ODESSA, Ukraine – Across Southern Ukraine, U.S. special operations forces trained with Ukrainian SOF and conventional U.S. and Ukrainian naval forces during Sea Breeze 17, July 10-21.
An annual fixture in the Black Sea region since 1997, Sea Breeze is a U.S. and Ukrainian co-hosted multinational maritime exercise.
This year, U.S. SOF were invited to participate by Ukraine, and, accordingly, Special Operations Command Europe’s Naval Special Warfare Operators were eager to sign up for the mission.
“This is the first time that SOF has operated at Sea Breeze,” said U.S. Navy Capt. Michael Villegas, the exercise’s director. “SOF capabilities are extremely valued by the Ukrainians and extremely valuable to the U.S.”
NSW Operators echoed this sentiment while completely integrated into the various air, land and sea missions that required their unique warfighting skill set.
“Exercise Sea Breeze is a perfect fit for SOF to train and exercise our SOF capabilities,” said the lead SOF planner. “With the support of the 352nd Special Operations Wing, we saw a prime opportunity to support SOF mission essential training with our Ukrainian allies.”
He added that NSW units bring a host of unique capabilities into the exercise scenario like rigid hull inflatable boats; visit, board, search and seizure expertise; and the strongest direct action capabilities available.
However, capability is only one piece of the puzzle when training alongside a partner nation with shared objectives to assure, deter, and defend in an increasingly complex environment.
“In the spirit of Sea Breeze, we come not to impose what we know or how we operate,” said Villegas. “Here we come to exchange ideas, train towards interoperability and learn to operate side-by-side should a conflict arise that would require that.”
Achieving interoperability with both partner nations and inter-service partners is a common objective at exercises like Sea Breeze, but here, the U.S. SOF commander capitalized on it.
“Interoperability is our ability to conduct combined planning, problem solving, and mission execution efficiently to achieve a mutually-defined end state,” he said.
Successfully achieving this end state, he said, hinged on U.S/Ukrainian integration at the tactical level within the SOF platoons, and at the special operations maritime task group level.
“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.”
Down at the platoon level, Operators fast roped from hovering U.S. Air Force CV-22 Osprey aircraft assigned to U.S. Special Operations Command – Europe, conducted personnel recovery training and boarded 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.”
As with any exercise of this size and scope, there were challenges to overcome to make the exercise a success while identifying tactical and technical gaps in partner capabilities.
“The first major obstacle we had, but were prepared for, was the language barrier,” the platoon commander said. “Another was that our mission sets differed slightly from our counterparts.”
To remedy this, he related that he found ways to incorporate the skillsets of each unit in ways to accomplish the mission while building relationships to forge a stronger partnership.
As the Operators returned from a long day on mission, through the barriers, mutual trust was built through combined hard work, long hours and mutual respect for each unit’s professionalism.
“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,” said the platoon commander.
On the pier in Odessa, overlooking the Black Sea, Villegas expressed the U.S. Navy’s gratitude to Ukraine for inviting U.S. SOF to participate in this year’s exercise.
“SOF participation at Sea Breeze is so important for Ukraine and the U.S. Navy and all the other units participating,” he said. “Our hosts have been incredibly friendly, committed and dedicated; their hard work has ensured Sea Breeze 17 was a success and we are truly very thankful for that.”
Based off the positive reactions of both Ukrainian and U.S. SOF personnel here, both sides hope that participation in Sea Breeze will continue for the foreseeable future.