Major military exercises demonstrate US and NATO interest in Southeastern

Major military exercises demonstrate US and NATO interest in Southeastern Europe

  • The US and other militaries conducted major aviation and special operations exercises in Greece this spring.
  • The drills took place amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine, an attack that turned Europe’s security upside down.
  • The exercises show how the US and NATO are investing in access and influence in Southeastern Europe.

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Tensions in Europe with Russia have remained high since Moscow launched its unprovoked attack on Ukraine in February, but Russian influence is still strong in some parts of the continent.

Balkan and eastern Mediterranean countries have always had a delicate relationship with Moscow, partly because of common kinship, as in Serbia and Bulgaria, and partly because of shared religion, as in Greece.

However, the Balkans are steadily moving away from Moscow. Several countries have joined NATO there in recent years, including North Macedonia, the newest member of the alliance.

As Russian tanks advanced on Kyiv earlier this year, the US and other countries to the south took part in two large-scale maneuvers in Greece involving dozens of aircraft and hundreds of special operators.

These major air combat and special operations exercises show how the US and its partners are attempting to seal off a key part of Europe amid increasing competition from Russia.

Iniochus and Orion 22

Repelling a Greek rescue helicopter

A Greek pararescue member descends from an AW-139 helicopter April 5 during Iniochos 22. Alexandra M Longfellow

Iniochos is fast becoming one of the largest and most important air exercises in the region, with air forces from Europe and the Middle East joining other NATO militaries for the annual event.

Iniochos 22, which began in late March, included dozens of aircraft from 10 countries, including Israeli F-16Is, Italian A-200As, French Rafale F3s, US F-15Es and F/A-18s, and Greek F-16Cs, F -4Es and Mirage 2000-5BGs. The US also flew MQ-9 Reaper UAVs.

This year’s iteration of the exercise, hosted by Greece, also included exercises on several different mission sets, including offensive anti-aircraft operations, air defense, aerial reconnaissance, combat search and rescue, time-sensitive targeting missions, high-value airborne missions, and counter-surface force operations.

US Army Green Beret Special Forces parachute jump

A US Green Beret dives from a Greek C-130 March 30 during an operation in preparation for Exercise Orion. US Army/Sgt. Hannah Hawkin

When Iniochos 22 was completed in early April, more than 1,000 pilots, maintainers and special operators from six countries converged on Orion 22 in Greece to conduct realistic joint special operations exercises.

U.S. Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets, Navy Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen, Air Force Combat Controllers and Air Force Pararescuemen participated in the exercise.

“It is so impressive to see how the Hellenic Armed Forces have been able to deepen their partnership with the US Special Forces community, including the SEALS and Army Operators who are here today as part of this exercise,” the US Ambassador to Greece said at the time , Geoffrey Pyatt said after the exercise.

Commandos from the US, Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Israel and France were trained at 22 locations across Greece for air, sea and land operations. The operators were supported by 32 fighter jet sorties and 64 helicopter sorties during close air support simulation exercises.

Special Operations Forces members load onto rafts in Greece

Special Operations Forces from Bulgaria, Cyprus, France, Greece, Israel and the US during Exercise Orion 22 on April 7th. U.S. Army/Sgt. Hannah Hawkin

Iniochos and Orion 22 also took place amid rising tensions in the eastern Mediterranean.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other Turkish leaders have launched harsh rhetoric against Greece and Cyprus, including a veiled threat to invade Greece, with which Turkey has long had disputes.

Rising tensions among NATO members on the alliance’s vital southeastern flank come at a time when leaders on both sides of the Atlantic are seeking unity amid Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Security partner of choice

David Tabor Konstantinos Floros Georgios Tsitsikosta Geoffrey Pyatt Greece

SOCEUR Commander Maj. Gen. David Tabor (left) and Pyatt (right) with Greek military leaders during Exercise Orion 22 April 7. Hannah Hawkin

Pyatt, who resigned as ambassador this spring and is up for another post at the US State Department, also said after Orion 22 that Greece is “a preferred security partner” in the eastern Mediterranean, Black Sea and Balkan regions.

In recent years, the US has upgraded its security alliance with Greece. In 2018, the US military’s European Command decided to prioritize the military partnership with Greece, recognizing it as one of the key members of NATO.

Greece has benefited significantly from the upgraded military alliance with the US. In just a few years, the Greek military received Mark V Special Operations Craft, OH-58 Kiowa light attack and reconnaissance helicopters, M1117 Guardian armored security vehicles. US troops also had a more visible presence in Greece.

“I am very confident that this partnership will continue to accelerate and deepen in the future because it is based on common interests, but also on our shared democratic values,” said Pyatt this spring.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a veteran of the Hellenic Army (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army Headquarters) and a graduate of Johns Hopkins University. He is working on a master’s degree in strategy and cybersecurity at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies.