Moderator: Good afternoon from the State Department’s Brussels Media Hub. I would like to welcome everyone joining us for today’s virtual press briefing. This call will focus on Baltic Operations 2022, the 51st iteration of this annual exercise. Today, we are very pleased to be joined by U.S. Marine Corps Brigadier General Marcus Annibale, Chief of Staff, Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO, and U.S. Navy Rear Admiral John Menoni, Commander, Expeditionary Strike Group Two.
As a reminder, today’s call is on the record. With that, let’s get started. Brigadier General Annibale, thank you so much for joining us today. I’ll turn it over to you for your opening remarks.
Brigadier General Annibale: Okay, Justin. And for everyone out there, I will try to speak slowly and deliberately due to the poor connection here at sea. Good morning, everyone, and thank you for taking the time to join us today aboard our command ship, USS Mount Whitney. We’re currently underway in the Baltic Sea during exercise Baltic Operations 2022, or as we call it, BALTOPS 22. I am Brigadier General Marcus Annibale, the Chief of Staff at Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO, or STRIKFORNATO for short. I am joined here by Rear Admiral John Menoni, the Commander of Expeditionary Strike Group Two.
We’re about to enter the final four days of the two-week exercise that began about June 5th. BALTOPS 22 is now in its 51st iteration. It stands as the premier annual joint multinational maritime-focused exercise in the Baltic Sea. The exercise continually adapts to meet current and emerging regional security demands to ensure maritime stability and transatlantic economic prosperity.
As the Chief of Staff of STRIKFORNATO, the headquarters staff that designs and serves as exercise control throughout the exercise, I can personally attest to the amount we’ve accomplished over the past about week and a half. This year, we have more than 45 ships, over 75 aircraft, and 7,000 personnel from 16 nations, 14 being NATO Allies and two partner nations, all working together building interoperability and cohesion during the tactical movements at sea, amphibious landings, air-defense exercises, anti-submarine warfare training, and mine countermeasures and diving clearance operations.
Planning for this exercise begins when the last iteration ends. This year, the STRIKFORNATO team incorporated the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group and the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit. That is where John Menoni comes in. His team has coordinated significant amphibious operation training alongside our Allies and partners. I’ll turn it over to him now, but as I sit here in the middle of the Baltic, I have witnessed firsthand that the partnerships built during BALTOPS are what makes us a ready and credible force ready to maintain freedom of the navigation in the Baltic and, if called upon, defend the Alliance. Over to you, John.
Rear Admiral Menoni: Thank you, General. Good morning, everyone. I’m grateful to be with you as we sail on board USS Mount Whitney in the Baltic Sea during what has been a very successful BALTOPS 22. As previously stated, my name is Rear Admiral John Menoni, and for the remainder of BALTOPS 22 I will continue to serve as the Commander of Amphibious Forces in support of STRIKFORNATO.
I would like to start out by saying that due to recent world events as well as the unmatched focus, professionalism, and camaraderie within the U.S. team and the other 15 nations participating in BALTOPS 22, this has been an amazing experience. Part of the excitement is the addition of an Amphibious Ready Group and Marine Expeditionary Group this exercise that underscores the importance of amphibious warfare in the Baltic region.
But BALTOPS 22 has been more than just about being bigger. During the last 10 days, I have been witness to some very impactful events. First, seeing USS Kearsarge moored in the middle of central Stockholm’s port during a time of uncertainty, but also a very joyous time as Sweden celebrated its navy’s 500th anniversary. Two days later, I was on Gotland Island, where I took part in many insightful conversations while breaking bread with the Army Regimental Commander Colonel Frykvall, Lieutenant General of the General Staff – Lieutenant General Svensson of their General Staff. During the same day, we stood together as eye witnesses to a coordinated air, artillery, and amphibious operation between our nations. We visited with the sailors, marines, and soldiers from both of our countries.
From there, General Annibale and I were able to show off the Kearsarge and her embarked Marines to ambassadors, delegates, and ministerial leadership from Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland.
