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Navy's head visits new NATO command ahead of its toughest test yet

The First Sea Lord (left) with the senior RN officer at JFC Norfolk Rear Admiral Andrew Betton
10 May 2021
Britain’s most senior sailor visited NATO’s newest operational headquarters ahead of its first major test.

Joint Force Command Norfolk – based in Virginia – was set up in 2018 to acknowledge the re-emergence of the Atlantic as a key region for the alliance.

It’s the task of the international headquarters to oversee NATO’s efforts across the North Atlantic, ensuring the strategic lines of communication – from seabed to space – which are central to our daily lives and would be critical to the reinforcement of mainland Europe in an escalating crisis.

Later this month it will face its first large-scale test, Exercise Steadfast Defender, a massive workout for NATO forces by land, sea and air from the Atlantic to Romania, involving upwards of 10,000 military personnel and assets including HMS Queen Elizabeth and her carrier strike group.

HQ personnel in Norfolk, Virginia – a diverse mix of military and civilians from 17 Allied nations – are undergoing an intense period of battle staff training, which First Sea Lord Admiral Tony Radakin witnessed on his visit to the new command.

Commanded by US Vice Admiral Andrew Lewis – also in charge of the US Navy’s Second Fleet – with the Royal Navy’s Rear Admiral Andrew Betton as his deputy, JFC Norfolk is rapidly approaching Full Operational Capability.

There’s a strong Royal Navy presence across all the command’s directorates.

It can be hard work, but it is hugely rewarding to be part of a young command during the UK’s re-stated commitment to NATO.

Commander Steve Holloway

“The unique structure of this headquarters based on a Memorandum of Understanding means that we have to do things differently,” said Commander Steve Holloway.

“It can be hard work, but it is hugely rewarding to be part of a young command during the UK’s re-stated commitment to NATO and at a time of new direction for the organisation.”

Helping the Norfolk team prepare for their mission were experts from other NATO headquarters, especially Joint Forces Command Naples.

“This has been the first opportunity to travel since Covid restrictions were put in place. It has been extremely rewarding to be part of the supported Battle Staff Training here in JFC Norfolk and understand the mission of NATO’s newest operational command,” said Lieutenant Commander Paul Clarke, exercise controller from JFC Naples.

With the Integrated Review placing great emphasis on both the UK’s role in NATO and the importance of our transatlantic relationship with the US, JFC Norfolk embodies both these defence priorities.

On a personal level, NATO assignments present rich opportunities across the Service, at all career stages, offering a fantastic stepping stone for junior rates and junior officers to understand how the Alliance delivers collective deterrence and defence.

For our more senior leaders, a role in NATO presents rewarding challenges in showcasing UK’s commitment to the Alliance.

There are nearly 90 Royal Navy personnel in and around Norfolk area – which is the US Navy’s principal Atlantic base as well as home to the NATO headquarters.

“The expertise and professionalism of Royal Navy personnel, alongside colleagues from across the Alliance is invaluable to bridge the gaps in understanding the complex and dynamic challenges that we face in the North Atlantic and High North,” said Rear Admiral Betton.

The admiral – who previously commanded the UK Carrier Strike Group – believes Steadfast Defender, which takes place at the end of May, will demonstrate what NATO, its new command structure and the Queen Elizabeth task group with its fifth-generation F-35 jets and cutting-edge tech/vessels can do to secure the critical transatlantic link.

“Steadfast Defender is a golden opportunity to demonstrate the Alliance’s capability to coordinate and deliver transatlantic reinforcement in support of the European theatre,” Rear Admiral Betton added.

“Enabled by JFC Norfolk’s flexibility at the operational level, working closely with US Second Fleet as our Maritime Component Commander, the contribution of the HMS Queen Elizabeth Carrier Strike Group is a fabulous portrayal of the UK’s commitment to NATO.”

Admiral Radakin saw the “great work” being carried out by the team at Norfolk after visiting Washington Navy Yard to confer with his US Navy counterpart Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday about not merely strengthening RN-US Navy maritime security efforts, but expanding them.

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