Massive NATO naval, air defense exercise wraps up in Atlantic – analysis


The biennial Formidable Shield exercise ended on Friday.

The important integrated air and missile defense drill brought together 20 ships, 35 aircraft as well as ground units, and some 4,000 personnel from across thirteen NATO and partner countries. This exercise takes place every other year, but this year is of increased importance because air defense is now in the spotlight due to the Ukraine conflict. Integrating air defenses is important for NATO countries and partners. Multi-layered air defenses are now in focus.  

Formidable Shield also saw the employment of “eight ground units consisting of radars, National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System (NASAMS), and High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), and nearly 4,000 personnel from across the Alliance,” according to a story by Petty Officer 2nd Class Sawyer Connally aboard the USS Porter. the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Porter was one of the ships participating since May 8. The drill wrapped up on May 26. 

“We’re extremely excited to take part in Formidable Shield 2023,” said Cmdr. Joe Hamilton, Porter’s Commanding Officer, as Porter kicked off their role in the exercise. “This exercise is an incredible opportunity for us to receive invaluable live-fire training time with our NATO Allies, and we are honored to sail alongside,” the report by Connally noted.

Live-fire missile exercises

The naval ships participated in a live-fire missile exercise at the UK Ministry of Defence’s Hebrides Range, firing three Standard Missile-2 (SM-2) interceptor missiles and successfully destroying their targets. Bringing these navy and ground units together for live-fire drills is important.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg shake hands as they meet, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine April 20, 2023. (credit: Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS)

It’s even more important due to the Ukraine conflict which has shown how close conventional wars are now coming to Europe. It wasn’t long ago that increased focus on counter-insurgency and small wars made large drills like this seem like a thing of the past. However, the last several years have shown that near-peer rivalry between the US, China and Russia, as well as tensions in Asia and the East Mediterranean, mean conventional wars are no longer a thing of the past.

Fielding a modern large navy and integrating air defenses with ground units is important, and some of the systems used during the recent drill are also being sent to Ukraine, such as the HIMARs and NASAMS.  

The ships involved sailed together and also conducted a replenishment-at-sea, with the British RFA Tidesurge, with the participation of the French Navy Horizon-class frigate FS Chevalier Paul as well. The drill also brought navies across the Atlantic from ports of call in Spain to Scotland.

The first days of the drill included a “war at sea” phase and a Surface Action Group led by Spanish Navy Álvaro de Bazán-class frigate ESPS Blas De Lezo. The ships did gunnery drills and also anti-submarine warfare.

The French NAVY frigate FS Bretagne conducted undersea surveillance, and the Royal Netherlands HNLMS Tromp participated as well, according to one report.

USS Gerald Ford

In addition, the US aircraft carrier USS Gerald Ford arrived in Oslo, Norway last week, the first time a US carrier visited the northern country in 65 years according to a tweet by US Naval Forces in Europe. The overall context of Formidable Shield, therefore, illustrates the importance of combining naval and ground assets in the air defense domain.

This is key to projecting NATO’s strength and also practicing live fire drills to see how these systems work together. The conflict in Ukraine is already teaching us a lot of lessons about the future of war. This includes the use of unmanned surface vehicles and kamikaze drones; as well as how easy it is for pipelines such as the underwater Nord Stream were to target. 

Formidable Shield has important ramifications for the Middle East. Lessons about integrated air defenses and how naval units can work with ground units are one aspect.

Israel already uses advanced multi-layered air defenses and Israel is using new advanced Sa’ar 6 corvettes these days with advanced air defenses incorporated into them. Israel’s recent drills with US Central Command are important in this regard, as are Israel’s close ties with countries such as Greece and Cyprus and naval drills such as Noble Dina.

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