WASHINGTON, June 24, 2015 —
The annual Baltic Operations exercise demonstrates the United States’ commitment to defend the alliance in light of recent Russian actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Defense Secretary Ash Carter told service members aboard the USS San Antonio in Estonia yesterday.
The secretary said he wanted to impart two messages as he spoke to service members aboard the ship, which was in Estonia to serve as the lead U.S. ship of the 43rd BALTOPS sea exercise, a recently concluded multinational exercise held annually since 1971. This year’s BALTOPS concluded June 19.
Carter first emphasized how the ship’s operations in the Baltic Sea are important to Europeans.
“And the reason for that is you stand in a long line of Americans who have stood behind Europe and freedom in Europe,” he said.
BALTOPS is about the U.S. alliance with NATO and its commitment to defend all NATO territory, Carter said, particularly in light of recent Russian aggression.
“We didn't want this new challenge, because we've been busy for the last decade and a half,” the secretary said. “We've had Iraq [and] Afghanistan. We've got plenty going on in the world, but then all of a sudden, you have behavior by Russia.”
BALTOPS Important to Europe
The BALTOPS mission is “highly, highly visible in Europe,” Carter said, calling it a “very big deal.”
Europeans find the exercise reassuring because of what U.S. service members in the BALTOPS mission stand for, he said.
“So thank you on behalf of not only your own country, but all of these countries here in Europe for what you've been doing here,” Carter told the service members.
People Make U.S. ‘Greatest Fighting Force’
“The reason we're the greatest fighting force the world has ever known isn't just because we've got magnificent ships like the San Antonio [and] it's not because we have great weapons and that kind of thing,” Carter said. “It's because of the people we have; it's because of you.”
The secretary said he wakes every morning to that thought.
“You're what it's all about. I know that. And your readiness, your welfare, your equipment, your deployments are what I give my utmost care to,” he said.
“So my heart is so with you guys all day, every day, and I wanted you to know that. We're not only very proud of what you're doing for the world, but we're proud … to be associated with you,” Carter added.
People “are what matters most to me and [that is] my highest priority as secretary of defense,” Carter said, “I wanted to meet with you tonight.”
He greeted each service member and gave them a defense Challenge coin.
(Follow Terri Moon Cronk on Twitter: @MoonCronkDoD)