Following the return to European waters of HMS Queen Elizabeth after its deployment to the Pacific last year, its sister ship, HMS Prince of Wales, as part of its NATO Flagship responsibilities, took the lead in a major exercise extending inside the Arctic Circle. With the new Russian threat facing Continental nations and the wider Atlantic Alliance, as a result of its devastating assault on independent Ukraine, a non-NATO member, the regional allies have been forced to urgently re-appraise their policies and capabilities with a new East-West, despotic democratic boundary now stretching from Finland to the Black Sea.
It was highly appropriate therefore that the Arctic provided a timely stage for Exercise Cold Response 2022, the largest military exercise hosted in Norway since the last Cold War. The Royal Navy was keen to use this opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to safeguarding Europe’s northern flank against aggression from the East, despite its renewed global focus on Asia Pacific.
More than 3,000 RN sailors and Royal Marines were deployed and they joined 27,000 other personnel, warships, armour and air power, with HMS Prince of Wales leading the naval fleet as a command ship. More than two dozen allies and partners took part with activities ashore, at sea and in the air. This was the first time that these large carriers have operated so far north, with the crew of over 1,000 gaining essential cold-weather training supporting a variety of aircraft types.
They had to adapt to new ways of working in temperatures as low as -30 degrees C, operating sideby-side with air power from UK and NATO squadrons. Types included F-35B stealth fighters, Merlin and Wildcat helicopters, US Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft and Sea Stallion helicopters. The fortnight-long exercise, which followed several months of preparatory working up in UK and Arctic waters, allowed the RN to demonstrate some of its unique capabilities from launching commando raids from submarines to operating fifth-generation combat aircraft in sub-zero conditions for the first time. The Royal Marines practised new raiding tactics involving stealth missions on the treacherous Norwegian coastline, with host-nation forces also taking part in the sort of regular manoeuvres and drills perfected in joint exercises over more than 50 years.
During the different phases specialist units were able to call on a wide range of skills which included RN divers plunging into the icy fjords to neutralise mines, paving the way for task forces to pass in safety. Although the RN’s Wildcat helicopters were usually employed over deep-water operating from frigates and destroyers, they joined the more usual elements of the RN Commando helicopter force to extend capabilities into the mountainous areas high over Norway.
The Wildcats’ Seaspray radar, typically used for hunting suspicious ships, operated for the first time in an over-land role, identifying targets for other air assets including larger Merlin Mk 4 helicopters. The RN Wildcats provided intelligence and firepower, shared with USMC Cobra gunships in the support for ground forces. RN Merlins ferried Royal Marines, their equipment and supplies in difficult and unforgiving conditions, often alongside American, German and Norwegian helicopters.
The exercise provided an example of how NATO partners can, and need to, provide highly integrated air power in remote and hostile natural conditions. For the UK, which has been involved in high intensity combat operations continuously for three decades in extremely hot and dusty environments in the Middle East, this total contrast with helicopters flying and operating in conditions of ice and snow, showed how the Royal Navy, Royal Marines and Royal Fleet Auxiliary units can work together seamlessly. The British Defence Secretary visited personnel on the ground and onboard the carrier and reaffirmed the country’s longterm commitment to security in the region and regular deployments to the High North.