REPORTAGE / Providing an MCM capability on a very short notice : A Tour of the HMS Pembroke with Lieutenant Commander Paston

Lieutenant Commander Paston is Captain of the HMS Pembroke. Between January and April 2015, he did as such his first tour on a mine-hunter within the Standing NATO Mine Counter-Measures Groups One (SNMCMG1). The NATO Group is still currently performing the same missions in the Baltic and Northern Seas under the command of Commander Peter Bergen Henegouwen (Royal Netherlands Navy) (1).

Before his tour with this specific group, Lieutenant Commander spent a lot of time in the Gulf working within coalitions – not only NATO, but also coalitions involving Gulf states or other countries such as Pakistan -. He joined the Royal Navy in 2000 and spent a lot of his earlier time on destroyers and frigates, predominantly in an air defense function, but his background includes as well some anti-submarine warfare, as well as some Army experience. As he describes, « I was a fighter controller, and obviously did bridge time as well; I also spent two years in the British Army as an exchange officer. Then I was a Principal Warfare Officer on an anti-submarine frigate and most recently I was the Air Warfare Officer on the HMS Dragon, i.e. one of our new Type 45 air defence destroyers ».

In the interview below, he takes us on a tour of the mine-hunter HMS Pembroke.


Being Part of NATO’s Quick Reacting Force

We are a single role mine-hunter, with a crew of forty. The ship is normally based in Faslane in Scotland, part of the 1st MCM group. We have four MCM units based in Bahrein and are often tasked out in the Gulf. The rest of the time we have U.K. forces, which units are sent out to be part of the NATO groups.

Obviously, NATO is key in terms of U.K. defenses as well the greater European defense as well, so we want to be involved as much as possible in this missions with our MCMs, but also the Navy as a whole and in a wider sense with all other services as well.

As you know, there are two MCM groups; one in the Mediterranean and one in the Northern part of Europe. This is the first time since about four years that the U.K. has given a ship to the Northern group. We have always maintained a presence in the Southern group, but at this time of the year, it takes quite a lot of time to get a ship through the Bay of Biscay and out into the Mediterranean in bad weather.  It makes therefore more sense to come from the North.

As part of this group, we are very keen to be involved, as this allows us to perform in this area and provide presence and reassurance to other nations. It enables to learn from each other, as if everyone’s equipment and everyone’s procedures are fundamentally the same, there are always small differences. We can therefore learn things from other nations to make ourselves better, also as we get to exercise with other groups.

Should it be required and should there be any threats, in an emergency situation, we are here to provide defense to NATO as a whole. That is the main purpose of being a standing group. We are a very quick reacting force, in the sense that we are already formed and ready to go to provide any response required. That is certainly the case in terms of mine clearance, as it is in the sense of a wider presence as well.

I think this kind of deployment is really professionally fruitful, as we are trying to fulfill more of our NATO obligations and as we usually do not get that much chance to do group operations in U.K. waters. If MCM missions are similar over time, there is a continuing improvement all the time.


Video, March 2015©

The British Way

Contrary to some other nations, in the Royal Navy, we switch ships in order to keep our forces out in the Gulf. We have two Sandown Class like the Pembroke, and two Hunt Class, i.e. a slightly different class of mine-hunter out in the Gulf, out of a total of seven Sandown Class and eight Hunt Class. The Sandown Class are late ’90s and the Hunt Class are mid to late-’80s. The Hunt Class are going through at the moment a re-engineering as they are getting new engines and a new sonar. There is a proposal for us to get a new upgraded sonar as well in the next few years.

In order to maintain four mine-hunters in the Gulf all the time, we need to switch the crews around every six months. A ship will go for three years, but the crew changes every six months. It takes two months to get a ship in this part of the world, so we would spend two months sailing it out there, have two months there, and then two months back to the United Kingdom: that would not be efficient, and it is to fulfill that specific duty that we change crews around ships. In this case, we are quite lucky, as we are going to be on HMS Pembroke for 18 months.

