Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship Fort Austin has spent the last few weeks in company with HMS Bulwark as part of the Cougar 14 Task Group, sailing from the United Kingdom into the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal and Red Sea and up into the Gulf.
The Ship’s Company has been busy throughout, keeping the fleet’s supplies topped-up and taking part in a series of exercises with the United Kingdom’s regional and international partners in the Middle East.
A highlight for many onboard was the part that Fort Austin played in the International Mine Countermeasures Exercise (IMCMEX), which takes place for two weeks every 18 months in the Middle East.
IMCMEX, the largest mine countermeasures exercise ever staged, aimed to train the international community in the skills required to maintain freedom of navigation for international commerce in an area that includes three of the six major maritime chokepoints in the world.
2014’s IMCMEX was bigger and more varied than ever before, with more than 6,500 military personnel and 38 ships from 44 nations across six continents taking part.
Fort Austin played many parts in IMCMEX, including acting as a merchant vessel which needed to be escorted through high risk areas in the Gulf and Arabian Sea, which provided invaluable training for the UK Maritime Trade Organisation and their NATO counterparts in Naval Cooperation and Guidance for Shipping.
Having safely navigated the high risk areas thanks to the advice from the UK Maritime Trade Organisation and an escort provided by warships, the ‘merchant vessel’ Fort Austin found itself taken over by pirates in the next stage of the exercise.
In fact, Fort Austin was playing host to Royal Navy and US Navy boarding teams, allowing them to hone the skills necessary to board and search a large commercial ship.
Several members of Fort Austin’s crew, including Royal Fleet Auxiliary cadets under training, played the part of pirates, holding hostages and hiding throughout the ship.
The Arleigh-Burke class destroyer USS Sterett sent a boarding team on-board to build up the expertise to successfully search a pirated vessel and regain control.
Cadet Carragh Martineau said:“It was great to be part of the exercise, where I found myself temporarily promoted to Acting Chief!
“Seeing first hand the work that the Royal Navy and US Navy are doing to support those using the sea for legitimate purposes was invaluable.”
The exercise also coincided with the arrival of a group of Fleet Air Arm personnel from 857 Naval Air Squadron with their unmistakable ‘bagger’ Sea King Mark 7 helicopters.
The flight crew conducted search operations with USS Sterett’s SH60 helicopter to check for any threats in the vicinity of the two ships, as well as providing aerial surveillance for the exercise.
In addition, a detachment from J Company 42 Commando Royal Marines is currently embarked in Fort Austin, providing force protection for the ship. Cougar 14 also provided an opportunity for the Royal Marines to train with their counterparts from the Royal Navy of Oman.
Despite the cultural differences and language barrier, noticeable progress was made and valuable skills were learnt on both sides.
Captain Stephen Norris, RFA Fort Austin’s Commanding Officer, said: “The ship has been deployed to the Gulf for over a year now, providing support to the Royal Navy and regional and international partners in a wide variety of military operations.
“Cougar 14 gave us a chance to successfully demonstrate Fort Austin’s role as a key element of the Response Force Task Group and our ability to fully integrate in Task Group operations.
“As the ships on Cougar 14 return home, the crew of Fort Austin remain on station in the Gulf, becoming home to the Royal Navy’s Sea King Airborne Surveillance and Control helicopters that will provide a protective radar shield for Royal Navy and coalition ships at sea.”
Press Release; Image: Royal Navy