NATO Holds Life-Fire Missile Interception Exercise

The exercise, which takes place May 15 to June 3, 2021, provides the opportunity to demonstrate the ability to conduct land and sea based defence against simultaneous cruise and ballistic missile threats with coordinated command and control. 

This year, as the command and control node for NATO forces, STRIKFORNATO is conducting the exercise between the ten participating nations as they work together to respond to integrated air and missile defence threats. Serving as the critical link to integrate the complex sea, land, air, and space systems from multiple nations into a task force, the staff is focused on strengthening their ability to share common tactical pictures, share situational awareness, and conduct NATO-level mission planning and engagement coordination.

Below is a full rush transcript of the press conference by Special Briefing via Telephone with Rear Admiral James Morley Deputy Commander, STRIKFORNATO And Captain Jonathan D. Lipps USN Commander, Task Force SIX FOUR.

Rear Admiral Morley:  Good afternoon, everyone.  I hope you can all hear clearly, and if you can’t, please shout in on the net and I’ll do something about it.

I should just set the scene very quickly.  So you have two speakers this afternoon to hopefully give you an insight into what we’re doing off the northwest coast of Scotland and off the northwest coast of Norway over the next couple of weeks.  I’m the deputy commander of naval striking and supporting forces based in Lisbon in Portugal, which is where the exercise is being conducted from and led from as the lead exercise organization.  And at sea, you have a U.S. commodore running the task group at sea embarked on a Spanish frigate.

I should just quickly spell out why we’re doing it and what our role is in this exercise so that it provides a bit of context to whatever questions you’d like to ask next.  So I am in NATO’s primary seagoing battle staff, and in very simple terms, we provide the bridge between nations and the individual contributions nations make to an operation, particularly U.S. high-end capabilities such as carrier strike groups, so that they’re directed efficiently and employed together to act as a single fighting unit on behalf of the alliance.  We also have a key role in delivering maritime ballistic missile defense in the maritime environment for the alliance. 

So the exercise plays very strongly into our key role.  It’s firstly an important ship equipment validation and an opportunity for capability developments.  And we’re in the fourth iteration of these exercises, and the third one that my organization has been leading.  And it’s about making sure that we can work together, that our people and systems are compatible, and it’s multinational.  And at the moment, we have 10 nations contributing and taking part of 13 which routinely provide staff into this headquarters of the 30 nations in NATO.  

And we are pitching them against some of the most challenging threats that we face at sea and on the land around the world.  And lots has been said about multi-domain integration, particularly in more recent Western reviews and defense reviews.  And that’s about joining up the land, air, and sea domains, what they call domains, and increasingly, space and cyber.  And this is a brilliant example of that activity.  So it’s not just about the tactical development of ships and making sure that they work together so they can share a picture, effectively share information.  But it’s also about building a shared understanding of an evolving picture across NATO, so joining up the NATO command structure so that they also are used to looking at a shared view of operations.

Finally, just to conclude in the way in which this event is scheduled and maybe answer a couple of the questions that we’ve been given ahead of time, and that these events are pre-planned.  Because of the nature of them, we have to give – and rightly – have to give considerable advance notice of the activity.  The danger areas alone require that of us, and so that there are no surprises.  Safety is absolutely paramount.  And of course, these are not just test events.  Whilst there’s a scenario which gives a bit of realism to a ship’s crew, we’re getting the maximum benefit from the exercise, from the scenario, in order to give ships and their teams a full rollout.

But these are very, very carefully structured preplanned events.  And we’ve been very, very clear in terms of offering notice of them in order to maintain the real-world safety, which, as I said, is our primary concern. 

Captain Lipps:  Admiral, thank you very much.   As Admiral Morley indicated, I am at sea.  We just concluded a replenishment at sea with elements of the task group, and are moving to conduct a photo exercise with the ships here later this afternoon.  So it is a great day to be underway and to talk to you about Formidable Shield 21.  

This is, as Admiral Morley indicated, the most complex joint and combined integrated air and missile defense exercise ever conducted at sea.  Fifteen ships from 10 nations will track and engage subsonic, supersonic, and ballistic missile targets on and above Scotland’s Hebrides Range.  After a Norwegian sea transit by the force, the campaign will conclude in early June on the Norwegian Andoya Space Defense Range.  Demonstrating unprecedented scalability and integration while embarked on the Spanish Aegis frigate Cristobal Colon, STRIKFORNATO staff will also direct and authorize the United States Marine Corps high-mobility artillery rocket system strike against a target at sea. 

This exercise will bring together 15 ships, almost 50 aircraft, over 3,000 sailors, soldiers, airmen, and Marines to defeat missile threats from sea level to low-Earth orbit.  

Formidable Shield is the alliance demonstrating unequaled resolve through the execution of the highest of high-end defense across all domains, and we look forward to the prosecution of this exercise.

Question:  This isn’t the first iteration of the exercise, but the most recent one was in 2019 so that’s two years ago.  In the intervening period, there’s been U.S. officials and other military people that expressed concern about Russian missiles in particular, sub-launched missiles and ground-launched.  So does this iteration of the exercise have particular resonance because of that increasing challenge?

Rear Admiral Morley:  I mean, this is not about any particular individual threat environment.  It’s about a general trend and proliferation of both ballistic and conventional missiles, and to say nothing of the proliferation of unmanned air systems, which around the world presents a threat to both our globally deployed maritime units and the global commons upon which we depend, and both our forces ashore and people living in the land environment. 