I could go on for a while, but I think the most important takeaway is during the last week and a half, this has – the tactical training and relationship-building which are core to our militaries has been extremely impressive. I’m proud of the way BALTOPS 22 is developing our junior personnel today as they will be tomorrow’s leaders during times of crisis and conflict. During BALTOPS 22 we have made a deliberate effort to join and operate together during this exercise, not just ensuring the radios and weapons work well, but in the way we sail and fight together.
For while we wear many different uniforms and have different accents, we are all dedicated and motivated professionals who want to be more than just interoperable; we want to be seamlessly interchangeable. Collectively, we have become stronger together through building trust between our nations and our militaries. The spirit of friendship and cooperation amongst the men and women of all participating nations is key to making this region of the world safer and more secure now and for our future.
With that, Justin, General Annibale and I turn it back over to you.
Moderator: Thank you, General; thank you, Admiral. We will now turn to the question and answer portion of today’s briefing. We have a question that was emailed to us from Christopher Woody at Business Insider, and his question is: “What unique challenges does the Baltic maritime environment present to NATO navies operating there? What special knowledge and expertise do the Finnish and Swedish militaries have that you’re drawing on during this and other Baltic Operations?” And I’d ask our speakers to identify themselves when they answer this. Over.
Brigadier General Annibale: Thanks, Justin. Hey, this is General Annibale again from STRIKFORNATO. We – I’ve personally experienced BALTOPS for two years in a row now. Last year, the scenario was focused on what we called – a scenario that was called “break into the Baltics,” where a fictitious scenario – we worked through mine warfare and mine countermeasures to open the Danish Straits. As you look at the map, you may realize that there is a significant chokepoint here in the Baltic. It is critical that we as Allies and partners understand the specific nature of the maritime topography and undersea terrain that is part of the Baltic. So there’s very specific maritime terrain and environmentals that we need to understand, as well as the geopolitics surrounding the Baltic.
So that’s an experience we had last year. This year, as you know and we’ve said, we have our centerpiece celebrating the Swedish 500th birthday of their navy. So Sweden and Finland are centerpiece partners in the exercises that we’re doing on this iteration, and we’re focusing on the centerpiece also of the added Kearsarge ARG-22nd MEU, which gives us an incredible increase in capability in expeditionary and amphibious capability here in the Baltic.
So, if you will, those capabilities are a tremendous addition for this iteration that we can use in the Baltic environment. I’ll see if John Menoni has anything to add.
Rear Admiral Menoni: I’m good, thank you.
Brigadier General Annibale: Thanks a lot.
Moderator: Great. We have a question here – oh, here we go. It looks like we’ve got someone on the line here. We have John Rathbone from the Financial Times in the UK. Please go ahead.
Question: Hi, thank you very much. I know that you’re in the Baltics, but this question is about the Black Sea. I wondered if you had any comment about or thoughts, philosophical or operational, about the grain situation there and the effective Russian blockade. Thanks very much.
Rear Admiral Menoni: So if I may repeat back the question to you, it was concerning the Black Sea and any comments concerning operations in the Black Sea and the current blockade. Did I get that right, sir?
Question: Correct. Thank you very much.
Rear Admiral Menoni: Okay. So that type of question is more appropriately directed at higher headquarters, specifically in NATO. But what I can tell you is our operations in the Baltic highlight the importance of freedom of navigation operations and maritime security, and that’s why we’re here participating. This is something that we continually work on and it’s something that we need to understand across different nations how we operate together to preserve freedom of navigation, whether it’s here in the Baltic or across the transatlantic region. Over.
Moderator: Thank you very much. We have a question that was emailed to us from Philippe Regnier with Le Soir in Belgium. His question is: “First, could you please remind us of the number of ships involved in this exercise? And second, have you noticed any unusual activity from Russia during the exercise?” Over.