In terms of experience and training, the water in this area is pretty similar to the UK, in terms of  temperature, challenges  we have to meet, which is definitely an advantage for us. Along the UK shores, as the seabed changes like in the Liverpool area for instance, it sometimes brings mines to the surface that have been under the surface for a long time.  There is actually a surprising amount and our HOD-trained regional diving teams respond to calls out from fishing vessels, who regularly pull seabed have changed since the last time.

In terms of mine-hunting capabilities, I think we are all very broadly similar. We may look slightly different and some of our equipment is indeed slightly different, but we have similar systems certainly to Belgian ships. They have Seafox, and we have Seafox (about 20 Charlie and 4 India and Tango). We have very similar ways processes, so we can work together very well. MCMs have developed together for all these years and all nations have reached the same sort of stage. It is largely due to the NATO standardization. In the U.K., across the board, we train and work using NATO standards, even if we change that of course if we conduct non-NATO operations.

When we are in a mine-hunting configuration, we fall into what we call defense watches so we can operate 24 hours a day.This means that 50% of the crew is up at any given time for manning the ops room, as well as doing all the seamanship evolutions on the the crane deck. Obviously the Captain will be woken as required to direct proceedings.

We have a variable depth sonar 2093 built by Thales, which comes out of the bottom of the ship on a long cable down to 200 meters. We shall put it where it can get the best picture to look out for whatever type of mine we are looking for. Mines vary in size, some are huge and some are very small. If the sonar finds a mine-like contact, we shall send one Seafox down with a camera and a sonar to verify if it is a mine or not. We shall then ask permission to counter-mine and send either a Seafox or a diver.  We have a team of six divers onboard: one diving officer, one petty officer and four junior ranks. We send them down one a time to extent the amount of capability that we have. A diver can dive so many times a day, so if they go one at a time, the coverage capability increases. Beyond sea state 5, we cannot operate, as we could not be able to launch a Seafox or put a boat away. In case we loose connection with the remote operated vehicle, we need to send divers to recover it manually. Normally the vehicle is buoyant naturaly and has a flashing beacon on the top. It eventually brings itself back to the surface and we can recover it even at night.

The way we complement each other within the SNMCMG1 is regarding the depth we can operate at: this ship is designed to deal with deeper mines. So if there was an area with variable depths in it, then the staff will organize us accordingly: the German mine-sweeper will be closer to shore, the Belgian mine-hunter will perform in the middle and the Pembroke will work in deeper water. We can go down to 200 meters – technically 270 – with the Seafox for about 25 minutes depending on the tide and thrust is being used (we actually have quite an aggressive turnover since we have four Indias and as we can switch batteries rather quickly). Our divers are limited to 60 meters compared to the Belgian deep diving capability of 80 meters,  which is to join the group later on.

In terms of technical readiness, we hold spares on board for the Seafox, and if one vehicle for whatever reason has a malfunction, we have the supply chain back to the U.K., which means that if a vehicle breaks, we do a limited amount of maintenance on board. Ordinarily, we just send a broken one back and we get a functioning one back on board. We just do a straight swap.

If we needed resupply for Seafoxes, we would have to organize a logistics route to fly them by helicopter from the UK onto the Donau. The Donau  has indeed  the capability to give us everything we need to stay at sea; so fuel, water, and food if we require. It would be slightly more complicated for ammunition, but it can be sorted out. We can make our own water, depending on our speed, we could stay out at sea for ten to twelve days. The maintenance on the Pembroke in general is rather good, especially as we just changed our generator.

All is run from the operations room, which has an electronic charting system fed by a navigational radar. The sonar installed in the nose of the Seafox, as well as the camera, also feeds directly the information back to the Ops room via a fiber optic cable. A transponder indicates the Seafox’s location at any time so we want to track it.

Our force protection allows for a 360 degree coverage of the ship against fast attack craft, as well as helicopters or slow-flying aircrafts. For proper air defense, we are reliant on another unit. In high-threat environment, like in the Gulf, a frigate or a destroyer as well as an early warning aircraft, look after a group like ours.

(1) See our interview with Commander Peter Bergen Henegouwen, « MCM, Mastering A very Difficult Type Of Warfare » and our special reportage about the SNMCMG1 in our last issue of Operationnels SLDS >>> To Download