Frigates challenge the BIG E

HMCS Charlottetown goes silent on all emitters-no radar, no Automatic ID System transmissions, no communications of any kind.

Early detection would be catastrophic.

A mighty enemy has just cleared the Straits of Gibraltar and is now hunting the four frigates of Standing NATO Maritime Group 1 (SNMG1): flagship HMNLS De Ruyter from the Netherlands, HMCS Charlottetown from Canada, the FGS Rheinland-Pfalz from Germany, and the SPS Alvaro de Bazán from Spain.

Who is this enemy?

Cue the gulp and the dramatic chords: it’s the USS Enterprise Carrier Strike Group. We’re talking serious fire-power. The guided-missile cruiser USS Vicksburg, the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers USS Nitze, USS Porter and USS James E. Williams, and of course Big E herself, the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise.

Considerably out-gunned, SNMG1’s only real hope is to find Enterprise and its consorts and shoot first. Fortunately for the NATO ships, this is training, not an alternate reality.

It’s March 24, and SNMG1 and the USS Enterprise Carrier Strike Group are taking advantage of a meeting in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea to conduct a group-on-group battle exercise. For 24 hours, the Mediterranean Sea is a simulated war zone.

“[The mission is] to detect, report, and destroy the U.S. carrier strike group, with the priority being USS Enterprise, the crown jewel,” says Lt (N) Matt Woodburn, one of Charlottetown’s Operations Room Officers. “Whenever operating with multiple units and employing new assets while being covert, coordination is always the forefront of challenges. However, thoughtful positioning of units and utilizing covert methods of communications greatly enhances and maximizes the interoperability amongst the task force.”

Coordination among allied navies is a challenge because of varying procedures and potential language issues. This time, however, the SNMG1 commander, Cmdre Ben Bekkering of the Netherlands, has prepared a sequence of events that gets maximum benefit from each ship’s capabilities. The plan was distributed early to give ample time for preparation.

The crew of Charlottetown rig her for deception, using spaced lights to make the warship look like a fishing vessel. The Canadian frigate takes the point position, ready to get the drop on Big E.

In a later interview, Cdr Wade Carter, the commanding officer of Charlottetown, describes the warship’s task in this mission.

“Charlottetown was stationed forward for early detection,” he said. “We acted as the radar picket and guard ship, launching our helicopter, and subsequently the [ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicle], in order to detect and pinpoint the enemy early as they transited from the Atlantic through the Straits of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean Sea.”

The other ships of SNMG1 – De Ruyter, Rheinland-Pfalz and Alvaro de Bazán – disperse and lie in wait, missiles at the ready, tracking the enemy by their own passive sensors as well as Charlottetown’s active reporting. They strike just before dawn, with simultaneous (simulated) missile releases that overwhelm the Carrier Strike Group.

With Charlottetown’s job of detection-and-reporting complete, the Operations Room Officer watches the display on his command and control system fill with the tracks of the (simulated) surface-to-surface missiles raids on Vicksburg and Enterprise.

What looks like a game to the uninitiated is actually serious business.

Modern navies play a crucial role in maritime security, an essential element of regional stability, protection of national interests abroad, and international peace, and they face a wide range of varied threats.

Exercises such as the simulated battle between the USS Enterprise Carrier Strike Group and the frigates of SNMG1 hone defensive responses and tactics as a group and within each crew.

As they celebrate their (simulated) victory, the crews of the four NATO frigates know they got a lucky break: for the Carrier Strike Group, it was a no-fly day.

SLt Emily Todd is a maritime surface/subsurface officer serving in HMCS Charlottetown.

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