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NEWS | June 14, 2023

No One Left Behind: NATO practices JPR during BALTOPS 23

By MC1 Cameron C. Edy, U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa Public Affairs

The central tenant of Personnel Recovery (PR) is preparing for the moment a Soldier, Sailor, Marine or Airman is isolated from their unit, in a combat or contentious scenario. This can be anything from a pilot who’s shot down above the Baltic Sea, to special forces stranded behind enemy lines – with adversaries actively trying to harm the recovery target and PR team flying to the rescue. It’s a general term for a wide variety of recoveries, but it boils down to a simple statement – no one left behind.

Easy to say, harder to execute. The nature of modern combat means allied forces will never know when, how, or where a recovery scenario will kick off. In BALTOPS 23, the dynamic nature of PR is mitigated by relentless practice – five events, ranging from stranded-at-sea helicopter rescues to Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel, or TRAP, on the beachfront.

There are two main aspects to PR: prevention and preparation. Prevention is relatively self-explanatory – mitigate and eliminate the risk of isolation and capture when feasible, and plan ahead. Preparation is the more dynamic side of PR.

On an individual basis, service members expected to be in potential-isolating scenarios attend PR courses, like Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE). Pilots, special forces, and ground forces are given training on how to keep themselves safe, and escape a combat scenario to somewhere they can be recovered.

On a grander scale, entire systems are implemented in preparation for PR scenarios. The U.S. Air Force has dedicated units for PR, the U.S. Navy’s Carrier Strike Groups have a standing order to prepare for and engage in PR at-sea, and the U.S. Marine Corps holds PR as a dedicated and continuous mission set.

But the dynamic nature of a recovery scenario often demands a timely response to hostile environments, making NATO ally and partner involvement critical to effective PR preparation – especially in the European Theater. Joe Klein, U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa’s PR program manager, emphasized the critical need for an interoperable force while explaining his mission during BALTOPS 23: to improve NATO ally and partner Joint Personnel Recovery (JPR) capabilities.

“The big value of BALTOPS is making sure that that [NATO allies and partners] can work together and support each other, because you never know what the recovery scenario is going to be,” Klein said. “But the more we work together, the more capable we are when responding on short notice and it won't have to be a unilateral response. It can be a combined response to bring somebody back to safe.”

The difficulties in reinforcing this capability are the links between NATO forces – Estonia has a highly trained and specialized police force, capable of at-sea, close to shore rescues; Italian Marines are highly capable war fighters, trained for amphibious operations and storming beachheads; and Germany’s Air Force has some of the most technologically sophisticated command-and-control planes in the region. But when they operate in tandem, standards, practices, language and work-vocabulary can be jarringly different. So they train with each other, over and over, slowly breaking those barriers down and creating a single NATO standard.

During BALTOPS 23, it starts in the eastern Baltic Sea – the U.S. Navy dropped a Sailor into the frigid water, while the Estonian Police deployed in coastal vessels and coordinated with NATO vessels to rescue him. Two days later, the U.K. sent their patrol crafts to drop a Sailor into the central Baltic Sea, while a U.S. Navy helicopter conducted the recovery. Throughout the event, a German P-3 aircraft circled nearby, coordinating the entire affair as an eye-in-the-sky. Later, a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon aircraft practiced dropping a search-and-rescue raft (they drop them the same way they drop bombs, with similar guidance technology), while a Polish helicopter circled, waiting to retrieve the target. On land, Italian Marines from the San Marco brigade, assisted by NATO aircraft, conducted a TRAP mission. The joint combat brigade stormed the recovery position and secured the area until all personnel and equipment was recovered.

As the capstone JPR event, the U.S. Navy deployed an unmanned surface vehicle (USV) for the first time in BALTOPS history. Using remote-controlled guidance, the speed-boat sized vessel recovered a pilot at-sea, and brought him back to the fold.

“There are a lot of scenarios where we don't know if we can get recovery vehicles in safely, because of combat threats,” Klein said. “That’s where unmanned systems have a lot of potential – if you can't do a manned recovery, you can assume some more risk with an unmanned vehicle. The military in general is working on building a capability to recover aviators who go down in high-threat areas, where we’ve been denied access, and I think the USV is a possible solution to that dilemma.”

BALTOPS, which began in 1972 and is now in its 52nd iteration, continues to be an opportunity for NATO and regional partners to strengthen interoperability through combined scenarios, like JPR evolutions.

“JPR itself is really important to NATO and to the U.S., because it demonstrates our commitment to our people,” said Klein. “Our most valuable weapon systems are our people. In combat scenarios, we may put them in harm’s way, so we need to make sure that we have the ability to bring them back. We need to practice for when things go wrong, so when they don’t go according to plan, we have the capability to respond efficiently and effectively.”

U.S. Sixth Fleet (SIXTHFLT) and STRIKFORNATO-led BALTOPS 23 is the premier annual maritime-focused exercise uniting 19 NATO Allies and one NATO to provide complex training designed to strengthen the combined response capability critical to preserving the freedom of navigation and security in the Baltic Sea. U.S. European Command and Naval Forces Europe have promoted the traditional U.S.-led or bi-lateral exercises as opportunities for NATO to improve interoperability as a collective force, using NATO command and control systems as a foundation for the exercise design.

For over 80 years, NAVEUR-NAVAF forged strategic relationships with our Allies and Partners, leveraging a foundation of shared values to preserve security and stability.

Headquartered in Naples, Italy, NAVEUR-NAVAF operates U.S. naval forces in the U.S. European Command (USEUCOM) and U.S. Africa Command (USAFRICOM) areas of responsibility. SIXTHFLT is permanently assigned to NAVEUR-NAVAF and employs maritime forces through the full spectrum of joint and naval operations.

STRIKFORNATO, headquartered at Oeiras, Portugal, is a rapidly deployable and scalable headquarters, under the operational command of SACEUR, capable of planning and executing full spectrum joint maritime operations including maritime ballistic missile defense, primarily through integration of U.S. and other nation’s carrier and amphibious forces into NATO operations to provide assurance, deterrence, and collective defense for the Alliance.