Warships mass in the Baltic Sea for a coronavirus-conscious battle drill

Sebastian Sprenger

COLOGNE, Germany – Navies from 19 NATO members and partners are slated to kick off the 2020 iteration of the “Baltic Operations” exercise on Friday, which this year excludes any amphibious drills to avoid the risk of spreading the coronavirus between ships and land.

Hosted by the U.S. Navy’s 6th Fleet, the ten-day exercise features live training events related to air defense, anti-submarine warfare, maritime interdiction and mine countermeasure operations, the German navy wrote in a statement.

Officials at Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO will command the proceedings from their new headquarters roughly 2,000 miles away, in Lisbon, Portugal.

The drill's 3,000 participants hail from the countries bordering the Baltic Sea, Scandinavia, the Mediterranean NATO nations, Canada, the U.K, and the Netherlands. Almost 30 ships and aircraft each are expected to be in use.

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“BALTOPS provides the opportunity for NATO and partner nations to operate together, sharing best practices to improve real-world operations,” Vice Adm. Lisa Franchetti, who commands Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO and U.S. 6th Fleet, was quoted as saying in a statement. “Although we’ll conduct this year’s event entirely at sea, BALTOPS 2020 will demonstrate our continuous commitment to regional security and reinforce the inherent flexibility of our combined naval force to operate together under any circumstances.”

Restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic are forcing sailors to remain afloat and do their best to implement distancing rules in tight quarters. The captain of Germany's Lübeck frigate, for example, was quoted as saying his crew would attempt to stay 1.5 m apart from one another wherever possible.

The global pandemic has taken a toll on the size and scope of the exercise, but the fact that it is still taking place at all is an attempt to project strength even now, according to Julian Pawlak and Sebastian Bruns, two naval analysts at the University of Kiel. That is especially the case for Germany, which is eager to “send a message” by bringing its equipment, said Pawlak.

As for the strategic context, “The idea is to demonstrate that the Baltic Sea isn't anyone's front yard, but that freedom-of-navigation principles apply just the same here,” said Bruns.

What is unlikely to change is complaining by Baltic Sea neighbor Russia about the Western assembly of warship so close to its borders. “But that’s part of it,” Pawlak said, adding that Russian vessels usually take every opportunity to observe the drill from a distance.