Dynamic Manta


Riccardo Niccoli provides an overview of sub-hunting in the Mediterranean off the coastline of Italy during an exercise organised in Middlesex, England

Warships assigned to Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 during Dynamic Manta 2019 included (near to far) HS Elli (F450), FS Auvergne (D654), HNLMS Evertsen (F805), the flagship of SNMG2, ESPS Blas de Lezo (F103) and TCG Gelibolu (F493).

The waters of the central Mediterranean are some way from the Middlesex town of Northwood in the UK. However, the two locations were militarily linked between February 25 and March 8, when Exercise Dynamic Manta 2019 was underway.

This maritime training exercise organised by the Northwood-based NATO Allied Maritime Command (AMC), was dedicated to both antisubmarine warfare (ASW) and anti-surface warfare (ASuW).

Every year the NATO AMC conducts two such large scale exercises; Dynamic Mongoose in the waters of the North Sea, and Dynamic Manta in the central Mediterranean from the east of Sicily and to the south of Calabria.

Dynamic Manta provides participants with intermediate and advanced level training operations in order to validate, evaluate, and perfect the best coordinated maritime air tactics in ASW and ASuW.


Submarines constitute a particularly insidious threat, given the difficulties in locating them. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the end of the Cold War, NATO and many of its member nations concluded the submarine threat was decidedly reduced, and therefore elected not to invest so much in ASW and ASuW.

Today the situation is not as clear cut as twenty years ago, and this is demonstrated by the presence of numerous navies operating in the Mediterranean possessing modern submarines with notable performance. Moreover, there are navies operating in the Mediterranean basin that originate from outside it, and not solely Russia. Consequently, ASW operations have reemerged as an area of significant importance for NATO.

Dynamic Manta is important in the maintenance and development of an adequate ASW capacity by NATO navies, with Italy, the host nation.

Anti-submarine operations include a series of activities which are continually developed. Rarely, in fact, is an anti-submarine operation conducted by a single ship or an isolated aircraft, and these operations prove to be more effective when a varying and complementary range of assets are involved. Dynamic Manta provides the opportunity to learn how to timely and effectively coordinate all the available assets.

Rear Admiral Andrew Lennon, Commander Submarines, NATO said: “Dynamic Manta is a unique opportunity to improve the combat capacities of the naval forces in the three dimensions of anti-submarine warfare in a multi-national environment and with varied elements of threat.”

This year Canada, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Holland, Spain, the UK, and the United States participated with nine surface vessels, five submarines, eight maritime patrol aircraft, 12 helicopters, and 3,000 personnel. Besides the Allied Maritime Command, the NATO Submarine Command (which exercised control over the under-water component), the NATO Maritime Air Command (commanding the air component), and Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 (SNMG2) took part.

Analysing the training reports and feedback collected from operational assets was undertaken by a NATO In-Stride Debriefing Team (IDT), formed by experts in ASW operations and based for the duration of the exercise at Naval Air Station Sigonella, Sicily. The team performed real-time analysis of training events, and provided debriefings to the crews of ships, submarines, and aircraft, all with the aim of accelerating the process of lesson learning during the course of the exercise.

Air component

Aircraft and helicopters involved in this year’s edition were a Canadian CH-148 Cyclone helicopter embarked on HMCS Toronto (FFH333), a pair of CP-140 Aurora maritime patrol aircraft from 407 Maritime Patrol Squadron; France provided the FS Auvergne (D654), an ASW variant FREMM frigate with an NH90 helicopter embarked, and an Atlantic 2 maritime patrol aircraft from Lann-Bihouébased Flottille 23F. The only German asset was a single P-3C Orion from Nordholz operated by Marinefliegergeschwader 3; Greece operated the frigate HS Elli (F450) with an AB212ASW helicopter embarked.

Dutch participation centred around HNLMS Evertsen (F805), the flagship of SNMG2 with an accompanying NH90 helicopter.

The Spanish presence comprised frigates ESPS Santa Maria (F81) carrying an SH-60B helicopter, and ESPS Blas de Lezo (F103) also equipped with an SH-60B, and a P-3M Orion maritime patrol aircraft from Escuadron 221 based at Morón.

Turkish assets were the frigate TCG Gelibolu (F493) with an accompanying S-70B helicopter, and a Turkish Naval Aviation CN235M-100 maritime patrol aircraft from 302 Filo based at Dalaman.

One Fleet Air Arm Merlin HM2 helicopter operated by 814 Naval Air Squadron took part, and from the United States, a pair of P-8A maritime surveillance aircraft from Patrol Squadron 26 (VP-26) ‘Tridents’.

Finally, the Italian Naval air component comprised an SH-101A helicopter from the 3° Gruppo Elicotteri at Catania plus an SH-90A from the 4° Gruppo at Grottaglie, embarked on the Alpino, and another SH-90A helicopter from 5° Gruppo deployed at Catania.

