Milley visits Sweden to demonstrate his support for the NATO bid

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STOCKHOLM – The United States prepared on Saturday to launch a wide-ranging naval exercise in the Baltic Sea with Sweden, Finland and 13 NATO allies, a visible sign of a growing partnership as Stockholm and Helsinki aspire to join the United States after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine apply for a military alliance.

The Baltic operations exercise involves more than 40 warships and has been held annually for decades, but will shift this year to include greater participation from Finland and Sweden, said Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A day after a similar stop in Finland, he visited Stockholm on Saturday to show his support for Sweden’s bid for membership.

The two countries have long worked with the US military but until last month resisted a bid to join NATO over fears it would anger Moscow. This changed after Russia invaded Ukraine, however, as public opinion in both countries shifted in favor of joining the military alliance.

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The new momentum was evident as the 843-foot amphibious warship USS Kearsarge sat in a narrow waterway that cut through Stockholm while packed with helicopter gunships and other aircraft, as well as more than 2,000 US Marines and sailors.

The United States has never moved such a large warship to this capital of nearly a million people, Milley said. This created a spectacle for tourists taking photos and challenges for US troops and Swedish personnel pushing the ship into town.

“This was a big development for us,” said Tera Geoffrey, a junior grade lieutenant assigned to the ship. “Our depth under the keel was sometimes less than 10 feet.”

Milley told reporters aboard the Kearsarge that President Biden and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin have asked the Pentagon to develop new options to “modestly increase” American military involvement in Sweden where appropriate. Meanwhile, other long-planned operations such as the naval exercise continue.

“We’re looking at things we can do with either the Marines or the Army on the ground, things we can do with special forces, things we can do with the air or naval forces,” Milley said.

While the NATO alliance is designed to be defensive, Sweden and Finland’s accession would further enclose the Baltic Sea with NATO countries, which would be “very problematic” for Russia militarily and “very beneficial” for NATO, Milley said. The Swedish military is not large, Milley said, but it has an excellent navy, modern equipment and well-trained ground forces.

The bids come as a NATO ally, Turkey, is threatening to block Finland and Sweden from joining the alliance, drawing on the presence of militants from the PKK, a Kurdish separatist group that the US and Turkish governments have labeled terrorist organizations have designated, appointed in their countries.

Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, who appeared alongside Milley, said the Finnish and Swedish governments will continue to discuss Turkey’s concerns but that Sweden has taken a “very clear stance on terrorists”.

“Sweden’s position in this regard is unquestionable,” she said.

When Russia threatened and eventually launched its invasion, the Pentagon increased its forces in Europe from about 80,000 to more than 100,000 — including marines and sailors at sea. Maj. Gen. Frank Donovan, who oversees personnel at the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit at Camp Lejeune, NC, said the unit has visited Iceland, Norway, Estonia, Greece and Turkey in recent months.

“We’re able to tailor the force to the task at hand and we’re very manoeuvrable,” Donovan said.

The Marines have deployed a newly adapted radar originally designed to help fishermen find a potential catch, Donovan said. It has been adapted to be placed on islands or coastlines to track the movement of vessels up to 60 miles away, with the data being tracked on a tablet device, he said.

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