Commander of the Ukrainian Navy, Rear Admiral Oleksiy Neyizhpapa and U.S. 6th Fleet Commander, Vice Admiral Eugene Black have announced the start of 2020 Sea Breeze exercises with participation of eight countries.
The commanders made this statement during a telephone briefing held under the auspices of the U.S. Department of State’s Brussels Media Hub.
“The main goal is to conduct an international naval security operation in the crisis area. The Black Sea has long ceased to be stable. Exercises such as Sea Breeze prove that the United States and NATO partners support peace and stability in the Black Sea region. I am very pleased that the Standing NATO Maritime Group traditionally participates in the Sea Breeze exercises. This underscores once again that NATO countries and partners support Ukraine’s decision to join NATO,” the Ukrainian commander said.
In turn, U.S. 6th Fleet Commander, Vice Admiral Eugene Black stressed that much attention during the Sea Breeze 2020 exercises was paid to ensuring the safety of the involved forces amidst the COVID-19 global pandemic, so all exercises will take place exclusively at sea and in the air.
Below is a full rush transcript of the Briefing with Vice Admiral Eugene Black Commander of the U.S. 6th Fleet, Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO And Rear Admiral Oleksiy Neizhpapa Commander of the Naval Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
Rear Admiral Neizhpapa: Good morning, I’m the Ukrainian navy commander, Rear Admiral Oleksiy Neizhpapa. I am pleased to welcome and to congratulate everyone on the beginning of Sea Breeze exercise 2020. Rear Admiral Eugene Black, I would like to congratulate you on the confirmation as the head of the 6th Fleet Navy.
Today we start an absolutely new format of Sea Breeze exercise. I would like to present the officer conducting the exercise, captain of the navy Oleksiy Doskato; from the American side, the Deputy Commander of the 6th Fleet, Captain of the Navy Kyle Gantt.
This exercise has a long history. It started in 1997, and for the Ukrainian side, this is the main tool for entering NATO. This year our Sea Breeze – in the Sea Breeze exercise, eight countries participate. Besides Ukraine and U.S., we have Turkey, we have Romania, Spain, Georgia, and Bulgaria. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19, we reduced the duration of our exercise to one week. But I hope that this exercise will be conducted on the high level and will be fruitful and we will receive a lot of experience.
That is the first time when we finished up our final planning conference online. Our exercise – more than 20 ships and 19 airplanes will participate in this exercise this year. The main aim of this year’s exercise is the maritime security in the crisis area. Everyone knows that the Black Sea hopes to be stable, so that these kinds of exercise like Sea Breeze, or Breeze, are under the umbrella of Bulgaria as the main – is the main tool that our partners give the stability in the Black Sea and shows the stability in the Black Sea.
I am very happy that traditionally in Sea Breeze exercise, the SNMG NATO groups participate. It shows and it underlines that NATO countries, as well as NATO partner countries, support Ukraine in its aim to enter the NATO.
I would like to underline one more time that this exercise is necessary to support the stability in our region. As Admiral Mahan – I would like to quote Admiral Mahan that sea is not defense, sea is the way. So the main task of us is to make this way safety, besides that some countries don’t understand these principles, especially Russian Federation.
We are going to conduct a wide variety of trainings and exercises during this week. This will be dedicated to air exercises and to ship exercises, search and rescue operations, and other exercises. And I hope that each and every one will be successful. And we will show that we will be interoperability – we will show our interoperability in conducting all our exercises.
Vice Admiral Black: Well, thank you, I’m Vice Admiral Gene Black here. I’m Commander of the U.S. 6th Fleet, and it’s great to virtually be here with all of you today. I’m talking to you all from my headquarters in Naples, Italy, and I am excited to announce the kickoff of the exercise today with my Ukrainian partner, Rear Admiral Oleksiy Neizhpapa. I’d also like to congratulate Admiral Neizhpapa on taking command recently, and it’s a pleasure to work with him and I look forward to our partnership.
I also look forward to answering your specific questions regarding Sea Breeze, but first let me describe the exercise and why it is important to the Black Sea region.
This year marks the 20th iteration of the exercise, where we have eight nations, 26 ships, and 19 aircraft, all working together in the Black Sea with the common goal of increasing security in the region. The exercise theme this year is “Over 20 years of friendship in the Black Sea,” and I think that really captures what Sea Breeze is all about. This exercise has built cohesion across the Black Sea region and improved the capabilities of all participants.
