ODESA, Ukraine — Shortly after Russia threatened to protect its interests by force near the Crimean Peninsula in the Black Sea, the U.S. and Ukraine began their annual Sea Breeze exercise in the waterway.

While the July exercise, which involved 32 countries, focused on interoperability and collaboration among NATO allies and regional Black Sea partners, the head of the U.S. Navy’s 6th Fleet said shoring up these friendships is an important part of great power competition.

Defense News caught up with Vice Adm. Gene Black in Ukraine last month to discuss the importance of securing the Black Sea, and how the U.S. and its allies plan to counter Russian military activity in the region.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Why is interoperability important when it comes to great power competition in 6th Fleet?

Interoperability is the key to bringing alliances and coalitions together. So if you think about NATO, what is our strength? Thirty nations and our ability to interoperate. Ukraine in Sea Breeze and the other nations that are partners but aren’t necessarily NATO allies, they are here to interoperate and show what we can do. It’s not the highest-end warfare, but it is the tactics, techniques and procedures that lead us there.

Every step we can take to raise the capability across the alliance with our partners, to interoperate at a higher level, we need to take. And it all leads us to the capabilities that, for example, you may have seen in [the air and missile defense exercise] Formidable Shield, at the highest-end of warfare with incredible complexity. These are all the building blocks that let an alliance like NATO operate at that level. All of it comes together for the alliance to allow us to operate at a level that deters any adversary.

What are the challenges in the Black Sea, and what is the importance of this body of water?

It’s international waters, and we support the ability of every nation to operate in international waters, the free flow of maritime commerce — and no nation has the right to impinge on that. In the case of Sea Breeze and Ukraine, we support its territorial integrity and sovereignty, and that’s part of why we’re operating here in the Black Sea.

The threat set is a little different. It’s a little bit more of a constrained body of water, but those skills that are relevant in the open ocean in the High North are to a large extent relevant here with shallow water, closer shores and less reaction time. The submarine threat is a different one by nature of where it is, but the fundamentals of it aren’t that different.

What does gray zone warfare and the “day-to-day competition” phase of the so-called competition continuum look like in 6th fleet?

It looks like operating in international waters, where we want, when we want. Sometimes we attract unwanted attention; that’s part of the seascape, and we deal with it.

Leading up to and during Sea Breeze, there were spoofing incidents in which NATO ships, including U.S. Navy destroyer Ross, appeared to be in waters off the coast of Crimea that Russia claims as its own, even though the ships were portside in Odesa or otherwise away from Crimea. How do those incidents and other disinformation efforts affect Sea Breeze and your ability to get your message out about the exercise and its purpose?

I think it helps amplify my message because we’re transparent. We support the sovereignty of Ukraine and its territorial integrity, and we’re here operating with 31 other nations in a wide-open manner. We’re telling the world what we’re doing, and what other nations choose to do speaks for itself.

How is 6th Fleet preparing for future operations under concepts like distributed maritime operations for the Navy and expeditionary advanced base operations for the Marine Corps?

We are embracing distributed maritime operations already. We are embracing it and working it in ways that, by nature of where we are, by nature of the number of allies and partners we have, and less distance (compared to in the Pacific), I think we’re a step ahead [of 7th Fleet] and we’re in a perfect area of responsibility or the perfect fleet for experimentation, which we’re doing in great partnership with the Marine Corps through [Marine Corps Forces Europe and Africa].

We have some remarkable partnership with [the U.S. Air Force in Europe] as we work through some of the challenges of JADC2 [Joint All-Domain Command and Control] and the targeting challenge that’s coming to us. I feel like we’re blazing a trail. We just finished BALTOPS [Baltic Operations], and we had an entire experimentation set, and that experimentation was devoted to cutting-edge undersea vehicles and mine warfare. We got to explore a number of new ideas and concepts that directly contribute to that high-end warfare that 7th Fleet is dealing with.

How will 6th Fleet keep refining future operating concepts and conducting experimentation with new technologies in the near term to prepare for more sophisticated operations in the future?

We took command of NATO Mine Countermeasures Group 1, and we’re using some cutting-edge mine warfare technology. But we’re also getting to partner with other nations who are really good at this. There’s a fair amount of leftover mines from world wars I and II in the Baltic, which is giving us a remarkable opportunity to test this out on more or less real targets.

The fact that we’re able to do Formidable Shield at the highest end of warfare, and a Dutch ship transmitted track data that [destroyer] Paul Ignatius then engaged on — I think that goes to the experimental, if you will, and the boundaries that we’re pushing.

I would say that the 6th Fleet is writing the book on theater undersea warfare and partnership across the Atlantic to 2nd Fleet so that we’re ready for any challenge anywhere at any level of conflict.

Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs, and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.

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