HMS Medway

Lima Charlie: Why Does The Royal Navy Patrol The West Indies?

HMS Medway

The Royal Navy patrol ship HMS Medway has arrived in the West Indies at the beginning of a patrol that is expected to be carried out over several years.

The ship has been sent as the permanent guardship for the region, providing local British military support in the area.

But why does the UK still have a military presence in the region and what role do these forces play today?

There are no less than six different islands and island groups in the area that are classed as ‘British Overseas Territories’ – Anguilla, Bermuda and Montserrat as well as the British Virgin, Cayman and Turks & Caicos Islands.

All of these islands have close links to the UK, and while internally self-governing, rely on the UK for external defence and security matters, and usually have a Governor as the Queen’s representative on the island.

The British armed forces have a long association with the West Indies, dating back hundreds of years as the Royal Navy and British Army both engaged in campaigns throughout the region dating back to when Sir Francis Drake raided Spanish ports. There has been a continuous presence of one form or another in the area for centuries, varying in both size and importance.

After the end of WW2 the UK military presence was, on land, built around support to British Army regiments that later formed the core of newly independent nations armed forces – such as the Jamaica Defence Force, where the Jamaica Regiment remains to this day the core of the nation’s land forces (and which even mounted the Guard at Buckingham Palace in 2007).

The Royal Navy maintained a small number of escort ships in the region, usually one or two frigates supported by other occasional deployments. Bermuda served as the home of the Royal Navy presence, built around dockyard facilities known as HMS Malabar and supported by a small staff and some frigates. By the mid-1970s the practice of keeping ships permanently deployed in the area had ceased and instead was replaced by individual escort ship and tanker deploying from the UK as the ‘West Indies Guardship’ (WIGS).

West Indies Map
Map from British Possessions and Colonies by William Balfour Irvine 1899

The role of WIGs, later renamed ‘Atlantic Patrol Task (North)’ was to provide a ship that could support the local islands in regional maritime security, providing humanitarian assistance when required in hurricane season and also helping with counter-narcotics work too. It provided island Governors with an on-call military presence that could quickly respond, even if airports were closed and it was hard to fly aid or support in.

This was a popular deployment for many sailors, for whom the opportunity of a six-month tour in the West Indies visiting many exotic locations was a chance to live out the old recruiting tag line of ‘Join the Navy, See the World’.

The challenge was that as destroyer and frigate numbers fell, it became harder than ever to have enough ships to meet the myriad of tasks that the Royal Navy needed to do.

The escort fleet which in 2000 had 32 ships had, by 2010, been reduced to just 19 escorts, but arguably without a reduction in tasks to match this.

Given this, sending a highly capable escort ship out to the West Indies for six months was not necessarily the best use of the platform. With the area posing an extremely limited military threat, the need for an advanced anti-submarine or anti-aircraft destroyer or frigate was probably minimal, as these ships were far too capable for the regions they were visiting.

This led to a change in policy whereby initially the Royal Navy sent ships for part of the year, usually scheduling an escort ship to be present during hurricane season (May – November each year), for additional disaster relief work, while at the same time keeping a tanker present to carry out counter-narcotics and other work with the US and allies.

RFA Mounts Bay
RFA Mounts Bay and her crew conduct a Humanitarian Relief and Disaster Relief (HADR) Exercise in Montserrat as part of Atlantic Patrol Tasking (North). Credit Stevie Burke. MOD Crown Copyright 2018.

Over time, this policy slowly changed into one where a Royal Fleet Auxiliary was usually present, occasionally supported by another RN vessel. For example, the Antarctic patrol ship HMS Protector briefly filled the role of APT(N) around the time when she was undergoing a refit in the USA, which was possibly the most unusual deployment carried out by a vessel intended for ice operations.

In recent years, the permanent presence has been built around one of the exceptionally capable RFA ‘Bay Class’ landing ships.

