The Latvian Navy is hosting this year’s edition of the international annual mine clearance and ordnance disposal drill Open Spirit which is taking place between August 18 and 31.
The exercise aims to reduce the threat of unexploded ordnance throughout the Baltic Sea region, including seabed communications lines, international shipping routes, and fishing areas.
It is hosted on a yearly rotational basis since 1997 by one of three Baltic nations – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Fourteen nations are participating in Open Spirit 2017, including Belgium, Canada, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Sweden, United Kingdom, the United States. Ships from NATO’s Standing Mine Counter Measure Group 1 will be among the participating units.
This year, the exercise is joined by eleven Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) clearance divers and support personnel who will be operating from the naval base in Mikeltornis.
Lieutenant-Commander William Barter, Commanding Officer of Fleet Diving Unit (Atlantic), is the Task Force Commander of Open Spirit 2017.
Russia and Belarus are set to stage the Zapad 2017 war games, and the operation’s size is causing concern among Western observers. Moscow’s heavy troop presence has some worrying whether Minsk’s sovereignty is at risk.
Russian troops have been gathering in Belarus since Monday. The Zapad 2017 (West 2017) war games are slated to begin in September, with roughly 12,700 Russian soldiers officially participating, according to Moscow. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg thanked Russian officials for providing them with troop information, but said the games will nonetheless be closely monitored.
War games exceeding 13,000 troops require the presence of external observers, as stipulated by the Vienna Document, a security agreement among the participating states of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which includes Russia. Western observers fear Russia will break the agreed limit on troop participation. Opposition voices in Belarus, a Russian ally, worry that Russian troops will remain in the country following the exercises to de facto occupy the country.
Regional concern grows
Russia’s military build up to its West is worrying Belarus’ neighbors – Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic states – which were all under Moscow’s control during the Soviet era. Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis said there are 100,000 Russian troops that President Vladimir Putin wants to use to “put NATO to the test.”
That number may refer to Russia’s total troop presence in the larger region for the exercises, Margarete Klein of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) told DW. The military exercises are taking place both in Russia and Belarus, she said, however a lot of speculation surrounds the operation.
“We just have to wait to see what happens,” Klein said. “It’s difficult to talk in advance about what the numbers may mean.”
Doubting the numbers
Russian military expert Alexander Golz pointed out that the Zapad war games extend beyond Belarus, as the Belarusian military announced they are to stretch from Russia’s Kola Peninsula near Finland to the western exclave of Kaliningrad in the Baltic region. Thus troops are being amassed not just in Belarus, but in Russia as well, he said, adding that Moscow has a history of playing fast and loose with troop numbers.
“Russia had a curious interpretation of the Vienna Document during the conflict in the Donbass,” Golz told DW, explaining that Moscow’s troop deployment to the country’s border with eastern Ukraine was said to be part of a military exercise so that the Kremlin could claim its soldiers’ presence did not exceed the Vienna Document’s limit.
Everything above board?
Russia’s Defense Ministry has ordered about 4,000 rail cars, according to media reports, for troop transports to Belarus – more than previous exercises, including 1,000 more than for Zapad 2013, Alexander Alessin, a Belarusian military expert, told DW. Zapad 2017 would remain within the permissible limits, he said, calculating for up to 30 tons of equipment per soldier.
Prospects for Belarusian sovereignty
A post-operation occupation of Belarus is unlikely, Alessin said, because “occupying [Russia’s] only ally would undermine faith in the Kremlin, including with its potential partners.” It would also undermine Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s credibility – at home and abroad, which is in neither side’s interest. Alessin cited Belarus’ denial of Russia’s 2013 request to maintain airbases there.
Lukashenko is unlikely to allow Russian troops to remain in the country following the September maneuvers, Alexander Golz said. For 20 years, Lukashenko has been receiving money from Russia, he said, and therefore has always underscored Belarus’ strategic importance to Russia as an outpost. “As far as Russian military bases in Belarus go,” Golz added, “Lukashenko turned 180 degrees. Interestingly, Putin had to swallow that.”
Estonia has not received an invitation from Russia to observe Zapad, a large-scale joint Russian-Belarusian military exercise to take place in September. Russian authorities, however, will present the exercises to military attaches accredited to other countries’ diplomatic missions in Moscow at a separate event.
“Military attaches accredited to Moscow have been invited to attend an event at Luga Training Camp on Sept. 18-19, in the course of which Russia will present the Zapad joint military exercise,” Ministry of Defence spokesperson Susan Lilleväli told BNS on Wednesday. “The Estonian defense attaches are ready to take part in the event.”
The joint Russian-Belarusian military exercise will be held in the territory of both countries from Sept. 14-20. The exercise has sparked concern in other countries as, in similar exercises in 2009 and 2013, Russia, among other things, allegedly rehearsed an attack on its neighbors.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in mid-July that, “based on previous experiences related to previous exercises, we have every reason to believe that substantially more troops are participating than the official reported numbers.” He encouraged Russia to allow NATO observers to monitor the maneuvers.
