One of Britain’s biggest warships was towed through the Channel to help the French test the power of a new specialist ship. The Garonne is one of four new specialist Loire-class support ships built for the French Navy designed to provide a multitude of services, from supporting diving operations and dealing with pollution in the aftermath of a spillage at sea, to assisting submarines and surface ships, including salvage operations. The FS Garonne hauled huge assault ship HMS Albion past the coast of Devon to assess its pulling strength and abilities – as well as hone Anglo-French naval co-operation and the Royal Navy’s own emergency procedures. Classified as bâtiments de soutien et d’assistance métropolitains – metropolitan support and assistance ships – they’ve also been designed with the ability of towing France’s next-generation carrier due to enter service in the mid-2030s and displacing 75,000 tonnes.
While sailors train extensively to fix problems without the need for outside help, sometimes damage is too extensive or breakdowns are beyond solving ‘in house’ – and the ship requires towing to a safe haven. With HMS Queen Elizabeth deployed and her sister Prince of Wales undergoing maintenance in Portsmouth Naval Base, the next largest British warship HMS Albion – 18,500 tonnes, 176 metres long, 29 wide – acted as the ‘breakdown victim’ to test the Garonne’s towing ability. The Plymouth-based amphibious assault ship pretended to be dead in the water in the Channel – with the Garonne throwing her a line, figuratively and physically. From the British side, the complex seamanship exercise was overseen by the MoD’s Salvage and Marine Operations (SALMO) team which provides salvage, towing, and heavy lift capability. Before participating in the Towing Exercise, Garonne carried out intensive trials and training to prove her ability to work with NATO’s Submarine Rescue System (NSRS).
“Exercises such as this are fundamental to ensuring an enduring seamanship capability between international maritime partners is maintained. This tested HMS Albion’s ability to be towed safely in the event of an emergency,” said David Price, the SALMO representative onboard HMS Albion.
Commander James Walton, HMS Albion’s Second in Command, added: “Our French Naval counterparts are highly skilled and professional – it was a delight working with them. The ability to integrate quickly and effectively with international partners is a key component to operating as a global navy, supporting global Britain.”
The jointly owned UK, French and Norwegian system is capable of diving down to a submarine in distress, docking with the escape hatches and carrying out an evacuation. One of the key parts of the system is a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) used to confirm the location of disabled submarines and supply them with life support equipment and to clear any debris or wires entangling the vessel. The NSRS team – headed by Commander Richard Cragg Royal Navy – worked with Garonne’s crew with the ROV to carry out tests with new technology which will speed up emergency reaction time. The NSRS is designed to be transported anywhere in the world within 72 hours to support the global submarine rescue network and is based at the home of the UK’s Submarine Service at Clyde Naval Base in Scotland. This was the first deployment of the NSRS to the Loire-class, which will provide a new level of operational flexibility for the system following the successful training off the South Coast of the UK. On top of this joint working, last month destroyer HMS Dragon also took part in an intensive workout with French warships and air power off the Brest peninsula, Exercise Sky Sharks, to ensure greater integration between the two navies.