U.S. Sixth Fleet and Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO (STRIKFORNATO) concluded Europe’s largest integrated air and missile defense exercise, Formidable Shield 2023, on May 26, 2023.
The exercise, which took place over a 1,000 nautical mile area of water space, from northern Norway to the west coast of Scotland, brought together multiple NATO Allied and partner nations, more than 20 ships and 35 aircraft, and nearly 4,000 personnel from across the NATO Alliance. Exercise participants fired 30 missiles across 23 live-fire scenarios against subsonic and supersonic targets testing capability in the air, land and maritime domains.
The multinational demonstration of high-end live-fire engagements, as well as the ability to track, target, and share information across networks and connected communication systems, underscores the capacity and capability of Allied maritime forces.
“The NATO Alliance has the most sophisticated and capable combat systems anywhere in the world, and we’ve demonstrated our proficiency in leveraging these combat systems in complex, multi-domain, joint and combined operations over the past three weeks,” said Vice Adm. Thomas Ishee, commander, U.S. Sixth Fleet and STRIKFORNATO. “As we continue to advance the scope and scale of the Formidable Shield series with each iteration, this exercise will no doubt endure as the hallmark of our defensive capabilities and our commitment to deter aggression and prepare us to defend our nations and the Alliance.”
The exercise kicked off on May 8, as two independent surface action groups of Allied ships conducted exercise serials concurrently off the coast of Norway and in the North Atlantic Ocean. At the same time, ground-based High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems units, National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System, and Allied aircraft based throughout northern Europe joined their maritime counterparts in the joint and combined endeavor.
Norway’s Andøya Space Range was the central focus of the first week of the exercise. Allied ships, aircraft and land units joined forces to counter simulated threats in the High North. On the first day of the exercise, a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon, Spanish Navy Álvaro de Bazán-class frigate ESPS Blas De Lezo and Royal Danish Navy Absalon-class frigate HDMS Esbern Snare simultaneously engaged a maritime target with Harpoon anti-ship missiles, setting the stage for the rest of the exercise.
“Starting Formidable Shield 2023 off with a coordinated engagement involving air, land and maritime units from several nations above the Arctic Circle underscores the pace and complexity of this exercise and the important capability development opportunities it offers,” said Rear Adm. James Morley, deputy commander of STRIKFORNATO. “We’ve brought the best that our nations have to offer in integrated air and missile defense together, joining sensors and effectors on a shared network that stretches across more than 1,000 miles of water space. Combining forces in this way is at the heart of what STRIKFORNATO provides to the Alliance and demonstrates, in a very tangible way, our commitment to NATO’s deter and defend priorities.”
The joint and multi-domain nature of the exercise was further emphasized in the Norwegian fjords when U.S. reconnaissance Marines embarked aboard Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Oscar Austin landed ashore, providing targeting data of maritime targets to ships at sea and the HIMARS and NASAMS units on land, enabling a combined force protection and engagement evolution. Communicating and operating across domains, the international force demonstrated the linkages and cooperation needed in high-end evolutions like this.
After a successful week in Andøya, SAG Sword steamed southwest to link up with SAG Shield off of Scotland’s Cape Wrath. There, the SAGs united to neutralize a common (simulated) enemy, laying the foundation for events to come. After the War at Sea and a 14-ship, 8-nation division tactics event, focus shifted to the Hebrides Range, where Allied ships and aircraft tracked and cued ballistic missile targets, while simultaneously engaging subsonic and supersonic missile targets with Aster-15s and Aster-30s, Standard Missile-2, and Evolved Seasparrow Missiles.
Hebrides evolutions also included the first air-to-air live-fire engagement of the Formidable Shield series, with innovation and interchangeability front and center as multiple ships tested their ability to provide data and firing solutions to one another, collaboratively countering targets simulating cruise missiles in a variety of situations and environments.
“Executing so many successful high-end engagements in a demanding environment and against a variety of threats is the true mark of the NATO Alliance and a testament to the hard work my international staff and Sailors, Airmen, and Marines have invested to enhance and demonstrate the combat lethality of our Alliance in the execution of deterrence and defense,” said Capt. Jon Lipps, exercise Formidable Shield’s officer in tactical command and Task Group commander. “Nowhere else but during Formidable Shield does our Alliance integrate the ability to operate as a single, cohesive joint force, regardless of weather conditions, geographic location, or threat we face on a daily basis.
"Not only did Formidable Shield demonstrate credible, Alliance deterrence and defense during a live-fire scenario spanning the North Atlantic to the Arctic Circle, but it also enabled joint maneuver conditions in the North Sea for the entry of the Gerald R. Ford Carrier Strike Group and entry of the foint and amphibious forces for the upcoming BALTOPS exercise into the Baltic Sea.”
Throughout the exercise, a multinational task group was embarked aboard Blas De Lezo who served as the flagship for the duration of Formidable Shield 2023. From their position aboard the flagship, the Task Group directed the tactical portions of the exercise to include: joint force employment, logistics, scenario intelligence injects, sensor and weapons direction, TADIL architecture, and all actions needed to maintain and sustain the force while underway above the Arctic Circle and North Atlantic.
“Hosting a proficient and dedicated multinational staff onboard has been an honor, but also a great opportunity to demonstrate the capacity of this powerful ship,” said Cmdr. Jesús González-Cela Franco, Blas De Lezo’s commanding officer.
Multiple NATO and national commands were critical to enabling and sustaining a peer competitor-like demonstration of live-fire evolutions. From STRIKFORNATO providing overall command and control of the exercise, to Allied Joint Force Commands and NATO’s Allied Maritime and Allied Air Commands, multiple industry partners, and logistics, communications, and technical professionals, Formidable Shield was truly an all-hands effort.
“Years of planning and training for Formidable Shield 2023 were rewarded with a safe and incredibly successful exercise,” said Lt. Cmdr. Dave Ingel, Formidable Shield project officer. “Our teams pushed the boundaries of what we are capable of in the Formidable Shield series, and I am excited to see how this Alliance continues to raise the bar for this exercise in future iterations.”
As the force departs the exercise operating area enroute to follow-on national and international tasking, the lessons learned and experiences gained during a complex live-fire exercise like Formidable Shield will serve the Alliance joint force well in daily operations and in future exercises and activities. Some ships and aircraft will remain in the north of Europe to join up with Allies and partners for the premier Baltic Sea exercise, BALTOPS 2023.
Routine activities on the Alliance’s Northern Flank, including Formidable Shield and BALTOPS, demonstrate the mutual commitment NATO nations have to one another and to their shared Alliance. These exercises are emblematic of NATO Allied operations, proving Alliance cohesion, cutting edge capacity and capability, and a shared commitment to deterring aggression and defending the Alliance and its members if called upon.