A US Navy support ship demonstrated it could enhance the scope of Royal Navy operations in the South Pacific.
For the first time, HMS Tamar berthed alongside the USS Emory S Land – treating the US Navy submarine tender not just as a floating quayside or jetty, but also ‘plugging in’ to the vessel’s fuel, water and power supply.

For good measure, the experimental link-up – known as ‘rafting up’ – was completed by a third ship, Australian survey ship HMAS Leeuwin, as all three vessels met up in Cairns, Queensland.

The Emory S Land acts as a tender (historically known as a ‘depot ship’ in the Royal Navy), providing forward support to US Navy hunter-killer nuclear submarines – electricity, water, consumables, spare parts, repairs, engineering assistance – and their crews – medical and dental aid, mail, food, administration – to sustain operations when there’s no naval base available.

The UK does the same – except for Royal Navy and US minehunters rather than submarines – operating in the Gulf, using ship RFA Cardigan Bay to provide similar facilities to mine warfare vessels, extending their operations.

All three allied navies were keen to see whether the Emory S Land could do for larger surface vessels what it already does for the Silent Service.

At seven times smaller than the tender and as both vessels were new to each other, this wasn’t simply a case of Tamar simply turning up and berthing alongside the American ship.

Instead, the three navies used scale drawings and extensive discussions to make sure the link-up of the three ships passed without incident.

Once Tamar was safely berthed, she was joined outboard by Australian survey ship HMAS Leeuwin.

Connections were subsequently made to prove that fuel, water and electricity could be provided to both ships from the US tender.

The second-generation River-class ships have an impressive range for their size – more than 6,000 miles – which has allowed them to conduct some extended missions (such as Falkland Islands-Tristan da Cunha to deliver Covid vaccines, a 5,000-mile round trip).

Rafting-up with a ship like the Emory S Land – which is now permanently assigned to the Pacific – there’s a possibility of expanding operations, making use of her expansive workshops (more than 50) for anything from planned engineering work/maintenance to emergency assistance or delivering equipment for operations.

Tamar has had a busy 2024 conducting varied operations in the Coral Sea and South Pacific islands, including Pitcairn, Fiji – supporting efforts to clamp down on illegal fishing and environmental protection – and New Caledonia, working with the French authorities.

Cairns – a city roughly the size of Portsmouth more than 1,000 miles up the east coast from Brisbane – has become a key support base for her operations (with the Australian Navy also looking to make more use of its most northerly east coast base)

Commander Tom Gell took the opportunity of a visit by senior Australian military and political figures to Cairns to thank the hosts for their hospitality and outline his ship’s work

He said the three-ship link-up in Cairns boded well for future operations in the region by the three AUKUS partners who are all committed to strengthening security in the Indo-Pacific.

The Emory S Land’s support for Tamar – or any Royal Navy ship of a similar size – on operations for a sustained period both alongside and underway is a realistic possibility,” said Commander Gell.

“The maintenance capabilities of US submarine tenders are significant. Discussions suggest that we could be afforded full support if required.”

With rafting and maintenance complete, Tamar is about to resume her mission with a fresh patrol of the South Pacific islands.