PALANGA, LITHUANIA – Spanish amphibious assault vehicles swam ashore from an American amphibious dock landing ship, with ground forces filing out with their machine guns and taking a position on the beach. Romanian ground forces spilled out of a Polish PTS tracked vehicle, shortly before seven landing craft from three nations slid up onto the beach in perfect symmetry. British forces fast-roped down out of an AW101 Merlin helicopter at the same time Spanish troops did the same from their AH-3 Sea King helo.
As the U.S. Navy and its NATO allies showed off the various ways they could take a beach from the sea, they were also showing a deeper commitment to collective security in the Baltic Sea and in Europe in general.
With 18 nations sending 50 ships, two submarines, three dozen aircraft and about 8,600 personnel, the size of the 47th annual BALTOPS alone is impressive. But digging into those numbers is more revealing: the number of personnel in the exercise is more than double than the 4,000 of the 2017 event. The United Kingdom sent 14 ships and Spain sent its flagship and two high-end air defense frigates. And the exercise included fixed-wing strike aircraft – seven Spanish AV-8B Harrier IIs off amphibious assault ship ESPS Juan Carlos I (L-61) – for the first time in years.
After the amphibious demonstration, Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis told reporters that the scale of the exercise and the integration of multinational forces “send out the messaging that … we are together, we are united, and that all the nations participating, the nations in the alliance, are working for collective defense.”
“This is how we collectively should address common threats, common challenges,” he said.
References to Russia during the exercise were limited, but growing Russian military activity in and around Europe has clearly altered how NATO allies and partner nations view the security environment. In addition to tried-and-true NATO security forces, such as the Standing NATO Maritime Group 1 unit that dates back to the 1960s, the exercise also included the new Joint Expeditionary Force (Maritime), a British-led effort to maintain a force that could act faster than NATO in a crisis.
During the press conference, Maj. Gen. Stephen Neary, commanding general of 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade and a BALTOPS amphibious force commander, noted the deterrence factor of an exercise like BALTOPS.
“If crisis should occur, you can’t surge trust. What you saw here is trust. If you go on the flagship USS Mount Whitney (LCC-20), there are Lithuanian officers and [non-commissioned officers], there are Estonians, there are Latvians, there are Swedes, Danes, all working together. And that is a very powerful message about assurance, that we’re here to assure each other – again, freedom of navigation, rule of law, but also to deter adversaries around the globe,” he said during the press conference after the amphibious demonstration.
Vice Adm. Andrew Lewis, commander of U.S. 2nd Fleet who is commanding BALTOPS 2019, said during the press conference that the fact that his new command is operating in the Baltic Sea as its first mission after becoming operational “says a lot about the U.S. presence and commitment to the region, and U.S. commitment to NATO, and U.S. commitment to assuring the strong ties between the European continent and the North American continent. That is the principle reason for reestablishing 2nd Fleet.”
Noting that he leads the new NATO Joint Force Command Norfolk – which supplements two other JFCs in Italy and the Netherlands – Lewis added that his leadership in BALTOPS 2019 “says a lot about the commitment not just of the United States but NATO’s commitment to the region and to the trans-Atlantic region.”
Asked whether Russia might view this large exercise in the Baltic Sea – near Russia’s Kaliningrad territory located between Poland and Lithuania – as a provocation, Lewis said, “I don’t think so. I think the intent of it is to build stronger partnerships and to convey a commitment to the region, to the continent and to NATO. I think those are all good things and lend themselves to increased partnerships to ensure security, stability and ultimately guaranteeing deterrence.”
BALTOPS 2019 is divided into three phases: a combat enhancement training (CET), a force integration training (FIT) portion at sea, and the free-play tactical exercise (TACEX) at sea.
“The CET/FIT phase (9-14 June) will include scripted training events designed to establish and improve interoperability between allied and partner nations. The culmination of this phase will be a War at Sea Exercise (WASEX) where participating BALTOPS forces will split for a force-on-force exercise,” 2nd Fleet spokeswoman Lt. Marycate Walsh told USNI News.
“The final TACEX phase (16-21 June) will strengthen integration among the nations in a scenario that is designed to better represent operating in a real world scenario. Post-exercise discussions are scheduled for 22 June 2019 in Kiel, Germany.”
“The scenario involves the 18-nation maritime force of approximately 50 ships, 36 aircraft and 8,600 people, conducting military operations against a fictitious adversary with near-peer capabilities,” she continued. The fictitious adversary is being played by a Danish task force during the exercise.
“The scenario will exercise the force’s ability to plan, coordinate and execute the full range of maritime operations, including surface warfare, anti-submarine operations, naval gunfire support, amphibious operations, mine countermeasure operations, among many other military tasks at sea.”
Several smaller task groups make up this larger force. The mine countermeasures activities are being conducted by three groups: Standing NATO MCM Group 1, the Baltic States Naval Squadron (BALTRON), and a third group formed specifically for this exercise. Surface warfare is being conducted by Standing NATO Maritime Group 1 and another group formed for the exercise and being commanded by a Danish leader. And amphibious warfare is being conducted by the British-led JEF(M) group and a second amphibious task group led by the Spanish Juan Carlos I.
According to 2nd Fleet, ships participating in the exercise include:
USS Fort McHenry
USS Mount Whitney
USNS Carson City
USNS Medgar Evers
ORP General Kazimierz Pulaski
ESPS Juan Carlos I
ESPS Cristobal Colon
ESPS Almirante Juan de Borbón
RFA Wave Knight
RFA Lyme Bay
HDMS Iver Huitfeldt
HNoMS Roald Amundsen
HNoMS Magnus Lagabote