The captain of HMS Clyde has described in depth the purpose the Royal Navy serves to the Falkland Islands, and warned that cutting the commitment to the region would be a “significant risk”.
In an exclusive interview with the UK Defence Journal, Lt Cdr Hugh Harris also described how he could be tasked by the commander of British forces in the region to respond to an Argentine vessel approaching the Falkland Islands.
HMS Clyde is the designated Falkland Islands patrol vessel. Commissioned in 2007, she’s a Batch 1 River Class offshore patrol vessel (OPV). She operates as part of the overall UK commitment to the region, termed ‘British Forces South Atlantic Islands’ (BFSAI).
It costs the UK approximately £450 million each year to maintain this commitment. The Ministry of Defence is not reimbursed by the Falkland Islands Government for this cost. In a recent statement, Defence Minister Mark Lancaster said:
“The defence and security of the Falkland Islands remains a HMG priority, and as such we undertake regular assessments of potential military threats to ensure that we retain an appropriate level of defensive capability.”
HMS Clyde is “physically owned” by BAE Systems, and is leased to the Royal Navy. Originally, all four of the River Class vessels were leased, but the Royal Navy has since bought HMS Severn, Tyne, and Mersey.
Clyde’s lease is due to expire at the beginning of 2020. While Harris told me “there is the potential to extend”, there have been some reports that Clyde will be bought by Brazil. Harris was clear though that the future of Clyde is “down to the owners of the vessel – BAE Systems”.
Whatever her future, she will be replaced by HMS Forth “towards the end of this year”, after a handover period when both ships are in the region.
HMS Forth is a Batch 2 River Class. Describing the Batch 2, Harris said “they don’t really look anything like these ships [Batch 1]. The capability is significantly greater than what we have at the moment.
“They are blue water, ocean going vessels, 30mm automatic weapon system on the front, very capable air radar for surveillance, very capable electro-optic capabilities, which is a significant uplift on what we currently have on the Batch 1s.”
The Royal Navy will retain HMS Severn, Tyne, and Mersey, “predominantly on fishery protection duties” according to Harris. This will “release the Batch 2s to do other stuff”.
HMS Clyde has been in the South Atlantic for almost 12 years. Her only time off station during this period was in 2017, when she was dry docked in South Africa for maintenance.
The conflict of 1982 remains in everyone’s mind, but Harris insists that HMS Clyde is there for “reassurance”, not defence.
“A big part of my operational role down here is to provide that visual presence. We want to be seen. We want to go and meet people”. As a result, her crew will consciously train near to the shore so the locals can see that constant presence.
Most of the inhabited smaller islands only get a visit when tourists fly in. HMS Clyde however will regularly anchor near the most remote islands and put a team ashore. Harris is proud of this, saying that the locals are “always really pleased to see us”. Indeed one farmer told me “Clyde is really popular with the locals”.
HMS Clyde’s remit includes patrolling the Falkland Islands’ territorial waters. The legal basis of these waters is often challenged by Argentina, but Harris is clear: “As per any other coastal nation state, the Falkland Islands is completely legally entitled to claim territorial and economic water zones”.
If an Argentine vessel was approaching the waters surrounding the Falkland Islands, HMS Clyde “would be tasked by ‘Commander British Forces’. I would be at his disposal to act in any way that he or the Ministry of Defence saw fit to do so”.
Indeed Harris said that this has happened in the past. “It was reported last year that an Argentine survey vessel was heading south. Clyde was tasked to go and monitor her movements”.
Due to the vital role that Clyde serves, both in patrolling the region and reassuring the islanders, Harris was clear that the presence must continue to be maintained.
“This is a very remote part of the world. It is also an island, so to not have a maritime asset down here at such range from the UK, you’d be taking I think significant risk”.