Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Largest-ever Baltics exercise aims to reassure U.S. partners, allies in the region

Otto Kreisher, Seapower
9 June 2015

WASHINGTON – Baltic Operations (BALTOPS) 2015, the largest ever of the annual NATO-led exercise in the Baltic Sea, was under way June 8 with ships, aircraft, Sailors, Marines and Soldiers from 17 nations engaged in a complex range of operations intended to demonstrate and improve interoperability and to reassure allies and partners in a region that has become more tense in the wake of recent Russian belligerence.
During a conference call with reporters, the top commanders of the exercise denied that the regularly schedule exercise was in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere. VADM James Foggo, commander of Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO and overall commander of BALTOPs 2015, said “We’re reassuring our partners and allies in the Baltic region.”
And Royal Navy Rear Adm. Tim Lowe, NATO Striking Force deputy commander, said “I think the strength of the alliance is the main thing being demonstrated here ... Our ability to integrate and operate together.”
Even if the exercise was not intended to send a message to the Russians, they clearly were well aware of what was happening virtually within sight of Russia’s Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, sending ships and aircraft to shadow the allied force.
“Today, during our formation steaming, we had some company from Russian ships. And this afternoon we were overflown by two Russian aircraft, I believe SU-24s, who
made two passes,” Foggo said from his flagship, the USS San Antonio. Then two Russian corvettes showed up, he added.
“It was nothing untoward, just them showing interest, just showing they know we’re here. Which is fine because we want them to know,” Foggo said. “We attempted to get in touch with them, by radio, as we always do. But there was no response.”
Lowe said the large exercise was “not a show of force. It’s just a reflection of the fact that NATO nations and partners want to exercise together. It’s not a reaction to anything.” But, he added, the increased number of nations involved shows the solidarity of the alliance.
Foggo, agree that BALTOPS “was not in response to any particular geo-political act” as it has been conducted annually for more than 40 years and the Russians had participated as recently as 2007.
“The geo-political situation has changed,” and Russia was not invited this year, he said.
Although BALTOPS has been conducted since 1971, this year’s exercise was the largest, with 49 surface ships, one submarine, more than 61 aircraft and about 5,600 personnel from the 11 nations in the NATO Striking Force and six partner countries, including the four Baltic nations and Georgia, which are feeling pressure from Russia following its seizure of Crimea.
The U.S. participation included the dock landing ship San Antonio, the cruiser Vicksburg, the guided-missile destroyer Jason Dunham, three P-3C and one P-8A maritime patrol aircraft and more than 2,000 service members, including about 300 Marines and Navy SEALs.
Recent additions to the U.S. force were two Air Force B-2 stealth bombers and two B-52s.
The 15-day exercise was to include extensive naval maneuvers, including anti-submarine warfare, mine-countermeasures, live firing exercises and a complex amphibious landing on the coast of Poland involving amphibs, Marines and naval infantry from four nations.
About the same time, U.S. Army troops and allied Soldiers were conducting land exercises in the region, Foggo said.
“The message is, it’s not just the maritime domain that’s out here exercising, it’s also the land and air domain,” he said.
The exercises also are intended to practice “being more expeditionary, so you can just pick up and go,” the admiral said.

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