NATO’s annual Sea Breeze exercise is set to concluded in the Black Sea.
Hosted this year by the US and Ukraine, the multinational naval drills saw the participation of approximately 5,000 troops, 32 ships, 40 aircraft and 18 special operations and dive teams from 32 countries.
The 13-day exercise began shortly after Russia claimed on June 23 that it fired warning shots and dropped bombs in the path of the British destroyer HMS Defender to force it to change course from the Crimean city of Sevastopol. While the UK’s Defense Ministry denies that the British ship was fired upon, Moscow warned that it was prepared to engage any NATO vessels entering the territorial waters around Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
Although Sea Breeze 2021 has proceeded without incident, tensions remain strained between Moscow and NATO. Moscow’s aggressive posture—claiming that it fired upon the HMS Defender and threatening the NATO exercise—is an indicator that it feels threatened by the bloc.
Indeed, the HMS Defender incident was likely exactly what London called it, a Russian drill. Expect Moscow to continue to exaggerate its willingness to militarily confront NATO in the medium-term, speaking to its anxiety over its security in Crimea.
Below is a full rush transcript of the press conference by Special Briefing via Telephone with U.S. Navy Captain Stuart Bauman , U.S. Navy Commander John D. John , U.S. Marine Corps Lt Col Mastin Robeson.
Captain Bauman: I’m the exercise director on the U.S. side for Exercise SEA BREEZE 21, and we had a successful exercise. We’re getting close to wrapping things up. We’ve had the largest SEA BREEZE since we began over 20 years ago. We’ve had up to 30 nations participating. We’ve had over 3,000 sailors, soldiers, and airmen. And we are – sorry, correction, that’s 5,000. We have 30 ships and just a great amount of cooperation and partnership between all of the nations participating.
The level of cooperation and integration is at its highest level that we’ve seen, and the Ukrainians are very capable as well as all of the partners that have joined in. And we’ve covered everything from maritime components to air, to land, to special operations. We’ve done an excellent job, and I’ve been very impressed and couldn’t be happier about the outcome of the exercise.
Commander John: This is Commander John D. John, commanding officer, USS Ross (DG-71). We are home ported in Rota, Spain as part of Task Force 65 in the Sixth Fleet area of operations. And our mission was to deploy and take part in SEA BREEZE 21, and this year were assigned as part of a five-ship battle group that incorporated a Ukrainian vessel, HRYHORIY KUROPIATNYKOV, the Bulgarian ship BODRY, the British ship TRENT, and Romanian ship MACELLARIU. And together, our mission was to promote interoperability and enhance warfighting readiness for our collective of the Black Sea region to ensure safety and prosperity in this region for allies and partners.
Lt. Colonel Robeson: I’m the commander of 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, also known as 1-6. And I’m here in Oleshky Sands in Kherson Oblast, collocated with the 88th Marine Infantry Battalion as well as the 1st Separate Battalion, Airborne Marines, conducting training as part of Exercise SEA BREEZE. I’ve got with me approximately 400 Marines from across the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force, also known as II MEF. And our mission was to deploy from Camp LeJeune, North Carolina to Oleshky Sands to conduct training with other nation forces, to include Ukrainian marines, Georgian soldiers, as well as Moldovan forces.
For us the exercise consisted of multiple phases. First phase was an opportunity to really get familiar with the other services that we were working with from other nations. We had a transition period on the 4th of July where we paused to celebrate Naval Forces Day for the Ukraine and, of course, Independence Day for the United States, and then we moved into a final exercise. This just concluded in the last 24 hours, and we’re in the process of cleaning up here. So far, great exercise.
Question: What was the role of non-NATO participant countries in the exercise? And what was the level of cooperation between sea and air components?
Captain Bauman: We had great participation from both our NATO and non-NATO participants across a wide variety all around the globe, including Asia, Africa, North America, obviously Europe, as well as the Middle East. And some of the things that they participated in, we had folks come in to be mentors with the Ukrainian forces, we had teams participating in our diving exercises as well as being observers and across all of the different air, land, and maritime components.
The – some of the cooperation that was – that we found wasn’t just sea and air, but also land as well. We had air support of the maritime forces as they performed anti-submarine warfare. We had maritime partnering up with land forces with amphibious assaults, and air assets supporting land forces in doing air assaults as well. And so we had quite a bit of interoperability between many different nations across all of the domains of warfare, and they’ve all done an outstanding job.