For much of the last few years, RFA Mounts Bay has been based permanently in the West Indies. These large vessels are able to embark a diverse range of stores and equipment, coupled with having plenty of accommodation and ability to host people for sustained periods of time.

Intended for amphibious warfare, the Bay class has become one of the most diversely utilised vessels in the Royal Navy, with ships in the class permanently operating in the Gulf as a Mine Warfare command ship, supporting the US and UK presence in Bahrain.

With only three Bay class in service, and one permanently assigned to the Gulf and one to the West Indies, there is a risk of not having any ships available for other duties elsewhere in the world. This meant that the decision was taken to bring RFA Mounts Bay home last year without a like for like replacement.

Instead, the Royal Navy has chosen to replace her with the Batch 2 River Class OPV, HMS Medway. This class of vessel is a far cry from the traditional ‘offshore patrol vessel’ type of ship that was previously operated by the Royal Navy – usually seen as a small ship, like the Island class built in the 1970s, which had very limited capabilities and were intended to protect fisheries and offshore interests.

By contrast the Batch 2 River Class is a significantly more capable ship – at over 2000 tonnes and nearly 100m long, these ships are not far off the size of many Royal Navy frigate classes of the early Cold War or the Tribal Class frigates which often deployed to the region in the 1960s and 70s.

Intended to operate for long periods of time away from home, and with the ability to embark stores, additional accommodation for embarked forces and a flight deck capable of handling large helicopters, these ships are perfect for providing a low key but effective military presence around the world.

HMS Medway
HMS Medway before her sea trials

The Royal Navy seems intent on deploying the five Batch 2 vessels around the globe as its ‘forward presence’.

Already HMS Forth has been deployed to the Falkland Islands, where she will spend several years forward deployed as the resident guard ship.

There are rumours that another may be deployed to Gibraltar, while the remaining two are likely to be deployed to the Far East, based out of the Royal Navy dockyard facilities in Singapore.

The advantage of having a slightly smaller vessel deployed in the region is that it is much easier for the ship to visit smaller ports that larger vessels like RFA Mounts Bay could not easily visit – this, in turn, helps improve defence relationships, and makes it easier to conduct visits with the public and other helpful ‘soft power’ activities that remind people of the British Governments commitment to the region.

By contrast, the Bay class, although immensely capable, was often too large to go into port and had to anchor outside, in sight but out of reach.

The other advantage a smaller ship offers is that she is much more akin to the type of ships used by nations in the region, where navies are small and often little more than an extension of the local police forces maritime wing.

While it may be visually impressive to have a Type 23 frigate arrive, in terms of practical training value, it is much harder to develop effective joint training or operations when the ship so completely outclasses anything in the local nations defence forces.

By contrast, an OPV like HMS Medway represents a much more attainable level of technology and is easier for a host nation to work with and identify how to co-operate in future – for example potentially by conducting joint counter-narcotics operations through embarking police and small craft to operate off the ship.

HMS Forth
HMS Forth exercising off the coast of the Isle of Wight

The presence of HMS Medway will be invaluable too in building longer-term relationships with the region.

It’s much easier to operate and collaborate together when a ship is permanently in the region and visits multiple times over several years, versus maybe one visit during a six-month period and then never again.

Her long-term presence will make a significant difference in building and strengthening relationships and ensuring that in the event of needing to work together on an operation, there is a much more effective working relationship in place.

The sort of operations that HMS Medway is likely to carry out are not too dissimilar from those of her predecessors.

She will spend time working with local police forces to conduct training and maritime security work, helping to carry out tasks like Counter Narcotics operations intended to disrupt the flow of drug trafficking in the region.

This is a task the Royal Navy has had particular success with over the years, with many drugs busts occurring in the area.

She will also be involved in helping provide low-level support to training and mentoring defence forces and police sections in the region and being on call when required by governors to provide an additional layer of military help when needed.

