Royal Navy hosts integrated air and missile defence exercise Formidable Shield 2019

Exercise Formidable Shield 2019 (FS19) has been underway off Scotland during the past two weeks. This was a live-fire integrated air and missile defence (IAMD) exercise designed to test NATO warships response to conventional and ballistic missile attacks.


FS19 is one of a series of US-Navy led European missile defence exercises held approximately every two years. As experience has been gained, the capabilities are increasing. In September 2013 HMS Daring participated in a Ballistic Missile Defence demonstration led by the US Navy. Her Sampson Multi-Function Radar detected and tracked two medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) targets at the Reagan Test Site in the Pacific, surpassing expectations. The At Sea Demonstration in 2015 (ASD15) was run in parallel with the Exercise Joint Warrior (JW152) and for the first time in European waters, networked sensors aboard several NATO warships tracked and destroyed an Aegis Readiness Assessment Vehicle (ARAV) ballistic missile surrogate with a Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) fired from USS Ross. HMS Dauntless participated in this exercise.

During Formidable Shield 2017 (FS17) held off the North West coast of Scotland, 13 ships fired live missiles, engaging 12 separate targets. This was the first time NATO’s ‘Smart Defence’ concept had been demonstrated with warships providing air defence for the ballistic missile-equipped units. The ships also successfully responded to a no-notice anti-ship missiles attack as part of the IAMD scenario. FS17 was described as the most sophisticated and complex air and missile exercise ever undertaken in the UK. HMS Dragon participated, although the UK MoD refused to provide any details at the time, with only the Dutch and US Navies providing information after the event.

Rockets over the sea

Commenting on Formidable Shield 2019, the RN says it conducted air defence training and evaluation with HMS Defender and HMS Northumberland participating. RN Involvement in the exercise went beyond just the ships in the exercise area, and included data gathering and analysis of activities throughout. Logistical support came from Faslane and RN personnel embarked on many of the ships. The UK also provided a key land-based element – the MoD/Qinetiq Hebrides range sites on South Uist, Benbecula and St Kilda. This includes a number of launch pads for target missiles, radar tracking, telemetry and evaluation facilities. RAF Lossiemouth hosted a total of 10 US Airforce F-16 jets and E-3 Sentry AWACS aircraft from Germany. The F-16s simulated attacks on ships and air-launched supersonic target drones. The AWACS provided aerial over-watch to ensure that the airspace was clear.

FS19 involved about 3,300 personnel, 12 warships and a support ship. US Navy Captain Shanti Sethi directed the exercise from on board the Danish flagship, HDMS Absalon. The latest iteration of the AEGIS system was proven as USS Carney conducted simultaneous SM-2 missile engagement while tracking space and atmospheric targets. USS Roosevelt fired an SM-3 at a Terrier Oriole ARAV missile target while concurrently engaging Firejet targets with an SM-2 missile. HMS Defender unleashed a Mach-4 Sea Viper (Aster 30) successfully destroying a fast and low target. The frigate Bretagne completed the first destruction of a supersonic target by an Aster-15 fired by a French ship. The Canadian frigate, St Johns launched 2 Evolved Sea Sparrow missiles (ESSM) and Norwegian frigate, Otto Sverdrup, one ESSM.

These IAMD exercises build confidence in the systems, gather data and refine skills of the warfare operators who have very limited opportunities to conduct live firings. Unfortunately, the considerable expense of each missile and potential risks mean that multiple saturation attacks that surface ships could have to deal with in a real conflict can never be fully replicated and exercised.

  • HMS Defender leads ITS Carlo Bergamini and HNLMS De Ruyter – seen from the flagship HMDS Absalon.

  • The mighty Viper. In a split seccond, the missile emerges from one of the Sylver VLS cells and rapidly accelerates up to 4 times the speed of sound.

  • Operations Room of HMS Defender during Sea Viper launch

  • 12 NATO warships sail in company off the North West of Scotland for PHOTEX at the start of the exercise, 9 May 2019.

  • Terrier Oriole ARAV ballistic missile surrogate blasts off from the MoD Hebrides range prior to interception by SM-3 missile fired by the US Navy.

