24 hours later than planned.

4.6  A new UK Landing Platform Dock, HMS ALBION, has recently entered service, with a second, HMS BULWARK, currently under procurement along with four BAY class auxiliary vessels. With these will come new classes of landing craft, offering significant additional capability. This operation also demonstrated the utility of hovercraft in amphibious landings.

Mine Counter Measure Equipment

4.7  The UK Mine Counter Measure (MCM) capability was enhanced specifically for this operation by two systems delivered through the Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) process: the Shallow Water Influence Mine-Sweeping System (SWIMS) and the One-Shot Mine Disposal System (OSMDS). SWIMS was developed specifically for this operation and was the coalitionfs remote-controlled minesweeping equipment designed to operate in the small rivers and waterways in the south of Iraq. This system successfully filled a gap in our shallow water capability, and after being procured against a tight timescale offered good reliability in theatre. OSMDS is planned to enter service in 2006 as part of an existing programme to replace the ageing in-service system. Given the anticipated use of sea mines by the Iraqis, an OSMDS capability was introduced as a UOR. This capability offered UK forces a simplified and quicker system requiring fewer operators, and gave reduced target prosecution time when compared against the in-service capability. Both new systems performed well and were vital to clearing the waterway leading to the port of Umm Qasr as discussed in the box on MCM operations (page 19). It is estimated that the OSMDS reduced the time to neutralise a mine by a factor of four. MOD is also looking at ways of improving the capability for 'Very Shallow' and 'Surf Zone' mine countermeasure activities, which would expand the range of waterway that could be cleared from threats.

The survey ship HMS ROEBUCK helped open the channel to Umm Qasr for humanitarian aid shipments
The survey ship HMS ROEBUCK helped open the channel to Umm Qasr for humanitarian aid shipments

Hydrographic Support

4.8 Prior to the operation, the UK Hydrographic Office produced 14 new fleet charts and 10 new editions of standard navigational charts showing all hydrographic information as well as specific on-shore detail. HMS ROEBUCK, a Coastal Survey Vessel, was extended in service to undertake essential work in the northern Gulf and waterways to Umm Qasr. Her surveys resulted in the timely collection of hydrographic data that was incorporated into the updated charts. These assured the navigational safety of coalition shipping and greatly increased their freedom of movement by expanding operational areas, facilitating the assault onto the Al Faw Peninsula. HMS ROEBUCK's capability was also used in opening the waterways to Umm Qasr to enable the subsequent delivery of humanitarian aid.

Royal Fleet Auxiliary

RFA SIR BEDIVERE and RFA VICTORIA transfer ammunition
RFA SIR BEDIVERE and RFA VICTORIA transfer ammunition

4.9  The Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships in the Gulf (two thirds of the total RFA Fleet) delivered effective, flexible logistics support throughout the operation. For example, the LEAF class of RFAs provided considerable quantities of fuel for the US Navy and other coalition shipping in the Gulf, bolstering an area of potential weakness. The smaller auxiliary ships were also used to deliver supplies ashore, as well as within the Navy fleet, and to carry out other essential tasks such as supplying fresh water and waste disposal. However, some design and manning shortcomings were highlighted, in particular limitations in their ability simultaneously to re-supply several ships over sustained periods. Furthermore, their limited self-defence capability increased the levels of risk when providing logistics support to front-line units, including those units carrying out mine clearance tasks. In addition, the absence of secure satellite communications in RFA vessels prevented secure data transfer and participation in a network-enabled capability with the rest of the fleet. The MARS project will replace a substantial portion of the RFA fleet with new vessels between 2010 and 2020, and is being designed to provide the required future afloat support capability. The project is at an early stage and will reflect lessons from this operation.

RFA FORT AUSTIN alongside the repair ship RFA DILIGENCE
RFA FORT AUSTIN alongside the repair ship RFA DILIGENCE

4.10  The deployment of RFA ARGUS, the UK Primary Casualty Receiving Ship, was a key part of the coalition plan. Although, in the event, it had to receive thankfully few coalition casualties, it played a key role by offering a casualty treatment capability for those injured in early operations, including Iraqi civilians. MOD currently plans to replace RFA ARGUS around the end of the decade with an improved capability, the Joint Casualty Treatment Ship.

