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Norfolk-based destroyer exercises with 13 other navies

The guided missile destroyer USS Oscar Austin departs Naval Station Norfolk, Va., May 20, 2014, for a two-month deployment to the north Atlantic and the Baltic Sea for Baltic Operations (BALTOPS) 2014.

The Norfolk-based guided missile destroyer USS Oscar Austin is working with the navies of 13 countries in the Baltic Sea to practice maritime security operations.

The 42nd annual American-led Baltic Operations exercise, or BALTOPS, started June 6 with a pre-sail conference in Sweden. The participating countries, including Germany, Latvia and Georgia, are practicing maritime responses to real-world security scenarios.

Rear Adm. Rick Snyder, commander of Expeditionary Strike Group 2 at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek, is leading the exercise, which concludes Saturday.

While the countries have practiced a range of skills, including anti-submarine warfare, surface-to-air defense and small boat operations, mine warfare is a main objective. Snyder said about half of the 30 participating ships have mine-sweeping and mine-hunting capabilities.

Snyder, who participated in BALTOPS back in 1993, said the sophistication of the exercise and participating crews has increased dramatically in the past couple of decades.

"It's really interesting to see," Snyder said. "Some of the ships are as small as a hundred feet with crews of 25 or 30, all the way up to ships like the Oscar Austin and [command ship] Mount Whitney."

With tensions flaring in response to the crisis in Ukraine, Snyder said it's important for the U.S. to show support to its allies, and especially partners in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

"There is a lot of attention toward Russia, and everyone is concerned," he said. "All of the countries with folks I've spoken with are appreciative that we're still here. We're still operating with them, showing a presence and reassuring our partners and allies. I think it goes a long way toward maintaining stability in the region."

On the Oscar Austin, sailors had the chance to integrate training with other countries. Rather than training out of Norfolk, it's beneficial for the crews "to get out of the norm and work with partners and allies," Snyder said.

Cmdr. Brian Diebold, skipper of the Oscar Austin, said the crew is learning how to respond to real-world situations in a multinational setting.

"We cannot take for granted the importance of conducting military operations within the European theater," Diebold said in an email.

The first nine days of BALTOPS consisted of a series of events each day, such as searching for submarines, air defense and refueling at sea.

The exercise will shift into the tactical aspects of security, teaching crews to think about rules of engagement and the mental aspects of defense scenarios at sea.

"We take a Norfolk-based ship with other support from the United States, and we can put ourselves thousands of miles away in the Baltic Sea with 13 other countries, and yet still be effective," Snyder said. "It's important for our allies and our nation that we continue to show how we... can be relevant anywhere in the world on such short notice."

Kara Driscoll, 757-446-2326, kara.driscoll@pilotonline.com

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