In May 2021, 16 ships, 31 aircraft and over 3,300 personnel from ten NATO nations tracked and engaged subsonic, supersonic and ballistic missile targets as part of At Sea Demonstration/Formidable Shield 21 (ASD/FS-21). The US-led coalition programme was hosted by QinetiQ and conducted by the Maritime Theater Missile Defense Forum (MTMD-F) on, around and above the MOD Hebrides range to demonstrate high-end warfighting capabilities and combat system interoperability. Significantly, it combined the operational aspects of a sophisticated live-fire exercise with advanced test and evaluation activities and successfully fulfilled all programme objectives.
The MTMD-F At Sea Demonstration was conducted in conjunction with NATO’s Formidable Shield 21, the fourth in the series of biennial maritime exercises and the most complex to date. Activities focused on the defensive and simultaneous deployment of Integrated Air and Missile Defence (IAMD) systems within a joint operation and using NATO command and control reporting structures. The key objectives were to use representative operational scenarios to test coalition interoperability of maritime, air and land assets, to assess new technologies and to promote joint capabilities in response to the proliferation of increasingly advanced threats.
The nations participating in ASD/FS-21 included Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, the UK and the United States. In addition to the high level of complexity of the various multi-national exercises, the Covid-19 pandemic presented further complications in terms of personnel safety for the local Island community as well as QinetiQ staff and visitors to MOD Hebrides.
Building on its earlier experience and successful support of Formidable Shield exercises in 2015, 2017 and 2019, ASD/FS2-1 was hosted by QinetiQ at MOD Hebrides under the company’s Long-Term Partnering Agreement with the MOD. Effective, safe and resilient support is vital to the success of these events. Working in close collaboration with all the participating nations, skilled personnel within the QinetiQ team were responsible for logistics, range control, situational awareness, safety and security as well as management support. This required two years of painstaking planning and preparations to cover all eventualities, minimise delays and disruption and ensure operational safety and agility throughout the various exercises.
Hosting and supporting such a major event demanded foresight, skills and experience of QinetiQ’s specialist engineers, analysts, weapons specialists, and project managers - both on and off site. It also required seamless collaboration with the Missile Defense Agency, the US Sixth Fleet and all MTMD-F members to deliver all target outcomes and to ensure all equipment was fully integrated into the MOD Hebrides range.
Working collaboratively with all partners, QinetiQ provided detailed and regular briefings for all of its personnel and visitors in preparation for ASD/FS-21. The company, with a significant contribution from the United States, also completed a major investment programme to improve and extend the facilities and support infrastructure at MOD Hebrides in advance of the event. MOD Hebrides is the largest range of its kind in Europe, with launch pads for large target missiles, radar tracking, telemetry and comprehensive evaluation facilities as well as accommodation for permanent and visiting personnel.
The upgrading of facilities at the range included construction of new U.S. funded Ammunition Processing Building. This new structure has supplemented and enhanced existing capabilities to provide a safe and secure location for the assembly and processing of large targets, including the Pathfinder Zombie and GQM-163A targets. This was not a minor undertaking. It was not only a case of working to an immoveable deadline and securing the appropriate explosives licence from the Health and Safety Executive. The QinetiQ team also had to overcome the challenges of a global pandemic and material supply shortages arising from Brexit as well the remoteness of the location, ecological and environmental sensitivities and compliance with the stringent planning requirements for a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).
A new launch pad was also created to support the expansion of range capabilities for the assembly, processing and launch of a new range of targets. This entailed laying a new concrete base and constructing an environmental shelter over the target launcher as well as blast deflector walls to provide effective protection for people and equipment during launches.
This work followed recent improvements to other areas of range infrastructure including a major extension of range control facilities, full upgrading of all trials control and telemetry systems and the refurbishment of accommodation buildings. A temporary ‘village’ with communal facilities for 150 personnel essential to the exercise was also constructed for ASD/FS-21.
Now double its former size and equipped with the latest instrumentation and advanced control systems, the Range Control Building was the nerve centre for the event. It now provides the resources, operational efficiencies and comprehensive Test and Evaluation capabilities to support progressive and advanced trials, including complex multiple trials running concurrently. No less than 12km of fibre optic cabling has been used to provide the required connectivity between launchers, control systems and Range Control.
The QinetiQ team took great care to ensure personnel from all nations were engaged fully during the preparations for ASD/FS-21 and maintained full compliance with all safety, security, environmental and communication protocols at all times - including strict disciplines to comply with restrictions arising from the pandemic. This included establishing a stringent testing regime for all visitors to MOD Hebrides and careful management of all unavoidable in-person engagements.
The team also completed the complex procedures for securing confirmation of clean air and sea space approvals and all relevant licences before proceeding with any missile launches. In addition, it coordinated the effective integration of multiple systems used by the different nations, maintaining close engagement with all relevant personnel and systems for all exercises.
QinetiQ’s operational role included co-ordination of all aspects of threat representation to help design and deliver complex realistic attack scenarios featuring ballistic and supersonic missiles for the multi-national Maritime Task Group to defeat.
Outcomes and benefits
Split between two task groups a thousand miles apart, the exercise presented a realistic attack scenario of long-range offensive Anti-Surface Warfare combined with defensive Anti-Air Warfare. The event enabled all participating nations to train and demonstrate their responsiveness and interoperability when faced with such complex threats and while under simultaneous Electronic Warfare attack.
ASD/FS-21 delivered extensive strategic and operational benefits that have reinforced the spirit of collaboration and strengthened the defence and security of the UK and NATO partner nations.
According to Captain Philip Tilden, the Royal Navy’s Head of Above Water Battlespace Capability Warfare, ASD/FS-21 was an “overwhelming success” and also provided the opportunity to test plot level data exchange and fusion and to carry out essential testing and trials of new equipment and software. The event helped to build confidence in systems and capabilities, provided insightful data on performance and responsiveness and enabled participants to refine their operational skills within a live-firing exercise. It also demonstrated the interoperability of multiple task force ships on the Operational EUCOM Tactical Digital Information Link architecture.
Altogether, there were a total of 17 live events in which 22 missiles were fired and 32 targets deployed, including ballistic, supersonic and subsonic. Highlights of exercises undertaken during ASD/FS-21, included:
- First use on the MOD Hebrides Range of the sea-skimming GQM-163A Coyote supersonic targets, with 5 ships firing at 2 targets
- First use in Europe of the Pathfinder Zombie target that emulates a Short Range Ballistic Missile
- Two launches of the Terrier Oriole target that emulates a Medium Range Ballistic Missile
- Successful deployment of the Banshee, Firejet and Mirach targets by QinetiQ’s Combined Aerial Targets Team
"There are few places in the world where we can conduct this type of operation,” said Captain Jonathan Lipps, Commander for Task Force 64, US Navy 6th Fleet. “Here at MOD Hebrides, we can do so safely and capture the lessons learned that we need to build for the future.”