Author Frigate Captain Göran Swistek is visiting scholar at the Science and Politics Foundation in Berlin. From 2015 to 2017 he was responsible for the planning and implementation of BALTOPS at STRIKFORNATO.
June 19, 2021 (Google Translation) – As early as 1970 gathered under US United States- American leadership of naval units of the NATO Baltic Sea countries Denmark, Norway and West Germany for a joint maritime exercise. This major exercise, which has now taken place annually, has been known as Baltic Operations, or BALTOPS for short, since presumably in 1971 . Naval historians and other observers disagree with the dating of the official start of the exercise. This is how the US celebrated United States- Forces in Europe celebrated the 25th anniversary of the exercise in 1997, which would suggest 1972 as the “founding year”.
To date, the exercise is carried out by the Commander of the American Forces in Europe (USEUCOM) and his subordinate USUnited States-Marine Commander in charge, supported by the 2nd and 6th US Fleets as well as by the NATO armed forces structure, but USUnited States-guided, headquarters STRIKFORNATO planned and carried out. Officially, therefore, it is not an original exercise of the alliance, but BALTOPS is particularly geared towards NATO member states and exercises allied capabilities and interoperability.
During the Cold War, the aim of BALTOPS was to demonstrate the American determination to defend Northern Europe and to demonstrate the joint Allied ability to act offensively in Soviet territory if necessary. The main contents of the maneuvers were – and still are today – the core capabilities of the maritime armed forces, such as submarine hunting, air defense or artillery shooting. In this way, BALTOPS was supposed to contribute to the deterrence of NATO against the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact in a geostrategic area in which both sides would probably have a military confrontation.
The geographical focus of the exercise was on the one hand access to the Baltic Sea via the Skagerrak between Denmark and Norway. Here, NATO naval forces could prevent the potential adversary, the Soviet Union, from allowing its Baltic fleet to advance into the Atlantic, as well as refusing to support it from the Northern Fleet. On the other hand, the maneuver area extended as far as the western Baltic Sea to defend the Allied territories of Denmark and West Germany from an invasion from the seaside.
Today the dispatch of the USS “Intrepid”, an aircraft carrier specializing in submarine hunting, with its escort of three American destroyers into European waters marks the beginning of the 50-year history of BALTOPS. The ride of the US United States-Maritime Association, however, was less a naval maneuver than a maritime operation ordered by the American government itself.
As Task Force 83.2, the ships operated in 1971 and 1972 between the North Atlantic, the Barents Sea, the Mediterranean and, last but not least, the Baltic Sea. Their job was to continuously create an up-to-date image of the air, surface and, above all, underwater situation. At the same time, the US plumbed United States Navy Soviet reactions to certain sailing styles and approaches to territorial waters of the USSR Union of Soviet Socialist Republics out.
As an initially purely American association, the task force had only scheduled a few small exercises with the Allied naval forces in the respective region in which the US was located United States-Ships were located. Even then, Sweden was already interested in the maritime exercises of the Alliance in their forecourt and the Swedish Navy paid an official visit to the association.
Also in 1971, the ” Intrepid” with her destroyer escort ended the mission to the Baltic Sea with a four-day stay in Kiel. Since the end of the 1970s, the unwritten rule has been solidified that the BALTOPS exercise will end in Kiel at the start of the Kiel Week. Several generations of Allied sailors are still raving about their experiences in this port city. The “Kiel Week” has thus become a solid NATO tradition.
During the Cold War, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark and West Germany were the main participants in the US United States-guided maneuver. By the mid-1970s at the latest, the BALTOPS participants had come to appreciate the German and Danish speedboats and German submarines as challenging training opponents.
With the end of the Cold War, the content, the area and the participants of the exercise gradually changed. From a demonstration of military deterrence against the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, BALTOPS changed from 1991 to a political tool for dialogue and the involvement of Russia in aspects of maritime security.
For the next 20 years, Russian warships have not continuously but regularly participated in the exercise with NATO allies and partners. At the same time, for example, since 1993, eleven years before joining the alliance, the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have also regularly sent naval units to BALTOPS.
While this encouragement for the exercise grew from former Warsaw Pact members and potential NATO aspirants, participation by naval ships from existing allies gradually declined in the 1990s.
The main reasons for the decline in participation: Individual allies assigned their dwindling ships to maritime NATO and UN operations in the Adriatic and Persian Gulf during the regional conflicts there. At the same time, NATO itself was also looking for a new political determination.
Meanwhile, BALTOPS continued to develop over the years. In the 1990s, the focus was often on the dialogue with and integration of Russia, as well as the exchange between the naval forces involved, in order to develop mutual understanding. That changed again by 2001 at the latest: The BALTOPS planners added asymmetrical threats at sea and the evacuation of civilians from crisis areas as new exercise modules.
Even the Russian-Georgian war in 2008, but largely the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, which was contrary to international law, meant another change for BALTOPS. While Russia ended its participation in 2012, interest in the exercise on the part of old and new NATO members as well as the EU partners Sweden and Finland increased sharply in the following years until today. Even Georgia has already participated with special forces. The Atlantic Alliance and its member nations also became aware of the geostrategic importance of the Baltic Sea as a link between the European mainland and Scandinavia as far as the Far North.
Since 2014, deterrence and defense, combined with a strong strategic signal effect, have been an essential aspect of BALTOPS. The content is about showing a military presence in the region, also to reassure the eastern allies. The partners train core maritime skills, from artillery shooting to submarine hunting, to mine defense and electronic warfare. In addition, amphibious operations are part of the large-scale exercise, such as the use of US strategic bombers United States Air Force.
BALTOPS has thus developed into a joint military exercise: It no longer only takes place on the high seas, but increasingly also in coastal areas, on the beach and in the air space over the Baltic Sea. In addition, in recent years the maneuver has increasingly served for experimental purposes, such as continuous surveillance of air and sea space by drones or defense measures of ships against land-protected, shoulder-supported missiles.
Against this background, BALTOPS is also making increasing use of military training areas in the Baltic Sea region, in the past five years especially the German military training area Putlos in Schleswig-Holstein due to its favorable and unique framework conditions. Among other things, it offers space for the artillery shooting of the ships involved, even with large calibers. Furthermore, everything can be trained in Putlos as the only military training area for the allies and partners in the Baltic Sea region, from mine clearing and amphibious landings to accompanying air support, if necessary even as far as possible in parallel.
The German Navy continuously contributes to BALTOPS with its capabilities, from maritime patrols to frigates, mine-hunting boats and corvettes to the sea battalion and supporting logistics units. And meanwhile the Air Force is also using the large-scale exercise, primarily with Eurofighter fighter-bombers.
It is precisely these aspects common to the armed forces that have led to close coordination and linking of BALTOPS with parallel maneuvers since 2017: such as the American-Polish Saber Strike, the Lithuanian Thunder Storm, the American Defender Europe or even the newly created Steadfast Defender of NATO. In 2018, the British-led Joint Expeditionary Force also used the BALTOPS maneuver to integrate its primarily amphibious units into a larger network.
The major maritime maneuver Baltic Operations was subject to all geostrategic changes that have taken place in Europe in half a century. Both the content and goals of the exercise and the participants reflect this: What degree of security threats have old and new NATO partners perceived? How did the Allies react?
The answers to these questions show: BALTOPS in the course of time has become a real allied maritime heart rate monitor. It will remain so in the foreseeable future.