The Royal Navy’s Antarctic patrol vessel has arrived in the more temperate climates of the British Indian Ocean Territories as she prepares to undertake survey work in support of the UK Hydrographic Office.
Marked by her distinctive red hull HMS Protector previously visited the islands for a routine port call in November 2015 when she became the first Royal Navy surface ship in eight years to visit the territory. Though the Royal Navy does maintain a continuous presence on the islands in the form of Naval Party 1002 that provide the civil administration to the islands.
The British Indian Ocean Territory contains over a thousand individual islands set around seven atolls, although only the most southerly island Diego Garcia is actually inhabited. Since the removal of the original Chagossian islanders in the 1970s the islands have primarily been used as an American military installation.
HMS Protector is one of the Royal Navy’s forward deployed vessels and maintains a constant presence in the Southern Hemisphere to represent British interests. Enabling this is a rotational crew structure and the use of allied shipyards for maintenance – such as recent routine repairs undertaken in South Africa. Her five-year deployment is expected to end in 2020.
Her primary survey tasking will involve mapping the seabed around the archipelago. With a large American military presence on the islands, including a flotilla of prepositioned ships, safe access to the islands’ valuable natural harbours is essential.
The Royal Navy’s survey vessels have proven to be real workhorses of the fleet in recent years as defence cuts increasingly leave them to take on bigger roles. Both Echo class vessels have seen a busy few months deployed in the Mediterranean which has seen survey work interspersed with serving as flagship NATO task groups, dealing with the ongoing migrant crisis and representing Britain at numerous port calls. HMS Protector herself spent many weeks late last year searching for the missing Argentine submarine ARA San Juan.