MERSIN, Turkey — The multinational naval exercise Sea Breeze — held for the first time since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine — prioritized ensuring freedom of navigation and countering explosive devices such as sea mines.
The latest iteration, dubbed Sea Breeze 2023-3, took place in the Black Sea, bordered by Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania and Georgia. The entire exercise is split into three parts.
The third event, which ran Sept. 11-15, saw the United States, Bulgaria, France, Romania, Turkey, Ukraine and the United Kingdom come together for drills. The U.S. and Romanian navies co-hosted the exercise.
“The exercise, now in its 22nd iteration, has been held annually since 1997, except for five separate years in which operational commitments or world events prevented the execution of the exercise,” a U.S. Navy news release noted.
Due to the regulations of the Montreux Convention, non-riparian participants could not send naval vessels. Under the Montreux Convention, Turkey manages the movement of commercial and military ships in and out of the Bosporus and Dardanelles. The country has carefully implemented the agreement since 1936, which is a critical component of Black Sea security and stability, for more than seven decades. While the convention governs the transit regime across the straits, the most important aspect is defining the principals of military ships transiting the straits and deploying to the Black Sea.
“It is very important that the Sea Breeze exercise, which could not take place last year, was held this year at a time when war was ongoing in the region and the main themes of the exercise were freedom of navigation and the de-mining of the seas,” Yörük Işık, an independent Turkish open-source intelligence and naval analyst, told Defense News. “There is a message to Russia here.”
Vice Adm. Ioan Georgescu of the Romanian Naval Forces led the drills. The service brought the most vessels to the exercise with its Musca-class mine countermeasure ship Sublocotenent Alexandru Axente, high-speed diving support ship Venus, Brutar II-class armored boat Posada, three amphibious armored personnel carriers, and several attack boats.
“The main objectives of Sea Breeze 2023 are to enhance interoperability and increase the level of training amongst the participating forces, focusing on mine countermeasures with support from participating nations’ diving and Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV) teams and a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon aircraft,” Romanian Navy Capt. Adrian Dinca, chief of staff of the Romanian maritime component command, said in the U.S. Navy release.
Indeed, during the second part of Sea Breeze, held Sept. 5-6 in Constanta, the U.S. Navy deployed the explosive ordnance disposal and mine countermeasures divisions of Task Force 68, among other personnel, and a P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft. This second part involved a fleet commanders conference focused on the current maritime situation in the Black Sea.
“The expansion of the Sea Breeze exercise into a three-part serial demonstrates our ability to train together throughout the European theater, in a multitude of environments, to ensure we are ready and prepared for any challenges we may face as we continue to strive for a secure maritime environment,” Task Force 68 Commodore Capt. Geoffrey Townsend said in the news release.
The Bulgarian Defence Ministry said its participation in the exercise included a Remus 100 unmanned underwater vehicle and associated personnel.
Turkey only sent staff personnel to the exercise, according to sources with the Turkish Navy, who spoke to Defense News on the condition of anonymity, as they were not authorized to speak to the press.
France, the U.K. and Ukraine did not reply to requests for information about their participation.
Notably, the exercise took place as Ukraine declared it regained control over oil rigs in the vicinity of where the exercise took place, Işık said.
Also during the drills, Ukraine attacked the Russian base at Sevastopol in Crimea with cruise missiles. Russia has controlled the territory since it annexed it in 2014 — a move largely unrecognized among the international community.
According to the British Defence Minstry, the Sept. 13 attack “almost certainly” functionally destroyed the landing ship Minsk, and the Kilo 636.3-class submarine Rostov-na-Donu “likely suffered catastrophic damage.”
Tayfun Ozberk is a Turkey correspondent for Defense News.