75 years after D-Day, the US Navy and Marines are still training for sea invasions, but now right by Russia’s shores

Marine Corps amphibious assault landing Lithuania BaltOps

  • The US Navy, Marine Corps, and forces from other partner countries participated in Baltic Operations from June 9 to June 21.
  • It’s the 47th time US and partner forces have conducted BaltOps, but it comes during a period of heightened tensions in Eastern Europe.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

When US Marines and sailors arrived in the Baltic region in June for this year’s Baltic Operations exercise, they did so as national leaders came together in Western Europe for the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

But the 47th iteration of BaltOps wasn’t tailored to that anniversary, said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Rob Sellin and Marine Maj. Jeff Starr, two officers tasked with planning amphibious operations for BaltOps 2019, in a June interview.

When they started planning in February, they were aware of the timing, but the schedule was shaped by more immediate concerns. “This is the best weather time to be in this area of the world,” Sellin said.

Read more: The US Navy is practicing to ‘up the game’ against an old but still dangerous threat

Sellin and Starr focused on big-picture planning and sought to get the most out of the exercises — “ensuring that we were able to include as many possible craft, as many … landing craft on the amphibious side as possible,” Starr said

“As we traveled and visited all these different countries and different landing locations,” Starr added, “we really had an eye for the specific capabilities and limitations of all the craft that were going to be involved, so that we could make sure to get the maximum inclusion for our NATO partners and allies.”

Below, you can see how the US and its partners trained for one of the most complex operations any military does, and how they did it in an increasingly tense part of the world.

BaltOps is focused on interoperability and flexibility among forces, and that influenced planning from the get-go.

Interoperability means “we could put Marines from the United States and from our partner and allied countries on each other’s landing craft” and “use different landing craft with different amphibious ships as well to get as much data as possible for ways we can continue to work with our allies and partners,” Starr said.

Some 50 surface ships, 36 aircraft, two submarines, and 8,600 personnel from 18 countries took part in BaltOps 2019. On June 12, in the first of several amphibious landings, US and Spanish Marines disembarked US dock landing ship USS Fort McHenry for a beach in Estonia.

Part of the equation for such exercises is getting troops on other ships and landing craft, Sellin said. Another part is “learning each other’s tactics and procedures and how we would conduct amphibious landings.”

Another part of that equation is “exploring the different beaches, the locations of various nation-states around the Baltic… everywhere from Sweden to some of the islands to the Baltic States specifically — what’s in the art of the possible based on the type of landing craft available,” Sellin added.

Navy oceanographers were on hand ahead of and during BaltOps to plan safe amphibious operations, finding strategic landing locations by identifying reefs, tides, currents, bottom types, shoals, and anchorages.

Source: Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command

“We want to go places that make it the easiest on largest variety of landing craft,” Sellin said. “We wanted to make sure that we kept safety number one — that we weren’t taking any undue risks, because this is a training environment — and to maximize the possibilities of success for the largest variety of craft.”

In addition to dealing with seas and shores, personnel involved in the exercise had work across nationalities and with different militaries.

“You always have to overcome significant barriers in these types of operations,” Sellin said, adding that one way to mitigate that is “deliberate planning as early as possible.”

11 countries joined the BaltOps amphibious task group, and personnel from four countries took part in the landings. “Contrary to popular belief, the language barriers typically don’t prove too concerning for these planning efforts,” Starr said. “What does prove a little bit challenging for us is various communications systems and how they work interoperably.”

Lithuania borders the Russian province of Kaliningrad along the Baltic Sea, placing some of the amphibious exercises close to Russia.

“We use various networks and systems amongst the coalition that… don’t always talk to each other, so we found creative ways” to communicate, Starr said, including UHF and VHF radio, telephone systems, and programs that display graphics and force locations. Part of the value of exercises like BaltOps “is we identify some of the shortfalls in our systems so that we can develop a more nuanced capability among all the countries.”

Like other officials involved in BaltOps, Sellin and Starr stressed that the exercise wasn’t directed at any other country. But tensions between Russia and NATO remain elevated after Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea — particularly around the Baltic states and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.

The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are NATO members (and rely on NATO air forces to patrol their airspace) as is Norway.

Sweden and Finland are not in NATO but have responded to increasing tension in the region. Both have worked more closely with NATO in addition to bolstering their own militaries.

Planners were transparent, including through notices to mariners about where and when BaltOps would be, Sellin said, “so we knew that the world stage knew where we were operating.” BaltOps participants, Starr added, used the “same types of procedures and the same types of approaches that we would use in any geographic area in the world.”

During BaltOps in 2018, which took place in the same area, a Danish official told Defense News his crew had to keep their cellphones on airplane mode to thwart hacking. And participants in Trident Juncture, a major NATO exercise in Norway in October and November, reported electronic interference.

Source: Defense News

Asked about using airplane mode during the exercise this year, Starr and Sellin said forces present took standard security measures. “Much of that has to do with just trying to avoid interference with systems embarked on our networks and our own shipping,” Starr said.

“We took our standard operational security posture that we would on any deployment,” Sellin said. “But the short answer to your question is yes, we have our cellphones in airplane mode right now.”

Tensions with Russia have led the US to shift toward what officials describe as “great power competition,” with an increased potential for conflict with an adversary of similar capabilities.

Asked if that competition changed the planning process, Starr and Sellin said the goal of exercises like BaltOps was to deter adversaries and avoid conflict, though Sellin said the possibility of facing advanced weaponry, like Russian anti-access/area denial systems in Kaliningrad, “are absolutely part of the amphibious planning process.”

BaltOps 2019 took place just after the 75th anniversary of D-Day, and while that still colors popular perceptions of amphibious operations, Starr and Sellin said they don’t plan for the kind of massive landing that put hundreds of thousands of Allied troops ashore in Normandy in 1944.

On June 6, 1944, more than 130,000 Allied troops rushed ashore on Normandy’s beaches as part of Operation Overlord, the beginning of the assault known as D-Day.

“More often we’re going to do amphibious operations that are fairly quick,” landing forces to achieve specific objectives and then be extracted, Starr said. “The days of yore where you have large forces going ashore against a large entrenched or dug-in force isn’t the common feature of how we plan for, conduct, and practice doing amphibious operations in today’s environment.”

“The reality is as amphibious planners, our job is to give our commanders a variety of options … for ways to accomplish the mission, and it’s very much not limited to putting a huge force ashore,” Sellin said.