The RN’s Fleet Operational Sea Training (FOST) organisation is globally renowned for its rigour in ensuring naval units are ready for operations. Navy Lookout spoke with Commander FOST, Commodore Andrew Stacey, to hear about how the organisation is evolving to deliver the training that ensures the RN and its partners retain their edge.
FOST is best known for putting warship and submarine crews through Basic Operation Sea Training (BOST), an intense 6 week period (until recently) notorious for pushing sailors to their limits. FOST staff run a series of serials and exercises of increasing complexity and pressure, culminating in an assessment that must be passed before the ship is certified as ready to deploy. Training covers the full spectrum from basic safety, Fire Fighting and Damage Control (FFDC) through to high-end combat scenarios. While FOST still performs this core function, its mandate is much broader.
In early 2020 FOST was significantly re-structured as part of the RN transformation programme. Formerly a Rear Admiral had responsibility for all individual and collecting training plus recruiting. This mandate included the training “schools” (BRNC, HMS Raleigh, HMS Collingwood and the Commando Training Centre at Lympstone). Under the new model, Individual Training at the schools and recruitment has been separated out and falls under the responsibility of Director Personnel and (Individual) Training. COM FOST is now the one-star responsible for Collective Training, reporting directly to the Fleet Commander. (He retains responsibility for submarine individual training for now, until the new school is established at Faslane).
To reflect this change ‘Flag Officer Sea Training’ became ‘Fleet Operational Sea Training’, neatly retaining the well-known FOST brand name. Stacey says his remit is to “keep the Royal Navy Fleet sharp and safe” and his organisation is regarded as “the operational conscience of the Royal Navy”. The service benefits from having an independent authority that not only holds crews to a high standard but is listened to when it occasionally flags up risk with equipment, procedures or tactics.
The command is made up of 4 sections. FOST Ships is centred on Devonport and FOST Submarines at Faslane, although there is considerable crossover between the two areas. The Joint Strike Training & Assurance Group (JSTAG) was established to conduct formation training for the Carrier Strike Group and Littoral Strike Groups. FOST is also responsible for the Joint Tactical Exercise Planning Staff (JTEPS) although this will soon be amalgamated with JSTAG to form a single organisation responsible for training at the Task Group level.
A ‘root and branch’ review of collective training conducted by FOST concluded that the training system needed to be more agile and respond more directly to the needs of the fleet. A rather rigid schedule, often saw ship’s programmes rotating around the FOST calendar. The training syllabus was designed and owned by FOST and the standard-6-week BOST package often included aspects of ‘gratuitous training’ that were not directly relevant to the needs of that particular crew. The diary-led approach, such as annual continuity training did not properly take into account the constant turnover of people and competence of crew. Ultimately training is about preparing sailors and marines not platforms.
Under the new model FOST no longer designs the content of the training syllabus. This ‘Training Requirement’ is now set by the force generation authority, usually SURFLOT or SUBFLOT. After a two way conversation between FOST and the customer, a training directive is issued, tailored to the needs of the platform at the time and the likely missions it may undertake.
The old 6-week BOST has been separated into 2 parts. Operational Sea Safety Training ensures ships and submarine crews are safe and competent for everything up to warfighting including DCFF, seamanship, navigation, logistics and communications. The second package (known as Warfare Operational Sea Training) focuses on more complex warfare aspects and may not follow directly on from OSST, undertaken at a later date when more suited in the ship’s programme or just before deployment. Overall training packages are now more bespoke, may vary in length and be more frequent. Reflecting their operating environments, HMS Tamar and Spey preparing for deployment in the Indo-Pacific had a quite different OST package to HMS Medway stationed in the Caribbean.
FOST involvement with a ship emerging from major refit or the builder’s yard begins long before the complexities of operationally focussed sea training starts. Small training teams will take the vessel through basic Safety Assurance Readiness Check (SARC) before they even go to sea and this is the start of a relationship with the ship’s company or submarine crew that will include continuation training and liaison visits. FOST also conducts equipment assurance, working closely with the RN’s Maritime Capability, Trials & Assessment (MCTA) teams.
As adversaries’ capabilities are rapidly evolving, FOST works with Defence Intelligence, horizon-scanning to develop training to match emerging threats. Ideally, there will be nothing encountered by those on the frontline that they have not already experienced in training scenarios.
Increasingly, synthetic training is being used as it has become impractical to simulate high-end threats such as ballistic or hypersonic missiles. The subsonic Hawk jets used to simulate air and missile attacks are no longer representative of current threats and the RN is exploring more realistic ways to prepare for modern combat. Live training will always be needed but Synthetic means have many advantages besides being very cost-effective, it avoids giving away classified tactics and procedures that would be visible in the live environment.
Currently, most synthetic training is done ashore but there are plans to implement ‘Live Virtual Constructive Training’ where a ship at sea can see other ships and aircraft but also simulated high-end threats. The Defence Operational Training Capability (Maritime) programme aims to overlay multiple synthetic threats in the Combat Management Systems of a group of ships. Enabling DOTC(M) will require the integration of existing networks and procurement of new systems. The US has recently demonstrated this hybrid live/synthetic real-time training concept during their Large Scale Exercise (LSE21) conducted by units, formations and commanders deployed in different theatres.
By 2030 the RN is aiming to make collective training a broadly 50/50 split between live and synthetic. The reliance on simulation will vary depending on the kind of serial, DCFF may be more like a 80/20 spilt in favour of live, while advanced air and missile defence more like 20/80 in favour of synthetic.
Carriers fit for the frontline
FOST has been a major player in the delivery of the carrier strike project. While HMS Queen Elizabeth was still in build the team were learning from the shipbuilders and developing procedures only slightly ahead of the ship’s company they had to train. As a very large and brand new platform, the carrier training manuals had to be written almost from scratch. The core philosophy was always to ensure that the ship can maintain its two key functions; to launch and recover aircraft and be an effective command platform for the CSG Battlestaff. FOST ran two synthetic ‘Virtual Warrior’ exercises for unit-level CSG participants and the battle staff ashore before the live ‘Strike Warrior’ exercise finally certified the CSG to deploy operationally.
As the RN increases the number of vessels permanently forward-deployed overseas this presents a training challenge. Units require readiness training packages to ensure their rotating crews remain sharp. In most cases, FOST teams fly out to the ship but this model is increasingly inefficient. Synthetic training, delivered from the UK and overseen by FOST, may be part of the solution but consideration is being given to whether partner navies can be endorsed by FOST to train RN assets. For example, the Royal Australian Navy might be able to train RN ships based in the Pacific. This is in line with the RN’s aspiration to achieve not just interoperability with its closest partner navies, but seamless interchangeability.
Best of the best
To be selected to serve with FOST, sailors must be seen as subject matter experts and come directly from serving at sea. FOST has around 630 people on its staff and this includes a large number from partner navies, representing around 14 nations. Although RN assets have first priority, FOST provides training to others using spare capacity. The liaison officers ensure the teams are prepared for the specific training requirement of foreign vessels that have different equipment. As NATO partners, most operating procedures are similar and FOST has accumulated considerable experience with most classes of vessel that make use of its expertise. The value of shared training experiences strengthened relationships, greater interoperability and defence engagement is priceless.
To retain its hard-won reputation, the FOST organisation faces two key challenges. Firstly cyber, space and autonomous weapons are now added to the list of threat vectors that are developing rapidly and must be countered and trained for. Secondly, while synthetics offer great advantages, ways must be found to ensure sailors and marines experience the same realistic and sustained levels of stress and adrenalin as they would in live training. FOST must continue to evolve to play its part in ensuring Royal Navy personnel are the best trained in the world.