The biggest military exercise in the UK this year moves up a gear after a hugely successful opening first week ‘waging war’ in northwest Scotland.
More than 8,000 military personnel from 13 nations, nearly 40 ships and submarines – including two NATO task groups – and 60 aircraft, including the debut by the Navy’s new F-35 Lightning stealth fighter, and helicopters are taking part in Joint Warrior 19-1.
The huge force spent the first week getting to know each other and learning to operate as a team – despite gale force winds and heavy seas battering the huge exercise area stretching from the Clyde estuary to Cape Wrath.
Britain’s flagship HMS Albion heads the Royal Navy’s involvement – ideal preparation for a major international deployment she’ll lead into the Baltic later this spring.
Albion heads a task group including her guardians (HMS Defender against air attack, HMS Kent against submarines and ‘enemy’ ships), amphibious ship RFA Lyme Bay, tanker RFA Tiderace and hundreds of Royal Marines of 3 Commando Brigade – plus their kit.
The marines have been carrying out raids up and down the land with the men of Arbroath-based 45 Commando going ashore with their Dutch comrades from 21 Raiding Squadron Royal Netherlands Marine Corps, striking at ‘targets’ in Loch Ewe near Ullapool, Luce Bay near Stranraer and ranges in south-west Wales; the marines landed in the middle of the night to capture ‘enemy’ personnel and weapons caches along the UK’s coastline.
“A task group like this keeps the enemy guessing,” said Brigadier Matt Jackson, 3 Commando Brigade’s Commanding Officer. “You’re never quite sure where we’re going to land.
“That creates uncertainty in your opponent’s mind – and we have a big punch as well if we decide to use it.”
As the task group headed south through the ‘Minches’, its responses were tested by enemy attacks from every angle.
The ships were brought to their highest alert state, and faced a barrage of attacks from enemy ships, small craft, submarines and jets. Damage and fire parties rushed around the ship to counter simulated floods, fires and missile impacts.
“This is what I joined for,” said seaman specialist Able Seaman Oliver Newborn. “It’s as close to the real thing as you can get and everyone’s adrenaline is racing.
“Even lunch is on the move – we have ‘action messing’ which means we have just minutes to get down to the galley, eat and get back to work.”
The exercise is also a major workout for the 185 men and women of Portsmouth-based frigate HMS Kent, whose ship will have covered nearly 3,500 miles by the time Joint Warrior ends – the equivalent of a transatlantic crossing to New York.
Working in eight-hour-long watches, her sailors have fired 27 (simulated) missiles to protect Albion, 30 live high explosive rounds at the Cape Wrath range – the only place in the UK you can lay down live 4.5in shells on land – and are continuing to shield the task group from underwater ‘attack’: five British and Allied boats submarines involved in the ten-day exercise.
“So far, Joint Warrior has been a great opportunity for us to build on our recent training and integrate with the Amphibious Task Group before we deploy,” said Kent’s Commanding Officer Commander Andrew Brown.
“Kent is an extremely capable warship – built on the foundations which the ship’s company worked hard to lay at the start of the year. The experience of operating with a wide range of NATO units is invaluable.
He continued: “For some of my ship’s company, this is their first experience of operating in Scottish waters – it has been great to build our experience with the beautiful Scottish coastline as a backdrop.
“Others have not been part of a task group before, so they’ve found it very impressive seeing so many warships from different nations working in close proximity.”
Ensuring that the multi-national force ‘meshes together’ is the at-sea commander of Joint Warrior, Commander Amphibious Task Group Commodore James Parkin and his staff, choreographing the many moving parts from a special planning/operations room aboard Albion.
“We are a ‘break glass in case of emergency’ force. An exercise on this scale gets us integrated, learning how to fight and win alongside each other,” he said.
“Joint Warrior tests us to the next level – it tests all parts of the force, in every way imaginable, and by the end of it everyone will feel ready for whatever comes next.”