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 Baltic Operations 2021. This year marks the 50th iteration of the BALTOPS exercise. Today we are very pleased to be joined by Vice Admiral Gene Black, Commander, U.S. Sixth Fleet and Commander, Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO, and by Rear Admiral James Morley, Royal Navy, Deputy Commander, Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO.
We will begin with opening remarks from Vice Admiral Black and Rear Admiral Morley, and then we will turn to your questions. We will 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 Vice Admiral Black for his opening remarks. Please go ahead.
Vice Admiral Black: Well, thank you very much, Justin. Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and thank you for joining us as we commence BALTOPS 50. I’m Vice Admiral Gene Black. I’m the Commander of Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO; I’m the Commander of the U.S. Sixth Fleet. As Justin said, with me today is Royal Navy Rear Admiral James Morley, my Deputy Commander at STRIKFORNATO. I’m calling in from Naples, Italy, headquarters of the U.S. Sixth Fleet, while Admiral Morley is calling in from our headquarters at Oeiras, in Portugal, from Strike Force NATO. We will command and control BALTOPS 50 this year from Strike Force NATO’s operations center.
Yesterday we began the 50 iteration of BALTOPS, an exercise that sets the foundation of interoperability across the alliance. Eighteen nations with more than 40 ships, 60 aircraft, and 4,000 personnel will operate together in the Baltic Sea. BALTOPS represents half a century of unwavering commitment to maritime security by our partners and allies. Lessons learned during BALTOPS enable international strike group operations, advanced missile defense capabilities, seamless surface action group missions, amphibious operations, and mine warfare. In other words, we will exercise the full range of maritime missions.
Last week the French carrier Charles de Gaulle and the UK carrier Queen Elizabeth operated alongside one another in the Mediterranean. Two weeks ago, during exercise Formidable Shield, a Dutch ship passed ballistic missile tracking and targeting information to a U.S. Navy destroyer that successfully engaged an inbound ballistic missile threat. These high-end international capabilities derive from exercises like BALTOPS, which routinely demonstrate the strength, commitment, and capability of our alliance.
BALTOPS stands as a premier annual joint multinational maritime-focused exercise in the Baltic Sea. The exercise continually adapts to meet current and emerging regional security demands, bringing together participating nations in a realistic training environment to ensure maritime security and stability. Through 50 iterations of this exercise, generations of allied and partner nation sailors, soldiers, marines, and airmen have growth together in operational experience and built lasting relationships based on mutual respect.
I am pleased to give the floor to Rear Admiral James Morley, Royal Navy, who will provide you with an overview of the execution of BALTOPS 50, and then we will take your questions. Thank you.
Rear Admiral Morley: Hello. Thank you for the introduction and thanks to all of you for joining the call this morning. I’m Rear Admiral James Morley; I’m the Deputy Commander of Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO, and I’m speaking to you from Portugal.
BALTOPS forms a key element of NATO’s exercise program – a key part in the alliance deterrence and defense, as both readiness and operating with each other rely on military training. It’s the largest maritime exercise we conduct in the Baltic region. It serves a number of purposes, but principally it’s an opportunity to demonstrate alliance cohesion, a chance to demonstrate and to develop and to test alliance capability, and it’s all done with an emphasis on transparency. And I might just touch on each of those points in turn.
So first of all, BALTOPS is conducted annually, as the Admiral has described, and it’s the 50th exercise. It’s a perfect platform for allies and partners to work together, and is a demonstrable commitment by NATO to the security and stability of the Baltic Sea region. This year we have 16 NATO and two partner nations contributing, so 18 nations together, including Sweden and Finland. And among them we bring 40 ships, over 60 aircraft, and over 4,000 people to the exercise.
Secondly, the exercise demonstrates and develops alliance capability and readiness. The chance for allies to operate alongside each other, just as they would fight together, training across the entire spectrums of naval warfare against conventional threats from aircraft, ships, and submarines, including this year against a highly capable Swedish submarine, and in mine warfare, in amphibious operations, and in maritime interdiction operations.
We’re going to do this in two distinct phases. The first is a training and integration period to improve unit readiness using a pre-planned serialized program; and then a tactical exercise, or free-play phase, where we’ll immerse ourselves in a fictitious scenario. Units won’t know what the enemy will do next and will be expected to react as they would for real to a series of multi-threat challenges.
For the first time we’ll be playing defensive cyberwarfare tactics, techniques, and procedures into the scenario. It’s something we contend with and do every day, but it’ll give both commanders and operators something else to contend with. We’ll also be experimenting with unmanned and autonomous systems, particularly in mine warfare.
Finally, all this takes place with an emphasis on transparency. BALTOPS is a long-planned and publicly announced exercise conducted in compliance with international law, with a strong focus on real-world safety.
In preparing for the exercise, we have of course had to account for the COVID pandemic at every stage, planning activity virtually wherever possible and minimizing travel. One of the benefits has been to force the pace of adopting distributed command and control arrangements, in the same way that many organizations are now considering permanent changes to ways of working. So while Admiral Black is connected from his headquarters in Naples, the team here in Lisbon will maintain overall control of the exercise. Meanwhile, the command ship USS Mount Whitney will be in the Baltic to host the command teams from the Second Expeditionary Strike Group and Second Marine Expeditionary Brigade.
Participation in BALTOPS allows allies and partners to demonstrate their commitment to regional security, working together. The activity is a reinforcement of NATO’s commitment to regional security and a stable and prosperous Baltic Sea region, sending a strong message towards any potential adversary and reducing the chance of conflict.
