The Black Sea area last week turned into an impromptu theater of military operations: almost 2,400 servicemen from eight countries completed operational and tactical missions around the clock in the framework of the 20th international Sea Breeze exercises. The coronavirus pandemic did not interfere with joint training, but nevertheless made it significantly "off course." So, the initial list of participating countries was reduced by more than half, and the exercises were simultaneously led from two operational headquarters, constantly maintaining remote communication with each other. In addition, the active phase of the exercises this year took place in a shortened timeframe, limiting itself only to sea and air components, without landing the marines on the coast and practicing a conditional anti-terrorist operation on land. Nevertheless, such circumstances did not prevent the servicemen from successfully exchanging experience and consolidating teamwork skills. And in Russia, the Sea Breeze exercises provoked a real stir. International observers reported on provocations emanating from the Russian coast guard ships, and on an off-schedule check of the troops of the Southern and Western districts on the eve of the Sea Breeze 2020, and on the exercises that took place in the adjacent territory. However, experts do not see anything phenomenal in the actions of the "big brother": in wartime conditions, this is a normal situation.
Prymorska Street, which is a fifteen-minute walk from the famous Richelieu monument, does not outwardly stand out from the ensemble of other central Odesa streets, comfortably buried in summer greenery and filled with the elegance of the architecture of the last century. Merging outwardly with the everyday life of the townspeople, here is the main (after the annexation of Crimea in 2014) naval base of Ukraine "Yug". The small two-story building of the Naval Administration is adjoined by the railway tracks and the Practical Harbor, where ships of the Second permanent naval (SNMG2) and Second permanent anti-mine group (SNMCMG2) NATO began to arrive from early Saturday morning on July 25: the Romanian corvette Rear Admiral Sebastian, the Bulgarian corvette "Bodry", the Turkish frigate "Yildirim" and the Romanian frigate "Regina Maria" have been here many times, but the Spanish frigate "Alvaro de Bazan" - the flagship of the SNMCMG2 formation - docked in Odessa for the first time. The pride of the Ukrainian fleet, the flagship frigate Hetman Sahaidachny, which also took part in joint exercises, is constantly deployed on a nearby pier next to an impressive armada of foreign navies. Ukraine undertook to conduct the Sea Breeze on a regular annual basis back in 1997, but due to interruptions, the current exercises are considered jubilee, the 20th in a row. This year, the active phase of the exercises (with the direct execution of combat training missions at sea) barely lasted for a week, although it usually lasts 10-14 days.
Both Odesa residents and guests of southern Palmyra are looking forward to the return of the ship-boat group from neutral waters and the completion of the main mission. The large strike ships, anchored in the military harbor, and the small crew members in white dress uniforms against them, lined up along the railing on the deck, annually attract the curious gazes of visitors; and the performances of the ensemble of the 6th US Navy Fleet traditionally await guests in the city garden on Derybasivska. This year, the epidemiological situation forced the cancellation of all celebrations, and the crew of the foreign fleet did not even land ashore. For the same reason, the Sea Breeze leadership decided to abandon the land phase of the exercises, limiting itself to the sea and air components, and the coordination of tactical groups had to be carried out simultaneously from two geographical points: the operational headquarters in Odesa and in the Spanish city of Rota (where the marine operational center of the 60th surface ship formation of the 6th US Navy Fleet) maintained 24/7 remote communication with each other and exchanged information on the progress of the exercises. If not for the coronavirus, observers from Japan and South Korea could have taken part in the Sea Breeze for the first time, and the ground component would have been supplemented by a unit of the Norwegian Armed Forces. In general, about 20 countries intended to join Sea Breeze 2020, but in the end, their number dropped to eight: Ukraine, USA, Norway, Spain, Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey, and Georgia. Nevertheless, the forces of the joint headquarters tried to maneuver in the prevailing circumstances in order to get the maximum practical benefit from the exercises.
