Across southern Ukraine, US special operations forces trained with Ukrainian special operators and conventional US and Ukrainian naval forces during Sea Breeze 2017, July 10-21.
An annual fixture in the Black Sea region since 1997, Sea Breeze is a US and Ukrainian co-hosted multinational maritime exercise.
This year, Ukraine invited US special operations forces to participate, and US Special Operations Command Europe's Naval Special Warfare Command operators were eager to sign up for the mission.
This is the first time that special operations forces have operated at Sea Breeze, said US Navy Capt. Michael Villegas, the exercise's director. "[Their] capabilities are extremely valued by the Ukrainians and extremely valuable to the US."
A U.S Naval Special Warfare Operator observes a Ukrainian SOF Operator during a weapons range in Ochakiv, Ukraine during exercise Sea Breeze 17, July 18, 2017. Sea Breeze is a U.S. and Ukraine co-hosted multinational maritime exercise held in the Black Sea and is designed to enhance interoperability of participating nations and strengthen maritime security within the region. (U.S. military photo)
Naval Special Warfare Command operators were 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 special operations forces to train and exercise their capabilities, the exercise's lead special operations forces planner said. "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," he said.
He added that naval special warfare units bring a host of unique capabilities into the exercise scenario, such as rigid-hull inflatable boats; visit, board, search, and seizure expertise; and the strongest direct action capabilities available. However, Villegas noted, 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," 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."
Achieving interoperability with partner nations and interservice partners is a common objective at exercises like Sea Breeze. But here, the US special operations forces capitalized on it. "Interoperability is our ability to conduct combined planning, problem solving, and mission execution efficiently to achieve a mutually-defined end state," Villegas said.
Ukrainian SOF prepare to board a U.S. CV-22 Osprey during exercise Sea Breeze 17. Army photo by Sgt. Jeffrey Lopez
Achieving this end state, he added, hinged on US-Ukrainian integration at the tactical level within the special operations 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 US Air Force CV-22 Osprey aircraft assigned to US 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 US special operations forces platoon commander. "The Ukrainians' attitudes made this exercise a great opportunity to exchange training and create a strong relationship."
US Navy Special Warfare Operators train at a small-arms range with Ukrainian SOF at Ochakiv, Ukraine, July 13, 2017 at exercise Sea Breeze 17. Photo by Spc. Jeffery Lopez.
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 said, he found ways to incorporate the skill sets 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, mutual trust emerged 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 [special operations forces] are all of these," the platoon commander said.
On the pier here, overlooking the Black Sea, Villegas expressed the Navy's gratitude to Ukraine for inviting US special operations forces to participate in this year's exercise.
"[Special operations] participation at Sea Breeze is so important for Ukraine and the US 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."