2022 will see HMS Prince of Wales begin to get into her stride as an operational warship. Here we report from a ceremony held onboard to mark the RN taking command of the NATO Response Force Task Group.
With HMS Queen Elizabeth having been very much in the public eye last year, this year HMS Prince of Wales will become the focus of international attention. She will mark the start of her 50-year journey as the flagship of the NATO Response Force. Her progress into service was delayed by a serious internal flood in October 2020 that cost £3.3 million to repair and a planned deployment to the US was cancelled last year. Having overcome these setbacks, conducting initial workups around the UK (and a brief visit to Gibraltar), she was declared fully operational on 30th September. She sailed from Portsmouth on 12th January for a 3-week shakedown and work up in preparation for a demanding year, of which about 200 days are expected to be spent sea.
For the calendar year of 2022, the carrier will be the command platform for Rear Admiral Mike Utley, RN (COMUKSTRKFOR) who will lead the NATO task group. Although there is a planned programme that includes exercises in the Arctic, Baltic, Mediterranean and a trip to the US, the RFTG is at high readiness to respond to events as they happen. The 2021 Integrated Review contained two main strategic pillars; HMS QNLZ supported the “Global Britain” pillar last year while HMS PWLS act “in support of NATO partners in the Euro-Atlantic” this year, arguably the more important of the two commitments.
The availability of another aircraft carrier in Europe is well-timed, coinciding with a heightened challenge to NATO by Russia. The American carrier USS Harry S Truman has been held in the Eastern Mediterranean instead of proceeding to the Gulf as intended in response to the Russian threat to Ukraine.
The multi-national NATO battle staff that will embark on the ship comprises around 120 people and HMS PWLS has received some enhancements to her command and control facilities for their use. French and US officers commented that the modern facilities and space afforded by the PWLS are especially welcome and can easily accommodate augmentees and additional personnel such as the staffs of the Standing NATO Maritime Groups. According to the CO, Captain Steve Higham, the air group carried will be tailored to each mission (and availability of aircraft). Whether the ship will embark marines and operate in the amphibious role was not confirmed but besides being the command platform, the ship will likely host anti-submarine and troop-carrying Merlin Mk2 and 4s. Helicopters and UAVs from other nations are also likely to operate from her decks. At least initially, the ship is unlikely to embark many F-35s, if at all, as the embryonic UK Lighting Force is still regenerating after the CSG21 deployment, although jets may feature later in the year.
Exercise Cold Response 22 is planned to take place in Norway and surrounding waters in March and April. Involving around 44,000 personnel it is the largest NATO exercise since the Cold War, although COVID considerations may still limit some of the land-based aspects. Russian military representatives will be asked to observe the exercise. In addition to HMS PWLS, the RN contribution will include Royal Marines, HMS Albion, HMS Defender and a large contingent of other NATO warships.