The U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General's (JAG) Corps had a strong presence in this June’s exercise Baltic Operations (BALTOPS) 2018, NATO’s premier maritime-focused exercise in the Baltic Region.
The three-week, multinational exercise is coordinated and controlled by Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO (STRIKFORNATO) and is designed to improve interoperability among NATO allies and partners in the Baltic Region. This year’s BALTOPS focused on air defense, anti-subsurface warfare, maritime interdiction, mine countermeasures, and amphibious operations.
A team of 10 legal advisors (LEGAD) from five countries, led by Cmdr. Jonathan Flynn, STRIKFORNATO, provided guidance on law of the sea, rules of engagement (ROE), and international law throughout the exercise to commander, STRIKFORNATO, and subordinate commands. “NATO faces a number of interesting legal challenges in the operational environment. While NATO has its own doctrine and regulations for maritime operations, national rules always apply. This is particularly evident in the national definitions of self-defense, which may vary significantly from the NATO definition.” said Flynn. “These doctrinal differences increase the complexity of NATO operations and make exercises such as BALTOPS incredibly important to developing interoperability.”
Five U.S. Navy judge advocates participated this year. Lt. Cmdr. Jeremy Snellen, Center for Law and Military Operations (CLAMO), embarked on the Blue Ridge-class command and control ship USS Mount Whitney (LCC 20) and the Danish frigate HMDS Niels Juel where he advised the surface forces Task Group on ROE during the tactical portion of the exercise.
‘’ROE play was critical to an effective BALTOPS because it is a huge part of communicating the commander’s guidance. In a multinational force, LEGADs can play a critical role by ensuring clear guidance is given to units that speak different languages and are used to different terminologies,” Snellen said.
Also aboard the Mount Whitney were Lt. Cmdr. Toren Mushovic, Naval Reserve Pacific Fleet Legal Unit, who advised the mine warfare commander, and Lt. Kyle Doherty-Peters, Region Legal Service Office, Europe, Africa, Southwest Asia, who advised the task force and Joint Operations Center. Lt. Caitlin Howitt, Amphibious Squadron 4, participated from the Middle East and advised amphibious forces participating in the exercise.
Throughout BALTOPS, LEGADs were integrated within operational commands and played an integral part in developing and implementing ROE based on events playing out in real-time.
BALTOPS kicked off with a pre-sail conference in Klaipeda, Lithuania, and concluded in Kiel, Germany, a result of months of planning. A total of 22 nations participated and provided 42 ships and submarines, 60 aircraft, and more than 5,000 personnel. The exercise centered on a scenario involving escalating tensions, threats, and kinetic actions - a scenario concurrently leading to the need for increased legal and ROE authorities. LEGADs joined BALTOPS from Germany, the Netherlands, the United States, Poland, and Portugal. In addition to gaining valuable experience advising on time sensitive legal issues in an operational environment, the joint environment allowed U.S. Navy judge advocates to build invaluable relationships with our allied nations.
German Navy Cmdr. Frank Mueller-Rath, acted as the opposing forces LEGAD aboard Mount Whitney. Of his experience in the joint environment, Mueller-Rath said, “cooperating in an internationally mixed legal team allowed me to broaden my experience, question my own positions, and – most of all—get to know very nice people closely.” “We have had nice discussions about interpretations of definitions, our experiences, and so on. It’s always good to get a broader view and different perspectives,” said Royal Netherlands Navy Lt. Felipa Groenewoud Mealha, who joined Snellen aboard Niels Juel.
For Polish Armed Forces Lt. Cmdr. Krzysztof Porowski, BALTOPS was not only his first practical experience with international law and ROE, but was also his first real experience working with American service members. “I had never experienced American culture until embarking on the Mount Whitney. It was a great experience,” said Porowski. “I even had a blast getting a haircut in the barbershop.”
“It is always interesting what kind of view colleagues from abroad have on specific legal matters, like interpreting phrases of ROE,” said Germany Navy Cmdr. Jan Deckmann. “I was positively surprised how much my opinions concur with the American ones. I assumed they would differ.”