In preparing for this year’s exercise, we were creative with the exercise design and made adjustments to ensure all of our forces remain safe. The current global pandemic placed some constraints on our activities, so we’ll only be executing at sea and in the air. Regardless, I am proud of the pragmatism, determination, and innovation demonstrated by all involved to remain committed to Black Sea security. And our commitment doesn’t just stay within the confines of this exercise. In fact, about three weeks ago, USS Porter and her crew participated in two exercises with the navies from Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, and Turkey. The ship also made two brief stops for fuel in Batumi, Georgia. This is a tangible result from years of exercises, like Sea Breeze, that foster cooperative relationships and increase maritime capabilities.
The Black Sea is a vital waterway that is critical to maritime commerce and stability in Europe. So when people question why non-Black Sea nations participate, it is because the U.S., NATO, allies, and partner nations recognize the importance to not only maintain a stable and prosperous Black Sea region, but also the importance of being able to seamlessly operate together and deter adversary aggression.
With 90 percent of the global economy moving in the maritime, and 99 percent of all digital communications traveling through undersea cable, protecting the maritime has never been more important.
We have a lot to accomplish during the week. The training objectives for the air and maritime portion include maritime interdiction operations, air defense, antisubmarine warfare, damage control, and search and rescue. In addition, this year we are doing more free play, meaning we are giving participants more freedom to accomplish training objectives outside the confines of scripted exercise injects. This will enable participants to fine-tune the skills that we have developed during previous Sea Breeze exercises. We want to leave this exercise having achieved a greater level of integration and coordination, with increased direction from the Ukrainian Naval Headquarters South, which continues to grow in capacity and capability due to the immense commitment of the Ukrainian navy and contributions from our allies and partners.
The planning and accomplishments that result from Sea Breeze 2020 will undoubtedly shape our planning for Sea Breeze 2021. Our commitment to this exercise and what it stands for are unwavering. I look forward to hearing the great success this exercise will have in the coming days.
Question: Admiral Black, I still don’t understand exactly whether this is more than a nice gesture to support Ukraine, which is not a NATO member. Isn’t this all, let’s say, an invitation to the other side, to the Russians maybe, going to support China in the Chinese sea? And isn’t it more than a – well, a new beginning of the old Cold War?
Vice Admiral Black: This is an opportunity for allies and partners to operate together in international waters and an important area for Europe and the United States, and we’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I expect that we will do that on into the future, and to read more into that or go beyond that is speculation.
Question: You talked a little bit about Ukraine’s role in this specific exercise, but more broadly, can you discuss kind of where Ukraine is currently in its capability and what is kind of the next step in developing that? Where would you like to go? Obviously, you mentioned the adversary threat in the region, which is obviously Russia, but what is kind of the next step? Is it mounting anti-ship missiles on some of the newer vessels? What is kind of the next capability step that Ukraine’s navy is seeking to make?
Vice Admiral Black: I’ll have to defer to Admiral Neizhpapa as the fleet commander on where Ukraine intends to go in terms of capabilities for the future.
Moderator: Last year, Vice Admiral Sir Clive Johnstone, at the time NATO Allied Maritime Commander, warned that a Russian effort is underway, quote, ‘to dominate strategic seas and create gray zones where allied access is inhibited or intimidated.’ The same could be argued relative to the Black and Azov seas. What can be done to contest and compete with this Russian anti-access/area-denial strategy or posture? Where do exercises such as Sea Breeze fit into this broader framework?
Vice Admiral Black: The U.S. Navy and our partners and allies, we will operate in international waters anywhere in the world, in accordance with international law and norms. We send our ships and aircraft and units all over Europe and Africa, supporting those partnerships and operating in those international waters, and we’ll continue to do so and we’ll continue to do so in the Black Sea in particular.
Question: During last year, representatives of Ukrainian navy and deterrence experts from Ukraine talked about Russian tactics blocking very big areas of Black Sea region for military drills and weapon testing. How did this year’s scenario of Sea Breeze reflect these Russian tactics of blocking maritime navigation?
Vice Admiral Black: In our planning for Sea Breeze, we’ve got areas that we will operate, and we will operate safely in those international waters, as I suspect the Russians will as well, and there’s plenty of seaspace and airspace, and we’ll operate as appropriate to get done in the exercise as we have planned.
Question: My question is related to the Russian readiness check, which, as we know, including Black Sea fleet. So the question was for both of the admirals, but in this situation I ask only one. So how do you see the possible problems or effects of this readiness check, which will be include, as Russia says, more than 100 ships and vessels on Sea Breeze exercise? Thank you very much.
Vice Admiral Black: I don’t foresee any impact. The Russians have every right to exercise their forces and train, as we do. And I doubt that we will have any interaction at all, and if we do, I’m sure it’ll be professional and in accordance with the laws and norms of maritime operations at sea.
