HMS Prince of Wales basks under the Northern Lights and Royal Marines get to grips with -30C chills in Norway's biggest military exercise in 30 years as NATO sends 'keep out' warning to Putin
The Royal Navy cemented its position as the gold standard for maritime power after leading NATO's staunchest naval exercises in three decades as the alliance flexes its muscles in direct response to Vladimir Putin's aggression.
HMS Prince of Wales, Britain's 65,000-ton 'supercarrier', was pictured under the aurora borealis in Norway as more than 30,000 personnel from NATO and its partners joined together in a show of defence of the alliance's northern flank.
The £3.3bn aircraft carrier was joined a Royal Navy destroyer, a frigate, a nuclear-powered attack submarine and more than 2,000 military personnel for the land, air and sea exercises under -30C conditions, underlining the UK's commitment to security in Europe.
Throughout the fortnight-long exercise, the Royal Navy continued to showcase its cutting edge naval capabilities - including launching commando raids from submarines and operating a fifth-gen aircraft carrier in sub-zero conditions for the first time.
Joining them throughout were around 3,000 sailors and Royal Marines, who honed new stealth raiding techniques while navigating Norway's treacherous coastline, alongside more regular drills and manoeuvres.
The Arctic exercise, known as Cold Response, occurs every two years and is intended to test Nato's readiness to defend its northern flank against any possible threat.
Organisers said the event was in no way linked to Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24, and Moscow did not send official observers to the land, air and sea exercises.
It comes as Boris Johnson today vowed to send Ukraine 120 armoured vehicles and new anti-ship missile systems to expel Putin's invading army after the Prime Minister met Ukraine's Volodymyr Zelensky in an unannounced 'surprise' visit to Kyiv.
A No 10 spokesman said the Prime Minister was using the visit to set out a new package of financial and military aid, and comes the day after he announced a further £100million worth of UK military assistance for Kyiv's forces, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons and so-called 'suicide drones'.
During the two-week Cold Response exercise, the Royal Navy showcased its capabilities as a world-leading force, with HMS Prince of Wales taking the lead as NATO's command ship throughout the naval drills.
The 65,000-ton warship would would lead the alliance's Maritime High Readiness Force – which would deal with any major global events in the future.
HMS Prince of Wales commanding officer, Captain Steve Higham, said: 'As we continue to operate in and around the Arctic with our allies and partners, the sailors on HMS Prince of Wales are continuing to learn the skills, and build the experience that allow the Royal Navy to push the boundaries of UK carrier operations in the cold, harsh environment.'
Around 35,000 troops, 200 aircraft and 50 vessels were involved in Cold Response, including roughly 900 Royal Marines who spearheaded the UK's involvement.
Its leader, Lt Gen Yngve Odlo, said: 'It's a defensive exercise. It's not a military operation with an offensive purpose.'
Troops from 28 countries in Europe and North America took part in the exercise lasting around a month, which began in northern Norway on March 14. Nato member Norway shares nearly 124 miles of land border with Russia.
Tobias Ellwood MP, chair of the Commons defence select committee, described the prime minister's visit to Kyiv today as a 'powerful message directly to Putin that we won't be intimidated'.
He also told Sky News that countries such as the UK, Poland and Slovakia are 'breaking away from NATO's self-imposed limits' by offering greater military support to Ukraine. Continuing to criticise NATO, Mr Ellwood stressed that 'what happens in Ukraine is the security of Europe'.
'I called for a division of NATO to go in prior to the invasion, but NATO didn't want to know. And I think they're now regretting that decision,' he said. 'So seeing the prime minister step forward, take some leadership, because much of NATO is consolidated within the NATO architecture that they've left Ukraine outside of that support.'
The war games included raids along the jagged Norwegian coastline from an amphibious task group led by HMS Albion.
Divers with HMS Grimsby plunged into icy fjords to practice neutralising sea mines, as Wildcat helicopters scoured the landscape proving to be a 'revelation'.
Normally used to hunting suspicious ships, the Wildcat used its Seaspray radar over land for the first time, picking out targets for their colleagues, flying alongside the Royal Marines' regular battlefield 'eyes in the sky', 847 Naval Air Squadron who provided intelligence and firepower to green berets on the ground, sometimes assisted by the US Marine Corps' Cobra gunships.
'Spreading knowledge and sharing our experiences makes both organisations stronger,' said Lieutenant Dave Lewis, a pilot with 847 Naval Air Squadron's B Flight.
His squadron's engineers ensured the helicopters were available for sorties 98.5 per cent of the time – an astonishing serviceability record given the remorseless environment.
Merlin Mk4 helicopters of 845 Naval Air Squadron ferried Royal Marines, equipment and supplies around, often in unforgiving conditions, and often side-by-side with American, German and Norwegian personnel.
'Exercise Cold Response 22 has been an outstanding demonstration of not only our integration with NATO partners, but also the seamless ability of Royal Navy, Royal Marines and Royal Fleet Auxiliary units to work together,' said Lt Cdr Tom Nason, 845 NAS Detachment commander.
As the exercise reached its climax, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace visited personnel on the ground and HMS Prince of Wales to thank them for their efforts – declare UK's long-term commitment to security in the region and regular deployment of Royal Navy and Royal Marines assets to the High North to underscore that commitment.
HMS Prince of Wales was joined by frigate HMS Richmond, Type 45 destroyer HMS Defender, a Royal Fleet Auxiliary tanker and a nuclear-powered attack submarine escorting her.
The drills aim to show how a unified multilateral force would defend Norway and Europe's northern flank from a modern adversary.
The UK's participation in the exercises underlines Britain's commitment to security in Europe and forges closer bonds between NATO allies and partners.
Brigadier Rich Cantrill, in charge of the UK's commando forces, said last month: 'The UK is making a strong contribution to one of the largest Cold Response exercises for years.
'Nato as an alliance needs to be ready for anything, ready for all environments. It's essential for us to support Norwegian partners and that's why we train in the Arctic so often.
'Cold Response is an amazing opportunity for key Nato allies and partners to come together in the most challenging environment of the High North, prepare for any eventuality and learn to work together.
'What we'll see is a strong maritime task force and then land exercises. We will see many nations come together from the UK to Norway, the USA, the Netherlands, France, Germany and Italy.
'The exercises will see allied forces, including from NATO partner nations Sweden and Finland, take control of the waters off Norway's coastline in a training scenario designed to enhance the alliance's ability to protect the host nation.
'Air operations will commence soon after that before the final phase will see amphibious landings and land operations.' Nato said the drill, was 'not linked to Russia's unprovoked and unjustified invasion of Ukraine'.
It said the drill was planned long before alleged war criminal Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to invade Ukraine.
HMS Prince of Wales, Britain's 65,000-ton 'supercarrier', joined more than 30,000 personnel from NATO and its partners joined together in a show of defence of the alliance's northern flank.