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By SSgt. Timothy A. Turner
Identifying and destroying their target took only minutes. Closely coordinated U.K and U.S. allies in the air, on land and sea launched munitions from more than 100 miles over the horizon during the long planned multi-domain sinking exercise (SINKEX) Atlantic Thunder 22 (AT22).
The exercise, taking place in the North Atlantic on Sept. 7, 2022, was the premier joint and allied force maritime strike demonstration in which naval and air forces from the U.S. and U.K worked together to exercise lethal, multi-domain, long range maritime strike capabilities.
The participants, assigned to U.S. Naval Forces Europe, U.S. Air Forces Europe, along with the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, sank the decommissioned guided missile frigate ex-USS Boone to develop combined proficiency in tactics, targeting, and live-firing against a surface target at sea. Using modern technologies such as the VBAT vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) unmanned aircraft system (UAS), as well as surface, maritime, and satellite systems, personnel were able to identify a potential threat, determine an appropriate response, make a decision, and eliminate that threat.
“What we’ve demonstrated through this exercise is a new capability - [the ability] to gain and exchange information for targeting purposes,” said Dr. Raymond O’Toole, principle deputy director, operational test and evaluation, office of the Secretary of Defense.
From the Ministry of Defence range control complex, U.S. and U.K. personnel operated interchangeably, communicating and coordinating real-world movements and actions.
“The main goal is to get the event done safely and successfully,” said Emma Jones, trials conducting officer for the QinetiQ Hebrides Range. “It makes literally no difference what uniform anybody is wearing, and it’s the same for us as QinetiQ staff; the whole team works together and everyone has respect for each other.”
Countless hours of close coordination provided vital and rapid maritime awareness which encompassed land, sea, air, space, electromagnetic spectrum, and weather conditions.
“Teamwork between the US and UK project officers, from inception, guaranteed our success,” said U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Alisha Hamilton, test officer and mission director for AT22. “Common agreement and planning covered everything from safety to environmental concerns to weapons tactics. Both nations leveraged their air forces into the traditionally naval domain, enabling greater overall firepower and demonstration of experimental tactics and weapons.”
With explosive force, the projectiles found their target, Ex-Boone. Scraps of metal, fire and plumes of smoke indicate a target destroyed, confirming years of bilateral cooperation sharpening and adapting long-range targeting strike capabilities.
“Today, what I’ve seen is the power of the team,” said Edward Cutts, Director Weapons, Defense Equipment and Systems, U.K. Ministry of Defense. “The two Navies are able to work effectively together, and when we look to the wider group of allied nations, a lot of the underpinnings that we need are there to operate together now, and utilize this to a greater affect.”
During the SINKEX, pre-placed instruments, sensors, and gauges transmitted real-time ship damage information to U.S. and U.K. partners. That data fed into the modeling software that analysts then use to predict internal damage from a variety of weapon effects, and determine how that damage could affect mission capability. Those analysts prepared visual representations of these assessments in real time based on reports of where the ship was hit during the actual event.
Allied forces worked interchangeably using U.S. and U.K. detection, communication, targeting, monitoring, aircraft, ships, and weapon systems simultaneously to achieve one common goal – destroying the objective.
“What we’ve seen in Atlantic Thunder today, is that with Royal Air Force, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, and Royal Navy all operating together [with] helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, ships, and a submarine, every one of which is capable of going to war tomorrow, we’ve proven it today for the first time in decades in the Atlantic,” said U.K. Royal Navy Director Develop Rear Adm. James Parkin. “What we’ve bought works, how we work together has gotten better, and there’s huge opportunity to work even closer together in the future to make it not just an exercise, but just a way of thinking, and a way of life.”
Sinking ex-navy vessels like Ex-Boone, which entered service May 15, 1982 and was decommissioned on Feb. 23, 2012, provides the only practicable method for conducting large scale exercises of this type, necessary to train at the high, realistic level required by the armed forces.
At the conclusion of the exercise, damage assessments help improve the Navy’s response to future real-life incidents by providing data to quickly characterize damage and determine needed repairs based on damaged systems, components and structures.
“The message to those who would seek to do us harm is even stronger,” said Parkin. “We are a force to be reckoned with. Atlantic Thunder has proven once and for all that if they seek to do us harm at sea, we can hit them first, we can hit them hard, and they’re not going up again.”
Former U.S. Navy vessels used in SINKEXs, referred to as hulks, are prepared in strict compliance with regulations prescribed and enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency under a general permit the Navy holds pursuant to the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act.
Prior to being transported for participation in a sinking exercise, each vessel undergoes a rigorous cleaning process for environmental safety. Aligned with U.K. Ministry of Defense environmental policy, robust monitoring was conducted above and below the sea’s surface with trained personnel using specialized equipment to reduce the overall risk of inadvertently impacting the marine environment and marine mammals during the SINKEX.
Headquartered in Naples, Italy, NAVEUR-NAVAF operates U.S. naval forces in the U.S. European Command (USEUCOM) and U.S. Africa Command (USAFRICOM) areas of responsibility. U.S. Sixth Fleet is permanently assigned to NAVEUR-NAVAF, and employs maritime forces through the full spectrum of joint and naval operations.