Ships and ashore units from 11 NATO Ally nations commenced the mine countermeasures (MCM) phase of exercise Baltic Operations 2023 (BALTOPS 23) in Germany, Poland and in the Baltic Sea, June 5.
The purpose of mine countermeasures is to hunt, identify and neutralize underwater mines to ensure freedom of navigation at sea for all. Worldwide Navies employ MCM procedures, ships, and technology to clear lanes for ships to access strategic waterways and conduct amphibious landings on contested beaches. One key initiative that delivers training to the crews of the MCM while delivering real-world positive impact throughout BALTOPS 23 is the clearance of unexploded ordnance and remnants of war littering the bottom of the Baltic Sea to this day.
Under the command of NATO Commander Task Group 162.40, there are four units participating in the MCM portion of the exercise: Standing NATO Mine Countermeasures Group 1 (SNMCMG1), Baltic Naval Squadron (BALTRON), Task Unit 30 and Task Unit 40. In all, the group comprises 12 ships and over 1,000 personnel.
“The mission of our task group is to maintain, sustain, and improve MCM readiness,” said U.S. Navy Capt. Ryan Ventresca, Commodore, Mine Countermeasures Group (MCMGRU) 3, which is overall in charge of MCM evolutions for BALTOPS 23. “This is a way for us to coordinate and collaborate with the best in the world.”
Spanning World War I and II, the waterways of the Baltic Sea were often mined to prevent the passage of enemy ships. As peace settled over Europe post-wars, many of the nations disposed of ammunition and explosive ordnance in the ocean – at the time, a safer alternative. Today, there is believed to be more than 80,000 mines and other unexploded remnants of war across the Baltic Sea, making certain areas unfishable due to the danger of reeling in explosives, while other areas become hot-zones of rapid evacuation when a decades-old unexploded explosive washes ashore.
Throughout the year, many Baltic navies’ peacetime mission are mine clearance – the Estonian Navy even prioritizes it, due to the large number of mines lying dormant in territorial waters. But exercises like BALTOPS 23, a platform primarily used for training interoperability, give the NATO alliance a chance to make a real-world positive impact in the Baltic.
During the exercise, MCM ships are actively hunting for mines in the Irbe Strait, which connects the Baltic Sea to the Gulf of Riga, as well as the territorial waters of Germany and Estonia. They will also hunt for mines prior to an amphibious landing in Utska, Poland. Closer to land, small boat and diving exercises are taking place in Putlos, Germany. The 11 nations participating in MCM operations will have hands-on work in removing, transporting, and destroying historical and rusted mines.
To assist in searching for mines, units employ unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV) that travel with a pre-programmed course and use sonar to search the sea floor for objects, which divers later inspect and identify for possible mine neutralization and recovery. Experimentation is also being conducted off the coast of Germany on unmanned surface vehicles (USV), which have the potential to patrol designated areas, recover personnel and deploy UUVs autonomously.
“One of our lines of effort is to experiment with tactical and technical advances in weapons systems,” said Ventresca. “We are looking for ways to improve our capability to implement these technologies for future real-world employment.”
BALTOPS, which began in 1972 and is now in its 52nd iteration, continues to be an excellent opportunity for NATO and regional partners to strengthen interoperability through a series of combined tactical maneuvers and scenarios.
“Exercises like BALTOPS are a crucial part of training, and training is a crucial part of NATO as a whole,” said German Navy Cmdr. Philipp Klimmek, the MCM syndicate leader for the exercise. “It is always an honor to work with our Allies and partners.”
BALTOPS 23 is the premier annual maritime-focused exercise in the Baltic Region, in which NATO Allies and Partners are the main participants. BALTOPS brings together both NATO and non-NATO countries to exercise largescale interoperability. U.S. European Command and Naval Forces Europe have promoted the traditional U.S.-led or bi-lateral exercises as opportunities for NATO to improve interoperability as a collective force, using NATO command and control systems as a foundation for the exercise design.
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