U.S. Special Operations Forces trained alongside Ukrainian special operators, as well as conventional U.S. and Ukrainian Navy assets, in an 11 day exercise that concluded on Friday. The operation, dubbed “Sea Breeze 2017,” is an annual event, but has drawn more attention since Russia’s military annexation of Crimea in 2014. This year also marks the first time American SOF have participated in the exercise.
U.S. Navy Capt. Michael Villegas, the exercise’s director, explained that Naval Special Warfare Command operators were completely integrated into the various air, land and sea missions that required their unique warfighting skill set, allowing their Ukrainian counterparts a rare opportunity to hone their skills alongside the best special operators in the world.
“With the support of the [Air Force’s] 352nd Special Operations Wing, we saw a prime opportunity to support [special operations] mission-essential training with our Ukrainian allies,” Villegas said.
Naval special warfare units brought a number of new elements to the annual exercises, including “rigid-hull inflatable boats; visit, board, search and seizure expertise; and the strongest direct action capabilities available,” the Department of Defense stated in a release. Villegas noted, however, that capability is only one piece of a much larger puzzle. Training alongside a partner nation with shared objectives in an increasingly complex environment requires a great deal of cooperation.
“In the spirit of Sea Breeze, we come not to impose what we know or how we operate,” he said. “Here, we come to exchange ideas, train towards interoperability and learn to operate side by side should a conflict arise that would require that.”
While increasing military interoperability between partner nations is a common goal for such exercises, incorporating U.S. SOF into the training rotation offered the opportunity to capitalize on the skill sets offered by the world’s most elite fighting force. There were, however, obstacles to overcome first.
“The first major obstacle we had, but were prepared for, was the language barrier,” the special operations platoon commander said. “Another was that our mission sets differed slightly from our counterparts’.”
In order to maximize the benefit offered by the American special forces, Villegas worked to incorporate them into both platoon and task group level planning and execution.
“We have combined with our Ukrainian colleagues to integrate their experience and capabilities within our key positions,” he said. “Starting in the command team and further within our operations, communications, logistics, and intelligence departments, we were fully partnered.”
U.S. SOF personnel could be seen conducting exercises at the platoon level, fast roping out of U.S. Air Force CV-22 Osprey aircraft assigned to U.S. Special Operations Command Europe, and conducting personnel recovery training, which included boarding vessels at sea.
“Whether it was on the range, in the field, or on the water, these men were a pleasure to work with,” said a U.S. SOF platoon commander. “The Ukrainians’ attitudes made this exercise a great opportunity to exchange training and create a strong relationship.”
“You always want to work with a partner force who is motivated, wants to train, and wants to get better, and the Ukrainian [SOF] are all of these,” the platoon commander said.
Image courtesy of the Department of Defense