  • Terrier Oriole ballistic missile

    The Terrier Oriole, also known as the Aegis Readiness Assessment Vehicle (ARAV) is a two-stage rocket that can emulate ballistic missile threats. It can reach 320 kilometres above the earth. When first launched from the Hebrides range in 2017, it became the highest and largest object ever fired into space from the UK.

  • The South Uist facility. The MoD/Qinetiq Hebrides range provides a fully instrumented test area for test, evaluation and training for complex weapons. The site has radar tracking, telemetry and secure storage areas for munitions. The range was upgraded in 2015 to support Maritime Theatre Ballistic Missile Defence.

  • MoD Hebrides range has a huge area of sanitised airspace with unlimited altitude and for specific exercises, this can be extended out into the North Atlantic.

  • The AQM-37C Jayhawk is an air-launched supersonic target drone capable of simulating an inbound ICBM warhead is prepared for loading onto an F-16 at RAF Lossiemouth, 2017.

  • A US Airforce F-16C takes off from RAF Lossiemouth carrying a Jayhawk, 9 May 2019.

  • Vindicator drone

    Qinetiq personnel assist Canadian sailors preparing a Vindicator target drone prior to launch from of the flight deck of HMCS St Johns, 9 May 2019. The Vindicator II UAV-T is designed to simulate low/slow threats such as helicopters and UAVs and has a maximum speed of about 170 knots. (Photo: Royal Candian Navy)

UK Ballistic Missile Defence capability?

The 2015 SDSR committed the UK to further contribute to the NATO Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) network, as well as supporting research and development initiatives and multinational engagement through the UK’s Missile Defence Centre (MDC). The UK mainland has some protection from short/intermediate range threats from the land-based NATO Active Layered Theatre Ballistic Missile Defence (ALTBMD) system. This is not a defence against ICBMs (that could, for example, be launched by Russian submarines), protection for UK Overseas Territories or the fleet at sea.

SDSR 2015 also promised to further investigate the potential of the Type 45 Destroyers to operate in a BMD role. The interception of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles is expensive and an extremely complex technical challenge, even for superpowers. Defence against tactical and short-range ballistic missiles from sea-based platforms is a more realistic place to begin the development of UK BMD capability. Even this scenario involves the detection of targets hundreds of miles away by land or sea-based radar, passing of targeting data to launch platforms then the interception and destruction of missiles travelling several times the speed of sound all within a time frame of less than a minute.

In October 2014 the RN launched a study to examine whether the Type 45 destroyers could be armed with the proven US-made SM-3 Block II missile. This would involve fitting 2 eight-cell, strike-length Mk 41 VLS modules in the vacant space between the 4.5” gun and the Sea Viper silo. While theoretically possible, it would require the purchase of SM-3 stocks from Raytheon, a completely new missile in the UK inventory needing integration with the Sampson radar and Combat Management Systems.

A more affordable route to achieving ABM capability would be to upgrade existing Aster 30 missile stocks. The Aster 30 Block 0 missiles that equip the Type 45s could be upgraded to Block 1 standard by a software and firmware upgrade conducted at DM Gosport where they are stored and maintained. Together with an upgrade to the ships combat management systems, this would give at least the Type 45 the ability to kill short-range anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM).

In 2016 France and Italy committed to developing the Aster 30 Block 1NT which will enter service from 2022. The Block 1NT missiles retain the same external form and compatibility with the Sylver VLS but have the ability to deal with both short and medium-range ballistic missiles (with an effective range from 1,000-1,300 km). The main addition is a new Ka-band radar seeker head for greater acquisition range and accuracy. There is also and Aster Block 2 in development to deal with intermediate-range missiles up to 3,000km.

With little choice but to spend limited funds on fixing the Type 45 propulsion issues, adding Mk 41 cells or Aster upgrades remain an aspiration for the RN. With renewed enthusiasm for sending the QEC carriers to the South China Sea, defence against ASBMs would seem to have assumed greater importance. It is frustrating that the RN has the best conventional air defence asset and sensor in the shape of the Type 45 and its Sampson MFR but despite its significant involvement in Formidable Shield, will be behind the US, France and Italy in having the ability to destroy even short-range tactical ballistic missiles.