Minister of Defence Jüri Luik has expressed the same concern, telling weekly Maaleht in July that Russia should declare the exercise on the basis of the Vienna Document, according to which any exercise involving more than 9,000 participants should be declared. Russia has stated that 13,000 troops will be participating in the September exercise.
Belarus has sent invitations to Estonia and other countries, which Estonia has already chosen to accept, to observe the exercise on its territory. It has not offered any details, however.
About 1,000 marines of the Russian Baltic Sea Fleet take part in a wargame that simulates action to protect the seacoast, fleet spokesman Roman Martov told TASS on Wednesday.
He said the active phase of the tactical exercise involving Baltic Sea Fleet’s marines is underway at the firing ground Khmelevka in Russia’s north-western enclave Kaliningrad region. “About 1,000 military, 150 pieces of weapons and military hardware take part,” Martov said.
Acting on alert, marines marched from the site of their permanent stationing to the area of the military drill. On the march, they trained tasks of battle defense, passage through contaminated terrain, action to counter subversive and reconnaissance groups. Air defense units acted to rebuff airstrikes of an imaginary enemy.
Sailors from the U.S. Navy conducted missions from Royal Air Force (RAF) Mildenhall during exercise Saxon Warrior, Aug. 1-10.
Bringing with them two C-2A Greyhounds, the 48-strong team from the “Rawhides” of Fleet Logistics Support Squadron (VCR) 40 participated in the multinational exercise.
The exercise provided the U.S., U.K. and other countries the opportunity to conduct training designed to sharpen joint warfighting skills and enhance the capacity to conduct combined, multinational maritime operations. The U.S. routinely trains with allies and partners in exercises like Saxon Warrior to ensure mission readiness and interoperability.
VRC-40 used RAF Mildenhall as their forward-operating base to carry out their missions to deliver supplies and personnel to and from the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77).
During the exercise, the George H.W. Bush hosted British personnel aboard, working alongside their American counterparts as part of the U.K.-U.S. Long Lead Specialist Skills Program, which qualifies them in U.S. carrier operations. This vital partnership and training occurred in preparation for the arrival of the Royal Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, and to bolster the British carrier strike capability.
“Our squadron, the VRC-40 Rawhides, stays based in Norfolk. But every time a carrier strike group goes out, they attach two [carrier onboard delivery] to the carrier air wing part of the strike group,” said Aviation Electrician’s Mate 1st Class Joshua Gallaher. “We make sure the aircraft are good to go at all times so we’re prepared for whatever mission is required of us. That way, when the ship requires high-priority parts for the aircraft on board, we coordinate through the Beach Det., our supply system on land, to get those parts out to the ship as soon as possible. Or if they need to get people out to the ship, we’ll take them. We perform a variety of missions.”
Gallaher said this is the first time he has worked out of an Air Force base during this type of deployment. He said they usually operate out of Navy bases such as Souda Bay, Greece or Sigonella, Italy.
“Working as the U.S. Navy, alongside the U.S. Air Force, builds a camaraderie between the two branches overall,” said Gallaher. “I think the Air Force operates differently from how the Navy does, so for them to be able to help us, knowing we would do the same for them, builds a bridge between the two. Being in England, the Air Force has already created a relationship with the locals, so when we come here it means we don’t have any issues.”
Saxon Warrior involved the U.S. Navy assisting the Royal Navy by providing the platform on which the U.K Carrier Strike Group staff were able to operate.
“The strike group staff are currently operating those assets; the Destroyer Squadron 22 and embark Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 8,” said Lt. Cmdr. James Light, VRC-40, Det. 2 officer in charge. “The RAF are pretty much running our operations right now, in terms of logistics. When you look at the whole exercise, they’re running the entire air wing through a notional work-up cycle.”
The carrier on board delivery detachments are shore-based and fly out to the ship every day. Light said that there hasn’t been a carrier on board delivery based in England since 2009.
“Our experience with RAF Mildenhall has been fantastic,” Light said, thanking the members of Team Mildenhall for all the support they provided.
Soldiers of the Georgia National Guard Company H, 121st Infantry (Airborne) Long Range Surveillance Unit conducted an airborne insertion with British ‘C’ Coy, 2nd Battalion Parachute Regiment as part of Exercise Noble Partner 2017. Noble Partner 2017 is a U.S. Army Europe-led exercise designed to support the training, progression, and eventual certification of Georgia’s 2nd Light Infantry Company’s contribution to the NATO Response Force.
Estonia will accept the invitation by Belarus to send observers to the Zapad military drill to be jointly held by Russian and Belarusian armed forces this September, the Commander of the Estonian Defence Forces has stated.