From the start of the exercise the antisubmarine aircraft were deployed to Naval Air Station Sigonella, operating from both the American and Italian areas. The Fleet Air Arm Merlin HM2 operated from the Catania- Fontanarossa, supported by resident SH-101- equipped 3° Gruppo Elicotteri.

Sub-hunting ops

Exercise operations commenced on February 26, and continued for eleven days, weekends included.

US Navy P-8A Poseidon BuNo 168764 flown by Patrol Squadron 26 drops a sonobouy while hunting a submarine.

In the initial phase, autonomous mode submarine hunting missions were conducted using ships and aircraft on a one-on-one basis. The area of sea assigned to the manoeuvres was divided into various sectors, or boxes, within which a single submarine worked against a single aircraft or ship.

As the exercise developed, operations increased in complexity, through the coordinated utilisation of more ships and aircraft, facilitating the employment of more complex and effective tactics. In the span of one mission, which could have an uninterrupted duration of twelve hours, the submarine could regenerate itself, so if it was identified and virtually hit before the end of the period, it could resume the operation in order to maximise the training for both of the participants in the exercise.

ASW tasking is conducted using sonar as the principal detection sensor, which in ships is inserted into the hull (plus, in some cases, the used of a towed receiver), while in helicopters the sonar sensor is lowered into the sea by wire while hovering just a few metres above the water surface.

Aircraft, on the contrary, once the search area has been identified, utilise both active and passive sonobuoys which perform the same function as a shipborne sonar, detecting acoustic echoes to determine, through triangulation, the position of the target.

Some fixed-wing aircraft still possess a MAD (Magnetic Anomaly Detector), a system capable of detecting the presence of a metal mass under the water. Generally, the sensor for the MAD system is housed at the rear end of the aircraft on a dedicated tail boom, essentially to keep it as far as possible away from potential electromagnetic interference from the metal mass of the aircraft.

The best defence for a submarine, and thereby its chances of survival in a submarine hunt, is therefore represented by its silence. Today, the modern conventional undersurface units have achieved truly surprising levels of quietness with the only noise generated created by the propeller which are designed in a way to generate the lowest possible noise.

Nuclear submarines are by their very nature noisier, and are therefore easier to detect. Nevertheless, the anti-submarine task is not a one-way hunt in which the submarine plays just the role of target: if the surface units do not operate to their maximum capability, or make errors, they can easily pass from hunter to hunted, with all the imaginable consequences.

The attack on a submarine, once it has been located, can be conducted either by a ship or an aircraft using torpedoes. Another intrinsic difficulty in ASW operations is derived from the differing characteristics of persistence of the various assets involved. While a surface vessel has no problem in remaining in the area of operations for an indefinite period, the air component is subject to the limitations imposed by their operational endurance. Anti-submarine aircraft usually have extended endurance (the P-8 Poseidon has a 1,200 nautical mile radius with four hours on station), while helicopters generally have much shorter on station times.

Marina SH-90 M.M.81599/3-24 lifts from the flight deck of the frigate Alpino (F594).
Nave Alpino
A Ejercito del Air crew chief marshals P-3M, serial number P.3M-12/22-35, at Naval Air Station Sigonella.
Riccardo Niccoli
A US Navy Air Warfare Officer assigned to Patrol Squadron 26 removes a sonobouy from the rack in the aft cabin.
Riccardo Niccoli

Air assets must, therefore, be carefully managed and coordinated in order to guarantee cover in the requisite time and using the appropriate methods, enabling joint action of all available assets to be rendered effective. The programmed exercise tasks were therefore designed to permit all the surface units to encounter all the participating submarines, and naturally vice versa, in order that all the planned tactics, from search, to identification, and to contact, could be best explored.

Some of the missions saw inversion of the roles, with the submarine being tasked to hunt the surface vessels, thereby performing the ASuW role. In the final phase of the exercise, participants were divided into two groups, operating as opposing forces, and without pre-established scripts.


Most of the air component was based at Sigonella from where US Navy P-8 Poseidon-equipped Patrol Squadron 26 (VP-26) operated. Discussing the activities of VP-26 during the exercise, one of the squadron’s Electronic Warfare Operators said: “The mission we have been tasked to fly today will have a duration of five hours, which is not overly long, as the zone of operations is not far from Sigonella. Once in the zone, we will receive instructions on the tactics to be used from the ship leading the naval group. Usually we utilise the radar as our initial detection tool, and then we drop the sonar buoys, allowing us to detect the echoes from the submarines. The operating altitude in the P-8A is practically the same as the P-3 Orion, while the antisubmarine armament that we simulate is the Mk56 torpedo.”

Describing the functional mechanism of exercise air operations, the commander of the French Aeronavale detachment said: “We receive the Air Tasking Order [ATO] eight hours before we fly the mission and conduct a crew brief four hours before take-off. The ATO comes from US Navy Task Force 67 based at Sigonella and is issued at the request of the naval assets.”

Spain’s participation in Dynamic Manta included the Agosta-class submarine ESPS Tramontana (S74), in service with the Armada since 1985.