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30 NAVY NEWS, AUGUST 2010 First contact, last resort

IT’S NOT Thunderbirds. For a start,

no palm trees round a swimming pool, and no blue/grey rockets or large green pod-carrying flying machines have been seen in

state-of-the-art ships and aircraft, highly-trained troops and a wealth of experience, who needs International Rescue?

Operations oversees the activities of RN units across the world, ensuring deployment targets are met and obstacles are removed wherever possible.

Last month we saw how Fleet ● Impromptu gatherings help the fl ow of information in Fleet Ops

the French Navy command centre at Brest and their RN counterparts at Portsmouth.

But there is another side to the organisation, based in Oswald Building at Northwood – reacting rapidly to a potential crisis in a way few other organisations are able to emulate. At the sharp end, Fleet Ops’

Lt Cdr Tim Hounsom said that the organisation is responsible for three main military tasks – the provision and protection of the nuclear deterrent, providing aid to the civil authorities and maintaining the integrity of UK waters. Non-military organisations, such as the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) or the police’s SO15 counter-terrorism organisation, can look to Fleet Ops for advice on maritime matters. “On a daily or weekly basis it is difficult to say what is going to happen – we have so many fingers in so many pies, the job is constantly changing,” said Lt Cdr Hounsom. “But, by way of example, when

the volcanic ash cloud from Iceland came into our air space, it was CTF 320 which was tasked to run the operation to repatriate military personnel and civilians back to the UK.” Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ), also based at Northwood, were in on the venture, as was the Ministry of Defence operations directorate in London, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the British ambassadors to France and Spain, various ferry companies,

own Commander Task Force (CTF) 320 acts as the Navy’s emergency-response unit, ready to tackle short-notice counter- terrorism, counter-narcotics and anti-submarine operations. CTF 320 Operations Officer

With HM Ships Ark Royal, Albion and Ocean on stand-by to help out as troops returning from the Middle East kicked their heels alongside holidaymakers in northern Spain, staff at Fleet Ops were at the forefront of planning and co-ordination efforts. “No one was expecting an ash cloud to descend on the UK,” said Lt Cdr Hounsom.

that, at the same time we were still looking at contingent operations and counter-terrorism, and still liaising with the Serious Organised Crime Agency to stem the flow of drugs from abroad. “So really we cannot say what

“But whilst dealing with all

the athletes who are planning meticulously for the event. “We are responsible for drawing up a workable plan to provide protection for London and Weymouth and Portland for the 2012 Olympics, a robust plan to stop any armed or terrorist action threatening UK interests or athletes and other personnel,” said Lt Cdr Hounsom.

the skies of Middlesex. But when you can call on

there are

‘in-house’ or bring in back-up from experts. “We are the waist of the hour glass – there is a mass of information coming in, and we tell all the right people,” said Lt Cdr Powell. “It’s not quite a one-stop

shop, but as long as someone in dark blue or lovat green needs assistance, they can come to us and we can put them on to people who can help.” Naval Intelligence desks sit close by the DFC area, feeding relevant information into the process as needed, while maps on screen and copies of sailing schedules tell Fleet Ops where RN ships should be at any given time. The Northwood unit has fast- dial lines to the Falklands, the UK Maritime Component Command (UKMCC) in Bahrain and the EU Maritime Force almost next- door at Northwood.

we are going to expect when we walk into work of a morning. No two days are the same. “It’s exceedingly rewarding – there can be periods of quiet where you consider regrouping and trying to plan for future operations,

periods of intense activity.” As far as Fleet Ops is concerned, early intelligence is the best option, allowing suspect vessels to be tracked and monitored and – if necessary – boarded by specialist teams, handing maverick mariners and contraband cargo over to the relevant UK bodies, such as the UK Borders Agency or the police. And the guardians of UK

waters are not just concerned with drugs and smuggling – there is always the remote possibility of a renegade ship being used to attempt to blow up a UK port, or a ferry being hijacked and passengers taken hostage. ‘Military aid to civilian