Question: When will the ships from non-Black Sea region countries involved in SEA BREEZE reach the Black Sea? And are there any plans of passing nearby Crimea while leaving?
Captain Bauman: Most ships that have participated in SEA BREEZE will also be participating in BREEZE, which is a Bulgarian-led exercise, so they will be remaining in the Black Sea for a period of time, obviously not to exceed the time limits of the Montreux Convention.
Question: Because also the military, as I guess, is not perfect and there can happen mistakes, what do you do technically or politically to prevent, let’s say, accidents or even misunderstandings, as it happened a couple of days ago, that can provoke or at least irritate non-participants like Russia or others along the Black Sea? So what kind of signals, what kind of communication, you do have in advance of when it happens?
Captain Bauman: We have been performing and executing SEA BREEZE for many years, all the way back to 1997, and so we have a long history of establishing what our cadence is and the types of activities that we perform, and even well beyond that just a general level of professionalism and being able to conduct military exercises safely and without provocation.
We are very transparent in our intentions as well as providing boundaries on where we will be and when we will be there. So with the – and that is well beyond just the U.S. and Ukraine, but all of our partners have a very high level of professionalism such that the – we minimize any provocation and operate only in accordance with those well-established conventions in international waters and air space.
Question: Can you speak about the effect the Russian presence and interference had on the exercise? What aviation assets do you feel have made the exercise better or more robust when it is next held?
Captain Bauman: I’m going to give Commander John a chance to discuss the first part of it since he’s been at sea and has some firsthand knowledge, and then I’ll go ahead and take the second half of the question.
Commander John: This is Commander John, USS ROSS. With regard to the first question about the presence of non-participating units at sea, there was no interference at all. In fact, all vessels, both civilian and military, that were operating in the exercise area conducted themselves with professionalism in accordance with international law and maritime regulations with the most due regard for safety at sea.
Question: Great. And Captain Bauman on the part about what aviation assets might make the exercise better or more robust?
Captain Bauman: Yes. So we have had a very wide variety of different aviation aircraft – or, sorry, aviation assets. We’ve had over 40 aircraft participate. So the breadth of types of aircraft that we’ve had has been a significant benefit to us during this exercise, and next year I anticipate that we will – or in future years we’ll be able to increase our – the number and types of aircraft assets that will give us even more enhanced operational capabilities in the future. A variety of assets such as our P-8s would be – increase our capabilities even further, the Typhoons from the UK. We’ve also have other fighters and helos that we have used and we will continue to use and expand even further in the future.
Question: I wonder if you could add anything from your perspective on the report of confrontation between the UK’s HMS DEFENDER and Russian forces last week. Thanks.
Captain Bauman: However, I will defer to the UK on responding to that, as it was completely outside the exercise and in their lane.
Question: I’d like to ask, are there any plans to increase American and NATO presence in the Black Sea in near future? And could this exercise be the sign of future deployments?
Captain Bauman: SEA BREEZE is just one of many exercises that we conduct both around the world and in Europe and the Black Sea region. We do very regular deployments with a variety of partner countries, and we will continue to do so to strengthen and stabilize the region.
Question: I mean, there are reports that Russians were exercising close to the – close to the SEA BREEZE participants. I mean, wasn’t that considered to be harassment? And was there any reaction by SEA BREEZE participants?
And the second question, I mean, there are some quite interesting-looking non-NATO countries involved. But I’m wondering if they were actually involved with – all with ships there, for example, United Arab Emirates, Israel? I see Egypt, Pakistan, South Korea. I mean, how would these countries have been involved in the exercise?
Commander John: Yes, this is Commander John still here from USS ROSS. I can answer the first part of that question with regard to any non-participating units, both civilian and military, operating in the exercise area. As you recall, the exercise took place in international waters in the Black Sea, and therefore there was the opportunity for both non-participating units and civilian vessels to be in and around the exercise area. And from all accounts, all vessels, all aircraft participated or conducted themselves in accordance with international law and maritime regulations and with due regard for safety, and no issues to report from that.
