Major air combat and special-ops drills show how the US and its partners are trying to lock down an important region amid tensions with Russia

US Italian Greek fighter jets over Acropolis in Greece
From left to right, a Greek F-16M, an Italian A-200, a US F-15E, and a Greek F-4E over the Acropolis during Exercise Iniochos 22 on April 5.US Navy/Lt. Kathryn "Glitta" Mathis
  • The US and other militaries held major aviation and special-operations drills in Greece this spring.

  • The exercises were held amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, an attack that upended Europe's security.

  • The drills show how the US and NATO are investing in access and influence in southeastern Europe.

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.

Countries in the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean region have always had a delicate relationship with Moscow, partly because of shared kinship, as in Serbia and Bulgaria, and partly because of shared religion, as in Greece.

The Balkans has been steadily moving away from Moscow, however. Several countries there have joined NATO in recent years, including North Macedonia, the alliance's newest member.

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

Those major air combat and special-ops drills show how the US and its partners are trying to lock down an important part of Europe amid increasing competition with Russia.

Iniochos and Orion 22

Greek pararescue helicopter repel
A Greek pararescue member descends from an AW-139 helicopter during Iniochos 22 on April 5.US Air Force/Staff Sgt. 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, involved dozens of aircraft from 10 countries, including Israeli F-16Is, Italian A-200As, French Rafale F3, US F-15Es and F/A-18s, and Greek F-16Cs, F-4Es, and Mirage 2000-5BGs. The US also flew MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles.

This year's iteration of the Greece-hosted exercise also included drills on several different mission sets, including offensive counter-air operations, air defense, airborne reconnaissance, combat search and rescue, time-sensitive target missions, high-value airborne asset missions, and counter surface-force operations.

US Army Green Beret Special Forces parachute dive
A US Green Beret dives from a Greek C-130 on March 30 during an operation to prepare for Exercise Orion.US Army/Sgt. Hannah Hawkins

As Iniochos 22 was wrapping up in early April, more than 1,000 pilots, maintainers, and special operators from six countries were coming together in Greece for Orion 22 to conduct realistic joint special-operations exercises.

US 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 the way in which the Hellenic Armed Forces has been able to deepen its 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 at the time, Geoffrey Pyatt, said following the exercise.

Commandos from the US, Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Israel, and France trained for air, sea, and land operations in 22 locations across Greece. The operators were supported by 32 fighter-jet sorties and 64 helicopter missions as a part of drills simulating close air support.

Special operations force members load into rafts in Greece
Special-operations troops from Bulgaria, Cyprus, France, Greece, Israel, and the US during Exercise Orion 22 on April 7.US Army/Sgt. Hannah Hawkins

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

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

The rising tensions between NATO members on the alliance's important southeastern flank come at a time when leaders on both sides of the Atlantic have sought unity in the face of the 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 on April 7.US Army/Sgt. Hannah Hawkins

Pyatt, who stood down as ambassador this spring and is nominated for another US State Department post, also said after Orion 22 that Greece is "a security partner of choice" 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 NATO's key members.

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

"I am very confident that that partnership is going to continue to accelerate and deepen into the future because it rests on the basis of shared interests but also our shared democratic values," Pyatt said this spring.

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

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