With tensions rising in the Middle East after the deadly Hamas terror attack on Israel, a British military expert has lifted the lid on the impressive force which the UK has despatched to the eastern Mediterranean, including two vast vessels.
But Iain Ballantyne has admitted while RFA ships Lyme Bay and Argus are well equipped for whatever challenges they may face, the threats they face are all too real.
Mr Ballantyne, editor of Warships IFR magazine, was speaking after the two massive vessels – 175 metres and 177 metres in length respectively – set off from Gibraltar on Sunday.
Writing exclusively for Express.co.uk, he said: “RFA Argus, for example, now has embarked three Merlin Mk4 helicopters – likely to be from 845 Naval Air Squadron of the Somerset-based Commando Helicopter Force (CHF).
“They will work with Royal Marines, already aboard when the ship deployed from the UK.”
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RFA Lyme Bay, which is a Landing Ship Dock Auxiliary had marines and equipment on board before too departed home, Mr Ballantyne explained.
However, he added: “The RAF flew out an unspecified cargo to Gibraltar – and likely specialist personnel – and these were put aboard RFA Lyme Bay before she headed into the Med.”
The two RFA ships, both described as “highly flexible sea bases” belong to the Merchant Navy-operated support force which provides an “integral part of the Royal Navy”, Mr Ballantyne said.
As such, they were “core platforms for operations by the Royal Marines, units of the Fleet Air Arm, and also Special Forces if needs be”.
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He continued: “They are collectively known as Littoral Response Group (South) a title that reflects its mission within coastal waters and projecting military power ashore on behalf of the UK and its allies.
However, aside from being able to launch raiding missions via helicopters and small craft, LRG(S) can deploys Royal Marines – Britain’s elite green beret sea soldiers, and, in this case a company of around 100 from Taunton-based 40 Commando – to intercept and board vessels suspected of smuggling arms to warring factions ashore.
The LRG could also to help to evacuate UK and other nationals from the war zone and even deliver humanitarian aid using the same military personnel, small craft and helicopters, Mr Ballantyne said.
He added: “The inherent adaptability of the RFA Argus is once more being demonstrated by the mission to the eastern Mediterranean.
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“Since being procured in the early 1980s for Falkland War service, she has performed various roles, as I witnessed during visits to the vessel. Argus was used as a Primary Casualty Reception Ship (PCRS) vessel during the 1991 Gulf War, then as a carrier for Sea King helicopters being ferried to the Balkans for a peace-keeping task.”
Mr Ballantyne acknowledged: “It won’t be without risk for Argus or Lyme Bay and their people.
“The potential threats from ashore as the UK, and other vessels, loiter awaiting instructions are very real, as was demonstrated the last time the Royal Navy was committed to a major mission off the Levant in time of war.
In 2006 the UK deployed a substantial naval task group to the eastern Mediterranean to evacuate civilians from Beirut during a conflict between Hezbollah and Israel in southern Lebanon.
“And it is Hezbollah that poses the most formidable threat to the British task group, as it has proven via an ability to launch Anti-shipping Missiles (ASM) in the past, most notably hitting an Israeli warship in 2006.”
For this reason, the British task group would stay as far out to sea as possible unless required to otherwise, Mr Ballantyne stressed.
He said: However, it is expected that HMS Duncan, a powerful British air-defence destroyer – currently leading a well-armed NATO group called SNMG2 in the eastern Mediterranean – will provide cover, as will other vessels, not least the US Navy’s destroyers, cruisers and aircraft carriers.
“In the skies above will be NATO Maritime Patrol Aircraft, including at least one Poseidon MPA of the RAF and possibly UK fighter jets. Cyprus, where Britain has military bases will be hosting such air assets and other units.
“There may also be a British nuclear-powered attack submarine in seas somewhere off Israel, the Gaza Strip and the Lebanon, which will use its own sensors to obtain advance warning of threats. It will take action, if ordered, via launching cruise missiles.”
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