We’d now be delighted to take any questions that you might have. Back to you, Justin.
Moderator: Thank you very much for those remarks. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.
We have a couple of questions that were submitted to us in advance, so let’s start with one of those. This is from Paul Shinkman with US News and World Report. His question is, “Have you seen any indication of a Russian military buildup in response to these exercises? Have you seen any indication of increased Russian cyber activity?”
Vice Admiral Black: Well, I’ll take that question, Justin. Thank you. Paul, thank you for the question. As we said, BALTOPS is regularly scheduled and announced, and always there is a slight uptick in Russian activity as we bring forces into and operate in the Baltic. It’s completely within the realm of what we would expect, and we don’t anticipate anything terribly out of character from what we’ve seen before.
With regard to the cyber ops, I prefer not to comment due to the concerns with operational security.
Moderator: Great. Thank you very much for that, Admiral. We have another question submitted to us in advance. This is from Austeja Masiokaite with Baltic News Service agency in Lithuania. The question that he emailed is, “How are the present tensions in the region between Russia and Belarus and the Western allies affecting the exercise? Is there a higher risk of provocations or other conflict, and how will these risks be addressed during the exercise? And was the program of the exercise somehow altered or affected by those tensions?”
Vice Admiral Black: As I said earlier, this is previously scheduled. It’s the 50th iteration. It’s generally in the same size and scope that we have done, and I do anticipate there will be Russian activity in response, as there always is, and is probably appropriate.
With regard to tensions between Belarus and that, I’ll defer to my partners in the State Department to comment on that. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you very much for that, Admiral. We have one more question that was submitted to us in advance. This is from Jakub Borowski with the Polish Press Agency in Poland, and his question is, “Is this year’s BALTOPS exercise linked to other exercises being held by the allies across Europe?”
Vice Admiral Black: Jakub, thank you for your question. While BALTOPS is not linked to another exercise, it does run concurrently with several that are ongoing in the theater, including Baltic Fortress hosted by the Lithuanians, and then DEFENDER-Europe, which is part of a series hosted by the U.S. Army in Europe.
Moderator: Great. Thank you very much for that. I currently see no questions in the queue, but just giving our journalists one last chance.
Here we go. We’ve got – we have a question from Nicholas Fiorenza with Janes Defence. Please go ahead, Nicholas.
Question: Hello. Yes. I was just interested – okay, cyber is one new aspect of the exercise. I was wondering if there is any new – other than cyber, is there any new aspect or new equipment being used? I mean, are any new unmanned underwater vehicles being used or used for the first time during an exercise or an international exercise, for example?
Rear Admiral Morley: Justin, if you’ll – and I can take that question.
Moderator: Very good. Go ahead.
Rear Admiral Morley: So to answer the – and thank you for the question. As I outlined in my opening remarks, the majority of the experimentation and new equipment that we’re trialing in this exercise are in the mine warfare area of warfare. So we’ve got a high number of mine warfare platforms taking part this year, probably more than usual, from a range of nations. And we’ll be using a range of both conventional and autonomous systems that various nations are trialing in the exercise to give them some real-world context and to test them alongside conventional capability.
We can provide you with a bit more detail on that, if you want, in either a separate session or we can provide you with the actual detail. I know Janes is particularly interesting in this particular aspect. So we are very happy to provide that separately. Over.
Moderator: Great. Thank you very much for that. We have another question from Nadarajah Sethurupan with Norway News. Please go ahead.
Question: Hello. My question is the Russian cyber company’s activities within NATO countries, especially in Amsterdam, they’re having some cyber operation in Amsterdam against the NATO countries. How U.S. can respond to this?
Vice Admiral Black: Nadarajah, Admiral Black here. Thanks for your question. I don’t really want to get into operational matters with regard to cyber. Over.
Moderator: Great. Thank you very much for that. Let’s see, any final questions for our admirals?
Looks like we have no further questions in the queue, so why don’t we go to our speakers for their closing remarks, starting with Admiral Black. Please go ahead, sir.
Vice Admiral Black: Justin, thank you for pulling this together and thank you to all of the folks participating for your interest in BALTOPS. As we said, this is the 50th iteration of this exercise, and it’s foundational to so many of the things we do as an alliance. We’re excited to be able to be doing it at sea, and mindful of the COVID restrictions, though, we are still able to have some interactions ashore and among the sailors, which we weren’t able to get last year.
So we very much look forward to this and thank you for your interest. Over.
Moderator: And Admiral Morley, any closing remarks?
Rear Admiral Morley: Thanks, Justin. Just to repeat: the activity is absolutely a reinforcement of NATO’s commitment to regional security and a stable and prosperous Baltic Sea region, and we’ll be doing everything we can to reinforce that during the period of BALTOPS 50. To go back to Justin’s question, very happy to take offline some – correction, Nicholas’s question – very happy to provide him with more detail on the specifics of the unmanned systems that we’re trialing during the exercise. Over.
Moderator: Thank you very much. I’d like to thank Vice Admiral Black and Rear Admiral Morley for joining us today, and also thank all the journalists on the line for participating with your questions. The Brussels Hub will circulate an audio file of the call shortly to those who RSVP’d. Later today we will also circulate the transcript. A digital recording of today’s call will also be available for 24 hours. I will now turn it back over to AT&T to provide instructions on how to access the recording. This concludes the call. Thank you very much.