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Royal Navy take on NATO missile and air defence exercises

16 May 2023
Royal Navy warships are operating at the centre of a potent NATO force testing the alliance’s potent missile and air defence capabilities in the North Atlantic.

HMS Defender and HMS Kent are part a task group of more than 20 ships and 35 aircraft from 13 NATO allies and partners, which is eight days into a three-week workout of cutting edge weapons and air defence systems. 

The biennial Exercise Formidable Shield puts the joint force through a series of live-fire events against subsonic, supersonic and ballistic targets.

It brings together a complex ‘Integrated Air and Missile Defence’ (IAMD) environment, harnessing the power of the most advanced technologies in the world and helping allies to operate seamlessly together.

Among one of the first major workouts was an aerial ‘battle’ involving French Rafale strike fighters and air defence destroyer HMS Defender.

Aircraft controllers on board the Portsmouth-based warship found themselves directing the actions of four Rafales, trying to intercept/fend off a pair of identical ‘red’ (enemy) French jets.

Language isn’t an issue in such actions – English is the international language of the skies – rather the ability to fuse the data gathered by the world’s most advanced air defence warship with that from the Rafales – all at the lightning pace of jet fighter aerial combat. It’s about as high octane as it gets.

“Pitting fast air against fast air requires total concentration from the fighter controllers,” explained Lieutenant Commander Simon Scamp, Defender’s Air Warfare Officer.

“Although Defender’s team had not recently worked with the French Rafales, being able to conduct a complex sortie like this at fairly short notice demonstrates how our ability to work together is pretty much ‘plug-and-play’.

“The Type 45 is one of the most capable airspace battle management platforms in the world and it is always a pleasure to work with the French Air Force.”

Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO (STRIKFORNATO) are in charge of the exercises, led by Royal Navy Rear Admiral James Morley.

“Formidable Shield is the premier IAMD (Integrated Air and Missile Defence) and live-fire rehearsal in the European theatre, and highlights STRIKFORNATO’s proficiency in seamlessly integrating allied and partner maritime and air forces into combined operations,” said Rear Admiral Morley, deputy commander, STRIKFORNATO.

“The strength and unmatched cohesion of our trans-Atlantic Alliance – now at 31 members with the addition of our capable Finnish allies – lies in our mutual commitment to one another and to the deterrence and defence of the Euro-Atlantic area. This commitment shines through in complex, high-end evolutions like Formidable Shield.”

During the exercise, ships formed up and aircraft flew overhead for a photograph (known as a PHOTEX). It's highly complex, with ships sailing close together while also coordinating with the aerial formation.

Defender liaised with two French Rafaels and a E2C airborne early warning aircraft, helping 'thread the needle' with fixed wing aircraft passing between two helicopters.

The ship's Navigator, Lieutenant Harry Long, said: “When conducting PHOTEXs you are getting 8000 tonne ships to station within 350 yards of each other.

"This means every aspect of the manoeuvring has to be taken into account, including the risk of a ship breaking down, to make sure all the units are safely in position.

"While this then proves for an excellent photo, it shows the ship handling skills of the watchkeepers and how effectively different nations can work together.

"Combine this with a fly past and it shows the pinnacle of military coordination. As I approach the end of my time as Navigator, it really was a highlight of my assignment on Defender to execute it well."

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