Question: What is the admirals’ reaction to Russia’s announcement at the beginning of July that it would move exercise Kavkaz 2020 further inland and call for both sides to scale down exercises?
Vice Admiral Black: As a maritime commander, their moving it further inland, I would refer you to NATO and the U.S. Department of State with that question.
Question: So I basically have two questions. There have been 26 navies participating. How do you ensure safety in this COVID pandemic? What measures did you take?
Sir, the 6th Fleet has been active in this region for quite some time, especially near the South China Sea, and as we can see, the activities of China have been quite aggressive and expansionist in the past few months. So what plans do you have, and especially with Malabar coming? So can we expect a Quad exercise in the coming months?
Vice Admiral Black: The first question, with regard to COVID, one of the things that we have learned is once you get a ship or a unit that’s – that is COVID-free, that one of the things you don’t want to do is introduce folks from outside that potentially could bring the virus into the ship. So this exercise has been scaled back a little bit and remodeled just a touch so that we’re doing all of the exercises at sea and in the air, but we’re not getting the interaction ashore. An example of that would be we’re not at the press conference together live, we’re doing it virtually. But I think it’s a testament to the professionalism of the navies involved that we have figured out how to operate in a complex environment and how to stay at sea and work through this challenge, and I foresee considerable success doing that.
For your second question, my responsibilities as the 6th Fleet Commander do not reach into the Pacific, and I would – I would refer you to INDOPACOM or the 7th Fleet Commander with your questions on the South China Sea.
Vice Admiral Black: I’d like to thank all the folks that have participated. We look forward to this exercise every year. That we’re into our 20th year talks about the enduring relationship that we enjoy, and I foresee successes this year that we will build on to move into next year, and I appreciate the time of everyone involved. Thank you.
Question: What is the biggest priority for developing Ukraine’s navy? And also, is there any consideration being given to supplying Ukraine with anti-ship missiles or arming Ukrainian vessels with other ship-borne missiles?
Rear Admiral Neizhpapa: The main priority for our Ukrainian navy is the rocket programs, missile programs. We have finished the training of our coast missiles, Neptunes, which will be used starting from the next year in the Ukrainian navy. The next – the next stage is the launching of these missiles on the sea platforms. In total, we have the strategy of our development, the navy development, where we show the stages of our developing and the development of the Ukrainian navy. With the help of our partners, including the U.S., we have made this strategy.
According to this strategy in the nearest season. The main idea is the fulfillment with the ships in this zone and the usage of missiles of a similar complexity. The next step is our capability in the middle sea realm, where the next float of ships will be present, which will have this missile complex on them.
We – one of the main way of our development is the receiving of anti-mine ships. You know that the modern Black Sea area is quite shallow and the idea of mines is very dangerous.
The third stage is our capability of usage in the [inaudible] sea zone, as well as participate in international operations, NATO operations in the Mediterranean Sea. It will – it will be our final stage of the Ukrainian navy development. Thank you.
Question: how can the allies stop Russia’s dominance in the Black Sea? How real is Russia’s threat to mainland Ukraine from Crimea? And that’s to both admirals.
Vice Admiral Black: I don’t see that Russia does dominate the Black Sea. It’s international waters. The United States Navy operates there, as do the navies of many other nations, peaceably, and doing the things that navies do in exercises like Sea Breeze. We all abide by the Montreux Convention, as you would expect, and the International Law of the Sea.
Rear Admiral Neizhpapa: I would like to answer in the following way. The war with the Russian Federation has been conducted since 2014. The Ukrainian navy was the first forces who met this threat in Crimea. Unfortunately, all sanctions that used on behalf of European – European Union and NATO doesn’t work in a full way, and Russian Federation doesn’t stop its threats. Black Sea fleet ships are always near the gas stations in the Black Sea, as well as in the Azov Sea there are ships , Russian ships And Russian ships also control the navigation in the Azov area and Kerch Strait.
Russian Federation shows everyone and everybody that the Black Sea, as well as the Azov Sea, is their areas, for instance, and it always shows its readiness for usage of its forces. Thank you.
Vice Admiral Black: We look forward to furthering our interoperability with our partners and allies. And we look forward to continued success. We’ve done this exercise for 20 years and we continue to build on it, and the things that we learn this year particularly, operating in this COVID environment, will certainly inform how we do it next year. And I look forward to continued partnership with all of our partners, particularly the Ukrainian navy this time, and I offer congratulations to Admiral Neizhpapa on his new command and I look forward to working with him. Thank you.