"If initially Sea Breeze 2020 involved practicing combat missions to repel enemy attacks and defend, conduct an anti-terrorist operation in a crisis region, then the legend of the exercises had to be changed: the task of the military at sea was reduced to the protection of civilian ships and the economic support of warships in the military conditions. However, I do not exclude that the skills of conducting a full-scale war were still honed under this guise. Under the pretext of observing quarantine measures, the admission of journalists was limited, and all that we can learn about the course of these exercises comes down to information from official press releases. In general, if you look at the history of the Sea Breeze, different scenarios have always played out. It could be military assistance in a region that suffered a natural disaster, the fight against pirates and smuggling, an escort of a ship in an unprotected raid. But after the incident in the Kerch Strait in 2018, the NATO countries seriously thought about the threat from the Russian Federation, and since then the squadron of the North Atlantic Alliance has been in the Black Sea on a permanent rotation basis. Previously, no one seriously thought about this region as a theater of potential military actions..." Oleg Zhdanov, a military expert and reserve colonel, says.
According to the Ukrainian Navy, the main task of the Ukrainian-American exercises is to achieve full compatibility with the military units of partner countries, which fully function according to NATO standards: from the names of ranks and codification of military equipment and weapons and ending with the diet and uniform of military personnel. Actually, seafarers have never had any problems with communication and mutual understanding, since English is only one international language in open waters, which the officers of the fleet must master at a decent level. As for the work with the equipment and weapons of the warship, then, according to the military themselves, the control is also quite unified: the laws of physics for the mechanisms are the same everywhere. Therefore, starting in 2016, Sea Breeze exercises have focused not only on the implementation of tactical tasks according to NATO standards but also on strategic and operational work. In 2017, for example, the "naval operational headquarters" was tested for the first time: it was the board of a ship, from which the commanding staff gave orders and directed operations in all areas of the exercises - on land, at sea, and in the air. However, the leadership of the Armed Forces of Ukraine has repeatedly stated that the Ukrainian navy has long lived by NATO standards. So international exercises, such as Sea Breeze, are mainly aimed at bringing the implementation of the algorithm of assigned combat missions to automaticity, and providing a coalition of friendly countries with a reliably trained ally in the war.
Judging by the official "Sea Breeze exercise" sign on Facebook, you might think this event is a real treat for the exercise participants. Here you can find short videos regularly appear with the statements of smiling servicemen that they received valuable useful experience and found new friends here, and profile administrators in each publication mention the navies and air forces of partner countries and thank them for the fruitful collaboration and mutual assistance. However, the complete picture of the course of the exercises remains behind the scenes, not even limited to the dates on the calendar.
Despite the fact that Sea Breeze 2020 officially started on July 20, in fact the exercises begin much earlier - from the stage of the so-called command-staff games. Having studied the information received from intelligence, the headquarters simulate the most probable scenario of military operations with a potential enemy and compare it with the resources of their armed forces. At the practical stage of the exercises, specific episodes of this scenario are worked out, as close as possible to real combat conditions. In the case of the Sea Breeze, it is also necessary to determine in advance the areas of neutral waters where tactical maneuvers will directly take place, and to report the coordinates to the International Migration Service: for security reasons, these zones in the water and air space are closed for civil transport.
According to the military, the troops must constantly be in a state of full combat readiness - otherwise, the battle can already be considered lost.
Apparently, in order not to blush for training our personnel, the commander of the Navy, Oleksiy Neizhpapa, a few days before the start of the exercises, without warning, announced a combat training alert. On July 17, interdepartmental and inter-service training took place in the Black Sea, in which the same power units as in the Sea Breeze took part: naval ship-and-boat tactical groups, marines, naval aviation, air force, and border guard forces.
By this time, ships of NATO permanent formations, as well as the American destroyer DDG78 Porter, began to gradually enter the Black Sea. In total, 27 ships and 19 aircraft took part in the exercises, which, depending on the class and assigned tasks, were divided into several tactical groups.
