Just days after Britain committed to closer military co-operation with nations bordering the Baltic, Royal Navy warship HMS Montrose threw herself into two weeks of training with the Finnish and Swedish Navies.
The Plymouth-based frigate – fresh from shadowing Russian corvettes in the North Sea – headed to the tip of the Baltic for a two-week workout with stealth ships and missile boats.
On the eve of Exercise Baltic Cross, the Defence Ministers of Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom signed a ‘memorandum of understanding’ to usher in a new era of military cooperation between the nine nations.
The exercise – the first test of that new cooperation – focused on developing the ability of the three navies to work together in forms of war at sea, from maneuvering ships in close formation to transferring stores, defending each other from enemy air attack, locating submarines and hunting down enemy surface ships.
It also tested Montrose’s Wildcat helicopter working with the Finns’ sleek, fast missile boats Hanko and Pori in the challenging waters around the Swedish and Finnish coasts – peppered with islands and inlets.
As well as those two 30-knot-plus craft tearing around the Baltic, the Finns also committed their flagship FNS Hämeenmaa, a minelayer/corvette, while the Swedes fielded the futuristic-looking H(SW)MS Visby.
Visby is fast, stealthy and armed to the teeth – making her a formidable foe… and particularly tricky for Montrose’s operations room team to track.
The locals had the definite advantage and used periods in the open seas of the Baltic and the more challenging navigational archipelago coastline to their advantage. The war games included a spot of ‘Swedish Tennis’ – two adversaries facing each other on an invisible ‘court’ trying to use their sensors to find and destroy the opposing side whilst moving in on the net.
Stealth technology, hi-tech and sensors count for nothing without skilled sailors behind them, so sailors from the three participants traded places for a few days.
“It was fun to experience the swap between the ships,” said Swedish Sub Lieutenant Robin Ivarsson.
“It was good to see the culture onboard and see how the Royal Navy works together. All your sailors seem to be very proud of their work and since conscription ended in the Swedish Navy we look to you as a good example and embrace your ways of working.
“As the anti submarine officer on the Visby, it was good to actually meet the faces of the people I’d been working with the previous night.”
The exercise coincided with the Finnish Navy’s 100th anniversary, held in the Turku, southwest Finland, also attended by HMS Ramsey which is in the Baltic with a NATO minehunting group.
HMS Montrose’s sailors joined their minehunting comrades and personnel from the many nations taking part in two days of celebrations.
The British frigate hosted a reception on her flight deck for the Head of the Finnish Navy, Rear Admiral Veijo Taipalus, in the presence of a large number of local VIPs and Britain’s Ambassador to Helsinki, Thomas Dodd.
“This has been an intense and rewarding period of exercises and events, both at sea and ashore,” said Montrose’s Commanding Officer, Commander Conor O’Neill.
“Finland and Sweden have been allies of the UK for many years, but having them in the Joint Expeditionary Force makes that bond even stronger and has given real focus to improving our skills together.
“They are tough adversaries as well, as finding these agile stealthy craft in confined waters has been a challenge, but we have learnt a great deal from the experience.
“Ashore, Montrose and Ramsey were very proud to represent the RN and UK at this important milestone for the Finnish Navy.”