Danger! One cannot miss the sign. 'When alarm sounds torpedo is about to fire', it reads. There's another warning just ahead: 'When rattler sounds launcher is about to fire'. Luckily, for the time being, no such sounds are heard.
We look with awe at the 4.5"gun from the 1960's, placed menacingly on the front deck, the vertical launch seawolf missiles, harpoon missiles, the automatic small caliber guns…we are on board one of the world's best anti-submarine warfare platforms in the world – HMS Somerset-F82 (which is six inch longer than all other 12 Type 23 frigates of the UK's modern Royal Navy).
"The ship has Sonar 2087, the long range low frequency active towed array, used to detect even the quietest of submarines, Radar 996, the long range 3D surveillance radar providing situational awareness and targeting information for weapon systems, Lynx Mk8 helicopter 'Blackthorn' with highly effective maritime security assets…" Lt Cdr Paul Madisson, the weapon engineer officer elaborates on the backbone of the Royal Navy surface fleet, launched almost 20 years ago and took her place in the fleet to conduct anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare, boarding operations and protection of valuable units in dangerous waters.
But, how many wars has she been into so far? None, the officer smiles! "The ship had never been in a serious warfare. But we are always 'ready' and it's our strong presence in the waters that makes the difference. Hopefully, we would never be in one," he adds as we move on to climb down a ladder where we have already seen men and women in uniform descending and ascending fairly rapidly. The warship has a totally different environment and moving around is much more physically demanding. We always need to watch our heads.
That was last Wednesday, when journalists in Muscat were offered a rare opportunity to see around HMS Somerset (docked at Sultan Qaboos Port) which is currently undertaking an operational deployment in support of UK interests in the Middle East and the Gulf. It's, in fact, the Royal Navy frigate contribution to Operation Kipion, the UK's commitment to maritime security in the Gulf region and northern Indian Ocean area around Muscat and further south. The ship left the UK in January 14 and will be in the region till mid-June undertaking a wide range of operational tasks in the Eastern Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and the Gulf.
Calling on Oman
Oman, Lt. Cdr Paul says, has been a highlight of regional visits during the deployment. "We arrived off the coast of British Ambassador's residence on Tuesday night to take part in the Queen's birthday celebrations, which included a ceremonial sunset parade and a 19-gun salute. We also visited the Cemetery Bay to pay respects to British war casualties buried there," he adds.
On Wednesday, apart from the journalists, the ship also hosted engineering students from Caledonian College, exchanging views and experience. And Captain and Commanding officer Mike Smith is hosting a number of other officials and dignitaries on board. "We have enjoyed an incredibly successful and historical relationship with Oman. We are in Muscat for some logistical support and our crew needs some rest and relaxation. There's no better place than Oman for that," Paul adds.
As he says, the stay is very much about engaging with people of Oman and getting them on board. Over the next two days, the crew hopes to engage in many activities including a trip to Wadi Shab, diving and to play football and hockey with local clubs. The ship is scheduled to leave Muscat on Saturday afternoon. "This is my second visit to Oman and first time on board HMS Somerset," says Lt Cdr Des Hirons, the executive officer and the second-in-command. "We have close ties with Oman and it's been a real privilege to support The Queen's birthday celebrations here," he adds.
And for HMS Somerset this is the first visit to Muscat during this particular deployment. The ship, however, had called on Muscat/Salalah ports undertaking this tasking three times since 2010. "We have reinforced our ties with Oman. During this visit we worked with Oman coast guard and hosted Omani engineering students on board sharing information and exchanging knowledge. This is the right way to build relationships," the executive officer points out.
Power and stealth
Andy Hunt, the chief petty officer, leads us through the two-deck corridor, the main working deck. Powered by a combined diesel, electric and gas system, the ship will be quiet during anti-submarine operations, we are told. "This is a highly effective warship, modern and relevant though twenty years old, capable and resilient, taking a lot of efforts and preparations to remain in the high seas for six months and with a highly competent crew, numbering around 215 men and women, " Paul points out.
There are two boarding teams on board, the Royal Navy and Royal Marine boarding teams, to support maritime security operations, to counter narcotics and for prevention of crime on the high seas. Deployable by sea boat or helicopter, the trained and skilled teams are capable of sustained operations. "One of our primary tasks is to counter piracy," says Paul. "We haven't had the opportunity to do too much operation at the moment, but we hope to contribute significantly to the cause. Our very presence in the area actually contributes to the counter piracy efforts," he adds.
HMS Somerset will turn 20 in June and originally designed for anti-submarine warfare operations keeping an eye on Russian counterparts during the Gulf war, she has spent a lot more time in the Middle East than she did anywhere else. "We have a massive different jobs and roles – of our own and with the forces of the friendly nations, improving relationships and keeping the world a safer place particularly in the maritime environment," the officer asserts, as we come out safely, unscarred by the general hazards that might confront a civilian on board a warship.