authorities’ is a wide category, and puts Fleet Ops firmly in the front line, if not on the front page. Take the Olympics in two years – it is not just

interspersed with

There is also a smattering of light blue uniforms in the Maritime Operations Centre, responsible for maritime patrol aircraft; during operations they become the air staff of CTF 320, but their proximity to the Duty Controllers means they are also a useful conduit between the RN and RAF on broader issues. Most problems that flow into Fleet Ops are manageable, and a workable solution is usually found. But for those problems which become full-blown crises, Fleet Ops has a more radical approach – the Fleet Incident Response Cell or FIRC. This group acts as the single point of contact for the senior officer at the centre of the crisis, allowing him or her to concentrate on the job in hand while the rest of the FIRC manages whatever support is needed.

And as the FIRC swings into action, Navy Command Headquarters in Portsmouth will also be standing up a team to take the pressure off the FIRC, allowing them to devote all their attention to finding the answers. The cell is an ad-hoc team, calling in whatever expertise is needed to tackle a predicament which could mean the fate of a ship or the lives of her sailors are in the balance. The first call would be to the Duty Fleet Controller (DFC), situated on the floor above the main Fleet Ops office. One of the current DFCs is Lt Cdr Bill Powell, who said: “I am one of five controllers, on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Submarine Controller, and the ops room assistants – we all work one in five, and the place never closes.” Again, access to the

“It is the same for the Duty

they have the numbers, work and out-of-hours, of key players in any emergency. “If we filter information properly we can usually avoid getting people out of bed by giving a holding answer or saying we will deal with it later, in the morning,” said Lt Cdr Powell. In an out-of-hours doomsday

scenario, the DFC will take a quick sitrep from the unit involved and set the wheels in motion. After a brief exchange with Fleet (FOO) or Submarine Operations Officer (SOO) – whoever got into the office quickest – the decision is made to stand up the FIRC. A pre-arranged group of individuals with a wide range of expertise – including the Chief Salvage and Mooring Officer – can then be assembled. One such example saw the

And if push comes to shove

● HMS Chatham’s Lynx helicopter during a rescue mission in a cyclone – one of Fleet Ops’ enduring headaches is matching up the needs of both aircraft and ships

caught in fishing nets or flares washed ashore. “We could end up dealing with a misfired missile, for example,” said Lt Cdr Ward. “If it hadn’t been fired it would be a stores matter, but otherwise it is an EOD issue, so we may have to get a team out to take it off the ship and get rid of it. “A lot of what we do is liaison with other people – for standard EOD work, tactical command is given to the Army at Didcot, and they alert the nearest team.” Probably four-fifths of Lt Cdr

Ward’s job is routine, day-to-day stuff – but when it gets lively it’s as lively as it gets.

engine room of ice patrol ship HMS Endurance flooded in the Beagle Channel off Tierra del Fuego in South America in 2008. The patrol ship’s Executive

Officer, in command of Endurance, used a satellite phone to call the DFC every 20 minutes while the Fleet Ops team sought a solution and the sailors of Endurance battled to keep her afloat. During any emergency,

course, Fleet Ops still has to ensure that the standard tasks and other deployments are still running smoothly. Among the experts who might be called into the FIRC is Lt Cdr Andy Ward, who handles minewarfare and diving issues. “I schedule the mine countermeasures vessels,

Hunts and eight Sandowns,” said Lt Cdr Ward. “I do day-to-day management of the long-term plot, and if there is a breakdown or bad weather we take the plan back and look at tasks and priorities – what is operationally essential?”

right information and people is crucial to the Fleet Ops response, whether they manage the situation

eight of

He recalls the FIRC being stood up when HMS Nottingham grounded on Wolf Rock off Australia eight years ago, with his particular area of concern being the state of the stricken destroyer’s Sea Dart missiles. One of the trickier Fleet Ops tasks on a day-to-day basis is running the aviation desk, currently the fiefdom of Lt Cdr Jonathan Bird. “Most of my time is trying