Estonian public broadcaster ERR reports that the Commander of the Estonian Defence Forces General Riho Terras has said this week in an interview with Eesti Päevaleht newspaper that Zapad exercises have taken place for decades already, also during the Soviet times.
Terras noted that this summer, Belarus and Russia have already conducted preparatory joint exercises testing communications in July and currently a demonstrative drill is taking place in Pskov, not far from Estonia and Latvia.
«It is important that we know what is going on. (..) That we know in detail what is going on, that we keep track of it and be prepared. But we must also be prepared when exercises aren’t being conducted. I don’t think that anything will occur in the framework of field exercises which could spill over to our side or which we will tangibly be able to see,» ERR cited Terras as evaluating in the interview.
KALININGRAD, August 10. /TASS/. More than 2,000 marine troops participated in tactical drills involving a marine brigade and the 11th Army Corps of the Russian Baltic Fleet, which were held at the Khmelyovka training range in the Kaliningrad region, Fleet Spokesman Roman Martov told TASS.
“The drills were aimed at training the skills of seizing coastal areas and driving the enemy forces out of them,” he said. According to the fleet spokesman, the exercises involved more than 2,000 troops, as well as over 100 pieces of military hardware, including 20 warships, boats and supply vessels, 12 planes and helicopters from the Baltic Fleet’s naval aircraft units.”
Besides, tanks, the Akatsiya self-propelled howitzers, Grad multiple launch rocket systems and Shilka self-propelled antiaircraft guns, as well as other military hardware, was also used during the marine drills. At the same time, the Sukhoi Su-24 attack aircraft and Mil Mi-24 attack helicopters performed missile attacks on the simulated enemy’s positions. A Mil Mi-8 transport helicopters delivered a marine assault group to the drills site, while an air assault group arrived in an Antonov An-26 transport aircraft.
“During the exercises, ships carrying marine assault groups trained to suppress the simulated enemy’s coastal strongpoints and honed the tactics of military activities behind enemy’s lines, which particularly involve marine assault groups.
To create an environment close to that of an actual military operation, more than five tonnes of various simulated munitions were used.
Typhoon aircraft from the Royal Air Force currently based, in Eastern Romania have been testing the air defence capabilities of HMS Duncan, a Royal Navy Type 45 destroyer which is leading the Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 in the Black Sea.
The Four Typhoons from 3(F) Squadron were tasked to test the capability of HMS Duncan in controlling air defence and anti-surface warfare. During the exercise the ship’s crew had the opportunity to control some of the jets to defend the destroyer from air attack and at the same time practice launching an air attack on other surface ships.
HMS Duncan’s Senior Warfare Officer Lt Cdr Michael Waters said: “Opportunities for Type 45 to work with the RAF Typhoons are few and far between, even in the UK. The chance to operate with 135 EAW, and for HMS Duncan to control live aircraft in the execution of both Air-Air and Air-Surface missions was invaluable and proved our interoperability while both were tasked to NATO in the Black Sea.”
Flight Lieutenant Brett Fusco, from 3(F) Squadron, co-ordinated 135 EAW’s participation and who flew during the exercise explained what happened. He said: “There were two elements, their fighter controllers on board practiced controlling us against an air threat while one of us was acting as the threat and two of us were on Combat Air Patrol protecting the ship.
“The other element was conducting Anti Surface Forces Air Operations (ASFAOs) using the fourth jet. For Duncan it was a chance for them to concurrently have different elements of their crew defending against an air threat whilst controlling an anti-surface operation.”
Following the conclusion of the exercise there was an opportunity for an exchange with 18 RAF personnel visiting HMS Duncan for a tour of the ship and 15 RN personnel being hosted at MK Air base.
Flt Lt Gemma Bean, the 135 EAW Detachment Administrative Officer said: “It was really interesting. It was the first time I’ve ever been on a RN ship. Just to see how their lifestyle compares to ours was eye-opening. We saw everything from their helicopter, the operations centre to the bridge and the weapons systems.” She reflected on the similarities of operations, adding: “They are also on NATO ops. It was interesting to see how they conduct theirs working with different nations, liaising with host nations and how everything fits together as a NATO package.”
Petty Officer Tim Rumble, from HMS Duncan said: “It was great to have the opportunity to visit an Expeditionary Air Wing deployed with NATO and offered a fascinating insight into the way our RAF colleagues operate. I particularly enjoyed seeing the aircraft up close as well as the unique facilities at MK Airbase.”
The RAF has deployed 135 Expeditionary Air Wing, from RAF Leeming with four Typhoon aircraft, from RAF Coningsby, to western Romania until the end of August as part of a four-month NATO mission to enhance air policing. At the same time the Portsmouth-based Type 45 Destroyer, HMS Duncan has been tasked in the Black Sea leading the Standing NATO Maritime Group 2, providing reassurance and deterrence in the Black Sea, as well as commanding NATO’s counter migration activity in the Aegean.