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Baltic exercise a show of strength with ‘uninvited observers’ from Russia in mind

A U.S. Marine and Romanian Marines return assault amphibious vehicles during Baltic Operations 2018 at Ustka, Poland, June 7, 2018. (Dengrier M. Baez/U.S. Marine Corps)

Russia wasn’t invited to a 22-nation exercise aimed at deterring them, but the U.S. and NATO military planners of the event knew they’d be watching.

The point of Baltic Operations 2018 at the tactical level is training, but at the strategic level, analysts say it is a show of strength — and that means the allies want Russia’s full attention.

The two-week exercise is scheduled to end Friday, after bringing together 5,000 servicemembers from 16 militaries, as well as six nations who observed or provided staff, for training operations on and around the Baltic Sea.

“It sends a strong message of commitment to the stability and security of this region,” Vice Adm. Lisa Franchetti, 6th Fleet commander, told Stars and Stripes in Bornholm. “So on many levels it’s a very important exercise.”

Several participating nations have been wary of Russia’s intentions since 2014, when it invaded and annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

NATO countries must strengthen their teamwork and resolve in exercises like this one as the Russian threat grows “more forbidding,” said James Holmes, professor of strategy at the Naval War College.

“Deterrence is the name of the game in our strategic competition with Russia, and alliances only deter if they display power and unity,” Holmes said.

The exercise known as BALTOPS began in 1972 and has gone through considerable changes since the end of the Cold War and wavering relations with Russia.

Russia participated in BALTOPS 19 times, Franchetti said, but NATO rescinded the invitation after Russia annexed Crimea.

“This year they (Russians) are uninvited observers at BALTOPS,” said Adm. James Foggo, U.S. Naval Forces Europe and Africa commander.

The Baltic Sea poses many challenges – heavy ship traffic, inclement weather, murky water – that give visiting navies like those of the U.S. and Britain a chance to learn from regional navies familiar with this sea, said British Rear Adm. Guy Robinson.

“It’s a very busy and complex environment,” Robinson said. “The underwater conditions as well – whether it’s submarine warfare or mine warfare – they’re very challenging. (Regional navies) bring a lot of expertise for this very difficult place to conduct warfare.”

This year’s event included several training mainstays. Warships fended off simulated attacks from smaller, faster vessels; teams practiced anti-submarine warfare and mine countermeasures; Marines launched amphibious landings; and others simulated search-and-rescue operations for sailors and downed pilots.

However, the “free play,” or unscripted parts of the exercise, intensified to better train navies to react to unanticipated tactics. The red teams, which play enemy combatants, had freer rein to improvise and attack.

British Navy Lt. Lauren Weber said the boat she commands, the HMS Puncher, and four other small vessels comprised a red team that simulated assaults on warships from the U.S., Britain, Denmark, Germany and Finland.

They attacked the ships one at a time, using different tactics on each one, she said.

In the first assault, they pretended to be a Green Peace flotilla and then rushed the ship from every angle.

“We generated chaos. It was mass confusion,” Weber said.

Franchetti said BALTOPS remains an evolving exercise, with room for new elements.

“It’s good to have this exercise that’s run for 46 years,” Franchetti said. “Build capabilities, but also build relationships between the navies.


© 2018 the Stars and Stripes

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