Picture: PO(Phot) Owen King

plans for survey ships, though only the next 30 months are in detail. Fishery protection is slightly different, looking a year ahead as the task of policing the English, Welsh and Northern Irish fisheries is subject to an annual contract with the Marine Management Organisation.

wide, and the UK welcoming allied warships to our waters, there is one more Fleet Ops responsibility to consider: diplomatic clearance. WO Arty Shaw has now moved on from Fleet Ops – he is currently River Officer at Dartmouth – but much of his time at Northwood was spent clearing the way for visits.

to match up ships’ requirements for aircraft for training and deployment, and for squadrons’ requirements for deck training,” said Lt Cdr Bird. “That takes up about 70 per cent of my time – there are either too many ships and not enough aircraft or too many aircraft for the few decks available.

and prioritising – there’s always something that pops up and throws a spanner in the works. It can be frustrating. “The rest of my time is keeping

“So there is a lot of trading

a weather eye on ships deployed and their flights. “We look at defects and issues, including training, and ship issues which could impact on the overall task.

One area which can cause the odd headache is the four-ship force operating in the Gulf as part of PJHQ’s Operation Telic group – “the tip of the spear”, in the words of Deputy Commander-in- Chief Fleet Rear Admiral Richard Ibbotson. Lt Cdr Ward continued: “If there is a problem during day- to-day business, I come up with different courses of action. “That could have a long-term impact on crews and generating them right down the line – six, 12 and 18 months.

“And they are at the end of a 4,000-mile airbridge. “It might be that a ship will say ‘we would like to go in here,’ so we could end up talking to an embassy to get the ship in for a visit, for example. “We can get right

down amongst the weeds there, or be working right up to a high level.”

● Soldiers of 1 Rifl es on board HMS Albion in Santander on the last leg of their journey home to the UK from Afghanistan during the ash cloud crisis – Fleet Ops were instrumental in contingency plans Picture: LA(Phot) Luron Wright

“We often react to short-notice issues and provide general aviation advice whenever something comes up.

I have a broad range of knowledge, though I know who to go to for the detail.”

right down to the smallest vessels – the fishery protection ships and P2000 patrol boats, as well as the survey squadron. In fact, HM/FPS desk man Lt Cdr Simon Weaver has more of a role in scheduling his flotilla than his colleagues – he has five-year

“It’s not that I know everything – Fleet Ops looks out for everyone,

that is not ours, it is only good manners that we should ask first.” Jacking up such a visit to a foreign port usually starts around three months in advance, involving the defence attaché in the relevant country. “Every country is different – some are very efficient, some not so,” said the senior rate. He also generates diplomatic clearance for NATO warships visiting UK ports and shores and overseas territories, making sure that the procedures are spot on. “If they send a letter we reply by letter; if they apply by signal we reply by signal,” he said. “I reckon I spent most of my time dealing with foreign ships and embassies – I dealt with perhaps 350-400 visits a year.” Time and again the importance of communication is underlined – keeping people in the loop. And neatly enough, the Fleet Ops process is itself a loop, whichever one of its roles it fulfils. The performance of units on deployment or in a crisis,

actions taken at Northwood and the outcomes are fed back down the line to the Maritime Warfare Centre and other interested parties. The results of such analysis are in turn passed back to the ‘customers’ – the MOD, or perhaps other Government departments – which means future deployments can be tailored even more closely to requirements.

It also means that the next command team to visit Fleet Ops will be just that little bit better prepared than their predecessors, locking Fleet Ops and the RN into a cycle of continuous improvement.


“In simple terms it is really a question of good manners,” said WO Shaw. “If we send a ship somewhere

With ships operating far and

Fleet Ops also has command of the EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) groups, though the scope of the task here goes well beyond the common perception of mines

● Duty Fleet Controllers at work in Northwood

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