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HEBRIDES ISLANDS, Scotland — In early May, NATO Allied nations gathered forces around Hebrides, Scotland and Andøya, Norway, to counter a series of subsonic and supersonic targets in a multi-domain environment. The threats, launched from multiple locations and with unique capabilities, should have posed a challenge to the multinational force. In the end, they didn’t stand a chance.
For little less than a decade, the biennial exercise Formidable Shield (FS) has seen Allies and partners gather in the waters and airspace of northern Europe to test a diverse set of skills, frameworks, communication strategies and equipment, all centered on missile defense. I had the opportunity to meet with two of the foremost experts on FS: Royal Norwegian Navy Lt. Cmdr. Steinar Valen, the Formidable Shield mission director in Andøya, Norway, and U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Alisha Hamilton, the overall Formidable Shield mission director. Since 2017, they’ve had a role in FS, whether as an operator on a ship, delivering effects and countering threats, or as the overall planning and preparation lead for the multi-national, multi-organization, multi-region and multi-branch exercise. I stress multi because, as you’ll find out, the most critical parts of this exercise aren’t the missiles. What really matters is how people work together to make sure those missiles strike their target. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below. In it, we discuss how NATO’s missile defense is like being in a soccer match, whether we could win the fight in a real-world encounter, and how the evolution of people and technology is the driving force behind each iteration of FS.
Good morning to you both – we discussed before this of how FS came to be, but I really wanted to sink our teeth into it, being as how you’ve both seen this exercise evolve and grow over the years. In your eyes, where’d it start, and where is it now?
Hamilton: FS started off as a missile test and evaluation with the Maritime Theater Missile Defense Forum (MTMDF), a multinational missile defense collaboration effort, in 2015, with their At Sea Demonstration 2015 exercise. It was scripted, very countdown centric, and all the ships knew exactly where they needed to be and when they needed to be there. There was no real operational or fleet involvement, in the sense of ‘why are the ships there? Is that how we would really deploy them, if we were fighting a war? Is that taking best advantage of the different ship sensors and weapons capabilities?’ When U.S. Sixth fleet picked up the exercise in 2017, turning it into what’s now Formidable Shield, it was still relatively scripted because we had some very big objectives: mainly to help the Netherlands prove ballistic tracking capabilities. Then SIXTH Fleet was invited to observe a very operationally focused, fast paced, and agile Norwegian exercise called Mjølner. The structure and flexibility inherent in Mjølner became a major influence on the core structure of Formidable Shield 2019. We had a number of individual events to showcase a variety of different capabilities, not just missile defense. In some cases we staged surface engagements, in others we focused on communications and electronic warfare. FS19 started to really focus on the importance of the operational construct.
Valen: On Hamilton’s note, that was my first interaction with the FS series – when I was an operator on the ship. From my perspective, I experienced the live fire shooting as a tactical scenario. So for me it was a tactical live fire, which was unique. Now that I’ve been on both sides of the curtain, I’m always asking the question – how does this benefit us being more operational?
On that question, and I’m sorry we kind of skipped over it at the start, but what is FS? In layman’s terms, not spilling secrets or anything, but if you were sitting in a bar across from your friend, or whoever, and telling them what you were doing this week, what would you say?
Valen: It's not really easy to explain. I mean, I can't even explain to my fiancé what I'm doing for work, because it's very complex, but to make it easier, I think it's fair to say that it's a mission rehearsal in Northern Europe, so think Norway, U.K., Scotland Hebrides, but also across the North Sea. It’s a three phase exercise, phase one is where we're doing simultaneous missile events, both in Norway and the Hebrides. Phase two is the transit phase, where all the units are transiting towards the Hebrides in Scotland, and then in the final phase all units at the Hebrides range launch targets, simulating attacking missiles, and our ships will try to counter that. But how you explain that to a stranger, I'm not sure.
So basically, we’re testing missile launches, testing ships coordinating with each other, and testing countering missiles with ships and aircraft at sea?
Hamilton: Yes and no. In each of those phases we’re practicing a lot of different things, some things we can talk about, some we can’t; but it’s not just missiles. We’re looking at everything around missiles too. How ships communicate, what radar works effectively, how we can integrate as a team, what equipment – and each nation brings different equipment and systems that combine to equal different strengths. You mentioned testing, but really it’s not a test.
