BaltOps 96: Building Regional Stability

By Guy Toremans

The Partnership for Peace Phase

Participating units gathered in Flensburg and Ecknerforde for pre-exercise briefings and in-port demonstrations to familiarize crews of the Partnership for Peace vessels with the equipment and procedures used by the NATO navies. For the first time in 24 years, the U.S. Coast Guard assigned a ship to BaltOps. The high-endurance cutter Gallatin (WHEC-721) demonstrated coastal-patrol capabilities, sanction enforcement by visit-board-search-and-seizure procedures, environmental-disaster response, and containment of environmental hazards. In the meantime, the U.S. frigate Samuel Eliot Morison (FFG-13) organized damage-control and seamanship olympics. The Finnish fast patrol boat Kotka tested the installation of message terminal equipment in NATO ships, and the flight crews of the helicopter-capable vessels received flight-deck familiarization sessions on board the Hue City (CG-67). Simultaneously, the Dutch frigate Pieter Florisz hosted a briefing on communications procedures. The British, in HMS Battleaxe , conducted maneuvering board drills, during which, teams of the participating ships were given a fictional unit for plotting purposes. Each unit had to be able to respond to tactical signals with resultant formations, distance to guide, course, and speed.

The Partnership for Peace phase began with the participating mine countermeasures vessels leading large combatants and fast patrol boats through a simulated mine-swept channel off Flensburg. After clearing the swept channel, the units dispersed into separate task groups, proceeding to their assigned operating areas in the Baltic approaches and near Bornholm Island. To cope with the large number of participants, the ships were divided into six groups. Groups 1, 2, and 3 were comprised of the large combatants; Group 4, the fast-patrol-boat squadron; Group 5 the mine countermeasures ships; and Group 6, the supply ships. Each group was headed by a task group commander responsible for his part of the exercise. Every nation had the opportunity to provide an Officer Conducting Serials during one or more of the 227 surface and air exercises.

Some of the exercises involved only one or two ships; others involved many more. Air support was provided by Danish, German, Swedish, Polish, and U.S. fighter aircraft, maritime patrol aircraft, and helicopters.

Upon completion of the Partnership for Peace phase, the ships put in to Karlskrona and Karlsham, Sweden (15-17 June), for the post-exercise debriefing. Communications and language problems remained the major points of concern. Several Baltic-state vessels had difficulty coping with the amount of data being sent over the communication channels.

In such exercises, communications congestion becomes a problem, because participants come from different navies, with differing equipment standards and a variety of operational procedures. Manually operated radiotelephones and visual signalling methods continue to be mainstays in the Partnership for Peace navies, owing to a lack of funding for more sophisticated equipment. Smaller navies usually are reluctant to spend their limited budgets on "invisible" components of a ship, preferring instead to invest the money on guns and missiles.

This year's exercise, however, was a considerable improvement. The Finnish Navy provided ten Nokia message terminal-systems (MTs); a secure fax system which, when coupled to the shipboard radios, gives the receivers a hard copy of every message—thus minimizing the risk of misunderstanding the messages and improving the de-briefing facilities. The MTs were installed in Polish, Latvian, Lithuanian, Estonian, Russian, and Finnish ships not equipped with NATO-compatible data-link systems. There were at least one or two message terminal-equipped vessels in each of the six task groups.

The Gallatin , acting as coordinator, sent out the messages on VHF to the other message-terminal-equipped ships, which in turn passed the messages to the non-linked units through their own communication systems. In addition, all ships had cellular phones with built-in fax systems. This proved to be an efficient aid, as well—with the additional advantage being a less-expensive means of communicating, when compared to satellite communications.

The NATO-only Phase

This phase consisted of a fictional tactical scenario, in which tension mounted in the "Purple Sea" (area near the Bornholm Island), where the country "Bornholmland" attempted to control the shipping lanes north and south of Bornholm. The "Purple League" littoral nations requested U.N. interaction, after which several NATO warships formed the Purple League Task Force to conduct routine operations and deter the Bornholmland aggressions.

The goal of this phase, involving about 31 ships, was to test the participants operating in a multithreat littoral environment and evaluate their tactical flexibility as well as the integration of fast patrol boats into task groups. The tests consisted of war-at-sea exercises; an encounter exercise; an opposed replenishment-at-- sea exercise; and four fast patrol boat raids. Air sorties included Dutch, German, and U.S. maritime patrol aircraft, as well as sorties by Danish F-16s and German Tornados.

The war-at-sea exercise objectives were to expand interoperability of the forces, exercise tactical coordination and intergroup communications, conduct search and localization of opposed forces, and coordinate air and surface engagements with assigned tactical aviation assets. The objectives of the opposed replenishment-at-sea exercise were rigging in a multithreat/multi-axis environment, positioning ships to maximize the defense posture of the force, and testing the use of aviation assets for search and localization plans.

The Syntex/Encounterex tested the command, control, and weapon organization while conducting simulated air-to-air, air-to-surface, and surface-to-surface coordinated engagements. BaltOps 96 concluded with a transit through a mineswept channel off Kiel, Germany, after which the ships dispersed and proceeded independently to their next port visits.

During the entire exercise, great care was taken to minimize the risk of damage to the Baltic region environment. All exercises were conducted in specified operational areas out of the territorial waters, at least 15 miles off the coastlines, and in close cooperation with the nearby nations. ComCarGruTwo assigned units to monitor the positions of participating vessels and aircraft to ensure that sovereignty of national coastal waters and airspace was not violated.

Participants also were encouraged to embark members of the press, especially during the first phase. ComCarGru Two provided overall coordination and scheduled all media movements for cross-decking to a variety of ships with the smaller vessels and helicopter transfers.

What about the Future?

Maritime exercises such as BaltOps not only allow participants to practice basic military procedures and establish routines for future exercises, but also to forge closer political ties between NATO and Partnership for Peace nations, which are beneficial in building regional stability and understanding. The training absorbed by the Partnership for Peace navies familiarizes them with NATO planning procedures and strengthens their ability to undertake missions such as search and rescue, humanitarian relief, and peacekeeping operations.

Nevertheless, to work together effectively, technical standards and equipment interoperability are essential, and a common language—and common tactical doctrines, procedures, and training—are imperative. Emphasis must be placed on breaking down language barriers, modernizing equipment, solving legislative issues with regard to organization of mutual actions, and ameliorating the conditions for interaction between commanders and staffs.

According to Rear Admiral Robert C. Williamson,

Much of the result will not be visible for many years, but with the groundwork done it is already a vital step toward stability and progress, even beyond the Baltic region. The challenge will be to take maximum advantage of the experiences developed, prepare forces for future contingency operations, and accelerate the process of convergence. Only then can the Partnership for Peace program become an effective and practical working environment, provide a good relationship between individual partners in peacekeeping operations and guide the Partnership for Peace navies towards compatibility and interoperability.

Russian and Polish representatives even expressed their desire for a greater complexity during forthcoming exercises, putting more emphasis on communications and tactical procedures. Until now, Partnership for Peace exercises have been focused on the familiarization of the crews with NATO equipment and procedures. Basic maneuvers in mid- and low-level exercises were a necessary first step in getting to know each other and finding out differences and similarities. But now is the time to make some real progress and get the Alliance and Partners nations working together in realistic scenarios.

Guy Toremans is a freelance maritime correspondent in Belgium and a former officer in the Belgian merchant marine.


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