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Bulwark heads major military exercise off north-west Scotland

HMS Bulwark during Joint Warrior in October 2011

07/10/2011

HMS Bulwark - due to assume the role of the nation's flagship imminently - is leading the Royal Navy's participation in the latest Joint Warrior exercise in Scotland. Between them, ten nations have committed land, sea and air forces to the two-week work-out, the largest such exercise staged in the UK this autumn.

The opportunity to host French marines is fantastic. With the current emphasis on combined operations, it’s vital we gain as much experience as possible working with other nations in a joint environment.
Capt Alex Burton

French marines get a soaking as a Zodiac raider from HMS Bulwark approaches the Scottish coast in the opening stages of the largest military exercise staged in the UK this autumn.

Right now, Joint Warrior – a test of land, sea and air forces from ten nations including Britain – is reaching the half-way point and preparing to move into ‘business’ stage.

The exercise – ranging from Faslane to the north-west tip of Scotland at Cape Wrath – is intended to test NATO forces across the full spectrum of 21st-Century conflict, from fending off air attack and hunting mines and submarines to putting – and, crucially, supporting – troops ashore.

Assault ship HMS Bulwark is the largest Royal Navy participant in the latest Joint Warrior, but the elite infantry punch, unusually, is provided by French rather than Royal Marines.

Before sailing for Scotland, the Devonport-based ship had been in Southampton on very public display at the city’s boat show (just shy of 10,000 people crossed the gangway to tour the 18,000-tonne leviathan).

From the Solent she sailed to Brest to pick up 130 men from the 2nd Marine Infantry Regiment (2RIMa) – under the latest link-up between the respective corps since British and French marines were ‘twinned’ back in 1995.

As well as personnel, Bulwark embarked the French troops vehicles and kit in Brittany, then sailed north, making use of the passage to Faslane to allow the ship’s company and visitors to train together.

“The opportunity to host French marines is fantastic,” said Capt Alex Burton, Bulwark’s Commanding Officer. “With the current emphasis on combined operations, it’s vital we gain as much experience as possible working with other nations in a joint environment.”

Joint Warrior is run twice a year; the latest two-week war game sees forces from the USA, France, Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Germany, Norway, Turkey and Poland lined up alongside UK air, sea and land units.

The exercise grew out of the Joint Maritime Course. Its name has changed down the years to reflect that it’s not just a dark blue affair, but embraces all three Services.

For Bulwark, Joint Warrior comes hot on the heels of the assault ship passing the RN’s Operational Sea Training, the standard test for all Royal Navy ships and submarines gearing up for operational duties.

The work-out off Scotland takes the training to the next level, from a naval standpoint testing the ability of ships to work in large national or international groups.

In the case of this Joint Warrior, a cluster of Hunt-class minehunters – Ledbury, Cattistock and Hurworth – have made the trip north from Portsmouth to work alongside Bulwark.

For the latter, the first week of the exercise is devoted to ‘wader’ training, which is putting troops and kit ashore at a more gentle pace than a full-scale operation – it tests the basics (if you can ever call amphibious operations basic…).

As well as transferring les marines to move from ship to shore – courtesy of Bulwark’s own Royal Marines unit, 4 Assault Squadron, and their panoply of landing craft and boats – the assault ship’s task on Joint Warrior is ‘command and control’, choreographing all the elements of naval warfare to ensure the troops get ashore safely and can push in on land to meet their objectives.

It is, quite simply, as good a test of all 320 ship’s company, plus embarked staff and marines, as you could wish for outside front-line operations.

“The quality and diverse training that is offered by Joint Warrior is invaluable to the ship and her crew,” Capt Burton adds.

“We’ve had a busy year so far, but Joint Warrior is simply the next step – and the perfect exercise for us before taking over as the Royal Navy’s flagship.

“It demonstrates that Bulwark and her crew are more than capable of fulfilling the role expected of her.” That role means being ready to head the new UK Response Force Task Group, the Royal Navy’s new maritime force formed under last year’s Strategic Defence and Security Review.

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