Valen: We don’t take leaps of faith. There’s always so much tech work behind it. It might be that it's only been simulated, and then also simulated with the hardware and in scientists labs. FS is seeing those simulations in real life.
Hamilton: Back to your analogy, without FS, the MTMDF and NATO would be like a varsity soccer team walking onto the field without a lot of practice together. That’s why FS is so important. We know that each individual player is very skilled and has their strengths. When we practice in FS, we use the players strategically to make sure we can remember, when it comes down to a potential real life scenario, how those players work best. Those conversations of ‘Oh, remember during FS, that ship could do X or could not do Y?’ Or ‘That ship is better placed, based on how it's designed and the total number of people on board, to go off and operate by itself’ or ‘it needs to be with a group of others. That other ship is fantastic at not needing gas for a long period of time. This ship is going to need gas quite frequently.’ You know, all of those operational details that never really get thought about on paper.
Ok, so the exercise is about missile defense, but there’s more to missile defense than just shooting the missiles.
Hamilton: Exactly, and even when it is about shooting a target down, it’s also about more than the missiles. The idea of working together to take down a target is the core of FS. If you've got enemies ashore and they fire off a missile, and that missile is coming in towards you or your friend, you've not only got to see it with your eyeball, but you have to see it with radar. So you turn to your friend and say, ‘Look at what's coming towards us!’ Which is basically what the Link System we use to transmit information between two ships is. Then somebody has to go and figure out how to defend themselves against that missile that's coming in. That might be you taking your own gun out of the holster, and firing without missing a beat. Or it might be you seeing the missile coming in, telling your friend about it, slapping their shoulder and then they ready their weapon and then shoot the missile down. That's what we're demonstrating here.
And in this metaphor, that detection, warning, communication, cocking and shooting is happening within seconds, alongside other ships, right?
Hamilton: Right. In some cases, a nation's weapons that they use for defense have never been fired against things that are indicative of threats we will face. So one of the targets that the U.S. is providing is a supersonic target that will go two and a half times the speed of sound. We're going to have three different nations trying to shoot their weapons in quick succession against that threat. We're talking about a target flying through the air two and a half times the speed of sound. And you've got systems that are needing to react within milliseconds in order to process the threat, like where's it coming from, and how to get those systems ready to fire their own missiles in order to intercept. It could be a situation where if you're not fast enough on the draw, the missile goes right on by you and hits your friend, so you need coordination as well.
Valen: She's right. I've seen this in action myself. We don't have a lot of time. So I think it's, at least for Norway, FS is our one chance to see these types of targets. To experience for yourself, while sitting on your operational console, exactly how few seconds you have to react. And that's an important lesson as well.
So we’re benefiting, at an operational level, from all of this?
Valen: Definitely – I mean, you are seeing in the current geopolitical climate, that we have to adapt the technologies that are available to us as warfighters and find the best way to employ them quickly. So on the naval side, when you have capable operators who know their systems, getting the freedom to safely employ those in a realistic environment translates better, if they are called to do that for real. People get used to having a checklist, they get used to having a countdown, they get used to having a piece of paper, telling them how to fight with their system. And that's not what we want the warfighters and the sailors to do. I do notice that in some of the other services, as we've made the exercise more joint, there is a much more deliberate approach to the planning for individual serials. But I think that the operational, real time decision space is incredibly valuable.
Okay, but how does all of this practice translate to real life? What’s the real world impact of all of this?
Hamilton: Well, the normal way that we operate, you've got a whole bunch of different nations with different ships out at sea, and ground forces and everybody's kind of in their own bubble, doing their own training during peacetime. In the North Sea you could have Norwegian and Danish task groups operating together, and maybe they're only 30 miles away from a group of ships flying the NATO flag. There's not a direct relationship between those different ships at sea until you make one. In FS, we are forcing those conversations like ‘how do we make sure that ground forces, who are ashore in Norway, have a common understanding of the threats and activities that are happening out at sea, 90 nautical miles away?’ We actually have a commander who's in charge of both sides of that, whereas typical operations, the ground units would be in their own world reporting to their own ground forces and kind of up through the hierarchy. And the maritime units would be reporting separately, and they wouldn't necessarily have a clear line of communication between those two.
