NATO has kicked off the latest edition of the largest naval military exercise in Europe, BALTOPS, held annually in the Baltic Sea – considered the most likely flashpoint of any hypothetical conflict with Russia – since 1971.
“The Baltic Sea is of vital strategic importance for the Alliance and is bordered by six NATO countries, and two close partners,” said NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu.
“While we continue to take all the necessary measures to protect our armed forces against the [Covid-19] health crisis, our operational readiness remains undiminished.”
This year’s exercise includes air and maritime assets from 19 NATO allies and partner nations and the war games will focus on training events that include air defence, anti-submarine warfare, maritime interdiction and mine countermeasure operations.
Participating troops come from Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, the UK, and the United States.
“BALTOPS provides the opportunity for NATO and partner nations to operate together, sharing best practices to improve real world operations,” said US Vice Admiral Lisa Franchetti.
For the first time, the exercise will be commanded ashore by the Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO (STRIKFORNATO), headquartered in Lisbon, Portugal, through its new Joint Operations Centre.
To ensure the safety and health of those participating, BALTOPS 2020 will take place exclusively at sea. The precaution allows units to enhance cooperation while ensuring that crews remain healthy.
“Although we’ll conduct this year’s event entirely at sea, BALTOPS 2020 will demonstrate our continuous commitment to regional security and reinforce the inherent flexibility of our combined naval force to operate together under any circumstances,” Vice Admiral Franchetti added.
In past years, Russian warships and submarines have shadowed the force, along with low-flying aircraft, in a dangerous manoeuvre called “buzzing.”
“Our expectation is that all mariners operate in a safe and professional manner that does not endanger our crews or themselves. That’s what we expect to see from the Russian Navy and Air Force. We expect them to do this safely,” Admiral Franchetti commented.
The BALTOPS exercise is divided into two training phases — the combat enhancement training (CET) and force integration training (FIT) portions and final tactical phase (TACEX).
During the first six days (CET/FIT phase), aircraft and ships will common tactics under a scripted programme of events while the TACEX phase will include a shift into “free-play” where the commanders are given more freedom to run their own tactical scenarios that better reflect real-world situations.
BALTOPS 2020 began just as as US President Trump approved a plan to withdraw 9,500 American troops from Germany, drawing criticism from Germany which believes the decision to be political, not strategic. Tensions within the Alliance, especially on the issue of funding, have been heightened since Mr Trump criticised Germany and other partners for not spending enough on defence.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki meanwhile has publicly expressed his hope that some of those withdrawn US troops would end up in his country.
“I deeply hope that as a result of the many talks that we have had, part of the troops based today in Germany which are being removed by the United States will indeed come to Poland,” he told a Polish radio station.
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