Brigadier General Annibale: Yeah, this is General Annibale with STRIKFORNATO. Right now we have a total of 45 total ships directly participating in the exercise. So far, any Russian activities on the sea or in the air have been deemed safe and professional, and by “safe and professional,” nobody has commented otherwise and therefore we don’t go into any details on exactly how we define that. So, so far, all interactions are as expected, and as you know, BALTOPS is a transparent exercise scheduled every year around the same time. So our Russian counterparts expect it and understand it, and all exclusion zones are declared ahead of time. Over.
Moderator: Thank you very much, General. We have one more question in the queue. If we don’t have any hands up, this will be the last question. Our question is from Margiris Meilutis with 15min in Lithuania. Her question is for Brigadier General Annibale. “Could you give some examples of how the security and defensibility of the Baltic Sea would improve when Sweden and Finland will hopefully join NATO? The Baltic Sea is now being called NATO’s inland sea, and Gotland Island is referred to as a potentially unsinkable NATO aircraft carrier in the Baltic.” Over.
Brigadier General Annibale: Yeah, this is General Annibale. I think the basis of the question is just how we will be in a better position for maritime security if Sweden and Finland join the Alliance, and then there was a follow-on question about specifics on Gotland Island, which I think I’ll steer clear of as a national kind of line. But just on the first part of the question I would say, first of all, last year, Sweden and Finland were big participants as well, and in this year, obviously showcasing their capabilities. Finland has a lot of intercoastal defense and security, and then Sweden has a lot of capabilities as well – for example, their Gripen fighter is a good example of that aircraft and that capability.
Just as you can see with the phone call, we’re going to – we had some comm issues today. Comm and networks are critical, so when nations join NATO, it’s important that we’re all on a NATO standard and a NATO baseline, and that affects communications and that affects security and that affects networks. And the more interoperable – or even better, interchangeable – as units, the better we can be to operate together, whether it’s for maritime security or other objectives.
So when a nation joins the Alliance, it just ups the game in forcing those mechanisms to work tightly together. I think John may have something to add. Let me see.
Rear Admiral Menoni: Yeah, this is Rear Admiral Menoni again. So the question with respect to Sweden and Finland here in the Baltic, their role politically and geographically can’t be understated for the peace and security of this area and the world at large. We’re seeing that right now when peace and security are being bullied around the world and threatened every minute of the day. I’ve got to tell you that operating with these extremely capable and professional militaries here in the Baltic has solidified in my mind that all of us are stronger together as a force vice separate entities. Over.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much, General; thank you, Admiral. Last chance for folks to put up a hand and ask a question to our commanders. Otherwise, why don’t we proceed to closing remarks, starting with General Annibale. Go ahead.
Brigadier General Annibale: Yeah. In closing, we’re in our final stages to close out BALTOPS. We’ll end up with the ships in keel in a post-sail conference, and as I said, we’ll go right into planning for next year. We’ve got a lot of distinguished visitors from around the Allies and partners that will be joining us there. In our last couple of days at sea, we’re kind of in a live opposing force scenario now, kind of a force-on-force operation, and I expect to have a wide range of lessons learned and we’re really looking forward to these last few days. Over.
Rear Admiral Menoni: Justin, this is Admiral Menoni again. In closing, it has been a highlight of my career to see the soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, guardsmen from these different countries – to include my own, obviously – working together as seamlessly as possible. These professionals have done amazing things here in the Baltic, building trust – which, as you know, we can’t surge; we need to prepare now for unforeseen crises and conflicts in the future. So we build that trust now, train our leaders so that in the future we’re not just talking about interoperability among our formations, our ships, our soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen; we’re talking about interchangeability where they can operate with each other seamlessly.
Thank you very much for having us today.
Moderator: Well, thank you very much, Brigadier General Annibale, thank you very much, Rear Admiral Menoni, for taking time out of your busy schedules to join us today. Thank you very much to all the journalists on the line, and once again, my apologies for the delay in starting.
Very shortly, the Brussels Hub will send the audio recording of this briefing to all the participating journalists. We will also provide a transcript as soon as it becomes available. We’d also love to hear your feedback, and you can contact us at any time at TheBrusselsHub@state.gov. Thanks again for your participation and we hope you can join us for another press briefing soon. This concludes the call. Over.
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