The leadership of the Russian Federation could not sit still, calmly awaiting the approaching international exercises: just like in Ukraine, an emergency combat alert was suddenly announced there too. July 17, Vladimir Putin directed to conduct an unscheduled inspection of the troops of the Southern and Western military districts, individual formations of central subordination, the Airborne Forces and the marines of the Northern and Pacific fleets were carried out: in total, almost 150,000 troops and 27,000 weapons were attracted. A large-scale series of exercises, including in the Black Sea, ended on July 21, but part of the Russian Armed Forces remained in place to prepare for the next Caucasus-2020 exercise.
Hiding from the scorching sun under the camouflaged tent, work in the command-staff vehicle began on July 20: here, in one of the military units of Odesa, together with Spanish colleagues, they coordinate the actions of tactical groups online. The first tasks were given to the boats of the Border Guard Service of Ukraine, the Ukrainian and Georgian navies: while dodging enemy fire, they had to maneuver, detect and destroy "high-speed small targets" - cruise missiles and air-to-ground missiles. Naval aviation, in turn, patrolled areas of the Black Sea in the mode of active radio exchange of information, including conducting reconnaissance in the area of the Crimean coast.
While the combined forces of Sea Breeze 2020 were conducting joint exercises, Russian servicemen decided to "practice" on them: they took military equipment of the participants in the exercises as a target for "conditional defeat of the enemy."
The art of naval combat
Work goes on around the clock on board the warship: the crew is on watch in three shifts, 4 in 4 hours. As soon as radar devices detect a suspicious object, its coordinates, and speed by bearing, the captain announces full combat readiness. They are trying to get in touch with the command of the vessel spotted in the zone of responsibility – everything is in accordance with the protocol documents. The scenario can be played out in different ways, so the crew follows orders with concentration and without unnecessary thought. The military equipment collected by the Ukrainian-American exercises allowed the servicemen to work out a plan of joint actions in a variety of situations that can play out at sea.
The ship-and-boat groups practiced maneuvering in wake formation and in the order, including for taking the vessel under guard and escorting to the shore, as well as intercepting and inspecting the intruder. Together with naval and tactical aviation, the national naval forces carried out tasks in anti-aircraft, anti-submarine, and anti-ship defense, and the aircraft themselves carried out reconnaissance in certain naval areas. Aircraft and support ships made it possible for the military to "rehearse" the transfer of cargo on the move and refueling - both on the water and in the air. And on the minesweepers, mine defense tasks were worked out. In addition, the joint exercises "walked" and on emergencies: a search and rescue operation was organized and assistance was provided to a person in the water, and a plan of action in the event of a fire in the compartment of the ship was worked out.
However, during Sea Breeze 2020, the joint headquarters carried out a real rescue operation. An American serviceman - a member of the crew of the destroyer "Porter" - on July 22 received a serious injury to his hand, which the onboard doctors could not cope with. To the rescue of the guy from the deck of the Spanish frigate "Alvaro de Bazan", a helicopter specially took off and delivered a wounded soldier to the "School" airfield. From there he was taken to the 411th military hospital in Odesa, but his journey did not end there: the next day a Boeing transport flew for the military to deliver him to the American naval base Sigonella (deployed in Sicily, Italy)...
In addition, after all the Sea Breeze 2020 trainings, the servicemen have to complete the last task - Fotex. The ships line up in a specially formed formation and, under the flying flags of the participating countries, escort from their ranks those ships that go further on a distant voyage to perform new tasks. Several NATO ships entered the Practical Harbor on Saturday morning, and in the evening military musicians of the Ukrainian Navy came to visit them with a concert. The ships stayed in Odesa port until July 28 and then returned back to their place of permanent deployment - to Spain.
Sea Breeze is excellent training for improving the qualifications of not only Ukrainian and foreign military personnel but also the cadets of the Institute of the Ukrainian Navy, who were invited onboard the representatives of the united flotilla.