Britain’s senior naval officer in the Persian Gulf has revealed that Royal Navy deployments in the region have doubled since October in a build-up that matches the rapid escalation of American maritime firepower.
Commodore Keith Winstanley, who serves as deputy commander of coalition maritime operations for US Central Command, has told The Daily Telegraph that British trade and strategic interests dictate the necessity of a high and sustained commitment to patrol the seas around the Middle East.
“If you look at the UK component we have almost doubled it,” he said in an interview aboard HMS Sutherland in Mina al-Salman port.
“Most of these ships are here on training missions but there is no doubt that we could use the warfighting capabilities they possess.”
Cdre Winstanley said there was a message for Iran in the expansion of the coalition fleet in the waters of the Persian Gulf, Sea of Oman and Arabian Sea.
More ships on patrol would have strategic effects that went beyond the operational benefits of increased patrols.
Royal Navy commanders insist the build-up in the Gulf has not been ordered by the Ministry of Defence in direct response to Teheran’s pursuit of an atomic weapons programme in defiance of a United Nations Security Council resolution.
But there are hopes that additional vessels will intensify pressure on the regime in Tehran to abandon its nuclear activities.
The additional Royal Navy vessels sent to the Gulf include HMS Cornwall, a type 22 frigate, two mine sweepers, HMS Ramsey and HMS Blythe, and a vessel from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.
The British ships will work in an American-led coalition of naval vessels, which has expanded rapidly in recent weeks with the arrival of a second aircraft carrier battle group, led by USS Stennis.
While most of the coalition is engaged in routine patrols, Cdre Winstanley refers to the area of operations as the “battle-space”.
Commitments include protecting Iraq’s southern oil terminals against attack until the Iraqi navy can prove its competence to ensuring the six miles of shipping lanes through the Strait of Hormuz remain open.
Up to 80 per cent of Europe’s trade with the Far East and a substantial proportion of the world’s oil and gas is shipped through local waters.
Cdre Winstanley said British strategic and economic self-interest dictated a strong Royal Navy commitment to the region.
“We have a vested interest in the freedom of the high seas,” he said.
“We can’t do that alone but we can make a contribution. There is a threat of widespread economic attack that I don’t see diminishing.”
Nineteen countries belong to the coalition led by US Admiral Patrick Walsh and his deputy, Cdre Winstanley.
Maps at the command centre show the position of 45 naval vessels from the southern coast of Pakistan to the east coast of Africa.
Terrorist threats and piracy loom large in operational plans.
Al-Qa’eda has attacked and destroyed US vessels in Arabian ports and its leaders repeatedly called for strikes against oil platforms and loading docks.
British developed computer software, the Automatic Identification System (AIS) tracks vessels bigger than 300 tonnes throughout 2.5 million square miles.
Unlike traditional radar systems, the AIS gives naval planners a three dimensional view of the seas that enables detection of any unusual movements.
Commodore Bruce Williams who commands Task 150, the southern segment of the coalition, said the concentration of naval firepower has steadily reduced the risk to commercial shipping.
“There are no guarantees,” he said.
“This is an area of economic vulnerabilities but we can cause the environment to shift to make it harder for those who would attack us to do their business.”