NATO Exercise Cold Response 2022 (CR22), the largest cold-weather exercise in Norway since the 1980s began this week. In this photo and video essay, we look at the naval aspects, the strategic context and Royal Navy participation.
Pressure on the Northern Flank
Cold Response is a long-planned bi-annual set piece that is intended to demonstrate how NATO forces would reinforce its Northern Flank in the event of a Russian attack on Norway. The exercise which runs until 1st April includes land, sea and air forces and around 35,000 personnel from 28 nations. The ability to operate effectively in the challenging conditions of the Arctic is a perishable skill set that demands regular rehearsal.
This area is of critical strategic importance, control of Norway helps limit Russian naval access to the North Atlantic and the North Sea as well as deny them a base for attacking the UK and northern Europe. The invasion of Ukraine has dramatically stiffened NATO resolve and unity in a matter of weeks and CR22 demonstrates that NATO has the willingness and ability to defend Norway while simultaneously enhancing its presence in mainland Europe and the Mediterranean. NATO is a defensive alliance and in an effort to provide clarity and reassurance, Russia was invited to send observers to Norway for the exercise as they have in previous years but they declined to attend CR22.Barents-Sea-Map
Given the terrible situation in Ukraine, there are those that question why NATO is running this exercise so far from the scene of the conflict. Despite the ill-considered pleas for a no-fly zone or military action in Ukraine from the something must be done brigade, NATO has sensibly avoided a direct shooting war with Russia. This could quickly spiral into a vast conflict with the very real possibility of a catastrophic nuclear exchange.
NATO is also not in a position to intervene significantly with naval forces in the Black Sea. As it is permitted to do in time of war under the rules of the 1936 Montreux Convention, Turkey has closed the Dardanelles to all warships (except those already registered as based in the Black Sea). Another major focus of NATO’s naval effort is in the eastern Mediterranean where there are considerable Russian naval assets, based in Tartus, Syria. The USS Harry S. Truman carrier strike group was to have joined CR22 but remains in the Med where its aircraft could potentially strike Black Sea targets. HMS Diamond has taken over from HMS Trent and joined Standing NATO Maritime Group Two (SNMG2) in the Med, part of the alliance’s ongoing action to monitor and deter Russian activity in the Levant.
Command ship, not strike carrier
HMS Prince of Wales is not embarking F-35 jets for the exercise and will be used as an ASW helicopter carrier and command platform. With USS Truman, deployed elsewhere, despite the number of ‘flat tops’ present, there is no organic fixed-wing capability available for the exercise. There will be some, partially justifiable negative comment about “aircraft carriers with no aircraft” but this must be seen in context. There was never any plan to embark jets for the exercise. The UK is in the slightly odd position of having both its carriers operational but the slow delivery of F-35s and pilot training means carrier strike is only at Initial Operating Capability (IOC). In future, it will be more normal to have 1 carrier operational with 12 Jets routinely available and 24 for emergencies.
In an early example of the potential difficulties of sharing an inadequate number of F-35s between land-based and carrier-based operations, 617 Squadron managed to deploy two F-35s to Estonia as a small effort to bolster the defences of the Baltic States. It might have been possible to deploy a few jets with PWLS but only at the expense of unavailability for higher priority operations in the near future. This unsatisfactory situation is the product of years of cuts and delays and a ‘forever peacetime’ mentality that always assumed conflict would be years away.
The Lightning Force is simply too small right now as it is still building up its strength with just 18 jets shared between 617 (operational) and 207 (training) squadrons. These aircraft have to be withdrawn for maintenance periods and pilots need to be trained. (The second frontline squadron, 809 NAS is due to be stood up in 2023). HMS Queen Elizabeth is the high readiness strike carrier, currently loading further munitions and conducting a short training period around the UK. Deploying her with jets embarked is of greater importance than PWLS having a few available for an exercise.
On 11th March, before heading to Norway, HMS Prince of Wales met up with USS Mount Whitney and her escort USS The Sullivans. The ships conducted an air defence exercise in the North Sea with 4 F-35s from RAF Marham against 8 Typhoon and Hawk aggressor aircraft. No aircraft landed on the ship but the simulated air battle was managed by fighter controllers on the carrier.
Led by ??HMS Prince of Wales, some of the naval units assigned to CR22 assembled for a PHOTEX on 14 March. The amphibious Task Force: ??ITS Garibaldi, ??FS Dixmude, ??HNLMS Rotterdam, ??HMS Albion. SNMG1 Task group: ??HNLMS Van Amstel, ??HDMS Peter Willemoes, ??FGS Berlin, ??FGS Erfert, ??HNLMS De Zeven Provincien and ??FS Languedoc. Also accompanied by the mine warfare ships of SNMCMG1, ??HMS Northumberland, ??HMS Defender and ??USS Roosevelt.
HMS Northumberland had already been on Towed Array Patrol Ship (TAPS) deployment in the region before joining CR22. HMS Richmond was originally earmarked to participate has instead been deployed to the Baltic Sea, as part of the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF).
Standing NATO Mine Counter-Measures Group 1 (SNMCMG1) is under the command of the Estonian Navy led by ENS Sakala (Ex- HMS Inverness) and is joining the exercise. Other mine warfare vessels allocated to the group are: ??HMS Grimsby, ??LVNS Virsaitis, ??BNS Lobelia, ??FGS Bad Bevensen, ??HNLMS Schiedam, ??HNoMS Magnus Lagaboete, ??HNoMS Olav Tryggvason, ??HDMS Vaedderen and ??HNoMS Hinnoey.
HMS Albion sailed from Devonport on 22nd Feb and with RFA Mounts Bay arrived in Norway in advance of CR22. The ships have been delivering equipment and working with the Royal Marines that arrived for Cold Weather training in January.
Three Merlins Mk 4s and Wildcats (3 x AH1 and 1 x HMA2) deployed to Norway in mid-February. The Merlins flew from Yeovilton to Bardufoss over 5 days using civilian and military airfields for rest and refuelling while the Wildcats were stripped down and delivered by RAF C-17s.