Maritime cooperation in the East
The Eastern border of NATO has received considerable reinforcement in the past year not only with the creation of the NATO Force Integration Units (NFIUs), the Alliance's small headquarters in eight countries, but also with the establishment of an enhanced Forward Presence in four of these eight Nations.
Baltic Operations (BALTOPS), an Allied maritime exercise taking place in the Baltic Sea might seem like an extension of that undercurrent, but in fact, it is one of NATO's longest-standing exercises, having been conducted since 1971.
Originally, BALTOPS was exclusive to NATO Member Countries. But since 1993, Partner Nations have also been invited to participate, extending BALTOPS to Partnership for Peace (PfP) efforts, focusing on joint maritime activities, with particular emphasis on submarine search and combat, mine warfare, air defence, and maritime missions.
Every year, the exercise is conducted by a different host. This year, the NATO Naval Striking and Support Forces (STRIKFORNATO) took on the mantle.
STRIKFORNATO is a rapidly deployable maritime headquarters, which provides scalable command and control for the Alliance. This organization which is managed under a Memorandum of Understanding, has a rich history. When it was created in late 1952, six Member Nations contributed to its personnel and it only operated in southern Europe. It now covers the entire NATO Area of Responsibility and comprises 12 Member Nations.
Connected at Sea
Carrying out such a large scale exercise requires a great deal of coordination, preparatory work, and state-of-the-art connectivity. As with most NATO training exercises, the NCI Agency played a key supportive role before and during BALTOPS. The Agency's CIS Support Unit (CSU) in Lisbon was the main point-of-contact for BALTOPS17, starting preparations early in the year by attending the exercise's main planning conference in Vilnius, Lithuania in February.
Although, the Agency only delivers a small portion of BALTOPS' IT requirements, its role is important. It provides secure communications to one of the two flagships taking part in the exercise, HDSM ABSALON, a Danish frigate-sized support ship. The CSU also supports the Exercise Control element located ashore in Glücksburg, Germany. Despite the name of the exercise, Agency staff are not present physically anywhere near the Baltic Sea. Routing and connecting is done from the Agency's technical centres in Mons, Belgium, and in The Hague, Netherlands.
Coordination and collaboration
BALTOPS is always a large scale exercise. This year, 14 Nations participated with about 5000 troops, 50 ships, and 50 fighter aircraft and helicopters in the southern and middle Baltic. Many of the countries with a coastline on the Baltic Sea served as the 'land component' of the exercise, so amphibious operations were conducted in Latvia, Germany, and Poland.
Given the number of Nations and NATO entities involved, BALTOPS remains one of the Alliance's most complex maritime exercise testing NATO's interoperability and the ability of its Member and Partner Nations to join forces at Sea.