Spanish flagship Juan Carlos I, an aircraft carrier able to launch amphibious and airborne operations, has entered the Baltic Sea for the first time for the annual BALTOPS exercises.
"We’re here for the first time to reassure the Baltic States [and] NATO allies,” said Captain José Lago Ochoa standing alongside Latvian and US officers onboard the ship.
Reflecting the main BALTOPS objective of achieving cohesion among allies, Spanish crews honed their skills in amphibious landing and cooperation with other NATO states.
"The beaches are different, they are [shallow and] have many bumps," said Lt Anna Lacida onboard the ship. "Next time we might need to transfer more troops by helicopters."
Juan Carlos I is able to carry and launch jets, helicopters, as well as heavy armour, amphibious craft and various types of landing boats. It entered the Baltic sea for the first time, shifting from its usual area of operations in the Mediterranean.
"We have done similar operations before, but not on such a scale and working with [so many] allies," she added.
Spanish marines performed the first amphibious landing in the Baltics, operating alongside their own air assets from aboard Juan Carlos I.
“The US has marines – if there is a problem, send them; we’re also like that,” Major Hugo Santos, commander of the Spanish Marines 2nd Battalion, told LRT English in Latvia.
Spanish Marines were previously deployed within days to Lebanon in 2006 and were active in various theatres across the world, from humanitarian support in Haiti to counter-insurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The flexibility to deploy marines anywhere “probably makes peace easier,” said Major Santos.
Spanish Marines are also the only national unit able to provide their own, brigade-size air defences, a capability which the Baltic states have tried to address for years.
Overhead, there have been no incidents so far, according to Lt Carlos Sanchez abord Juan Carlos I. In June 2019, a Russian warship nearly collided with a US vessel in the highly contested South China Sea.
Since the heightened tensions following Russia’s actions in Ukraine, previous BALTOPS exercises have featured the so-called ‘buzzing’ incidents, when Russian aircraft flew at low altitude over NATO ships.
This year, the three Russian ships assigned to track BALTOPS have made visual contact with the Spanish vessel, but have kept at a distance.
"We sail, they sail," said Lt. Carlos Sanchez onboard the Juan Carlos I. "We didn't have to take any additional measures."
Russian aircraft have intercepted Swedish and US reconnaissance planes over the Baltic Sea on Tuesday. NATO is mustering 36 aircraft for the operation.
Asked whether the Baltics present specific challenges, Lt Sancez responded: "It's cold here.”
After this deployment, the ship will return to its homeport in southern Spain.
LRT accepted travel and accommodation reimbursement from the US embassy in Vilnius; it had no effect on content.