In the hurricane season she is likely to play a critical role in being one of the first ships to respond to any crisis, and with her large flight deck and ability to embark disaster relief stores, will almost certainly be able to provide life-saving assistance when called on to do so.

But it is also likely that the Royal Navy will continue to try to send even larger vessels over for the hurricane season, helping to provide additional support as needed. The presence of the Mounts Bay during the 2017 Hurricane Irma was invaluable in providing a means for the launching of disaster relief operations due to her large size, cavernous holds and ability to embark lots of specialised disaster relief equipment.

The Mounts Bay was deployed with a tri-service group embarked including Royal Engineers and a Lynx wildcat helicopter to help carry out reconnaissance missions and airlift. But her large flight deck also means that she can embark up to Chinook sized helicopters with little difficulty and support major relief efforts.

The likely future pattern of operation will see HMS Medway operate in the region on a year-round basis acting as the immediate response vessel for any major issues.

During hurricane or disasters, then further support will be available from the on-call RFA, which can provide specialist support as required.

This additional help is vital – many of the islands in the region are small with tiny populations and can find themselves absolutely overwhelmed by a major natural disaster. The presence of a Bay class, with its onboard hospital, accommodation and stores can make a real lifesaving difference to people, while the embarked troops can be used to rebuild essential services and provide security to help restore law and order if required.

The Royal Navy has a proud history of helping when required, not just in hurricane season, but more widely too. In the 1990s when the volcano on the island of Montserrat erupted, the Type 42 destroyer HMS Liverpool helped move the residents to the north of the island and provided vital support and assistance to the population.

Hurricane Irma
Pictured is E.L. Simons Primary School being cleaned up ready to be repaired after the damaged caused by hurricane Irma.

The UK response to COVID-19 is a good example of how the Armed Forces are likely to be surged into the region to help when required. Shortly after it became clear that the pandemic was spreading, RFA Argus deployed out to the West Indies with several helicopters embarked.

Argus is a particularly useful ship, possessing a large flight deck and hangar (something the Bay class does not have) and a hospital complex capable of providing wide-ranging medical services to people.

A veteran of both the Falklands and Gulf wars, RFA Argus is one of the oldest military ships in UK service but continues to deliver sterling service.

She is currently deployed into the West Indies, with three Merlin and one Lynx wildcat helicopters and with a full team of medics embarked and is operating with HMS Medway to be able to provide support to local health services should they become overwhelmed by COVID-19. This is a good example of how the UK can provide help to these smaller island states, and be a good distant friend, able to help when called on.

One of the key tasks for the Argus air group is to carry out surveys of islands to identify both helicopter and beach landing sites that could be used in a crisis to bring support in or conduct an evacuation. This is an invaluable way of collecting information that may be of vital importance in the aftermath of a hurricane, when knowing where a safe place is to land Merlin helicopters could, literally, make a life or death difference.

This deployment is a good example too of British military reach and capability, able to deploy a substantial aviation force, with both Lynx and Merlin helicopters in the region, and supporting wider military operations. At the time of writing, HMS Medway and RFA Argus are operating as a Task Group in the region, conducting joint operations together with ships, aircraft, and personnel all able to provide security and support to the region.

RFA Argus
RFA Argus arriving in Sierra Leone during Operation Gritrock, the UK's response to fighting Ebola in the region.

It’s worth noting that this is not the only British military presence in the region.

Belize continues to be a vital training location for the Army.

The British Army Training & Support Unit Belize (BATSUB) has been reinvigorated in recent years, with extra funding being provided to expand its training capacity, with more courses and exercises going on there.

The small UK permanent training team has been expanded in recent years, and there is a significant ongoing training presence in the country which helps provide jungle warfare training for the British Army, and also provides a strong message of support and commitment to the security of Belize.

The Royal Air Force is a less frequent visitor to the region, although, during the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, the A400M, C17, C130 and Voyager forces, normally based at RAF Brize Norton was heavily used to provide assistance and support into main operating airfields, flying over 2000 passengers around the regions (mostly military or government officials needed to help restore services) and delivering significant quantities of aid.

