UK

Royal Navy officer heads Gulf anti-mine exercise

A Royal Navy Minehunter joins international warships in the Gulf
Image caption Four Royal Navy Minehunters are among the 35 international warships

A UK naval officer is in charge of running the world's largest anti-mine warfare exercise in the Gulf.

The US, Canada, Australia, France and Germany are among the 40 nations taking part alongside the Royal Navy, with 35 warships and 6,000 military involved.

The exercise will test new technologies including underwater robots in countering the threat from mines.

It is being seen as a direct response to past threats to block the key shipping lanes.

The International Maritime Exercise Force (IMEF) drill aims to protect the free movement of the shipping lanes and test the response time of the coalition of navies.

Royal Navy Commodore Simon Ancona, who leads the IMEF, is also the commander of the UK component in the exercise.

Around 17 million barrels of oil pass through the Gulf's narrow Strait of Hormuz each day - some 30% of the world's energy.

Just 25 miles wide, it is a maritime "chokepoint" that carries the lifeblood of the global economy. It's one of the busiest and potentially most volatile stretches of water.

If it was blocked for a week, the UK would suffer major power shortages.

Simulated attack

HMS Atherstone is one of four Royal Navy minehunters permanently stationed in the region.

All four ships are taking part in the exercise, alongside HMS Dragon, a new type-45 Destroyer and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel Cardigan Bay, which normally supports warships around the world. Some 600 Royal Navy sailors are involved.

On board HMS Atherstone the crew conduct a live-fire exercise in a simulated attack against the ship.

Atherstone's Captain, Lt Commander Ben Vickery, says: "My team are well trained to look out for any ship, they're there 24 hours a day making sure I can respond to any threat that might come my way."

He doesn't say what that threat may be. But up on the bridge there's a board showing the vessels used by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or IRGC.

Though he is careful to describe relations with Iran, a competing power in the region, as "cordial and professional".

'Drone technology'

The two-week exercise though is about being prepared for the worst.

Whether it is dropping Navy divers by fast boat, or from a helicopter just metres above the waves, to search for dummy mines.

But they're also turning to remote or unmanned underwater vehicles.

US and British mine hunters are increasingly using the latest "drone technology" to deal with the deadly mines. The Royal Navy has invested in a system called Seafox.

Image caption Commodore Simon Ancona is in charge of running the exercise which includes six UK ships and 600 Royal Navy sailors

Shaped like a torpedo it's fitted with sonar, a powerful torch and a camera that can feed live pictures to a ship as its controlled by the crew on board.

Later in the exercise, the nations involved will be reacting to a range of scenarios including dealing with mass casualties and escorting merchant shipping through the Strait of Hormuz - right under Iran's nose.

Iran has warned against any provocation. But Cmdr Ancona, insists it is a defensive exercise.

He said: "I don't think it can be seen as provocative, it is irrefutably defensive. I mean there is nothing offensive about mine sweeping."

That's probably not how Iran views it.

US presence

As well as an US aircraft carrier in the area, the USS Ponce is another permanent presence in the Gulf.

It is the US Navy's floating base that can carry helicopters, fast boats and mine clearance divers. It can also accommodate US Special Forces.

Soon it will also be fitted with a laser capable of shooting down small planes and boats. Her Captain, Jon Rodgers, also describes relations with Iranian navy vessels operating in the very same waters as "professional".

He says "they take photos of us and we take photos of them", before adding with a smile that "we just make sure we take more photos".

The USS Ponce is also the command centre for this exercise.

In the operations room down below sailors from various countries sit alongside each other in front of large screens displaying a digital live map of the activities in the busy Gulf.

'Not about Iran'

Not all the nations involved though want to make public their presence. Perhaps a sign that some may be nervous about offending a near neighbour.

The reality is that despite recent Iranian threats, mines have not been laid in the Gulf for more than twenty years. But there is a shadow war taking place in the region.

Iran too has been conducting its own mine clearing exercise and says it is now closely monitoring what is happening off Bahrain - the home of the US Fifth Fleet.

US Navy Commodore Glen Allen insists the exercise is "not about Iran".

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Media captionThe BBC's Jonathan Beale reports from the anti-mine warfare exercise in the Gulf

But he acknowledges that it's one of a number of nations that has stockpiles of mines. In all, some 60 countries hold around 250 thousand sea mines, which he describes as an indiscriminate weapon.

But he adds that "terrorist organisations" too may have nefarious reasons for getting hold of them.

As recently as 2011, the Royal Navy Minehunter HMS Brocklesby responded to threats off the coast of Libya when pro-Gaddafi forces tried to block the port of Misrata with mines.

Commodore Allen acknowledges there are "threats" in the region, before qualifying his remark. He says it's only really a threat if there is intent: "I currently see no intent".

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