NATO navies prepare for ‘Steadfast Defender’

The UK Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales
The UK Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales is pictured sailing from HM Naval Base Portsmouth to participate in ‘Steadfast Defender’. The NATO exercise is bringing together more than 50 ships from across the alliance.

NATO navies are preparing for Exercise ‘Steadfast Defender’ across the North Atlantic Ocean, an exercise referred to in alliance statements as ‘the largest NATO exercise in decades’.

Throughout February, all 31 NATO member states plus Sweden are participating in the multi-domain exercise, which covers the mid-Atlantic region to the High North.

‘Steadfast Defender’ – which is occurring for the second time, following the inaugural exercise in 2021 – is designed in particular to test and demonstrate NATO’s capacity to deploy forces from North America out into the North Atlantic and across into Europe, and to do so rapidly but in a sustained manner to enable extended, high-intensity operations at sea and ashore in the Euro-Atlantic theatre.

At a maritime level, within the presence of more than 50 allied ships, the participation of particular force elements is notable.

First, all four of NATO’s standing naval forces (SNFs) – Standing NATO Maritime Groups 1 and 2, and Standing NATO Mine Counter Measures Groups 1 and 2 – are present, alongside several NATO member state national task groups.

Second, the UK Royal Navy’s (RN’s) Commander UK Carrier Strike Group (COMUKCSG) staff is embarking for the first time onboard the aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales. The carrier is among eight RN ships and submarines participating in the exercise.

Third, the US Second Fleet’s command staff, working with personnel from US Expeditionary Strike Group Two, is deploying to Bodø, Norway to establish a maritime command element – Commander Task Force North (CTF-N) – to support exercise execution. US Second Fleet presence encompasses several at-sea assets, including the Whidbey Island-class landing ship dock (LSD) platform USS Gunston Hall.

The establishment of this command element within the exercise illustrates NATO’s reinvigoration of its maritime operational output over recent years.

Within a wider re-think of NATO maritime strategy, and with a view to enhancing alliance theatre-wide deterrence and defence capability at sea in the face of increasing Euro-Atlantic instability, NATO has taken several key steps to re-organise and strengthen its maritime command structures and operational outputs at sea. These steps include re-establishing US Second Fleet, alongside the establishment of Joint Force Command Norfolk (JFCNF). With both commands headquartered in Norfolk, Virginia, their outputs are a cornerstone of alliance efforts to increase co-ordinated and integrated presence of US Navy (USN) ‘heavy metal’ at sea across the North Atlantic, especially to reinforce deterrence and defence of Europe.

Moreover, as demonstrated in ‘Steadfast Defender’, US Second Fleet command and staff structures have been developed to the point where the fleet’s staff is operating as a maritime component command (MCC) within a wider NATO operational command structure.

Such developments reflect the focus in ‘Steadfast Defender’ on enhancing force readiness and integration, and building command staff ‘battle rhythms’. Together, this activity is intended to develop and demonstrate NATO’s high-end warfighting capacity, to generate 360-degree deterrence and defence and to ensure capacity in a contested environment to move personnel and materiel across the strategic sea lines of communication that form the alliance’s trans-Atlantic bridge.

While ‘Steadfast Defender’ is a routine and long-planned exercise, its timing is prescient, with NATO seeking to send clear messages of cohesion, commitment, and capability at a time of increasing concern of Russia seeking to expand its war with Ukraine into a wider conflict.

by Dr. Lee Willett