November 7, 2018 – NATO’S biggest war game in years – and the largest staged in Norway in 30 years – ends today with Royal Navy participants at the tip of the spear.
Seven Royal Navy ships joined warships from across the alliance in a 65-vessel force mustered at sea and in the fjords, with Royal Marines from 45 Commando on a US assault ship and Fleet Air Arm Merlin helicopters hunting submarines.
The two-week workout – which stretched from Reykjavik in Iceland to Narvik in the Arctic Circle and Trøndelag in central Norway – drew in more than 50,000 military personnel in all, with in excess of 10,000 vehicles rumbling along the winding Norwegian roads.
Frigates HMS Northumberland and Westminster spearheaded Royal Navy involvement in Trident Juncture, sailing from Iceland to the Norwegian Sea as part of a task group formed around the American assault ship USS Iwo Jima.
For Plymouth-based Northumberland, the exercise came hot on the heels of six weeks of intensive Operational Sea Training – the assessment all Royal Navy warships must pass before heading out on operations.
That test is played out in the Royal Navy’s backyard (the Channel off Cornwall and Devon) usually alongside other British vessels, involving numerous scenarios – but relatively few surprises to seasoned sailors.
The size and scope of Trident Juncture, the international element, far from benign weather, real ‘enemy’ aircraft and submarines to contend with and gunnery shoots with live rounds made the NATO exercise a particularly intense – and useful – experience.
Northumberland and Westminster successfully located and tracked Norwegian and French submarines in conjunction with surface ships from Poland, Canada, Norway, Denmark and France, safeguarded American amphibious ships during air defence exercises – then supported those vessels as they put troops ashore safely.
The sub hunts reminded crews of the demands placed on every sailor aboard ¬– irrespective of whether they were monitoring sonar displays or preparing meals in the galley.
It meant not only closing doors and hatches as quietly as possible, but also putting on soft-soled shoes, banning activities such as running or weightlifting in the gym and keeping TV/music volume to a minimum.
“Any bump or bang makes our task extremely difficult as the sensitive equipment picks up any noise that we radiate out – we call it ‘self-noise’, which can also give our position away,” explained Able Seaman Tamara Dillow, a sonar specialist aboard Northumberland.
“We also found that turning off the lights around the ship made everyone move around that little bit quieter; if the lights are off in the mess decks then we assume our shipmates are asleep and we try not to disturb them.”
The extended period assigned to the NATO task group also meant Northumberland emptied her fuel tanks as she chased down submarines and chased off bombers. To remain in the game, she took on fuel in the middle of the Norwegian Sea in a double ‘fill-up’ with the French tanker Somme and French frigate Bretagne.
“During high-tempo operations we cannot afford to call into port each time to refuel, and therefore must replenish ourselves at sea,” explained Lieutenant Commander Jeremy Brettell, Northumberland’s Executive Officer and Second in Command, who steered the ship alongside FS Somme for the replenishment at sea.
“Sustaining each and every ship in a task group at sea is absolutely fundamental to the continued delivery of a fighting force.
“Working with our French partners not only proves we can successfully RAS on the high seas, but that we can conduct it with another nation with whom we are building ever-closer ties.”
As the British frigate broke away from the Somme with her fuel tanks topped up, one Frenchman held aloft a replica World Cup trophy to remind the Brits, despite the friendliness on the high seas, one nation was dominant on the football pitch.
Further south, in the waters around the small town of Molde, four Royal Navy minehunters – HMS Grimsby, Hurworth, Cattistock and Ramsey – clustered around mother ship HMS Enterprise.
“Trident Juncture has allowed us to practise our training and hone our mine countermeasure skills in an extreme climate – the climate challenged the entire team, especially the divers, to consider what they are wearing and how to operate in an extremely cold environment,” said Lieutenant Commander Chris Hollingworth, Cattistock’s Commanding Officer.
“By contrast, the ships company will be deploying to the Gulf in the coming months and will then have to learn to adapt to the intense heat.”
The ‘live’ phase of Trident Juncture ends today and will be followed by a fortnight-long command exercise run by headquarters. After a few days’ rest in Norway, the Royal Navy’s participants will make their way home – all having benefitted from the experience.
“Exercise Trident Juncture is a clear and unambiguous demonstration of just why we must stand shoulder to shoulder with our NATO allies,” said Northumberland’s Commanding Officer, Commander Andrew Canale.
“Operating in a large multi-national task group is not easy and needs commitment and willing from us all. The opportunity to replenish with our French Navy colleagues was a useful reminder of the close military links that exist between our two navies.”