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240608-N-JC445-1024 BALTIC SEA (June 8, 2024) Ships participating in exercise Baltic Operations 2024 (BALTOPS 24) steam in formation through the Baltic Sea, June 8, 2024. BALTOPS24 is the premier maritime-focused exercise in the Baltic Region. The exercise, led by U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa and executed by Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO, provides a unique training opportunity to strengthen combined response capabilities critical to preserving freedom of navigation and security in the Baltic Sea. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Mario Coto)

Photo by Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Mario Coto

USS Mount Whitney (LCC 20) arrives in Kiel, Germany, marking its final stop after completing BALTOPS 24

26 Jun 2024 | Story by Capt. John Huntress PEO Land Systems

During the USS Mount Whitney’s port visit, Sailors, Marines, and key leaders from the Baltic Region participated in a Post-Sail conference at the Kiel Naval Base, where the discussions centered around capturing the lessons learned from BALTOPS 24, as well as beginning to shape the subsequent iterations of BALTOPS. BALTOPS is an annual training exercise in the Baltic region, with each year building off of the progress from the previous years.

For the duration of BALTOPS 24, Task Force 61/2 (TF 61/2) and Expeditionary Strike Group 2 (ESG-2) combined together as Commander Task Force 162 (CTF 162). CTF 162 was aboard the USS Mount Whitney, which served as the command and control center for the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1), the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock USS New York (LPD 21) and embarked 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), Special Operations Capable (SOC), all together referred to as the Wasp ARG-24th MEU (SOC). Embarked commands with the Wasp ARG consist of Amphibious Squadron Four, 24th MEU (SOC), Fleet Surgical Team 2, Tactical Air Control Squadron 22, Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 28 and Beach Assault Unit 21.

TF 61/2 was also working closely with NATO Allies throughout BALTOPS 24, to include members of the Spanish Navy aboard the multi-purpose amphibious assault ship-aircraft carrier Juan Carlos I (L 61), the Royal Netherlands Navy aboard the HNLMS Johan de Witt (L 801), and the French Navy aboard the Mistral class amphibious assault and command ship (L 9013).

“The purpose of this [BALTOPS] is to enhance our relationships, it’s to continue to build on our interoperability, it’s to showcase the fact that we are committed to this Alliance, and that we are committed to maintaining maritime peace and stability in the Baltic region,” said Brig. Gen. Samuel Meyer, the Commanding General of TF 61/2, who served as the Commander, Landing Forces (CLF) for CTF 162 during BALTOPS 24. “We are indeed stronger together.”

For the last two weeks, TF 61/2 and ESG-2 were underway on the USS Mount Whitney participating in BALTOPS 24. As one of NATO’s premier maritime-focused exercises, BALTOPS 24 aimed to enhance interoperability and cooperation among allied nations in a complex and dynamic maritime environment. BALTOPS 24 was divided into two at-sea training phases. Combat Enhancement Training (CET) and Force Integration Training (FIT) comprised the first phase, followed by 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 program of events, enabling them to safely operate together as a force. The exercise culminated with the TACEX phase, where forces shifted into a “free-play” portion, and commanders were given more freedom to run their own tactical programs. The TACEX phase was designed to better represent operating in real world situations.

Participating nations included Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Türkiye, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The exercise, in its 53rd iteration, provided a unique training opportunity that strengthened combined response capabilities critical to preserving the freedom of navigation and security in the Baltic Sea region. Participating nations exercised a myriad of capabilities that demonstrated the inherent flexibility of maritime forces, including amphibious operations, gunnery, anti-submarine, and air defense exercises, as well as mine clearance operations, explosive ordnance disposal, and diving and salvage operations.

“What we practice together is the ability to be interoperable with NATO, and this is a fantastic thing that I believe NATO does better than anyone else, and it really showcases the ability to work together,” says Rear Adm. Benjamin Nicholson, the commander of ESG-2, serving as the Commander, Amphibious Task Force (CATF) for CTF 162 during BALTOPS 24. “This really highlights the interoperability of NATO… where we can take forces from one nation, and put them on a ship or in a country of another nation, and operate from there seamlessly. That’s our strength when we partner and work together because we are stronger together.”

Unique to BALTOPS 24 was Sweden participating for the first time as a member of NATO. This year also included a robust medical training package, together with a mass casualty medical drill on several of the ships underway, complete with role players simulating injuries wearing realistic makeup that were treated by the ship’s corpsman and medical officers, showcasing the medical readiness of the ships’ medical teams. Additionally, BALTOPS 24 included a larger chaplaincy contribution in the exercise that was expanded to six participating nations, integrating the chaplains in the military exercises to practice spiritually supporting our key warfare advantage: our service members. Chaplains from Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Norway, Romania, and the United States participated in the exercise, and conducted several cross-deckings to other NATO surface ships, where they met with the service members on board and led religious services.

These various training evolutions contributed to this year’s successful iteration of BALTOPS 24. Participants in this multinational maritime exercise created and sustained partnerships and practiced a broad range of mission areas to enhance the capabilities of the participating units. More importantly, this exercise strengthens their ability to operate as a cohesive joint and combined force and respond to emerging crises.

Headquartered in Naples, Italy, U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa (NAVEUR-NAVAF) operates U.S. naval forces in the U.S. European Command (USEUCOM) and U.S. Africa Command (USAFRICOM) areas of responsibility. U.S. Sixth Fleet is permanently assigned to NAVEUR-NAVAF, and employs maritime forces through the full spectrum of joint and naval operations.

For more than 80 years, NAVEUR-NAVAF has forged strategic relationships with our Allies and partners, leveraging a foundation of shared values to preserve security and stability.