The Royal Navy and NATO continue to rehearse and evolve amphibious capability

The latest iteration of NATO multi-national exercise Joint Warrior is currently underway. We went aboard the RN Fleet Flagship, HMS Albion, at sea off the Scottish coast and spoke with the commanders of the amphibious phase of the exercise.

HMS Albion returned from a 9-month deployment in November which included a major amphibious exercise Saif Sareea 3. When she sailed for the deployment there were considerable fears for the future of UK amphibious forces with the possibility that HMS Albion and Bulwark would be axed along with a reduction in the number of Royal Marines. The Defence Secretary subsequently won that fight with the Treasury and has enthusiastically embraced plans to develop the capability. Commodore James Parkin is Commander Amphibious Task Group (COMATG), one of just three RN one-star level commanders that deploy to sea. For Joint Warrior, he was joined by another one-star, Brigadier Matt Jackson, Commander of 3 Commando Brigade, responsible for the land-based operations. (The third deployable one-star is Commander United Kingdom Carrier Strike Group, (COMUKCSG), currently Cdre Mike Utley.)

Brigadier Matt Jackson and Commodore James Parkin on board HMS Albion during Exercise Joint Warrior. Note the NATO Response Force (NRF) insignia worn by the Commodore.

The task group commanded by Parkin is just one of 9 groups within Joint Warrior. Under his command are two of the Standing NATO Maritime Groups, his flagship HMS Albion and RFA Lyme Bay with an embarked force of Dutch Marines. The escort vessels of the SNMG1 are tasked to protect the landing forces while the mine hunters of SNMCG1 clear routes for amphibious forces. There is another Dutch amphibious group and the Danish Navy are commanding the adversary task group. For this phase of the exercise, HMS Defender was providing air defence and HMS Kent was providing anti-submarine protection for the amphibious ships and MCMVs. Dutch Marines and Royal Marines are working as an integrated landing force.

Joint Warrior (JW 19-1) includes 13 NATO nations and Australia, involving 10,000 military personnel, 54 warships and 5 submarines. Besides being the host and the Joint Tactical Exercise Planning Staff (JTEPS) running the exercise from Faslane, Royal Navy participation is substantial. (Although some of the vessels that had originally been assigned to the ATG were tasked elsewhere at the last minute, HMS Diamond and RFA Argus were withdrawn).

The Scottish coast is a particularly good place to train in amphibious operations with rapid changes in weather in sea states that constantly challenge people and equipment. The twice-yearly Joint Warrior series of exercises have been running for many years, before that known as the Joint Maritime Course (JMC) which date back to the 1950s. The Commodore explained the value of these exercises: “The UK has always felt that by operating with allies and partners it makes us better but also helps bring everyone else up at the same time. It does not matter how good you are at independent operations, you are always limited when you are on your own. Smaller exercises increase interoperability but Joint Warrior is about integration, meshing in together, beyond just learning each other’s communications and procedures. The place where the Land, Air and Sea meet is in the Littoral space where it’s my job to deliver effects but we also work in the cyber/electromagnetic and space domains. We need to practice fighting in all 5 domains with other NATO members.”

There are 4 NATO Standing Maritime Groups that are at immediate notice and already exist. Besides that, there is the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) established in 2014. This ‘spearhead force’ is able to react to threats against NATO sovereignty and is built around a land brigade of about 5,000 troops, supported by air, naval and special forces units. At the next level of readiness are the Initial Follow on Forces Groups (IFFG). For 2019 Parkin is designated commander for the Maritime IFFG. Brigadier Jackson is the commander of the IFFG maritime landing force and they would be tasked by the NATO Joint Force Commander in the event of a crisis. This is part of the NATO Response Force (NRF) which he describes as the “break glass in case of emergency force”. NATO is very aware it’s strength lies not just in the size of the forces available, but their ability to work effectively together, a primary reason for training in complex environments like Joint Warrior. A NATO validation team was due to arrive on HMS Albion to test COMATG in this role.

The COMATG staff planning operations. There was a friendly atmosphere of relaxed professionalism on board HMS Albion. The ship is well designed for her role as an amphibious flagship, below the bridge is a large open-plan command planning room that allows the battle staff to develop and coordinate operations.

There is a heavy reliance on space-based information and COMATG gets a twice-daily space weather forecast that predicts the impacts solar flare activity might have on how they operate. A simulated cyber attack on the task group was conducted early in the exercise to test the resistance of systems and how to cope if IT systems are compromised. NATO is working hard in this area learning from each other, eventually, one nation is likely to be chosen to lead as the ‘best practice’ example for others to follow.

Both Parkin and Jackson were keen to highlight how amphibious operations are evolving. There is a misconception that the LPDs and their landing craft would be used to storm well-defended beaches in a replay of a WWII D-Day type operation, as depicted in ‘Saving Private Ryan’. Today’s precision weapons and far smaller numbers preclude this kind of very high-risk type of assault. Modern amphibious forces are intended to create uncertainty in an enemy that may have a considerable length of coastline to defend. Attacking the enemy where they are weak, striking unannounced at the time and place of your choosing are the great strengths of this kind of force. Beach landings are only one part of the toolkit, helicopters can deliver troops far inland and commando-trained forces can scale cliffs and operate in all kinds of terrain and extremes of climates. HMS Albion has been described as the “Swiss Army Knife” of the RN, reflecting the variety of roles that can be delivered by amphibious platforms. Able to conduct humanitarian aid, disaster relief and civilian evacuations operations through to complex assault operations, the sense in keeping and improving this capability is obvious.

Once live operations begin, COMATG moves to the spacious operations room below which is equipped with large display screens and surrounded by various cells that co-ordinate artillery support, air and landing craft operations etc. Adjacent is the area used to coordinate Albion’s sensors and defensive armament.

Parkin observed “many of the ship’s company were born in the 21st Century and are ‘digital natives’, able to think and adapt in new ways… The RN is in something of a new era with an increasingly modern fleet, F-35 and the new Littoral Strike Group being set up differently from the ATG… It’s an exciting time to be a naval officer”

Although the RN has very few unmanned, autonomous or AI systems deployed operationally right now, there is a clear intention to embrace these developments that will be increasingly important in all forms of warfare. Exercise Commando Warrior involving QinetiQ and 1AGRM, supported by 40 Commando was held recently in the Plymouth area. This was the first trial integrating technology for the Future Commando Force. Autonomous air, surface and ground sensors delivered fused information to a remote headquarters and to ground commanders to assist with decision-making allowing greater precision and reduced risk.

Exercise Commando Warrior. Video via 1Assault Group Royal Marines.

Building on the training experience from Joint Warrior, COMATG will again fly his flag in HMS Albion leading the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) of around 20 warships from eight European nations to the Baltic Sea for exercise Baltic Protector in May of this year.