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Analysis: Larger NATO Baltic Sea Exercise Sends Important Message to Russia

Allied forces practice amphibious assault near Ustka, northern Poland, on 17 June 2015 as part of BALTOPS 2015. NATO Photo

Allied forces practice amphibious assault near Ustka, northern Poland, on 17 June 2015 as part of BALTOPS 2015. NATO Photo

Summer is exercise season in the Baltic Sea region, and one of the largest ones is BALTOPS 16, which runs between June 3 and June 18, and ranges across a considerable portion of the Baltic Sea.

Over the next three weeks BALTOPS 16 will draw together some 6,000 personnel, 45 warships, and 60 aircraft from 17 nations, including the United States, Germany, the U.K., the Netherlands, along with the littoral states of the Baltic States who are NATO members (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Denmark) or NATO partners (Sweden and Finland).

Over the last two decades, the annual BALTOPS exercises have taken on a decidedly low-end character, with emphasis placed on maritime security tasks such as search and rescue, counterterrorism at sea, and other types of cooperative security tasks. High-end naval and amphibious warfighting came roaring back, however, to BALTOPS 15, with landing exercises taking place in both Sweden and Poland, while B-52s were brought in to practice airborne deployment of sea mines.

BALTOPS 16 will maintain the focus on high-end maritime warfighting (including amphibious landings and anti-submarine warfare), as the region remains a central friction zone between NATO and a newly assertive Russia that has continued with its snap exercises and close, and arguably dangerous, encounters between Russian and NATO member warships and jets. Indeed, this behavior has even escalated in recent months, as the U.S. guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook (DDG-75), while in the Baltic Sea in April, experienced multiple high-speed passes by Russian jets at close range. A few days later a U.S. reconnaissance flight over the Baltic Sea was barrel rolled by a Russian fighter which came as close as 30 feet to the U.S. plane.

The navies and merchant fleets of the Baltic Sea littoral states have experienced this type of behavior since 2014, but Russia now seems more willing to also perform these types of maneuvers in close proximity to US ships and planes. This should be understood as an extension of the anti-access area denial (A2/AD) network that Russia is building with long-range anti-ship and air defense systems in its Kaliningrad enclave in the southeast corner of the Baltic. Making it uncomfortable for the United States and NATO to operate and exercise in the Baltic through dangerous encounters is another way to deny the area to U.S. and NATO forces.

BALTOPS 16 is an important message to Russia, and showcases the U.S. and NATO’s determination to operate in the Baltic Sea, and prepare for contingencies when maritime forces will have to play a role in forcing access to the region to reinforce the exposed Baltic States in a crisis or during wartime. But BALTOPS is also sorely needed for purely military reasons.

160412-N-00000-005 BALTIC SEA – A Russian Sukhoi Su-24 attack aircraft makes a low altitude pass by the USS Donald Cook (DDG 75) April 12, 2016. Donald Cook, an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, forward deployed to Rota, Spain is conducting a routine patrol in the U.S. 6th Fleet area of operations in support of U.S. national security interests in Europe. (U.S. Navy photo/Released)

A Russian Sukhoi Su-24 attack aircraft makes a low altitude pass by the USS Donald Cook (DDG-75) April 12, 2016. Donald Cook, an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, forward deployed to Rota, Spain. US Navy Photo

The nations of northeastern Europe, along with the rest of the NATO members, have spent precious little time on complex and high-end warfighting skills, such as anti-submarine warfare in the littorals, over the last two decades, and these skills must now be dusted off.

Furthermore, there is a real need to bolster interoperability and a regional approach to maritime missions. While the navies of the region have indeed shrunk since the end of the Cold War, northeastern Europe is hardly void of capable platforms and crews. Sweden and Germany operate some of the best conventional submarines in the world, while both Norway and Denmark have opted to introduce the F-35 Lighting II to replace their F-16 Fighting Falcon fleets. Poland meanwhile has embarked on an ambitious military modernization effort, which includes both new surface combatants and a new class of submarines. BALTOPS is an important opportunity to begin stitching these capabilities together across the region.

BALTOPS also carries special political importance this year. It is held a mere month before the major NATO Summit in Warsaw in Poland, close to the Baltic Sea, where NATO is expected to decide on a more robust presence in northeast Europe in the form of multinational battalions for the Baltic States.

Previous major meetings of NATO’s leaders have usually been accompanied by Russian attempts to stir discord within the alliance. For example, Russian operatives snatched an Estonian intelligence agent from Estonian territory mere days after President Obama visited the country in 2014, in a clear attempt to point to America’s apparent inability to defend its allies. Russia will certainly watch BALTOPS 16 closely, and may attempt to disrupt it, or stage its own snap exercise, to cast doubt on the alliance as it prepares for its crucial summit in Warsaw.

  • FedUpWithWelfareStates

    …and what message would that be?

    That we are STILL attempting to utilize costly WWII tactics, in terms of lives sacrificed & assets wasted, by planning on conducting outdated Amphibious Landings during daylight hours…

    • Tired of Ignorance

      Yes, they should do it at night because nobody has night vision/IR.

      Whats your issue with Amphib ops again? Do you expect Special Forces to erect teleporters to get men and material from ship to shore?

      • sferrin

        Amphibious landings are completely worthless ‘cuz they might get shot at. Didn’t you see “Saving Private Ryan”? Jeez.

    • redgriffin

      So how would you get a large amount of military equipment into someplace like the Baltic?

    • Ed L

      I heard that using trains take more than a day to cross Poland. Also not enough rolling stock available. Do you know the Soviet Army, AirForce and Navy conducted over 200 Amphibious landings in the Baltic during the Great Patriotic War. And they continue practicing them till the early 90’s. The Russians have continue that practice.

  • sferrin

    If they really wanted to send a message they’d do a REFORGER. Oh right, we can’t. (And nevermind that half of Europe would wet it’s pants.

    • Ed L

      I miss those days of Reforger exercises. But we don’t have the ships to do that anymore. Two Carriers, number Helicopter Carriers, 3 dozen amphibs and Merchant vessels. over a dozen escorts, etc. etc. and practicing black sky ASW while crossing the Atlantic. Army Pilots were pretty good at landing on moving decks.

      • Charles Simon

        you mean “don’t” have.

        • Ed L

          Roger that

  • old guy

    When we rid ourselves of OBUMBLER in the oval; office we just may stand a chance.

  • Ed L

    B-52’s practicing laying mines! Since most of the Russian Baltic fleet is out of the gulf of Finland, that could restrict them, Then you would have to worry about Kaliningrad. As long as the Baltic states can hold the line. But without Nato help is going to be hard. Wonder how long it would take to get the US Army back up to half if it pre 1993 Nato strength.

  • old guy

    I can just see Putin trembling through his YAWN.

  • Marjus Plaku

    I feel the next logical step is stationing tactical nuclear weapons in the Baltic states and Poland. Sure Germany, the UK and Dutch are protected but Putin is free to threaten the Eastern members at will because they do not posses the physical presence of NATO nukes on their soil. Put some there and the calculation becomes Tallin, Riga and Vilnus for St. Petersburg and Moscow (basically most of Russia), I’ll take that deal, with all due respect and regard for our Baltic allies.