Troops from 16 nations completed Exercise Sea Breeze, which was held just a couple of hundred miles from the Crimean Peninsula, on July 30. U.S. military officials tout the annual air, land and maritime exercise as a way to enhance interoperability and strengthen regional security in a volatile region marked by the 2014 Russian incursion of Crimea and continuing civil war in Ukraine, which borders Russia.
"This year's Sea Breeze exercise is definitely a signal to Russia," said Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments who previously served as special assistant to the chief of naval operations and director of his Commander's Action Group. "It is in part to demonstrate to Russia that U.S. and NATO forces will still operate adjacent to Russian territory and forces despite Russia's protests. Also, the situation in eastern Ukraine is reaching a new boiling point and may result in a more intense conflict erupting again this fall. If followed up with clear statements from the U.S. about how the U.S. will respond to new Russian aggression, exercises like this are a way to indicate to Russia American resolve."
U.S. Marines with 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit and Ukrainian soldiers travel in an assault amphibious vehicle during Exercise Sea Breeze 2016. Since Ukraine has nothing like the AAV, its troops had to learn how to open the hatch and get secure in their seats.
Photo Credit: Cpl. Chris Garcia/Marine Corps
In addition to signaling resolve, the exercise served as a way to practice the kind of amphibious operations that could be used to suppress or isolate Russian naval forces in Crimea and Sevastopol, he said.
"Showing the ability to execute this kind of operation, even if the U.S. doesn't want to do it, will help remind Russia that their forces outside Russia may be vulnerable to attack," Clark said.
The U.S. Navy sent two ships to participate for the first time: the amphibious dock landing ship Whidbey Island and guided-missile destroyer Ross. About 205 members of Battalion Landing Team, 1st Battalion, 6th Marines — deployed with the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit — also participated.
"We tried a few new things," he said. "We took the opportunity to integrate our heavy mortar systems into the AAVs and it worked out really well. It definitely opens up that option for us in the future."
The Marines and sailors of the Whidbey Island hosted a closing ceremony aboard the ship.
The 22nd MEU deployed in late June as part of the Wasp Amphibious Ready Group, and is currently in the U.S. 6th Fleet area of operations. The MEU is comprised of Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, Combat Logistics Battalion 22, Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 264 (reinforced), and the MEU Headquarters Command Element. Additional embarked units include Navy Beach Group (NBG) 2 with detachments from Assault Craft Unit 2, ACU 4, Beachmaster Unit 2, Tactical Air Control Squadron 22, Fleet Surgical Team 2, and Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 22.
Lance M. Bacon is senior reporter for Marine Corps Times. He covers Marine Corps Combat Development Command, Marine Corps Forces Command, personnel / career issues, Marine Corps Logistics Command, II MEF, and Marine Forces North. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.