By Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Kyle Steckler
On Jan. 16, 1971, the second of two U.S. Navy Blue Ridge-class command and control ships was commissioned. At the time, she joined her sister ship, USS Blue Ridge, as having the most advanced communications suites ever assembled, 30 percent larger than the previous owner of that title, the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy (CV 67), itself 40 percent larger as a whole than Mount Whitney.
Nearly 50 years later, Mount Whitney is still regarded as one of the world’s premier communications platforms, serving as a flagship for both U.S. 6th Fleet and Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO, as well as the centerpiece of dozens of exercises and operations over the decades.
Maybe it’s fate then that this 49-year-old warship is currently participating in the 49th iteration of Baltic Operations, or BALTOPS 2020. The exercise is an annual joint, multinational maritime-focused exercise that began June 7, 2020, and is designed to improve training value for participants, enhance flexibility and interoperability, and demonstrate resolve among allied and partner forces in defending the Baltic Sea region.
In other words, much like Mount Whitney’s mission, BALTOPS is designed to help allies and partners communicate and operate effectively.
“Mount Whitney provides the full range of communications capabilities to meet whatever tasking we are given,” said Cmdr. Eric Dobson, the ship’s Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Collaboration, and Information (C5I) officer. “We provide both unclassified and classified data networks, interfacing U.S., allied and partner nation communications through satellite and line-of-sight radio communications, telephones, video teleconference, and joint, coalition, and multinational connectivity.”
Historically, due to its broader capabilities, Mount Whitney has taken on the majority of BALTOPS communications planning, utilizing those capabilities to connect the dots for participating NATO allies and partners. But this year isn’t like other years.
“Ordinarily, for an exercise such as BALTOPS, we would embark a senior level staff, such as Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO (SFN),” said Dobson. “This year, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the SFN leadership made the decision to command the exercise ashore from STRIKFORNATO. So Mount Whitney remains fully integrated with our coalition partners, and the full range of our communications capabilities allows us to act in a variety of roles as dictated by those events.”
Lt. j.g. Amanda Putz, Mount Whitney’s communications officer (COMMO), expanded on that. In her role as COMMO, she directly supervises the more than 20 Sailors that staff the ship’s Radio work center, normally responsible for providing Mount Whitney with off-ship communications and connectivity across the frequency spectrum. This includes day-to-day internet services as well as all voice communications. In her words, “No information gets on or off the ship without Radio.”
“This year, Mount Whitney’s communications capabilities are in direct support of our Combat Information Center (CIC),” said Putz. “As Mount Whitney is tasked with different events, we provide the CIC with the required communication circuits that enables them to actively interact and operate with other BALTOPS units.”
For the first time in its history, BALTOPS is being conducted as an exclusively sea-based exercise. But what might be perceived as a hindrance or handicap for the exercise as a whole means that for Mount Whitney and her crew, the mission of BALTOPS at sea and operating as a cohesive force with the 18 other participating nations is all the more important.
“Mount Whitney's Communication Department enables the ship to cohesively interact and operate with other units,” said Putz. “Without well-established communication between us and other units, we would not be able to carry out daily BALTOPS requirements and operate as a unified force. Good, clear communication between units is the glue that holds the whole thing together.”
Dobson said that the shift to an all-sea exercise also gave Mount Whitney another part to play in the “story” of BALTOPS, the war games typical of multinational exercises like this one.
“With our permanently assigned ship’s crew and our capacity for voice and data communications, Mount Whitney can connect to multiple voice and data networks so that we can maintain a good overall picture of the exercise as a whole, even if the team has to work a little harder to make it all happen seamlessly,” said Dobson. “This allows for flexibility in our participation roles, since we can accomplish many tasks simultaneously. Our capacity allows to act as both ‘Blue Force’ and ‘Aggressor,’ and to act as the communications clearing-house for overall exercise control.”
This means that in addition to providing a clear, overall picture for participating nations, Mount Whitney are also acting in a tactical capacity, taking part in events in ways it never has.
COVID-19 forced more than just a change of events and embarked personnel; it also changed how the exercise was planned from the very beginning stages. Communications abilities from all participating countries and platforms were utilized in coordinating the 49th iteration of BALTOPS, and Mount Whitney certainly wasn’t exempted.
“Given the social distancing and other requirements mandated by COVID-19 response, much more use was made of electronic means of communication for events that would normally have been traditional meetings or conferences,” said Dobson. “Communication via electronic means became the default, and we relied on that technology every day while planning for this exercise. Overall, we found this made meetings more efficient while still ensuring that needed information was promulgated to participants.”
Dobson said that though Mount Whitney’s role, and even the scope of BALTOPS as a whole, is different this year, there is a silver lining. With the ship’s role as not just the exercise’s communication hub but also a player in the war games, he and his team are able to get a bit more experience and learn from participating nations.
“We primarily act to learn from our partners, as we hope they are learning from us,” said Dobson. “There are still many dynamic communications requirements that Mount Whitney's communications and electronics teams have to work through, regardless of our current tasking, and it presents a unique opportunity for them to continue to develop and hone the skills they need to enable the ship to accomplish its mission now and in the future.”
As BALTOPS wraps up its 49th iteration, and just six months shy of Mount Whitney’s 50th birthday, the goal of the exercise remains the same as it has for decades, to test the flexibility of participating nations’ forces in order to strengthen the combined capabilities necessary for immediate crisis response and regional stability.
This year, 19 nations shook hands from across communication frequencies in the name of capability of forces, commitment to allies and partners, and the cohesion of friends. For both BALTOPS and Mount Whitney, their respective 50th years, their “Golden Anniversaries,” are sure to be the best yet.
STRIKFORNATO provides a Joint Battle Staff, Operational Command directly to Supreme Allied Command Europe, to deliver a rapidly deployable and scalable headquarters capable of planning and executing full spectrum joint maritime expeditionary operations and providing command and control of maritime Ballistic Missile Defense, primarily through integration of U.S. naval and amphibious forces, in order to provide assurance, deterrence, and collective defense for the Alliance.
U.S. 6th Fleet, headquartered in Naples, Italy, conducts the full spectrum of joint and naval operations, often in concert with allied, joint, and interagency partners, in order to advance U.S. national interests and security and stability in Europe and Africa.