Support ship RFA Mounts Bay was used as the test bed for hosting a mobile US Navy minehunting force – including helicopters, divers, remote-controlled boats and automated surveying machines – at short notice.
The test off the coast of Virginia was intended to see whether a task force without a minehunter assigned to it could hunt mines by sending out a mobile team with all their kit – and to see whether it could be done on a British ship.
Around 120 United States Navy sailors, civilians and contractors formed the ‘mine countermeasures mission module’ assigned to Mounts Bay, which has spent the winter hunting drug runners in the Caribbean.
In just three days at the US Navy’s main Atlantic base in Norfolk, Virginia, the support ship – designed to land Royal Marines and their equipment during amphibious operations – was turned into a makeshift hub of minehunting.
Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 28 – known as the Dragon Whales – flew their MH-60S Sea Hawks aboard. The helicopters are equipped with a new laser system to detect mines below the surface of the ocean as well as a new piece of kit which can neutralise them from the air.
The core of the team joining RFA Mounts Bay was drawn from the US Navy’s Expeditionary Mine Counter-Measures Mobile Unit Two (ExMCMMU2) who used Mounts Bay as the launchpad for raiding boats carrying torpedo-shaped devices which can be sent out to scan the seabed; if they found anything, divers went into the water to inspect the objects.
The US unit also took charge of the various mine warfare forces and units embarked on Mounts Bay, demonstrating how the US Navy and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary can work seamlessly together on a complex minehunting operation.
In addition, the Textron Unmanned Surface Vehicle was loaded aboard; it can be sent off on missions lasting hundreds of miles, searching for mines or submarines. This was one of the first times it has been successfully operated from a ship at sea.
“I have nothing but high regard for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary – they have been superb at assisting all aspects of this experiment; no request was regarded as too difficult.
Commander John Haase, US Navy
After all the planning and theory, Commander John Haase, commanding the US detachment aboard the British ship, said his team relished the chance to put all that into practice.
"There is an increased sense of realism and urgency with operating real systems off RFA Mounts Bay against simulated real-world threats," he added.
"I have nothing but high regard for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary – they have been superb at assisting all aspects of this experiment; no request was regarded as too difficult."
The ten-day exercise was eight months in the planning and organisers say it confirmed that ‘mobile minehunting’ is feasible – and that ships like the Bay class are well suited for such missions.
Captain Jed Macanley RFA, Mounts Bay’s Commanding Officer, said his ship was often described as a ‘Swiss army knife’ due to its versatility and the experimental exercise off the Virginian coast merely underlined that tag.
"At short notice Mounts Bay was reconfigured to operate as both a mine counter-measures command platform and a sea base to launch and recover manned and unmanned systems,"
"I am very proud of the agility and flexibility that my ship’s company has shown in being able to successfully tackle these very diverse challenges. And I have also been very impressed at the speed at which 120 American personnel have integrated themselves into the ship to operate as one team."