So this is not about a specific threat.  It’s a general trend and proliferation of a capability quite often fielded by state and non-state actors around the world.  So it’s not directed at any specific environment.

Captain Lipps:  Admiral, absolutely.  And I appreciate the opportunity, because you made reference to Formidable Shield 2019.  One of the, I think, important aspects in the maturation of the campaign is the integration of those threats that Admiral Morley talked about because over time, what we have seen is an adversary, either a peer or a non-state particular adversary, is integrating their capabilities – unmanned aerial systems, cruise missile threats, and  ballistic missile threats, against targets at land and at sea. 

Similarly, the execution of Formidable Shield has evolved to integrate those threats into a serial campaign that concludes with them occurring simultaneously.  And that’s an important aspect of what we’re doing.  It is not targeted against a specific country or threat, but it has evolved over time to incorporate aspects of all high-end threats, to validate the alliance cohesion and reaffirm the deterrence and defense that the alliance nations bring when we come together. 

Question:  How many allied navies are participating in this exercise together?

Captain Lipps:  It’s a great question because there are elements of this that we identified up front.  We have 15 nations from 11 countries that initially are supporting, but also the commander task group integrated air and missile defense has staff representatives from another eight nations as well.  And then when you look at how we are ultimately supporting the larger NATO construct in Lisbon and the national contributions that make up the staff at STRIKFORNATO headquarters, I would hazard that we’re representing almost 30 nations in total of the entire alliance.

Question:  A top Russian navy admiral, Admiral Moiseyev, this week has criticized this exercise, saying it was promoting the expansion of NATO military presence near the Arctic and increasing the potential for a conflict in the Arctic or High North.  What is your response? And the second part of the question:  “The exercise focuses on air and missile defense.  Does this mean that the potential threats from air and missile systems in Northern Europe has increased in recent years?

Rear Admiral Morley:  I think we saw the quote too, and again, it’s not the moment to question or not whether or not that was – the comments that the Russian admiral made were specifically talking about this exercise or not.  I don’t – I think in this case they weren’t specifically talking about Formidable Shield.  But even so, I would just reinforce the point that this is about missile defense.  And without being flippant, the Formidable Shield moniker is accurate.  This is about missile defense, so it’s about protecting both maritime units and the land environment from the missile threat, not about, if you like, offensive missile capabilities.  It’s about defensive missile capability.  

I hope that answers the – both the specifics of that question and the general tone of it. 

Question:  Can you explain which are the main differences and main new missiles exercise that you’re introducing with the fourth edition of this kind of exercise?  Moreover, it’s the first time – I think it’s the first time you’re introducing also exercise, I mean activities, on the Andoya Space Defense Range.  Can you elaborate what are you going to do on that range in the second part of the exercise? 

Rear Admiral Morley:  we’ve been doing one of these exercises every two years.  In fact, I was involved in the first of these in 2015, which was much more directed towards a single event of missile [inaudible], much more of a single-system validation and picture-sharing between a number of allied units who were deployed on that particular occasion.  And what has changed over time is these exercises, for all the benefits that were realized in that first event, these exercises have become more complex.  So we effectively are turning up the wick in terms of their complexity and their simultaneity.  And what I mean by that is we are faced – we are putting ships and their weapons systems through a more exacting test regime where at times we are testing ship companies and weapons systems against a simultaneous cruise missile and ballistic missile threat, which really does make it more realistic and it makes it much more – it’s a bit like running a Formula 1 team. 

Captain Lipps:  So thank you, Admiral. In addition to the complexity, there is also the aspect of distributed geography.  And for the Commander Task Group IA, Integrated Air and Missile Defense, to be able to safely and successfully exercise command and control forces across a distributed region is one of the significant aspects that will enable us to conduct operations on both the Scottish Hebrides Range and then the Norwegian Andoya Space Defense Range.  So that was absolutely, I think, one of the larger lessons that we will be able to demonstrate to the alliance in the setting the conditions for deterrence and defense. 

The additional piece is that allows us to expand across the larger joint force the integrated air and missile defense bastion that is provided by these naval assets as we are dynamically able to position around the sea space that covers the majority of the world.  Over.

Captain Lipps:  So the list of countries is quite long, quite frankly.  And so we have representatives or ships that are supporting the exercise from all countries almost of the NATO Alliance: Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Spain, France, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, and the United States.  There are also members of my staff and Admiral Morley’s staff that help to represent the rest of the alliance member participating nations.  

With regards to targets, we have supersonic targets; we have subsonic targets; we have manned aircraft that will be flying profiles to include jamming; there are ballistic missile targets that actually leave the Earth’s atmosphere and fly in space for a short period of time before reentering.  So it is a long list of both targets and nations and ships that are participating.  Over.

Rear Admiral Morley:  All I was going to conclude with was to thank the – to thank you and to thank the journalists who have joined us today.  It’s an important opportunity for us to explain what we do in an open and transparent way.  And thank you for the questions.  And of course, you know the contacts to make if you have any follow-ups that you wish to make.  But that’s all I’ve got.  Thank you.

Captain Lipps:  So I think early on I may have gotten a little bit excited and reversed and said 10 ships from 15 nations; it’s actually 15 ships from 10 nations that are supporting the campaign.  But moreover, I would like to express how proud I am of the men and women, the sailors on the deck plate, regardless of the flag that flies from the truck, that represent the alliance that have come together to demonstrate unequaled resolve, unequaled integration and defense.  It is truly a humbling moment at sea to see this force come together in the execution of our mission.