Moderator: Good morning from the U.S. State Department’s Brussels Media Hub. I’d like to welcome all participants to today’s telephonic press briefing.
Today’s call will focus on the multinational naval exercise SEA BREEZE 2021, co-hosted by the United States and Ukraine. Today we are very pleased to be joined by three speakers from the U.S. Navy: CDR Jeremy Lyon, CAPT Kyle Gantt, and CDRE Cameron Chen. We will begin today’s call with opening remarks and then we will turn to your questions. We’ll do our best to get to as many as possible in the time that we have today, which is approximately 30 minutes.
As a reminder, today’s call is on the record. And with that, I will turn it over to CDRE Chen for his opening remarks. Please go ahead.
CDRE Chen: Well, good morning. This is CAPT Cameron Chen. I’m the Commodore of Task Force 68. We are the Naval Expeditionary Force component for Sixth Fleet, so we provide EOD, divers, MCM capability, and naval construction force and maritime expeditionary security to Europe and Africa.
For this exercise, for SEA BREEZE, we’re really excited about participating with our partners in the Black Sea region. We’re going to be doing a number of different activities during the exercise, to include some explosive hazard clearance with our EOD divers, both ashore and afloat, as well as some construction work at various pier areas to improve the maritime infrastructure, and then really the highlight of our engagement is going to be a clearance operation where we’re going to work with the Ukrainians as well as Canadians, Poles, and Georgian divers to clear a wreck that is blocking the naval pier at Odessa. This wreck sank in about 2016; it was a Soviet-era yacht, and it’s currently blocking a portion of the pier area. So we’re going to be cutting this up and removing it and clearing it, and this really demonstrates how we can respond to damage in a crisis and clear areas quickly with our partners.
So looking forward to the exercise and we think this is an excellent opportunity for us to train together against things that we may be asked to do, and to make ourselves more ready for operations in this region. And that’s all from 68.
Moderator: Thank you very much. I believe we have CDR Jeremy Lyon with [Task Force] 67 next.
CDR Lyon: Yes, good morning. I am CDR Jeremy Lyon, Deputy Commander of Task Force 67, located out of Sigonella Air Base, a combined Italian-American airfield in Sicily. Task Force 67 is composed of land-based tactical aircraft that operate over the waters of the Mediterranean in submarine warfare, anti-surface [inaudible]. We provide our response, interoperability, and expeditionary combat forces throughout Europe and Africa.
Our crews will be participating in SEA BREEZE 21, and our aircraft will operate throughout the Black Sea region and other designated locations [inaudible] for this exercise. We regularly coordinate with NATO and allies around the theater to increase the capability of our collective partners to operate [inaudible]. SEA BREEZE 21 will allow us to demonstrate our ability to [inaudible] NATO allies and partners. Our aircraft will be [inaudible] refine our tactics, techniques, and procedures, anti-submarine warfare, coordinated operations with surface forces, and participate in [inaudible].
Last year during SEA BREEZE we were able to intercept [inaudible] fighter jets. This year we have expanded that to have fighter jets from [inaudible]. This will serve to better prepare our crews as well at intercepting fighter jets, how to safely conduct air-to-air operations, and expose our teams to new methods, helping to secure airspace [inaudible].
The task force is excited for this opportunity to strengthen our interoperability and build relationships and to move [inaudible] been doing in previous exercises. And that’s it for 67.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much. And now we have CAPT Kyle Gantt with Task Force 65. Please go ahead.
CAPT Gantt: Hi, good morning. My name is CAPT Kyle Gantt. I’m the Deputy Commodore and the Deputy Commander of Task Force 65. Task Force 65 is headquartered in Rota, Spain, and it is the U.S. Navy’s forward-deployed destroyer squadron in Europe. As part of that, Task Force 65 executes all surface combatant ship operations in Europe and Africa. We oversee four Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, which are stationed in Rota, Spain. Additionally, we oversee the operations of all cruisers and destroyers deployed to the Europe and Africa theaters.
Specific to SEA BREEZE, CTF-65 represents the United States annually as the lead task force executing exercise SEA BREEZE. SEA BREEZE allows allies and partners to come together and operate in the Black Sea and build capabilities and to conduct coordinated operations in international waters.
