In preparation for the forthcoming deployment, the Carrier Strike Group participated in a much-changed version of the biannual Joint Warrior exercise, renamed Strike Warrior, off North West Scotland. This provided an opportunity to work up the group as well as operate with NATO partners.
Here we round-up events since the group sailed on 1st May.
Ships from US-led amphibious exercise Ragnar Viking met up with the ships participating in Strike Warrior in the North Atlantic. In a display of substantial naval might, 15 ships from 4 NATO countries participated in a PHOTEX (May 17).
The USS Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) with the embarked 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) had previously joined with HMS Albion, RFA Mounts Bay, HMS Lancaster plus French and Norwegian warships for the exercise in Norwegian waters. This is a powerful demonstration of NATO’s ability to deploy amphibious and carrier groups simultaneously.
May 2021 has seen an exceptionally busy period for naval activity around Scotland with the Littoral Response Group (North) loading supplies and deploying. Meanwhile, Strike Warrior has seen the involvement of more than 20 warships, three submarines and 150 aircraft from 11 nations.
In addition missile-defence, at-sea demonstration Formidable Shield 2021 is running between May 15th – June 3rd and involves 10 Countries and 15 Ships conducting missile firings off NW Scotland and Norway. HMS Dragon, HMS Lancaster and HMS Argyll are participants in Formidable Shield and are scheduled to conduct live-firings of Sea Viper and Sea Ceptor missiles. COVID restrictions have meant that very few of the foreign warships and submarines involved have come up the Clyde or visited Glasgow as in previous years.
HMS Queen Elizabeth will now return to Portsmouth on 19th May, after ending participation in Strike Warrior slightly early. Originally there was no plan for ships of the CSG to re-enter Portsmouth and they were going to have anchored in the Solent. This was primarily a photo opportunity and to allow VIPs to visit before the group sailed for the deployment. Maintaining the ships in a COVID-secure state is a priority which anchoring offshore would help mitigate. Unfortunately, gales up to 50 mph are forecast for 20th – 21st May and it makes more sense to come alongside than anchor in a gale.
This not because RN vessels cannot cope with storms but it is prudent to be in a safe harbour when you have the opportunity rather than needlessly out on an open anchorage in foul weather. Had the weather been good, the group would have made a fine spectacle, the largest gathering of warships in the Solent since the 2005 Trafalgar Fleet Review. Alongside in Portsmouth, it is also easier to top up with food and fuel, although personnel access will be on and off the ship will be strictly controlled.
After sailing around 23 or 24th May, the CSG is scheduled to go straight into another major NATO exercise, Steadfast Defender. 18 surface ships from 11 nations are involved in the maritime aspect of the exercise which takes place in the eastern Atlantic off Portugal, between 20-28 May. Steadfast Defender will be directed from newly established Joint Force Command in Norfolk Virginia and is designed to test NATO’s ability to convoy material across the Atlantic to reinforce Europe in a crisis.
The minor fire in the refrigeration spaces of RFA Fort Victoria on 10th May while alongside in Portland meant that much of the frozen food provisions embarked for the group has had to be destroyed. Together with weather and other complications, this means plans for the start of CSG21 deployment continue to evolve and may yet still change.