‘This is the best job in the Royal Navy’

HMS Dragon in the Gulf with MV Karaana in the background. Picture: L(Phot) Dave Jenkins
HMS Dragon in the Gulf with MV Karaana in the background. Picture: L(Phot) Dave Jenkins

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Five short horn blasts boom across the water as HMS Dragon cuts through the waves of the Gulf – a stark warning to approaching vessels to alter course before the ship must defend herself.

On her port and starboard sides, force protection teams man the ship’s general purpose machine guns, and fire off several warning shots in quick succession.

Thankfully, there is no enemy approaching and this is only a drill, one of many which constantly take place while the ship is on security patrol in the region.

Once the drill is complete, the sailors stand down, but barely 20 minutes later, the alarms ring again – and this time it’s for real.

Two Iranian patrol vessels have come skimming along the international waters and approach the destroyer from either side of her stern.

Within seconds the entire ship is on alert, and the vessels are being tracked on screens in the operations room. The crew of the destroyer reacts to potential threats in a number of ways, escalating their response depending on the severity of the risk.

Most of the time, though, the encounters are friendly, but the ship’s company are continuously drilled on their responses to prepare them for a time when action may be called for.

‘These guys are just curious, and want to have a look at us, and we are okay with that,’ says Lieutenant Commander Kevin Miller, pictured right, after the two vessels have turned away. A closer inspection reveals the two vessels have their own weapons covered and unmanned, instantly presenting less of a threat and tempering the destroyer’s response.

Lt Cdr Miller, from Lee-on-the-Solent, is the ship’s weapon engineer officer, and is responsible for the weaponry on board.

‘Most of the interactions we have had with the Iranians have been very professional,’ he says. ‘We live in a world where there are a number of threats. There are state actors, countries that will do things which might cause an issue, but generally they are professional.

‘The ones we have to be more careful of are the non-state actors, in vessels which aren’t affiliated with anyone and are difficult to track.

‘We are not trying to antagonise anyone, but we have the right of self-defence.

‘So we will warn them through klaxons, or radio, or horn blasts, or visual warnings like flares.

‘We have a bubble around us and when you get into that bubble we warn and respond accordingly.’

HMS Dragon, and her sister ships, are more than equipped to deal with threats on the surface or in the air.

Her sophisticated missile systems can knock a jet out of the sky from miles away.

But smaller vessels have for some time been a cause for concern, and they have occasionally managed to inflict massive damage on much larger ships when packed with explosives and detonated.

One example is the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, which killed 17 sailors.

Al-Qaeda suicide bombers sailed a small boat near the destroyer and detonated explosive charges.

Since then, navies around the world have bolstered their firepower to deal with such threats.

And HMS Dragon is positively bristling with weaponry, including the 4.5ins Mk 8 Mod 1 gun, two 30mm automated guns, and various small calibre guns.

The ship’s main weapon system, the Sea Viper missiles, can be fired from the silo on the forecastle of the ship and speed off at three times the speed of sound in little more than the blink of an eye.

With many of the destroyer’s systems reliant on computers, it is easy to forget the involvement of humans in defending the ship.

Rigged up around the ship are a number of general purpose machine guns, which can be manned in minutes in the event of an emergency.

Able Seaman Darren ‘Blackie’ Black, 24, from Gosport, is a warfare specialist on board.

As part of his job, he spends time on the bridge wings under the blistering heat, manning the machine guns.

‘When the adrenaline gets going, you do feel like you are doing something worthwhile,’ says AB Black, pictured below.

‘The heat does take a lot of getting used to. After some time, you get used to it but there are some days where it is just unbearable.’

AB Black was able to enjoy a brief respite from duties in the Gulf when he returned home mid-deployment to see the birth of his daughter Sophia.

The 24-year-old had arranged a trip home to see his fiancée Helen Smith, 20, in advance of her due date.

‘She rang me when I was at the airport to say she was having her labour induced, so I told her to hang on,’ he said. ‘I was just hoping to be there in time, and couldn’t believe I managed to make it happen.

‘It worked out very well. Although it was difficult to come back out again, it gives me something to look forward to.’

Back on board HMS Dragon, the encounter with the Iranians quickly passes by and the flurry of action is over within minutes.

The sailors are stood down to resume their duties and life on board the ship continues.

This brief incident is just one of the things HMS Dragon’s crew must be ready for, and it is only through persistent training and the Royal Navy’s famed professionalism they are able to carry out orders with calm confidence.

During their time at sea, the ship’s company regularly practises firefighting techniques, medical emergencies, and battle scenarios.

Meanwhile, they still have to keep the ship running smoothly, defend themselves from potential threats, and navigate some of the most vital choke points in the region.

For the majority of their deployment, the ship’s company have operated under defence watches – a continuous cycle of six hours on, six hours off.

Every day brings with it a series of drills, exercises, and operations which require the maximum amount of hard work.

Lt Cdr Miller adds: ‘We need to be ready for anything. The last thing we want is for anyone to cause damage to us, or our people on board, or for us to be seen as an easy target. We have looked at a lot of incidents from the past, including the USS Cole, and we train responses as regularly as possible.

‘On a warship like HMS Dragon you feel quite safe and assured, but that’s only because we maintain that security level.’

Over the next few days, there are other encounters with patrol vessels in the international waters of the Gulf.

The ship is passed by skiffs, small motorised boats commonly used by pirates or smugglers, and when they get too close, Dragon roars at them to keep the distance.

Having been in the region for months, the ship’s radar operators have built up a comprehensive picture of maritime life in the Gulf, and particularly around choke points such as the Strait of Hormuz.

This part of their work means they can identify friendly seafarers with ease, and spend more time keeping a watchful eye on those who may harbour bad intentions.

CAPTAIN Iain Lower runs his ship by a very simple motto – work hard, and play hard.

You don’t have to look far on board HMS Dragon to see evidence of both.

Opportunities to rest and enjoy a break are vital in preventing sailors becoming run down by continual cycles of work which keep the crew on top form.

‘Work hard, play hard, is what we live by on board,’ he says.

‘The ship’s company are run hard, but we have some great fun as well. Dragon has been a delight to command and there is a real sense of achievement on board.

‘Every day we’re learning more about each other, and a lot about the ship. It’s important because we could be called to fight. The ship has to be ready to respond at very short notice. The ship’s company has risen to that challenge, and then some.’

Capt Lower joined the Royal Navy in 1990. The married father-of-three, from Bedhampton, has commanded three ships prior to Dragon: HMS Leeds Castle, HMS Shoreham, and HMS Gloucester.

He took command of Dragon three months before she deployed to the Gulf.

Capt Lower says the highlight of his time with the destroyer has been seeing the crew come together and gel as a team.

He said: ‘After three really tough weeks at the beginning of the deployment, where we really put the ship and crew through their paces, we all emerged aware that we were ready for operations and whatever came our way.

‘It just shows what people can do.

‘This is the best job in the Royal Navy.’