The Royal Navy’s No.1 submarine hunters scored several ‘kills’ when they joined NATO’s biggest exercise in the Mediterranean.
The Flying Tigers of 814 Naval Air Squadron spent a fortnight looking for five submarines lurking in the Ionian Sea off Sicily in a concerted hunt by for the ‘enemy below’ by Allied air and sea power.
Nine nations – Canada, France, Germany, Greece, Spain, Turkey, Britain, the USA plus hosts Italy – tossed their hats into the ring for the two-week-long Exercise Dynamic Manta.
The workout is one of two NATO runs each year to test hunters and hunted to the max – Manta staged in the warmer waters of the Mediterranean, Mongoose in cooler Norwegian waters later in the year, as the temperature of the ocean (as well as salinity and other characteristics) affects the performance and effectiveness of sonar.
A 20-strong team of aircrew – two pilots, one observer and one aircrewman for each sortie – supported by 40 engineers, technical staff, weather forecasters, safety and logistics experts, supported the Merlin Mk2 from Culdrose.
It shared Sicilian skies with five long-range maritime patrol aircraft, plus anti-submarine helicopters including the Italian version of the Merlin.
The aircraft all peppered the Ionian Sea with sonobuoys (listening devices placed along the route a suspected submarine might take).
If they picked up any suspicious underwater movements, the helicopters were directed in for the kill, first lowering their dipping sonar into the water to both pinpoint a submarine’s location and its identity, then ‘destroy’ it – in the case of the Culdrose Merlin using Sting Ray torpedoes or depth charges.
The submarines were not taking part merely to be ‘killed’; they practised evading the ring of steel drawn around the eight surface ships to score kills of their own.
For some of 814’s team, this was all new – they were enjoying their first taste of Dynamic Manta, operating from Sigonella air base in the shadow of Mount Etna.
For others the exercise was an opportunity to hone skills on a scale rarely practised in home waters off the Lizard.
After each sortie hunter and hunted alike studied their tactics and methods to determine how successful they would have been in the real world – and improve them where necessary.
The squadron’s Commanding Officer Commander Sarah Birchett believes her team returns to Cornwall “at the top of their game”.
“We enjoyed some great interaction with our NATO partners, achieving successful ‘kills’ against our subsurface ‘friends’, operating as a ‘dip gang’ with our Italian EH101 colleagues,” she added.
“My more experienced operators welcomed the thrill of the chase again and my junior aircrew enjoyed their first front-line NATO exercise with submarines, surface ships, helicopters and Maritime Patrol Aircraft in deep waters environment.”
Rear Admiral Andrew Burcher, in charge of NATO submarine operations, said Dynamic Manta remained “one of the most challenging exercises” the alliance ran, and was vital as the advantage was constantly switching between hunter and hunted.
“With each iteration of a submarine that is developed, they improve the quiet aspect of the submarine,” he explained.
“As countries continue to develop and build submarines, they become quieter. So it’s important that that we improve our ability to find those quiet submarines.”