Baltic Sea Operation (BALTOPS) is the largest annual exercise series in the Baltic Sea. Its purpose is to improve training for participants, enhance flexibility and interoperability, and demonstrate resolve among Allied and Partner Forces in defending the Baltic Sea Region. First established in 1972, BALTOPS50 was the 50th iteration and took place June 2-18, 2021. NATO Allies engaged in live training events including air defense, anti-submarine warfare, maritime interdiction and mine countermeasure operations. For the historic 50th iteration, sixteen NATO Nations and two Partner Nations participated with more than 40 maritime units, 60 aircraft and approximately 4,000 personnel.
A team of eleven legal advisors (LEGADs) from five countries, led by U.S. Navy Cmdr. Louis Butler, Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO (STRIKFORNATO), provided legal advice and counsel throughout BALTOPS50 from the headquarters in Oeiras, Portugal and the command ships participating in the exercise. The LEGAD team included participants from Germany, Canada, Latvia, Portugal, and the United States (Maj. Robert Monroe, Maj. Blake Peltz, Capt. Brady Baxter, Lt. Nora Lopopolo, Lt. Michael Killius, and Lt. Scott McDonald). LEGADs are vitally important to successful military operations, advising commanders regarding complex and sensitive legal questions of maritime law, environmental law, international law and the application of rules of engagement.
“This 50th iteration of BALTOPS is a historic milestone for the NATO Alliance and the Baltic Sea Region”, said Butler. “As we planned and executed BALTOPS50, we tailored the training scenario and exercise objectives to highlight the importance of International Rule of Law to maintaining global peace and security. Through high-end training exercises, like BALTOPS, and real-world operations, NATO and Partner Nations continue to exercise their rights under international law for the safe and unrestricted navigation and overflight of international waters.”
BALTOPS50 marked a number of important firsts, including the incorporation of the NATO Space Center, defensive cyber warfare tactics, experimental mine countermeasures, and the NATO Amphibious Leaders Expeditionary Symposium (NALES) concept for an Amphibious Task Force. Even the exercise scenario was brand new and tailored specifically for BALTOPS. This year’s exercise also marked the first integration of command and control functions between STRIKFORNATO headquarters, USS Mount Whitney (LCC 20), and the Portuguese RGF Bunker. In light of the ongoing COVID Pandemic, planners and participants took necessary measures to ensure safety and health, both ashore and at sea.
"This 50th BALTOPS continues to increase NATO's maritime readiness, building the foundation of seamless interoperability," said Vice Adm. Gene Black, commander, U.S. Sixth Fleet and STRIKFORNATO. "Though our ships, aircraft, and commanders have changed through the last 50 BALTOPS, the exercise continues to adapt, ensuring our ability to provide collective defense in the Baltic Sea."
BALTOPS50 was divided into two training phases: the Combat Enhancement Training and Force Integration Training (CET/FIT) and the final tactical phase of the exercise (TACEX). During the CET/FIT phase, ships and aircraft rehearsed common tactics, techniques, and procedures under a scripted schedule of events, enabling them to operate safely together.
The exercise culminated with the TACEX phase, during which forces shifted into “free-play,” allowing commanders more discretion in executing their own tactical programs. The TACEX phase is designed to better represent real world operations.
With regard to the Amphibious Task Force participation in BALTOPS50, Rear Adm. Robert Katz, commander, Expeditionary Strike Group 2, said, "The ESG and MEB staffs have been fully integrated and worked side-by-side as we planned and executed complex warfighting scenarios. We have had an incredible time, working in this vitally important region and coordinating with joint and partner military forces we would not ordinarily cross paths with when working from our headquarters in Virginia."