4.11   The Forward Repair Ship RFA DILIGENCE, configured for battle damage repair and augmented by Warship Support Agency personnel, provided a significant in-theatre engineering support facility, enabling a number of warships to undertake maintenance whilst at sea.

4.12  The UK's small but significant cruise missile contribution was provided by two RN submarines that were present in theatre (see paragraph 6.7).

 

 

MINE COUNTER MEASURES (MCM) OPERATIONS

The MCM mission during operations in Iraq was to help maintain sea lines of communication and to clear the approach to Umm Qasr to enable humanitarian aid to enter Iraq. Key to achieving the humanitarian mission was the opening of the Khawr Abd Allah waterway, which separates Iraq from Kuwait, and is the route from the sea to Umm Qasr. Conditions for MCM in the waterway were expected to be poor with brackish water, very poor underwater visibility and tidal streams of up to four knots, all in a narrow, unmarked and poorly charted channel.

The Khawr Abd Allah waterway
MCM Task Group had gathered which included a total of 10 MCM vessels (MCMVs)

By the start of the operation an impressive MCM Task Group had gathered which included a total of 10 MCM vessels (MCMVs). This comprised the UK's MCM On Call Force (listed at Annex B), supported by RFA SIR BEDIVERE, with the four ships of the US MCM Division 31 permanently based in Bahrain and only 36 hours' steaming from Iraq, together with a squadron of US MCM helicopters.

As operations approached, the US CH-53 helicopters, with a new towed influence sweep, were augmented from the US and divers from the RN, USN and Royal Australian Navy were poised in USS GUNSTON HALL. In addition, the hydrographic vessel HMS ROEBUCK was assigned to the Task Group, providing valuable data and an ability to survey approaches and routes rapidly.

US CH-53 helicopters, with a new towed influence sweep
To speed up operations, the RN had leased the German Sea Fox Mine Disposal System

To speed up operations, the RN had leased the German Sea Fox Mine Disposal System, which was optimised for operations in strong tidal streams and poor visibility, and a remote-controlled Shallow Water Influence Mine Sweep System.

MCM operations started with a patrol boat sweep of the Khawr Abd Allah to intercept any minelayers, in parallel with the seizure of the Al Faw peninsula by land forces. Two minelayers with rather primitive but highly effective covert minelaying systems were intercepted, still with over 60 mines on board. This focused the minds of the MCMVs as they pushed forward, with the weather adding its own challenge in the form of 60 knot winds and sandstorms.

A patrol boat sweep of the Khawr Abd Allah to intercept any minelayers
USS DEXTROUS plotting and reporting seabed contacts to the rest of the force

HMS BROCKLESBY led the initial Surface MCM group controlling SWIMS, followed by the command MCMV, USS DEXTROUS plotting and reporting seabed contacts to the rest of the force. The following MCMVs then relocated, detected and destroyed mine-like contacts thereby widening the channel.

As the waterway started to be cleared, UK and US diving operations commenced in Umm Qasr supported by Unmanned Underwater Vehicles - REMUS.

UK and US diving operations commenced in Umm Qasr
KAA looking East from Umm Qasr

The initial breakthrough to Umm Qasr was completed in four days, followed by route widening - essential for the safe navigation of standard merchant ships - and clearance operations. Over 450 seabed contacts were discovered, of which 15 were mines.

On 28 March HMS SANDOWN led RFA SIR GALAHAD to Umm Qasr, bringing the first vital humanitarian aid to the people of Iraq. This marked the successful completion of one of the most advanced and tactically challenging MCM operations ever undertaken.

On 28 March HMS SANDOWN led RFA SIR GALAHAD to Umm Qasr

6 First Reflections: Page 17, paras 3.13-3.14


 Chapter 3 - Lesssons from the Operation
 Contents 
Chapter 5 - The Land Environment 



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