STOCKHOLM — In the Swedish capital this weekend, everyone was talking about the American warship.
Moored in the main waterway linking Stockholm with the Baltic Sea, the towering presence of the USS Kearsarge dominated the city center, its 253-meter-long silhouette creating a new militaristic skyline against the early summer sun.
A couple of Danish tourists walking along the waterfront speculated that the American ship’s arrival could have something to do with Sweden’s recent application — alongside Finland — to join NATO, or maybe it just reflected the underlying cause of those applications: the darkening of the regional security picture following nearby Russia’s attack on Ukraine.
“I can see why they want to join NATO,” one of the tourists said to her companion. “There’s just so much uncertainty about where things are headed.”
The reality is that the Kearsarge has a dual mission in the Swedish capital.
Officially, the ship’s visit to Stockholm is to participate in a military training exercise involving 14 NATO states plus Finland and Sweden, which will test the ability of these countries’ navies, air forces and armies to work together. The exercise, called Baltops, will run all week and involve landing exercises along the Swedish and German coasts.
But the Kearsarge is also in the Swedish capital to send a message to Russia that the U.S. is keeping an eye on Sweden and Finland.
The two small Nordic states applied to join NATO two weeks ago, but their applications, already expected to take months, have become tangled up in objections from existing member Turkey.
Sweden and Finland are now in a sensitive “gray period” between application and full NATO membership — with the mutual defense commitment that entails — and questions have been raised about what protection the countries can expect from the U.S. and others over the weeks and months ahead.
‘Pretty strong statement’
At a news conference on the deck of the Kearsarge on Saturday, General Mark Milley, the most senior U.S. military commander, said the visit of the warship to Stockholm was in part designed to answer those questions.
“I think the Kearsarge being here is a pretty strong statement,” Milley said. “We are committed to a rules-based international order … and the idea that strong, powerful countries cannot just arbitrarily attack smaller weaker countries as we have seen in Ukraine.”
Standing alongside Milley, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said the arrival of the American warship showed that U.S. President Joe Biden was making good on commitments he made to her and Finnish President Sauli Niinistö when the two Nordic leaders visited the White House last month.
“This shows President Biden’s security assurances are followed by actions,” she said.
The way the Baltops exercise is being run offers some insight into how the Swedish and Finnish “gray period” will likely be managed over the months ahead. The strategy seems to be to run a tight schedule of training exercises — which has also included the recently concluded Siil exercise around Estonia — to maintain an enhanced NATO presence in the Baltic Sea region.
Baltops itself will be around 30% bigger this year than in 2021 and will involve 45 ships and 76 aircraft. General Milley, who serves as the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said President Biden had asked military leaders to “modestly increase” activities beyond the “significant program” already scheduled.
Speaking alongside Milley on the Kearsarge, Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist said he could see “a future here with a lot of activities that makes our part of Europe more secure … during this sensitive time from now until we are full members of NATO.”
“We will have naval vessels in the Baltic Sea over the coming months and also we will have an air force presence in our airspace,” Hultqvist said.
Below deck on the Kearsarge, an attack helicopter was being examined as part of what an engineer on board said was called a phase inspection. A team of mechanics was taking the aircraft apart to inspect it and would then put it back together. On Saturday afternoon, the team was preparing to reinstall the rotor blades and rebuild the tail.
A deck further down, rows of all-terrain vehicles were parked ahead of three large air-cushioned landing craft which would deploy troops and machines to shore during this week’s exercise.
On Tuesday, a landing of 250 U.S. troops on the strategically located Swedish Baltic Sea island of Gotland was expected to take place as part of the Baltops training.
General Milley’s presence on the ship created a buzz as he moved among the U.S. Marines handing out what looked like medallion-like momentos.
“Don’t lose that; it is worth money on eBay,” he joked with one Marine.
In his briefing to reporters, Milley ran through the firepower of the ship.
“You have seen the type of aircraft that are here: you’ve got attack aircraft, you’ve got Harrier Jump Jets,” he said. “You’re looking at somewhere around 1,200 Marines that are capable of executing battalion-sized amphibious assaults from the sea to project power ashore,” he said.
But asked what message Moscow should take from the presence of the Kearsarge in the Baltic, Milley deferred.
“I’ll leave the message to be determined by what Moscow thinks the message is,” he said. “It is not my job to articulate a message. We are here to do military training.”