With that, I will turn it back over to our moderator and proceed to the question phase.
Moderator: Great. Thank you very much for those remarks. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.
We are going to start with a question that was emailed to us in advance. This is from Dmytro Shkurko with the National News Agency of Ukraine. He has sort of a two-part question here: “What is your general assessment of the Ukrainian navy capabilities during SEA BREEZE to be interoperable with the NATO ships and troops? Do you feel that there exists any mental or language barriers? What should be done to improve command and control among the Ukrainian troops training?”
CAPT Gantt: Hey, good morning. This is CAPT Gantt here in Odessa. I’ll take that question. I’ve been very impressed with the capability of the Ukrainian navy. Just this morning we came from the pre-sail conference, which was led by the Ukrainian navy, and it was a very professional conference. All of the exercises are conducted using standard procedures, which are common among our allies and we use when operating with our partners. I am very impressed with the capability and look forward to continuing to build on what is a very strong relationship at sea with the Ukrainian navy.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much for that. We have a question from a reporter dialing in. This is from Thomas Gutschker with F.A.Z. in Germany. Please go ahead, Thomas.
Question: Yes, good morning and thanks a lot. It’s somewhat unusual, I think, that you’re doing this exercise in a – around a hostile environment given that Russia has warned allies who participate in that exercise. Does that imply a different setup or different routines to ensure the safety of participants? Thank you.
CAPT Gantt: This is CAPT Gantt again in Odessa. I’ll take that question. This is a long-planned exercise. In fact, this is an exercise that has happened since 1997. In fact, this is the 21st iteration. This is in no way a reactive exercise. This is a longstanding commitment to an exercise in the Black Sea co-hosted by the United States and the Ukrainian navies. All nations have the right to operate in international waters, and this exercise will take place either in Ukraine or in international waters.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much for that. We have a question here from Mike Eckel with Radio Free Europe. Please go ahead.
Question: Hi, good morning. Thanks for doing the call. To piggyback on that previous question, as you well know, there was an incident in the last week that involved a destroyer from the British navy and military forces, naval forces in Crimea. What sort of changes have been made to the SEA BREEZE scheduling, logistics, force deployment in response to that, since clearly that’s an indication that Russia is not looking at this – at the presence of these ships very favorably? And similarly, Russia is conducting somewhat serious anti-aircraft defense drills, I believe as of today, with some pretty advanced fighters and other weaponry. Is there any concern of inadvertent hostilities, miscommunications that could result from the presence of such a large Western naval force in close proximity of the Russian forces? Thank you.
LT Dixon: Hey, Dan [sic], this is LT Bobby Dixon, public affairs officer. So what we’re going to do with this question, I’m going to break it up between CTF-65 who runs the ships and CTF-67 who runs the aircrafts for the exercise. So we’ll start with CAPT Gantt and then go to CTF-67 after that.
CAPT Gantt: Thank you, Bobby. So for – again, this is CAPT Kyle Gantt here in Odessa. First off, I’d like to – I will refer you to the UK ministry of defense or the royal navy for any comment on interaction between Russia and royal navy ships. I would say, though, that this exercise is long-planned; this exercise is an international exercise taking place in international waters. All nations exercise the right to operate in international waters, and this exercise is no different. Over.
CDR Lyon: And this is CDR Lyon from the commander of Task Force 67. And as I’d also say the same, it’s a planned exercise and previous exercises [inaudible] familiar with throughout the Black Sea region. It’ll be operating in designated locations approved for the exercise, and the aircraft will be flying in those certain areas during the exercises [inaudible] flight standard specifics with the International Civil Aviation Organization [inaudible].
Moderator: I think we’re having a little trouble hearing CDR Lyon. Let’s go to our next question. This is from Richard Lemmer with The Portsmouth News in the UK. Please go ahead, Richard.
