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Jul 8 2021

BALTOPS: An Exercise in Alliance Cohesion, Capability, Transparency and Partnership

Today we celebrate the 50th iteration of BALTOPS, honoring the participating nations that ensure continued freedom, peace, and stability in the Baltic region. Dating back to the early 1970s, this U.S. led, NATO directed naval exercise has brought together dozens of like-minded nations to reinforce bonds and strengthen our combined capabilities.

Today's geo-political climate is in constant flux but interestingly, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia was a frequent participant in the exercise. However, relations between NATO and Russia rapidly spiraled downwards after 2013 when contradicting stances concerning Syria caused the already fragile relationship to deteriorate. In 2014, Russia's illegal, though highly successful, annexation of Crimea raised concern that this triumph could embolden desires to seize other areas of key terrain. UK Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond admonished Russia's aggressions and sought to reassure NATO's Eastern European partners proclaiming, "… it is right that NATO members and partners publicly demonstrate our commitment to the collective security of our NATO allies."

While, to many, it was no surprise that Russia annexed Crimea; the speed with which they accomplished their objective was astounding. If Russia was unwilling to respect another nation's sovereignty where next would they turn? The Baltic States appeared to be front and centre of Russia's mind. In 2007, cyber-attacks targeted Estonia crashing municipal and commercial systems and websites. This was a wake-up call to the world highlighting the potential for adversaries to exploit and disrupt information and communications systems. During a visit to Brussels, U.S. General James Mattis said of the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence in Estonia that, "… a cyber-defence centre…will help NATO defy and successfully counter the threats in this area."

The BALTOPS series commenced during the Cold War as part of the US effort to demonstrate commitment to the security and stability of one of Europe's strategic flanks through effective multi-national military cooperation. So, where typically, the focus is protecting the islands and Danish Strait in order that maritime traffic could break out into the Atlantic, for the BALTOPS 50 scenario the BLUE Task Group has broken into the Baltic. As military experts down through the years have articulated, the Baltic is as important as the GIUK gap and on land, the Fulda Gap. (Area between Hessen-Thueringen border and Frankfurt am Main.)

May 1971 perhaps, forms the germ of BALTOPS. USS Intrepid, known as The Fighting "I", together with three destroyers steamed into the Baltic to demonstrate her flight operations in full view of the USSR. Sailing to within 20nm of the Soviet coastline the task group was almost in total shade such was the number of Soviet surveillance aircraft. At the same time, the Soviet implementation of the 'Forward Policy' was maturing with the doctrinal shift from the 'near' extending to deployments further afield.

A year before, the Soviet armed forces stood-up Ex-OKEAN 70 which extended into the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans emphasizing their global reach, so for the Intrepid to tip up on the USSR's doorstep must have been truly galling However the Baltic theatre remained more of a defensive concept than an offensive jump off point. Soviet Russia saw the west of the Baltic as key terrain and plans were ready to be executed to seize and hold the Jutland peninsula evidenced by the combined air and amphibious exercises.

From 1972, the US added BALTOPS to its growing list of global exercises labelling it an annual, multilateral naval exercise with Denmark, the Netherlands, the UK and West Germany regular attendees. In 1975, BALTOPS focused on the full spectrum of naval warfare including electronic warfare as well as asymmetric warfare in the guise of anti-fast patrol boat operations. In 1977, a 'Red Force' as we would recognize it comprised Danish and German FPBs, aircraft and submarines with the exercise objectives listed as real-world intelligence collection, communications interoperability, low-slow flyers and surface gunnery.

So what were the political objectives and have they endured? The answer succinctly is 'yes' with 'reassurance' regularly appearing on the briefing docket. As the BALTOPS '77 Lines to Take articulated, participants are to 'exercise the right of innocent passage…and to reaffirm the US commitment to Northern Europe.' Replace US with NATO and you will see nothing has really changed. Sometimes the gently, gently approach was used for example in 1975 when forces were directed to avoid provocation: a 25nm buffer zone around USSR territories was enforced and no live gunnery was to take place.

Though the exercise has over the years remained focused on full spectrum conventional warfare, in parallel many other facets have morphed as tensions ebb and flow. Three main critical global events triggered significant change. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the exercise was distilled to pure warfighting in order to influence the Baltic States. In 1993 Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined the team for the first time. BALTOPS '93 was especially important due to its two-fold aim. Divided into two phases, phase 1 was unabashed about showcasing the improvement of US-Russia relations as American sailors cross-decked to a Russian Krivak-class ship. The second phase was a return to the normal drumbeat and restricted to US, Danish and German units.

