Sunday, May 3, 2009

Jungle training in the Bay of Bengal!


HALFWAY across the world and just over the horizon from some of its most brutal, unstable regimes, the crew of HMS Bulwark are flexing their muscles and flying the flag. The vessel is in the muddy waters of the Bay of Bengal, testing its own personnel as well as building bridges with Commonwealth partners India and Bangladesh.

But while these two countries are trusted partners, a relative stone's throw away is a powder keg.

The xenophobic military dictatorship of Myanmar (formerly Burma) is close, as is Pakistan – a nuclear power bordering Afghanistan with its own burgeoning Taliban threat – and Sri Lanka and Thailand, both fighting hardline domestic insurrections. It means that this leg of the operation, called Shomodro Torongo, the Bengali for Sea Wave, is far from a benign extended exercise. And leading from the front is Bulwark, whose captain, Wayne Keble, admits that simply being here is a risk.

"There is a threat all the time," he said. "All of this area is difficult because of its location and some of it is particularly difficult because of the association with terrorists and the threat from al Qaida. "When we were leaving harbour at India, there were plenty of little fishing skiffs around. "If one of those skiffs was bent on a suicide mission, it would be hard to deal with. It's a constant threat."

There remains a strong argument for the Royal Navy to familiarise itself with a region where so many British people live, should they require help. And the threat is as real from natural disasters as it is from terrorism. Bangladesh was just last week hit by a cyclone which displaced 200,000 people.

"There is a yearly threat from cyclones disaster and the region we are in is ripe for us to offer assistance," said Capt Keble. "It is better we know the territory now than in an emergency."
However, the chance to train personnel to cope with some of the most testing terrain in the world is the main driving force behind Operation Taurus.

Already, the larger taskforce which set sail from Plymouth in February – including Falmouth-based RFA Mounts Bay, and Devonport's HMS Argyll – has taken part in valuable exercises in Cyprus, Turkey and the Persian Gulf. Ahead is challenging jungle training in Brunei.

During the phase in the Bay of Bengal, Bulwark will be joined by an unprecedented number of military and civilian organisations from Bangladesh.

While the ammunition may not be real, again the threat is.

Royal Marine Commandos landing on the flatlands around the mouth of the Ganges will face exceptional challenges of infested mangrove swamps, foul water, extreme temperatures and a densely populated region. Bulwark always carries a medical team, but has had more flown in just in case.

"We are here to deal with real scenarios," said Surgeon Commander Peter Taylor, who was born in Dittisham, near Dartmouth, and is on a seven-week break from NHS duties. "Back home we are frantic when we are at work," said the 45-year-old, whose parents John and Bryony are former Paignton GPs.

"But here we are waiting for the unexpected. "Once we are happy we have the right equipment, we are waiting for something to happen, which is in contrast to other Naval officers." Medical teams have been told the area is "relatively" free of snakes, but have formulated plans to deal with emergencies like venomous bites. "They might be exercises and the ammo isn't live, but the danger is from an environment like this. We have to know how to deal with the worst case scenario."

Commodore Peter Hudson CBE, who is in command of the taskforce from the flagship Bulwark said the scope of the entire Operation Taurus – from Plymouth to just over the equator south of Singapore – is entirely justified.

"Why go to the Far East? Well, we have a lot of obligations over here," said the Stonehouse-based Commodore, who has just been promoted to Rear Admiral.

"We need to exercise and we cannot just do it in the English Channel. "Jungle capability is something we need in the armed forces and we can't do that sort of training in Cornwall."
Operation Taurus is the Royal Navy's most sweeping exercise in more than a decade and positive proof it is an active, exceptional force.

"We are one of the best navies in the world. We are in the premier league and the way we do that is the ability to sustain forces for a long period of time," Commodore Hudson added. "Not many navies can do that. But this is what we do."