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

US Marines march to the beach from a landing craft utility during an amphibious assault in Klaipeda, Lithuania, for exercise Baltic Operations 2019, June 16, 2019.

caption
US Marines march to the beach from a landing craft utility during an amphibious assault in Klaipeda, Lithuania, for exercise Baltic Operations 2019, June 16, 2019.
source
US Navy/Mass Comm Specialist 3rd Class Jack D. Aistrup

  • 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.

caption
US Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Ty-Chon Montemoino briefs US and Spanish marines on boarding a landing craft utility while aboard the USS Fort McHenry.
source
US Marine/Lance Cpl. Antonio Garcia

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.

caption
Spanish amphibious assault vehicles prepare to exit the well deck of the amphibious dock landing ship USS Fort McHenry, June 15, 2019.
source
US Navy/Mass Comm. Specialist 2nd Class Chris Roys

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.

caption
US and Spanish Marines exit the well deck of the USS Fort McHenry on a landing craft utility, June 12, 2019.
source
US Navy/Mass Comm. Specialist 2nd Class Chris Roys

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.”

caption
US and Romanian marines secure a beach after disembarking Polish mine layer/landing ship ORP Gnierzno, June 12, 2019..
source
US Navy/Mass Comm. Specialist 3rd Class Jack D. Aistrup

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.

caption
US Marines and sailors and Romanian and Spanish Marines secure a beach after disembarking from a Polish using Soviet Tracked Amphibious Transports and from Landing Craft Utility ships using Lighter Amphibious Resupply Cargo Vehicles and Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacements, June 12, 2019.
source
US Navy/Mass Comm. Specialist 3rd Class Jack D. Aistrup

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.

caption
Members of the US Navy Fleet Survey Team conduct a hydrographic beach survey in Ravlunda, Sweden, ahead of BALTOPS 2019, May 8, 2019.
source
Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command/Kaley Turfitt

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.”

caption
US Marines disembark a landing craft utility during a tactics exercise in Sweden, June 19, 2019.
source
US Marine/Lance Cpl. Antonio Garcia

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

caption
US Marines exchange information with Spanish marines on the flight deck of the USS Fort McHenry, June 14, 2019.
source
US Navy/Mass Comm Specialist 2nd Class Chris Roys

“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.”

caption
US Marines and Romanian marines secure a beach after disembarking from Polish mine layer/landing ship ORP Gniezno in Estonia, June 12, 2019.
source
US Marine Corps/Cpl. Abrey Liggins

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.”

caption
Royal Marines exit a British navy Merlin MK 4 helicopter via fast rope as part of an amphibious assault in Lithuania, June 16, 2019.
source
US Navy/Mass Comm Specialist 3rd Class Jack D. Aistrup

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.”

caption
Spanish amphibious assault vehicles exit the well deck of the amphibious dock landing ship USS Fort McHenry, June 16, 2019.
source
US Navy/Mass Comm Specialist 2nd Class Chris Roys

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.

caption
A Polish PTS-M carries Romanian Marines ashore during an amphibious assault exercise at Baltic Operations 2019’s Distinguished Visitors Day in Palanga, Lithuania, June 15, 2019.
source
US Marine/Lance Cpl. Antonio Garcia

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.”

caption
US Marines march to the beach from a landing craft utility for an amphibious assault exercise in Klaipeda, Lithuania, June 15, 2019.
source
US Navy/Mass Comm Specialist 3rd Class Jack D. Aistrup

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.

caption
A Royal Marine disembarks the USS Mount Whitney onto a landing craft vehicle attached to British Royal Navy ship HMS Albion in the Baltic Sea, June 16, 2019.
source
US Navy/Mass Comm Specialist 2nd Class Scott Barnes

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.

caption
Landing craft utility vessels stand by at sea after transporting Marines during an amphibious landing demonstration in Lithuania, June 16, 2019.
source
US Marine Corps/Cpl. Tawanya Norwood

“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.”

caption
Romanian Marines in an amphibious assault vehicle exit a landing craft utility as a part of an amphibious landing demonstration in Lithuania, June 16, 2019.
source
US Marine Corps/Cpl. Tawanya Norwood

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.

caption
US Marines perform a simulated amphibious assault from a landing craft utility in Lithuania, June 16, 2019.
source
US Marine Corps/Cpl. Tawanya Norwood

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.”

caption
A US Marine and Spanish Marines buddy rush across the beach following an amphibious landing demonstration during the final event of NATO exercise Baltic Operations 2019 in Lithuania, June 16, 2019, June 16, 2019.
source
US Marine Corps/Cpl. Tawanya Norwood

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.

caption
A US Navy landing craft offloads vehicles during an amphibious exercise at Kallaste Beach in Estonia, June 12, 2019.
source
US Navy/Mass Comm Specialist 3rd Class Jack D. Aistrup

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.”

caption
Romanian Marines storm the beach during an amphibious assault exercise for Baltic Operations 2019’s Distinguished Visitors Day in Palanga, Lithuania, June 15, 2019.
source
US Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Antonio Garcia

“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.

caption
US Marine Cpl. Timothy Moffitt runs ashore during an amphibious assault exercise for Baltic Operations 2019 in Palanga, Lithuania, June 15, 2019.
source
US Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Antonio Garcia