Question: Hello, thank you. Yeah. So two quick questions. First one is focusing on the royal navy: What capabilities should the royal navy be focusing on to ensure that it remains a good partner during international operations and exercises like SEA BREEZE 2021? And a kind of follow-up: How concerned was the U.S. Navy by the royal navy’s HMS Defender’s recent close encounter with Russian forces and the subsequent misinformation that was spread about that incident? I know we’ve touched on it being in international waters, but it’d be interesting to hear whether it’s seen as a somewhat one-off kind of standoff between the two or is it going to be the case we might see incidents like this more regularly where international waters are seen as contested or there’s some debate over that, if that makes sense.
CAPT Gantt: Richard, this is CAPT Kyle Gantt in Odessa. I’ll take that question. So first, again, for all comments on events happening with the royal navy or in the UK, I’m going to refer you to the royal navy or to the ministry of defense for comment. As far as operating with the royal navy, the royal navy remains a consistent and very capable partner for the United States, but as well for allies and partners in Europe and around the world. We have no concerns with our ability to operate with the UK and, in fact, are very much looking forward to continuing the longstanding relationship of operations with the royal navy during exercise SEA BREEZE.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much for that. Our next question comes to us from Nicholas Fiorenza with Janes Defence Weekly in the UK. Please go ahead, Nicholas.
Question: Thank you. Yeah, I had two questions. One is kind of a follow-up on some of the previous questions. Are participating ships in the exercise, are they going to avoid international waters that the Russians don’t recognize as international waters? And how – what kind of preparations are being made to deal with Russian harassment? And then the second question is about these efforts to, I guess, clear or improve the port, Ukrainian port infrastructure. Are those actually part of those projects to improve those ports or are they just preparations for those projects? I mean, I know, for example, the UK is actually going to help Ukraine build or rebuild its port infrastructure. And just out of curiosity, how did that yacht that’s blocking the pier sink? Thank you.
CAPT Gantt: Nicholas, this is CAPT Kyle Gantt here in Odessa. I’ll take the first part of that question and then I’ll pass it over to CDRE Chen for a follow-up on the second half of your question concerning diving operations and salvage operations here in Odessa.
So to the first part of your question, all of exercise SEA BREEZE will be conducted in international waters. We have a longstanding tradition, we have a longstanding process in place for communications with Russia, and that’s the INCSEA agreement. It provides a standardized set of communications to make sure there is no question when ships communicate with each other how they are – what their intentions are, and it’s a longstanding process that, quite frankly, removes risk. It allows and facilitates ships operating in the same water space. And again, I would say that’s an important part of what we’re doing here with SEA BREEZE is we are demonstrating to the world that the Black Sea is an international sea; it is open and available for the free transport of commerce, of shipping, for all nations, and it is not owned by any one nation.
And over to CDRE Chen.
CDRE Chen: Thanks, Kyle. From the 68 perspective, with regards to the question of the yacht that’s blocking the pier at Odessa, this yacht basically sank due to neglect. It was previously a part of the ministry of interior for the Soviet era, and it sat unattended for a number of years and then in 2016 it started to sink. And we received a request from the Ukrainian Government for some assistance in trying to remove this, so we’re finally able to do it during this exercise. We will be actually conducting the removal during the exercise, and it will continue a little bit beyond because it takes a bit more time to complete this action. We expect everything to be completed by August 1st with regards to safely removing and clearing all of the pieces of this wreck.
With regards to other facility improvements, we are doing some survey work at Ochakiv as well of the pier to see if there are any other additional repairs that can be made in the future. And that’s all from 68.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much for that. Our next question comes to us from Iryna Matviichuk with Voice of America Ukrainian Service. Please go ahead, Iryna.
Question: Good morning. Some military experts, like Gen. Ben Hodges and others here in the U.S., anticipate that Russia will increase their military activity in the eastern Ukraine and in Azov area by the end of summer. How would SEA BREEZE exercise help Ukrainians to defend its waters considering their limited capabilities of their fleet? Thank you.
Moderator: Hello? Maybe CAPT Gantt could take that one?
Hello, do we have our Navy participants?
CDRE Chen: I’m still on the line here. I think the question was how are we preparing our Ukrainian partners for the future. Is that correct? Over.
Moderator: Yes, that works. Please go ahead.
