More than 3,000 sailors and Marines are gearing up for a three-month training deployment to the Mediterranean – this year’s key workout of the UK’s high-readiness task force. For Exercise Cougar 12 Royal Naval warships, Royal Marine commandos and naval airpower, which make up the Response Force Task Group, will train with the French and Albanians.
The RFTG was created under the 2010 defence review and is a rapid reaction force that deals with unexpected world events that require military intervention. Cougar 12 will start in spectacular style with a beach assault by the Royal Marines in the South West from October 1-9 (Exercise Wader) before the entire force meets up in the Med later in the month.
As part of the exercise four warships, one amphibious support ship, a giant transport ship, three commando units and helicopters and personnel from eight Fleet Air Arm, RAF and Army Air Corps squadrons are committed to the three-month deployment – in all more than 3,000 sailors, Royal Marines, soldiers and airmen. They will take part in two large-scale exercises, interspersed with various smaller exercises and training and goodwill visits – in some cases to places which rarely see the White Ensign. The deployment will be the second test for the RFTG which was called upon in anger last year to support operations off Libya: HMS Ocean launched repeated Apache gunships strikes from her flight deck while HMS Liverpool spent seven months enforcing the no-fly zone and preventing arms from reaching pro-Gaddafi forces by sea.
Twelve months on and Portsmouth-based HMS Illustrious will be taking Ocean’s place as the helicopter carrier assigned to the task group. She’ll be joined by the nation’s flagship HMS Bulwark, from where Commodore Paddy McAlpine, Commander UK Task Group, and 3 Commando Brigade’s Brigadier Martin Smith will direct Cougar. They will oversee two key exercises: Corsican Lion, working hand-in-hand with the French, and later this autumn the force will shift to the Adriatic to work with the Albanian military. Corsican Lion, which devours the second half of October, sees the Cougar force link up with France’s flagship and aircraft carrier FS Charles de Gaulle – the most powerful surface ship in western European waters. Her flight deck will be the launchpad for Super Étendard and Rafale jets, offering a first real glimpse of how the Response Force Task Group should look at the end of the decade when HMS Queen Elizabeth enters service with the Royal Navy.
And in the nearer future, Corsican Lion is the most important strand of Cougar and a major step along the road towards forging a fully-operational Anglo-French force by 2016. There will be planned exercises with the US and Algerian forces and visits to Algeria and Malta – particularly poignant for Illustrious as she has ties with the island going back to her predecessor and the dark days of World War 2.
“Cougar 12 provides us with a superb opportunity to rekindle our amphibious capability after a prolonged period when our focus has been on operations elsewhere,” said Cdre McAlpine. His force stands at five days’ notice to deploy anywhere in the world should the government require it; in theory the task group can poise off the coast of 147 nations – three out of four countries in the world.
Participants in Cougar 12 are:
RFA Mounts Bay
MV Hartland Point
Headquarters of 3 Commando Brigade
45 Commando (currently the UK’s on-call Royal Marines unit ready to respond to world events)
30 Commando IX Group
539 Assault Squadron Royal Marines
814 Naval Air Squadron (Merlins)
815 Naval Air Squadron (Lynx)
829 Naval Air Squadron (Merlins)
845 Naval Air Squadron (Commando-carrying Sea Kings)
846 Naval Air Squadron (Commando-carrying Sea Kings)
854 Naval Air Squadron (airborne surveillance and control Sea Kings)
656 Squadron Army Air Corps (Apache gunships)
659 Squadron Army Air Corps (Lynx)
HMS Illustrious will leave Portsmouth naval base to join her counterparts in the South West for Wader on Monday October 1. She will sail past the Round Tower at 1.35pm and will have Merlins and Sea Kings embarked with personnel lining her upper deck.
HMS Bulwark will leave Devonport naval base on Monday October 1 on her way to Wader. Bulwark will sail past Devil’s Point at 1845. HMS Montrose will sail past Devil’s Point on Tuesday October 2 at 1030.