Maritime Strike: The Untold Story of the Royal Navy Task Group off Libya in 2011

  • Published

Maritime Strike: The Untold Story of the Royal Navy Task Group off Libya in 2011 by Rear Admiral John Kingwell. Casemate Publishers, 2022, 184 pp.

The United Kingdom Strategic Defence and Security Review of 2010 formalized UK defense strategy to continue to prioritize the land-heavy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.1 Coupled with a weak economy, the Royal Navy’s strained budget led to a force redesign that combined what were formerly separate carrier and amphibious strike groups into a single Very High Readiness Maritime Task Force called the Response Force Task Group (RFTG) and since rebranded as the Joint Expeditionary Force (Maritime).

The RTFG was slated for its inaugural deployment to the Mediterranean and Red Seas for a series of exercises in the spring of 2011, but the group was quickly retasked to support operations in Libya as the Arab Spring unfolded. It was into this strategic environment that then Commodore John Kingwell deployed as the RFTG commander. Maritime Strike: The Untold Story of The Royal Navy Task Group off Libya in 2011 is Kingwell’s memoir of his career, with a heavy emphasis on RFTG formation and operations in Libya.

The book is tactically detailed, drawing from diaries he kept through the deployment. In addition to an almost daily account of strike operations, the heart of the book is the command relationship of the RFTG and its effectiveness and flexibility for projecting British military power. Kingwell also describes how his career led him to flag rank and RFTG command. Throughout the book, he includes anecdotes of the successes and challenges he had leading sailors.

Kingwell’s assignment as RFTG commander coincided with the RFTG stand up, and to the benefit of the unit he helped shape it from the beginning. He describes the difficulty in shifting mindsets away from the old amphibious task group to the new RFTG, which with its broader mission provides a good lesson in changing an organizational culture. While the RFTG structure is designed to be task-oriented to a specific mission, in Libya it turned out to be flexible enough to conduct a variety of operations. For example, if tasked with an amphibious landing, command of the landing force would be transferred from Kingwell as the task group commander to the commander landing force, but the new design of the RFTG integrated their staffs together for planning.

In spring 2011 and ahead of schedule for a pre-planned deployment for exercises, the RFTG was ordered to the Mediterranean and Red Seas under a broad remit to respond to Libya, demonstrate capability, and “exploit the utility of maritime power in support of wider Defence objectives” (51). Kingwell’s group included an amphibious assault ship dock, a frigate, and a landing ship dock as well as an embarked battalion of Royal Marines. They were soon joined by a stores ship, a tanker, an amphibious helicopter carrier with attack, troop carrying, airborne surveillance and control, and utility helicopters. The pace of the group’s planning staff was furious as the breadth of their mission sets was wide; in addition to Libya—by then Operation Unified Protector—both Syria and Yemen were at the beginning of Arab Spring-inspired instability and presented potential operations to prepare for. Joint planners will recognize this phase of the deployment as mission analysis.

Following participation in small exercises in the region, the group was tasked with attack helicopter strikes on pro-Ghaddafi forces in Libya. Executing attack helicopter strikes off of a ship had never before been done by the UK military. In perhaps the archetypal joint and combined operation, the maritime group struck targets tasked by a NATO air component air operations center with British Army attack helicopters under the tactical control of a Royal Navy C2 helicopter, and was eventually supported by US Air Force rescue helicopters, all from the same ship.

The complexity of the command relationship required to make this happen is succinctly discussed, and the joint officer will recognize the difficulty in bringing these pieces together safely and effectively. Briefly, the task group remained under the operational command and operational control of the UK joint staff, but the strike tasking would come from NATO, and once airborne, the helicopters would be under NATO tactical control. While accomplishing NATO tasking, the group retained the authority and capability for UK national tasking, and indeed detached part of the formation away from Libya for exercises elsewhere.

Kingwell personally monitored all 22 attack helicopter strikes and recounts the level of risk he had to accept for a new type of mission while commending the performance of the aircrew. While prepared, the embarked Royal Marines were never called to action ashore in Libya. As the conflict drew down and the rules of engagement became prohibitively restrictive for attack helicopters, the group was released from Libya tasking.

Besides the effectiveness and flexibility of the UK RFTG, the other major subject of the book is the command experience of Kingwell. The first two chapters are spent recounting his career path from the time he joined the Royal Navy at the age of 15 through his promotion to commander at 32, and then through staff and command jobs to RFTG commander. To the reader it’s clear his leadership potential was identified early; through his career he continued to be groomed for flag rank by getting selected early for commands, serving as a staff officer and military assistant to senior leaders, and getting placed in key staff positions to gain an understanding of the broader defense enterprise beyond the navy.

Kingwell has a consensus-building leadership style—spending much of the book giving due credit to those whom he served with—and has a knack for getting the right people into the right place at the right time, best illustrated by his embarked combined amphibious/land staff. The personal stories told in the book span the breadth of command responsibilities from interacting with junior sailors to handling media relations to navigating the politics (small “p”) of the UK joint staff and interservice rivalries—one of which nearly led to his firing while in task group command.

It is hard to find fault with a personal memoir. Kingwell has a direct writing style, and aside from the many kudos given to his brothers and sisters in arms, the book is largely factual. More than once he references the strategic effect his group had on pro-Gaddafi forces but also acknowledges his unit’s contribution to a larger overall effort. A cynic may question the impact 22 helicopter strikes and two companies of commandos can have at the strategic level, but as weak as the pro-Gaddafi forces were, every successful attack mattered. The Royal Navy succeeded in identifying and grooming Kingwell’s talent, but for the sake of brevity or humility he goes into little depth about how. In an age where US military services are reforming talent-development and command-selection processes, a deeper dive into this early identification would be instructive.

Maritime Strike wasn’t written to be the book about the strategic level of the 2011 Libya conflict, or even the broader military operation outside of the RFTG. It’s a short but good read for planners and programmers looking for a real-world example of a well-formed joint unit as well as officers looking for successful command examples without the platitudes and “pop-command” philosophies plaguing much of contemporary leadership literature today.

Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Beha, USAF

1 David Cameron and Nick Clegg, Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The Strategic Defence and Security Review (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 2010), https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/.

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."