CDRE Chen: I guess from 68, really partnering, working together, I think, is really the way to strengthen the relationship, and I think through our training and coordination with partners that are here is going to help build and increase the capabilities of our Ukrainian allies. So more iterations like this and more exercises and continued partnerships, I think, is the key to strengthening ties and improving capabilities in the region. Over.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much for that. Our next question comes to us from Antonello Guerrera with La Repubblica. Please go ahead.
Question: Hello, everyone, and thanks very much for this. Just it is a follow-up on – still on the Black Sea. What the U.S. Navy expects, I mean, as a reaction from Russia after this [inaudible]? And also, can we also say that this is a new normal now? I mean more confrontation and engagement in the international waters, not only in the Black Sea but maybe also in the South China Sea. Thank you.
LT Dixon: This is LT Bobby Dixon. We are back on the call. I have CAPT Gantt ready to answer that question.
CAPT Gantt: Okay, thank you, Antonello. Your question of what can we expect – what we expect is that all nations will operate professionally at sea. We expect that all nations will respect the international laws and norms that govern safe and professional operations at sea. I expect that from Russia and I expect that from all of the forces here operating in SEA BREEZE.
Moderator: Thank you very much. It looks like we have time for one last question. This will go to John Vandiver with Stars and Stripes. Please go ahead.
Question: Yeah, thank you very much. As the exercise gets underway, I was curious what do you guys – what have you guys seen from the Russian military so far, any increased surveillance of allied or partner ships maneuvering in the Black Sea getting ready for events? Maybe if you could describe that a little bit. And then also, there was mention that there’s going to be sort of part of the exercise is going to involve training for intercepts and so forth, involving U.S., Ukrainian, I think British aircraft. As part of that, are these planes also going to be prepared to possibly intercept Russian aircraft should they decide to buzz allied ships as they have in the past in the Black Sea? Thanks.
CAPT Gantt: John, thanks. This is CAPT Gantt here in Odessa. The first part of that question I’ll get to by saying I’m not going to certainly discuss any intelligence, but what I would say is we have seen that when we operate – we, the United States or our allies or our partners – we see that Russia routinely observes our operations, and it is their right to do so when they’re doing that in international waters. They have just as much right to be in the Black Sea and operate in the Black Sea as any other nation. The thing that we have to ensure is that everyone agrees that the Black Sea is open for safe and professional operations for all nations. The Black Sea is not owned by any one nation. It is an international body of water, and all the rights that accrue to nations to operate there are available to all nations.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much for that. Unfortunately, that was indeed the last question we have time for. I’d like to go back to our speakers and see if they have any closing words they’d like to offer.
CDRE Chen: Nothing further from Task Force 68. Thanks for the opportunity to talk about what we’re doing and we’re looking forward to all the work that’s gone into this exercise and the outcomes that will come. Thank you.
CDR Lyon: Nothing further from Task Force 67. Looking forward to this exercise.
CAPT Gantt: And I’ll just close out here from Odessa. This is CAPT Gantt again. The main takeaway for us is we are looking forward to another iteration of SEA BREEZE, an exercise that we have conducted since 1997, now an exercise that we consistently experience safe and professional operations at sea, and we look forward to again demonstrating through our partnership with allies and partners here in the Black Sea that the Black Sea is open to all nations. Over.
Moderator: I’d like to thank all three of our speakers for joining us today, and also thank the reporters on the line for your participation and your questions.
LT Dixon: Thank you, Justin, so much for hosting this. Just wanted to say for all the media folks on here that for exercise SEA BREEZE, you’re going to find all of the products and videos and photos or press releases on our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages. It’s just – you just search “Exercise SEA BREEZE” and we should be the top one. It’s a verified account. It’s co-hosted by the Ukrainians, so we work on it together posting in English, Ukrainian, and we’ll also distribute postings in French as well as we have a lot of African countries participating as well this year.
And lastly, all of our product that you can download in full size, full file size, will be available on our DVIDS feature page. You just go to dvidshub.net and then go in the search bar and type in “Exercise SEA BREEZE.” There’s a feature page where every video, every photo, every graphic, every press release that we take, that our allies and partners take, will be available for your use, and it’s not copyrighted so you can use it. All I ask is that you give credit to my hardworking photographers and videographers. Thank you again for your time.
Moderator: Thanks very much for that, LT Dixon.