Valen: That’s the biggest piece. During FS, we're actually practicing this integration of a lot of the Sailors, Marines and Airmen. Their ability to focus on one problem, one threat, it brings all of those units together and it drives them to have the conversations like, ‘well your weapon system can reach out and touch 250 nautical miles, my weapon system can reach out and touch to 150 nautical miles, how should we position ourselves relative to each other?’ And then what information do we individually need to tell our bosses, so that they can make wise decisions about resources?
So each iteration you see these obstacles, these challenges that pop up during the exercise. How has the exercise evolved alongside these new challenges?
Hamilton: We definitely prioritize the individual and we ensure that those individual voices and ways of doing business are given a chance to impact change. For example, Steiner mentioned his time in FS 2019. He was the sailor on the ship, pushing the button. Fast forward two iterations and now he's in charge of setting up the exercise scenarios so that other Sailors can learn how to push the button. So the Norwegian Navy recognized that he had experience in this realm and they kept him in a position where he could do training with Norwegian forces. He understands the complexities of operating in an allied force, and brings that personal experience to bear. There are examples throughout the levels of leadership, but I think that's one really good, specific example of somebody who's gotten every level of experience – from being able to push the button to directing who pushes the button.
Steiner: That progression and you know, kind of lifecycle of having people at all levels of command, at all levels of experience involved is the way that, in my opinion, we outpace the adversary, because we trust in that experience, we trust in those people to evolve and understand the new systems and the new capabilities that we are practicing.
So what makes FS different from the other exercises NATO does each year?
Hamilton: I think FS is different because we partner so closely with all of our national acquisition folks – the people who are buying and designing the weapons. We offer an opportunity for them to showcase capabilities and kind of teach the Sailors, the ground forces and airmen how they can be on the cutting edge of whatever is being developed and fielded. That, in and of itself, requires a long view. It requires some strategic strategy to actually say, ‘Hey, my missile system and my weapon system is not going to be ready until 2027. But I want to do these little tests here and build confidence in my system.’ The Dutch ballistic missile radar is a great example, where the Dutch saw the ballistic target get launched in ASD 15, and they said ‘we can develop our system to track it better.’ They did a lot of research, and came back during FS 17 and 19 to demonstrate that capability. So I think that hand-in-hand partnership with the testing and the technical side is what stands us apart.
Valen: Yeah, it's pretty hard to just pick just one, but I'd say the overall complexity and the way we are able to execute several targets with simultaneously timings and actually make it happen, regardless of the variables. The only reason that we are capable of doing that is a mix of former operators like myself and Hamilton, our sailors, our aviators, our ground folks, and the research teams behind it all; our analysts, people that have a lot of knowledge about these targets and the targets limits, and the scientists that are bringing new ideas and new ambitions to the table. When we put together all that experience, anything is possible. There's nobody really stopping us from conducting what we really want to do, and I think that's the most precious thing with this exercise – that we don't say no, until we know that it's not possible.
On that idea of long-term goals, where do you see this exercise 10 or 15 years from now?
Valen: It's not easy to say exactly what we want to do down the line, because the world is changing and the threats are changing. At least in the MTMD-F, we are building a foundation where we look into the future to see what we want to do for FS 25, 27, 29. There's a lot of things on the table, both what kind of weapons we want to test and what kind of targets we want to use. In the end, it’s about the training and practice being relevant to the actual threats out there.
Hamilton: From my side, I completely agree with the relevance factor. But I think that comes from constantly staying involved and engaged with the latest technologies that are coming out, and making sure that we create a space for the Sailors, Marines, Airmen and Army folks to break down procedures, take a hard look, and see what works. That’s the core of FS; not only making sure that we've got the latest technology, but that it's usable by the people who are supposed to be able to go out and fight with it.
We covered a lot – but to kind of finalize this, what’s the one thing you’d like our readers to take away from all of this?
Valen: I'd say that there's strength in in partnership. FS is about bringing a lot of different forces and countries together and making sure we understand each other, so when the missiles start flying, we're ready to defend and we know who can do what.
Hamilton: Exactly, and I’d go further and say this is the proof of our friendships, not just partnerships, not just allies, but true friendships. You come away from this very robust and intense exercise where 24/7 you're being challenged to think about new things, and how would you do this for real, and getting the opportunity to actually push the button and feel the ‘whoosh’ of a missile going off 20 feet away from you. It's the friendships that come out of that. It's the people that you know you can call at three o'clock in the morning and they will be ready to come get your back. It’s awesome.
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