Captain Bauman: We had great participation from a wide variety of countries. The UAE we had participants here to observe and mentor, and then from Egypt we also had some participants performing a lot of the same functions. And it was very – in my speaking with them, I believe that they were eager to participate as well as they were impressed with the level of interoperability and capabilities brought with SEA BREEZE, and I believe that they left feeling very good about the engagement.
Question: I would like to ask a question about the situation in the area of exercises. There is currently a civil war going on in eastern Ukraine, and those exercises are considered by many in Ukraine and Russia as an incentive for Kyiv to continue the war rather than pushing for peace solution in the eastern Ukraine. Do you agree with this assessment?
And a small follow-up for the questions of my British and German colleagues: During the exercises, did you have any kind of channel of communication with Russian military forces present on – in the region to avoid any kind of misunderstanding?
Captain Bauman: Regarding any Ukrainian confrontations in the east, that is outside the scope of SEA BREEZE, and so I’ll refer you to the Ukrainian Government for further comments on that aspect. And as far as interactions and communications with Russians, I will defer over and allow Commander John to assess that and comment on that as he sees fit from the maritime perspective.
Commander John: As professional mariners, regardless of what nation, safety at sea is paramount for all vessels, and there were at least two interactions over bridge-to-bridge communication of VHF radios where both a non-participating unit and a participating unit communicated with each other effectively and professionally to ensure safe navigation of the exercise area and that all vessels would remain safe. And all of those communications were conducted in a routine and professional manner.
Question: Would you consider territorially and maritime-wise such a dense exercise with so many ships participating, Black Sea as a tight place to operate in terms of territorial waters, navigational borders, was that a challenge for the exercise and its scope?
Commander John: No, thank you for that question. And as you know, no nation can confront today’s challenges alone, and the Black Sea is no different. While it may be smaller than other international bodies of water, it’s still quite large and provides an appropriate area for nations to come together to learn from each other, strengthen relationships, and also contribute to each other to ensure the continued success of the longstanding alliance with NATO and our partner nations.
Question: An anti-submarine warfare training was mentioned during the briefing. I would like to know which nation has provided submarine ?
Captain Bauman: This is Captain Bauman. And for this year’s SEA BREEZE we did not have submarines participate, but in past years we have. We did conduct training for anti-submarine warfare, but that was done without an actual submarine.
Captain Bauman: Thanks to all of the callers and for all of the questions. Your engagement is well appreciated, and I think it reflects very similarly to how important this exercise is for the region as well as the fact that we have had the largest SEA BREEZE since 1997 when it commenced. The Ukrainians and all of our partners, both NATO and non-NATO partners, as well as military and non-military agencies, have had a successful SEA BREEZE, and we are very much looking forward to concluding it here shortly and starting the planning for SEA BREEZE 22 next year.
Commander John: Thank you all for the opportunity to be a part of this panel and answer your questions. SEA BREEZE, as you know, enhances our combat readiness amongst participating NATO and allied partner nations and allows them to – us to rapidly respond to any threats. And this year was no different. I believe that we proved that our ability to seamlessly operate together to maintain a stable and prosperous Black Sea region sends a message to the world that we are committed to enhancing stability and deterring aggression.
Lt. Colonel Robeson: Hey, so the exercise is a great experience for the Marines from 1st Battalion, 6th Marines and those from II MEF that accompanied us out here in Oleshky Sands. So for us, the opportunity to operate in an expeditionary environment where we’re just living in tents and out training with partner forces, folks trying to establish and maintain decent stability in the Black Sea, is a great win for us and I think a great win for the partners we worked with.
So at the end of the day, you quickly find when you’re working with these exercises that the – your partner forces you’re with are professionals, skilled, have a lot of pride in what they do, and great fraternity and team across the board, which is always one of the aim points of one of these events. And so for 21 years the Black Sea has hosted SEA BREEZE and I think to great effect. And so for the land component side, we on this SEA BREEZE side walked away with a great opportunity to exchange methods, exchange understanding of how we execute operations together, certainly tactical level skill exchanged with equipment comparisons between the marines from all nations, got to work with equipment and folks we don’t work with every day, and of course, really a great opportunity to exchange esprit de corps between the nations. And for the record, a lot of rain out here the whole way through it.
So it was a good chance to train, work together, and learn from each other, and I think do that in a way that demonstrated a good relationship and the ability to operate in a dynamic security environment. So thanks for the opportunity to be here today.