UNITED KINGDOM PORTS: THE POTENTIAL MINING THREAT

DefenceSynergia is grateful to one of our founding members, David Graham, for his insights below into the potential but ignored threat of mining of British Ports. David first wrote on this subject in 2010 since when the Ministry of Defence has reduced Mine Counter-Measures Vessels from 16 to 13.

To assess the ability or otherwise of the current Royal Navy mine countermeasures assets to counter or deal with a mining threat from any source, be that an aggressive state or from economic or other terrorist acts, it is wise to consider where the United Kingdom stood with regard to mine counter-measures [MCM] at the end of the Cold War, as this has considerable bearing on where the country and the Royal Navy find themselves as we approach the third decade of the twenty first century.

During the Cold War the potential mining threat to UK commercial and military ports from the Soviet Union [USSR] was well recognised, as was the potential ability to lay mines covertly from various platforms from their known vast inventory of the weapons, many of which were of considerable sophistication. These included Soviet deep water buoyant moored mines, which posed a considerable threat to dived submarines and as a result required continuous mine countermeasures monitoring of the safe routes used by RN and USN boats exiting and returning to their bases at Faslane and the Holy Loch.

By the end of the Cold War, the RN was replacing the ageing Ton class sweepers and hunters with 13 Hunt class mine counter measures [MCMV] GRP vessels which had both a sweeping and hunting role, the Sandown class single role mine hunters, 12 in number, and 12 steel hulled River class sweepers, eleven of which formed the tenth mine counter measures squadron based at Rosyth with one ship allocated to each of the sea going divisions of the Royal Naval Reserve [RNR]. The River class fleet minesweeper [MSF] were based on a commercial offshore support vessel and were equipped with the wire sweep Mk9 which was capable of performing Extra Deep Armed Team Sweeping [EDATS] with the sweepers operating in pairs, or groups of pairs towing a sweep that followed the sea bed profile and cutting the mooring wires of any mines found. The WS9 could be used in this manner, or as an influence sweep generating both acoustic and electro-magnetic noise, thus simulating a large high value target. The RNR was the custodian of this concept, which was initially trialled using a pair of chartered Fleetwood based trawlers [Initial Deep Armed Team Sweeping {DATS], and then further refined using two commercial trawlers commissioned into the RNR as HM Ships Venturer and St. David. At the time, the only RN sweeper not allocated to fisheries protection was HMS Lewiston. Regular live MCM exercises took place, such as the annual “Highland Fling” in the inner and outer Clyde Exercise Areas, with units based at Faslane, Troon and Loch Indall [Island of Islay].

The Peace Dividend. 1993 saw a review of the RNR which culminated in the disbanding of the eleven sea going divisions of the Reserve and the paying off from the RNR of eleven River class MSFs. The twelfth, HMS Blackwater, became a tender to BRNC at Dartmouth, and several were laid up for immediate disposal. Three were transferred to the Northern Ireland squadron, replacing the Bird class patrol boats, but it was not long before the entire class were sold for further service abroad. This devastated the RNR, an event from which it never fully recovered, but just as important, it removed at least 22 crews of fully trained personnel who were the only crews in the naval service conversant with DATS and EADATS. As to where the vast inventory of Soviet mines ender up, including deep moored mines which posed such a threat to submarines, there was and never has been any mention of them again; they have simply disappeared.

As mine counter measures continued to decline in importance and was seen as an easy and less noticeable means of saving money by withdrawing ships, both the Hunt class [which lost its capacity to influence sweep in 2005] and the Sandown class diminished in numbers until the present day, when the Hunts number a class of six, and the Sandowns similarly reduced to seven hulls. Four vessels are permanently forward deployed to Bahrain as the ‘ninth MCM squadron’, this comprising of two Hunts and two Sandowns. The balance is based at Faslane to maintain the integrity of the submarine safe routes in the Clyde used by both SSBNs and SSNs returning to, and sailing from HM Naval Base, Clyde. Those not so employed are to be found attached to NATO MCM tasks which have recently taken ships to the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas, for example.

The Way Ahead. For the Royal Navy, it has become an article of faith that future mine countermeasures rests with the development of autonomous systems to detect and dispose of sea mines of all types. At present there are two major contracts connected to these aims. Firstly, there is the Maritime Mine Counter Measures [MMCM] contracted with Thales Underwater Systems, which is being delivered as a joint Anglo-French venture. The system comprises of an unmanned surface vessel and unmanned underwater vehicles equipped with individual sonar units. There is at present a commitment between the two participants to construct and test two prototype systems. The second programme is contracted with Atlas Elektronic UK Ltd, and is to deliver an autonomous minesweeping capability. The trials stage commenced in early 2017, and systems acceptance for the Mine and Hydrographic Capability [MHC] Sweep was achieved in late April 2018. Further trials are being carried out at the BUTEC range at Kyle, near the Isle of Skye for the remainder of this year. Apparently, the planning assumption is for the Royal Navy to acquire four full production standard MHC sweep systems, but at the time of writing, no firm date for this acquisition is known.

Present Situation. Despite these encouraging developments, at present that is exactly what they are: developments. RN MCM assets stand at 13 vessels, one of which is currently in refit at Rosyth, and four are permanently deployed thousands of miles away from the UK.

A glance at the map of the UK shown below illustrates the nub of the problem, should terrorists, both ideological and economic, or unfriendly states intent on disrupting the UK economy achieve by deploying mines. In this context, it is worth bearing in mind that it is not even necessary to sow mines, but to simply suggest that it has been done, to make it necessary to investigate, and that the placing of them from a variety of vessels which in themselves seem perfectly legitimate, is relatively simple.

The map shows some of the important container port locations, but in addition to these are gas and oil terminals at, for example, Milford Haven and Grangemouth, and it should be borne in mind that an increasing number of ports are becoming important destinations for the cruise liner industry. In Greenock, on the lower Clyde estuary, a new cruise liner terminal is in the process of construction for used in 2019, and ports such as Invergordon in the North East of Scotland are being increasingly used in this context. Also, worth considering are the ferry ports, examples being Dover, Hull, Newcastle and both Plymouth and Portsmouth.

Conclusion. Should in the future there emerge a mining threat to UK ports, it is hard to envisage how the current MCM establishment could cope, when also taking into consideration the potential threat to the Clyde [by mining the Cumbraes Gap, nothing could enter or exit Faslane], or to the principal dockyard ports of Portsmouth or Devonport. One has to wonder if this is a case of “fingers crossed, out of sight, out of mind”.

D C Graham DefenceSynergia 3 December 2018