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Cougar wrestles with Alligator as task group exercises with Saudis
18 September 2013

The Royal Navy’s amphibious task group has completed its first exercise east of Suez – three days of navigation and communication drills with a trio of Saudi vessels.

Flagship HMS Bulwark, Illustrious, Westminster and RFA Fort Austin linked up with Saudi supply ship HMS Boraida and two Saudi frigates HMS Makkah and Abah for exercise Red Alligator.

Picture: LA(Phot) Nicky Wilson, HMS Illustrious

ARRAYED across the Red Sea, part of Britain’s Response Force Task Group links up with three Saudi vessels for its first exercise east of Suez.

Formed up off the coast of the Kingdom (left to right) are veteran carrier HMS Illustrious, frigate HMS Westminster, Saudi supply ship HMS Boraida leading frigate HMS Makkah and RFA Fort Austin, frigate HMS Abah and finally Britain’s flagship HMS Bulwark.

The four British and three Saudi vessels joined forces for Exercise Red Alligator, three days of navigational/officer of the watch manoeuvres (such as choreographing a photoshoot – the official RN term is Photex) and ensuring smooth communications.

Personnel from both navies were also given the chance to cross decks and stay on the different ships to experience life on board.

Capt Andy Atkins, of HMS Bulwark’s permanent Royal Marines unit, 6 Assault Squadron, left his amphibious comrades behind and crossed to the Makkah.

A spectacular night shoot from HMS Westminster's main 4.5in gun. Picture: LA(Phot) Dan Rosenbaum

“As their frigate is a French design it was very similar internally to what we are used to in the Royal Navy. I was made to feel very welcome and am very pleased that I was offered the chance to see how another navy operates at sea,” he said.

Lt Cdr Sharokh Esfahani was on hand to help to explain the traditions and conventions of Saudi Arabia. As the cultural advisor to Cdre Paddy McAlpine, the commander of the task group, he visited all the Royal Navy ships ahead of the personnel exchanges, briefing sailors on the history of Saudi Arabia, highlighting not just some of the difference, but also similarities of the two cultures. 

And the Commander of the Western Fleet of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Navy, Cdre Al Haarbi, visited Bulwark at the beginning of the exercise so that he and Cdre McAlpine could discuss plans and tactics.

Don't mess with Westminster's boarding team, seen here training of Crete. Picture: LA(Phot) Dan Rosenbaum

It took some 14 hours for the task group ships to pass through Suez in a convoy with over two dozen other vessels – including merchantmen and three ships from the Japanese Maritime Defence Force – while HMS Dragon headed in the opposite direction bound for the Med.

Westminster used the final days of her time in the Middle Sea to test her weaponry – including impressive day and night shoots by her main 4.5in gun – boarding teams (courtesy of a unique training complex in Crete) and sensors (courtesy of the NATO ranges at Souda Bay).

Once the frigate’s time with the task group she’ll break away to take over from HMS Kent on counter-piracy/counter-terrorism/counter-smuggling duties across 2½ million square miles of the Indian Ocean (that’s eight times bigger than the North Sea).