The biggest navy exercise in Europe this year has been launched in the Baltic Sea as Nato demonstrates it remains a fighting force despite the coronavirus pandemic.
Nato leaders at the highest level have agreed to assembling the 19-nation armada during the outbreak.
The 28-ship deployment is a major show of force by the alliance right on the doorstep of Russian territorial waters.
The Baltic, which lies between Eastern Europe, Scandinavia and Russia, is seen as an important area for international trade but also a potential flashpoint for conflict with Moscow.
Vice Admiral Lisa Franchetti, commander of the US 6th Fleet leading the exercise, said Nato was ready to respond to threats. “We will work together to deter any type of malign activity and be ready to defend,” she told a telephone press conference. “As operations continue we look to the various navies to continue to develop their readiness to respond to any threats that they face at sea.”
In past years Russian warships, including submarines, have shadowed the force along with aircraft flying low near warships in a dangerous manoeuvre known as ‘buzzing’.
“Our expectation is that all mariners operate in a safe and professional manner that does not endanger our crews or themselves,” the Ms Franchetti said. “That’s what we expect to see from the Russian Navy and Air Force. We expect them to do this safely.”
For the first time the exercise, called ‘Baltops’, will be conducted entirely at sea with amphibious landing cancelled because of the virus outbreak. Each ship has been decontaminated and its crew tested for the Covid-19 before setting out. To prevent infection there will be no exchange of personnel between ships during the 10-day deployment.
Participating nations include France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Britain and the US with 28 ships and 3,000 personnel.
The exercise comes as White House officials have indicated that Donald Trump, the US President, wants to withdraw 9,500 American troops from their bases in Germany.
US media has reported that Mr Trump wants to cap troop numbers in Germany at 25,000. The president has previously expressed anger at those European countries that fail to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence budgets while the US shoulders much of the financial and logistical burden.
The vice admiral was asked by the Russian news agency Tass why Nato could not wait until the pandemic was over before conducting the group exercise.
“It is very challenging to take a measured approached, to conduct normal operations, training and exercises that all navies around world can participate in,” she told the press conference.
The exercise will continue until June 16 with intense live training that includes air defence, anti-submarine warfare, maritime interdiction and mine countermeasure operations.
The last half of the exercise will involve ‘Tacex’ in which ships will run tactical “free-play programmes” to represent real-life threats and situations.
For the first time, the exercise will be commanded ashore by Naval Striking and Support Forces Nato at its headquarters in Lisbon, Portugal, at its new maritime operations centre. It is also being co-ordinated through operations rooms in Germany, London and Naples, Italy.
Vice admiral Franchetti, who is also Naval Striking and Support Forces Nato commander, said the exercise would “demonstrate our continuous commitment to regional security and reinforce the inherent flexibility of our combined naval force to operate together under any circumstances”.