A tale of two exercises – Royal Navy reaching its operational peak for 2018

October 2018 sees the highest number of RN vessels deployed overseas for a considerable time. Despite limited resources, clever management of the assets available has allowed substantial participation in two major exercises simultaneously, in addition to other commitments.

Exercise Saif Sareea 3

SS3 is the third in a series of large-scale joint exercises with Oman and will involve 5,000 UK military personnel. It is the largest UK training exercise in the region since 2001. The prime purpose is to demonstrate UK resolve to support Oman and protect it’s key partners in the region, particularly from the threat posed by Iran. As usual, logistic planning is foundational to the exercise which will include the transport of Main Battle Tanks from the UK. Strategic Ro-Ro ships MV Anvil Point and MV Hurst Point loaded over 3,500 tonnes of stores and vehicles at Marchwood Military Port in July, arriving at the Port of Duqm in mid-August to unload. SS3 will be the first big test of the spacious and new Joint Logistics Support Base at Duqm which is has a dry dock and facilities that can accommodate the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers. (Main image above – HMS Albion arrives in Duqm.)

RN participation is lead by the fleet flagship, with Commander of the UK Amphibious Task Group (COMATG), Cdre James Parkin flying his flag in HMS Albion. Elements of 40 Cdo Royal Marines and their Army support Groups are on board and supported by auxiliaries RFA Lyme Bay and RFA Cardigan Bay. MV Hurst Point is participating in the exercise and provides additional logistical transport. The Royal Marines will conduct amphibious assaults and manoeuvers with Army and Omani troops. The amphibious force and will be escorted by HMS Dragon with HMS Shoreham and Ledbury providing Mine Countermeasures support. By recent RN standards, this represents a substantial amphibious force of 7 vessels.

The last Exercise Saif Sareea took place in October 2001 and the UK deployed 22,500 personnel, 6,500 vehicles, 49 fixed-wing aircraft and 44 helicopters, with the RN contributing 14 ships supported by 7 Royal Fleet Auxiliaries.

The platforms may be more capable but the intervening 17 years has seen a serious decline in overall UK fighting strength. Total personnel numbers on Saif Sareea 3 are just 23% of Saif Sareea 2 and the RN’s contribution is about a third of what it delivered in 2001.

MV Hurst Point arrives in the Gulf in July to replenish minehunting stocks for RFA Cardigan Bay before particiapting in SS3 .

SS3 is part of the overall Amphibious Task Group (ATG) deployment which includes activity that isn’t part of SS3, but utilises assets either already in the Gulf region or due to deploy there anyway. RFA Lyme Bay will relive RFA Cardigan Bay and then remain based in Bahrain for several years. HMS Dragon will also stay East of Suez after SS3 concludes. HMS Albion has already been away from the UK for 8 months, deployed in the Pacific and joins SS3 before returning to the UK.

HMS Ledbury and HMS Shoreham arrive in Duqm prior to SS3.

Exercise Trident Juncture

TRJE18 is a major NATO exercise held in Norway and the Norwegian Sea. The live training phase will run from 25 October to 7 November but the build-up of personnel and equipment from the States and all over Europe has already begun. Testing NATO’s logistic capabilities to transport, deliver and support military forces in Norway is as important as the live training. Should the reinforcement of Norway ever need to be done for real, a functioning logistical chain will be critical.

It is the biggest NATO exercise since 2002 and the largest in the region since the depths of the Cold War in the 1980s. Few people had expected an exercise of this scale would ever happen again but a real Russian threat to Norway the high North makes this demonstration necessary. With 50,000 personnel, 150 aircraft and 65 naval vessels from more than 30 nations on its doorstep, this sends a powerful message and NATO has asked Moscow to send observers to witness the exercise. TRJE18 will demonstrate the capability and resolve to reinforce the northern flank but Russia can be reassured that this not the prelude to some act of aggression. This is a large exercise by NATO standards but to put it in perspective, there are about 400,000 soldiers in Russia’s Western Military District confronting NATO in Europe.

Admiral James G. Foggo III, US Navy, Commander of NATO Joint Force is in overall charge of the exercise. The deployment of the carrier USS Harry S Truman and supporting vessels into the Norwegian Sea is a bold show of strength. In a conflict situation, deploying a carrier into such a position would put it at risk, especially from submarines of the Northern Fleet, but is a strategy designed to put Russian forces on the defensive in an area they want to dominate.

HMS Northumberland rejoined the fleet in July 2018 after her life extension refit which included Sea Ceptor fit, one of two RN frigates participating in Trident Juncture.

HMS Northumberland and Westminster both have towed array sonar and are likely to exercise their primary role – ASW defence of the naval task groups. HMS Enterprise has the Mine Warfare Battle Staff embarked and will support HMS Cattistock, Grimsby, Hurworth and Ramsey and other NATO minehunters. In their biggest deployment in 8 years, 20 engineers from the RN’s Forward Support Unit 02 based in Portsmouth are being sent to Norway with 9 containerised Engineering Workshop Modules used to rectify ships defects during the exercise.

Other commitments

Besides the two major exercises, the RN has single vessels committed to another overseas tasking. HMS Argyll is participating in Exercise Bersama Lima 18 held in the South China Sea from 2 to 19 October. This is in support of the Five Power Defence Arrangement (FPDA) and also involves ships submarines, aircraft and personnel from Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore. HMS Argyll will remain in the Pacific region into 2019 after Bersama Lima concludes.

HMS Argyll with Republic of Singapore Frigates RSS Intrepid and RSS Formidable during Exercise Bersama Lima.

HMS Diamond is on maritime security patrols in the Mediterranean and HMS Echo is also in the region conducting a variety of tasks including hydrographic survey, migrant patrols and defence diplomacy visits. Falklands patrol ship HMS Clyde has been joined by HMS Protector in the Falklands as she prepares for the coming season – supporting science and research in the Antarctic. RFA Mounts Bay remains on station in the Carribean for the hurricane season ready to respond, should she be called to help islands in need of humanitarian assistance.

Westlant 18 is not an exercise or operational deployment but HMS Queen Elizabeth has made very good progress with F-35 flying trials. Developmental Test period 1 (DT-1) is now complete and QE will arrive in New York on 19th October for her most important port visit to date. HMS Monmouth is on exercise with a US Navy Amphibious Task Group.

Every single day the submarine service quietly carries on with UK defence priority number one, the Continuous at Sea Deterrent, maintained by a Vanguard class boat on patrol. There has not been a single official announcement about any UK submarine activity since HMS Trenchant surfaced at the North pole in March, but we can be sure the slender SSN force is being worked hard.

This overall operational tempo will not be sustained indefinitely and some of the vessels will return home to cycle through normal, maintenance and regeneration periods. If, for example, 5 out of 6 Type 45s are back alongside in Portsmouth for the Christmas leave period, watch out for complaints that RN ships don’t go to sea!