More widely the RAF Chinook and Puma force was also deployed too, providing support to local areas, moving people around and delivering aid when required. This sort of humanitarian assistance mission helps demonstrate both the UK’s continued global military reach and its ability, if required, to deploy significant forces around the world at short notice.

The other military component in the region is the local security forces at the disposal of the British Overseas Territories. Most of the island groups have historically relied on small volunteer forces, such as the Royal Montserrat Defence Force, a grand name for a force some 40 strong used primarily for ceremonial and civil defence roles.

There are though some slightly larger units, for example in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, the Cayman Islands government announced in late 2019 the formation of the ‘Cayman Regiment’ which will provide a civil defence and disaster relief force for the island chain.

Wearing British pattern equipment and with the Officers being trained at Sandhurst, the Cayman Regiment On current plans it should be at initial operating capability by late 2020 and will over time provide a valuable local capability to assist with all manner of security tasks.

It will be one of two Regiments based in the West Indies, the other being the more well-known Royal Bermuda Regiment. This force, some 600 strong and built around the core of an infantry battalion intended to focus primarily on internal security roles provides support and security to Bermuda. Although not part of the British Armed Forces, it maintains a close relationship with the Royal Anglian Regiment and has loan service officers provided from the UK.

The Royal Bermuda Regiment was the last unit in the British or British Overseas Territories military forces to recruit via conscription – which was only abolished on the island in 2018.

There are no naval or air forces of note in the region, although some islands maintain small air and maritime wings as part of their police forces providing a very local patrol capacity, for example in Montserrat the Police operate a small coastal patrol craft called the ‘Heliconia Star’ which provides local patrol abilities and whose construction and support was funded by the UK Conflict Stability and Security Fund.  This sort of limited capacity is why the Royal Navy presence is particularly valuable as it ensures there is a force able to support Governors if required to provide maritime security.

Soldiers conducts a river crossing during a patrol
Paratroopers are training to survive and fight in the challenging conditions of the jungles of Belize. Photographer Cpl Jamie Hart. Crown copyright 2020.

The last piece of the UK commitment is the ongoing presence of short-term training teams and recruiting teams in the region. The UK has provided significant training for local militaries, offering places at service training academies like Dartmouth and Sandhurst for junior officers, and also places on career training courses.

In early 2020 the British Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Sir Nick Carter visited Jamaica and held talks which may see some kind of regional training academy developed on the Sandhurst model, helping train recruits from across the region in one location. This means that there may well be a significantly enhanced UK presence, particularly from the Army, in years to come as UK instructors help provide training in Jamaica for military and security forces from across the region.

Many serving members of the British Armed Forces come from the West Indies, not just UK Overseas Territories, but also other nations throughout the area, and make a hugely valued contribution to military life.

This recruitment will almost certainly continue, helping ensure a strong ongoing link between the military and the West Indies.

The future for British military presence in the region is likely to be secure for many years to come. HMS Medway will almost certainly be operating there for 3-4 years before being replaced, while regular deployments of the Bay class or Argus will continue during the hurricane season.

When coupled with the possibility of supporting developments like the training academy in Jamaica, and the renewed interest in ‘global Britain’, the message is clear that the UK is increasingly interested in maintaining and enhancing its presence in the region. This enhanced presence is likely to be warmly welcomed by local leaders as a sign of British commitment to the region and will help mark the next step in the UK’s long and proud military history in the West Indies.


This article is the latest contribution in our Lima Charlie columnist section.

This is part of a series featuring unattributed contributions from experts and insiders providing opinion, insight and analysis on today’s Armed Forces, the wider politics of the military and observations on military life.

Under the pseudonym Lima Charlie, our contributors aim to explore the issues facing today’s military and their comment remains unattributed to allow our writers to present their analysis candidly and under one editorial voice.

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