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HMS Westminster and Northumberland make most of NATO’s biggest exercise of 2018

5 November 2018

The crew of the tanker USNS Leroy Grumman haul in a line as they fill up two British warships simultaneously in the icy waters of the Norwegian sea.

HMS Westminster and Northumberland took a break from submarine hunting with the French to take on board fuel after a challenging first few days in the far north of the Atlantic.

The duo are part of a protective ring of steel around the US amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima and her British and American marines leading the main naval striking force of Trident Juncture 2018, NATO’s biggest war game of the year.

The 40,000-tonne American ship is at the heart of Task Group 1106.03 which mustered in Iceland before heading across the Denmark Strait and Norwegian Sea to the main exercise area north of Trondheim.

Working as a task group is a complex business – even more so with multiple nations involved as part of a NATO group.

Lieutenant Commander David Howe

The 1,000-mile passage has been used by the numerous ships in the group – British, American, Danish, Canadian and French – to hone their ability to work together, but especially to collectively find, track and, if necessary attack, a submarine (in this case a friendly one).

Both British frigates carry the RN’s leading sub-hunter, Merlin Mk2 helicopters from 814 Naval Air Squadron at Culdrose. And both ships have a tail: Sonar 2087, the towed array or ‘low frequency active sonar’.

It looks a little like an octopus’ tentacles… except that it stretches for a mile and, when active, sends a rather haunting noise through the water – not the traditional ‘ping’ of every submarine/U-boat movie – then listens for a return from any contact it strikes.

“The Weapon Engineering department is responsible for streaming and recovering Westminster’s primary underwater sensors,” explained Petty Officer Engineering Technician Colin Howie, responsible for maintaining the hi-tech sonar.

“We do it in all weathers, at all times of day, to ensure the warfare department can conduct anti-submarine warfare.”

And there was a contact, for a diesel submarine was allocated to the CASEX – Combined Anti-Submarine EXercise – an exercise which developed into a more general air-sea-underwater workout as the task group arrived off Norway, where they were joined by France’s futuristic-looking ‘multi-mission frigate’ FS Bretagne.

English is NATO’s language of choice, but communications between Westminster and Bretagne were aided by the presence of a semi-permanent Marine Nationale liaison officer assigned to the Portsmouth-based frigate: Lt Bruno Huntzinger.

All this manoeuvring in the less-than-clement Norwegian Sea drained Northumberland and Westminster’s fuel tanks somewhat, hence the need for a replenishment at sea with the Leroy Grumman.

The US tanker cannot merely fill up two waiting ships simultaneously, but she does so at an astonishing rate – a capacity of 3.4m litres (900,000 gallons) every hour… the equivalent of topping up more than 60,000 family cars.

A RAS is bread-and-butter to the British ships, but otherwise the Norwegian Sea crossing has been a bit of an eye-opener for Northumberland and Westminster. The frigates typically operate as lone wolves, rather than in a task group. Protecting a ‘high value unit’ – namely the Iwo Jima – has been useful practice for protecting new carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales.

“The Iwo Jima is essential for the task force to conduct an Amphibious Assault,” explained Lieutenant Commander David Howe, Westminster’s Weapon Engineer Officer.

“Working as a task group is a complex business – even more so with multiple nations involved as part of a NATO group. In the Queen Elizabeth-class era, working as a task force will continue to increase in importance, so Trident Juncture 18 provides a great opportunity for the Royal Navy to rehearse these operations.”

With 50,000 participants, including 65 warships, more than 150 aircraft and in excess of 10,000 vehicles, Trident Juncture 18 is not only NATO’s biggest test of the year, but the largest military exercise hosted by Norway since the Cold War. It ends on November 7.

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