It was in 1994 that the 'Partnership for Peace' initiative was established. Throughout the rest of the 90s, BALTOPS embraced less kinetic activity. It expanded to include 'soft' power, exercising nations in disaster relief, coordinated search and rescue, and peacekeeping. The number of participating ships swelled to nearly 50. In 2001, the divide narrowed when Russia participated in the traditionally NATO-only second phase.

9/11 happened and the subsequent BALTOPS shifted to a sea-based counter-terrorism theme with the 2003 edition adding non-combatant evacuation elements. Incorporating a mock insurgency of disenfranchised individuals, the non-combatant evacuation remained an important element during the rest of the 2000s. While the addition of these innovative themes were lauded due to the demand of real-world ops in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the number of participating units plummeted to the low 30s. The US contribution also stalled with Sixth Fleet workload increasing across the European theatre and a global necessity for ships in theatres including the Pacific and the Middle East. During this time, with tongue firmly in cheek, it wouldn't be a stretch to suggest that Russian participation was higher than that of the US until the 2009 edition, following the Russo-Georgian War of 2008.

In the face of Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea, BALTOPS again undertook a thematic remold. Conventional naval warfighting was again back under the microscope with the addition of amphibious operations included in 2015. Bringing in the B-52s for low-altitude flyovers to deploy mines was a real step change in terms of show of force. These significant changes emphasized US commitment to the security of the region with Admiral Jamie Foggo commenting that BALTOPS is 'an important opportunity for our forces, as allies and partners, to enhance our ability to work together and strengthen capabilities required to maintain regional security.'

While BALTOPS remains a defensive exercise committed to maintaining stability in this critical maritime region, claims of provocation continue to litter news headlines. In 2015 Russia articulated its disapproval by overflying task groups and shadowing friendly units almost to the point of harassment. Despite Russia's history of participation and coordination with NATO during previous BALTOPS installments, it seemed the cooperative was quickly forgotten!

BALTOPS like the majority of combined military exercises fulfills the military objectives of Training, Readiness, Interoperability and Capacity Building in tandem with the political objectives of Relationship Building, Reassurance and Deterrence. These objectives are best met if exercised annually in order to prepare all concerned in coalition operations. Perhaps the reassurance part of the political objectives resonates strongest; the post-exercise arrival of a US LPD in Estonia in 2015 coinciding with U.S. Sec Def Carter holding a joint press conference went a long way to support this.

While BALTOPS delivers palpable reassurance, it also grows relationships across a broad spectrum. It sets the stage for senior political defence ministers to discuss future participation in other exercises, forward basing requirements, intelligence and information sharing arrangements and how political support could assist during a regional crisis. At the senior officer level as evidenced by Admiral Black's busy KLE schedule, professional connections are established and strengthened. At the tactical maritime level, multi-national operations generate camaraderie and promote understanding and cohesion for future exercises and operations. A great swage of ships have then gone on to conduct operations in support of the Iraq and Afghanistan missions. Unequivocally BALTOPS has been the training ground for NATO maritime operations.

BALTOPS demonstrates NATO's ability to conduct multi-national operations with more and more countries participating out of their normal operating environments. Coinciding with STRIKFORNATO taking responsibility for the delivery of the exercise in 2016, Portugal, Spain and Italy were added to the list of sending nations.

BALTOPS has never clearly defined an adversary and nor should it. As explained by Admiral Foggo, BALTOPS should never be about 'sabre rattling'. Today, honouring the legacy of 50 years of BALTOPS' success, it is remarkable to note the evolution of this valuable exercise. From the early beginnings as a small-scale exercise in the face of maritime rivalry to today where 16 NATO and 2 partner nations have come together, we pay tribute to the political bonds of Europe and the strong relationship with the US. As we celebrate 50 BALTOPS exercises, the reassurance and deterrence aims have endured.

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USS Mount Whitney, STRIKFORNATO's Flagship, with a soldier from HNoMS Gnist in the foreground, during BALTOPS 50, June 6th 2021. Photo: Fredrik Nydahl / Royal Norwegian Navy

Written by: Lt Cdr J Campbell-Baldwin Royal Navy based on the following reference:

Ryan W. French and Peter Dombrowski, "Exercise BALTOPS: Reassurance and Deterrence in a Contested Littoral," in Beatrice Heuser, Tormod Heier, and Guillaume Laconjarias, eds., "MilitaryExercises: Political Messaging and Strategic Impact" (Rome, Italy: NATO Defense College 2018).

Story by Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO

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