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HMS Dragon impresses after fortnight of missile and air attack exercises

HMS Dragon has been conducting missile and air defence training as part of NATO exercise Formidable Shield. PO(Phot) Jim Gibson RNR
The Royal Navy’s Type 45 destroyer proved itself to be a world leader in defeating missile and air attacks after the largest international test of its type off Scotland.

HMS Dragon’s weapons and sensors proved themselves against everything fired against a NATO task force – from ballistic missiles plunging towards Earth from space to supersonic targets heading towards the ships at nearly three times the speed of sound – during the fortnight-long Exercise Formidable Shield.

The workout ended with the Portsmouth-based warship's primary weapon smashing an incoming missile into a million pieces as the war games reached their climax.

Run every two years, the huge – and hugely complex – exercise tests the ability of NATO ships both individually and collectively to deal with the latest aerial threats, from tracking missiles as they came within range of radars and sensors, to eliminating those threats – including several live launches of air defence missiles.

The Royal Navy tested its two principal air defence missile systems during this year’s exercise – Dragon’s Sea Viper, plus the shorter-range Sea Ceptor fitted on frigates HMS Lancaster and HMS Argyll… although only the destroyer conducted a live firing among the UK participants.

Her foe, fired from the range at Benbecula, was a Firejet drone, intercepted travelling at more than 400mph.

In the operations room, the air warfare team tracked the missile, then Sea Viper locked on to its target.

Bird affirm.

In an instant, the ‘lid’ of one of 48 missile silos on Dragon’s forecastle flipped open, followed by a searing flash of orange-yellow flame and smoke which largely hid a Sea Viper launching to intercept.

Bird away.

Sea Viper is more than four metres high, weighs as much as a grand piano, yet is travelling at four times the speed of sound inside two and a half seconds.

As it closes in for the kill on its target, it manoeuvres at forces no human being could withstand – up to 50G – then… impact…

The whole engagement lasted a matter of seconds – with the specially-modified Sea Viper feeding Dragon data about its actions throughout its short flight until striking the Firejet.

I was left speechless after the firing; it was something I had never experienced before.

HMS Dragon Engineering Technician Jamie King

“I was left speechless after the firing; it was something I had never experienced before. The build-up all week really added to the anticipation!” said Engineering Technician Jamie King, one of Dragon’s junior weapon engineers.

Sub Lieutenant Ben Craddock observed the firing from Dragon’s bridge: “I cannot believe how lucky I am to be part of this; the flames were massive!”

The exercise also proved a crucial first testing ground for AI technology by the Senior Service at sea.

Software was trialled on Dragon and Lancaster to see if it could improve both the response times and effectiveness of those in charge of the two ships’ missile systems.

It did – picking up missile threats within seconds of launch and providing the operations room teams with key info faster than the destroyer’s regular computer ‘brain’.

Formidable Shield proved that Dragon can track long-range ballistic missiles into space – and crucially on their return trajectory – at speeds of over Mach 8, as well as shorter range variants which arced up to the edge of the atmosphere before returning to Earth.

The destroyer was also able to track supersonic sea-skimming Coyote targets hurtling over the Atlantic at more than 2,100 miles per hour – and share that information with ships from Norway, Netherlands, Spain, Italy and France so they could take out the drone.

All of which underlined the potency of the Type 45 destroyer to fend off air/missile attacks both on its own – or working with allies.

 “Dragon has done what dragons do best: breathe fire,” said Commander Giles Palin, the ship’s Commanding Officer. “It’s been a successful Formidable Shield, a successful missile firing for Dragon and a great time to contribute to our enduring partnerships within NATO.

“The Sea Viper system is a world class anti-air weapons system. Throughout Formidable Shield the radar was put through its paces, showing it can track targets that are highly manoeuvrable sea skimming to hypersonic ballistic missiles.”

In all, ten NATO nations – Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, the UK and USA – committed personnel, ships, or aircraft (or all three) to Formidable Shield.

Led by the US Navy’s Sixth Fleet and using Spanish frigate ESPS Cristóbal Colón as the flagship, 15 ships, more than ten aircraft and in excess of 3,000 personnel participated in the 2021 iteration of the biennial exercise.

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