By Chad Twitty
Not many regional security officers (RSOs) would welcome the opportunity to have hostile protesters gather at the gates of an American embassy and force their way onto the compound, but Embassy Riga’s brief takeover by U.S. soldiers posing as intruders, Sept. 15, was a welcome educational and preparatory exercise. The protest and eventual breach were part of an annual training exercise that Embassy Riga supported with the Latvian National Guard known as SWORD.
When RSO David Shamber and Deputy RSO Brian Gunderson were initially contacted by the Latvian National Guard to participate in the annual SWORD training exercise, they had no idea the impact and value the exercise would have on both the National Guard and the embassy’s Local Guard Force (LGF). The Latvian National Guard (Zemessardze) is part of the Latvian National Armed Forces and is comprised of approximately 8,300 personnel throughout the country. The National Guard is a land forces group of volunteers who perform traditional guard duties, such as support for military operations and crisis response. The National Guard consists of a staff headquarters and four brigades that are divided into 21 battalions throughout the country.
The idea behind the embassy’s involvement in a training exercise began when Nils Students, a locally employed public affairs staff member and volunteer member of the Latvian National Guard, began discussing the various exercise components taking place throughout the capital of Riga and in other regions around the country with his commander. Knowing the embassy’s security requirements, Students was initially skeptical that the embassy would be willing to play a role in the urban warfare exercise. Students approached the RSO team with the idea, and from that initial brainstorming discussion, plans evolved and the RSO team moved forward with the training scenario.
After several weeks of planning and discussions about what the exercise might look like, the embassy’s security team and National Guard planners decided that a protest against Embassy Riga was a realistic scenario that would benefit the Latvian National Guard soldiers, the RSO team, including the embassy’s LGF, and the Marine Security Guard (MSG) Detachment. U.S. military personnel in Latvia also joined the exercise in order to consult with the Latvian National Guard, provide training feedback, and to even play the part of the opposing force in the exercise.
Latvian weather is traditionally a motivating factor when it comes to the small number of public protests in the country, but even the cold, rainy weather did not deter an aggressive mob of approximately 20 simulated protesters from showing up in the early morning hours on the day of the exercise. The protesters, who were all members of the Latvian National Guard, played the role well. Chargé d’Affaires Paul Poletes commended the National Guard protestors for their realistic performance, adding that the group knew their anti-American slogans and protest playbook well. The protesters came prepared with signs and chants, including “Yankee Go Home.” They attempted to breach the embassy’s main security entrance on several occasions, threw debris over the fences, and walked the parking lot perimeter looking for anything to use as makeshift weapons.
The protesters’ actions enabled the RSO and LGF teams to coordinate the embassy’s response and communications, while the MSGs supported the efforts. Eventually, the protesters became more aggressive and the Latvian National Guard force, staged nearby, was brought in to protect the embassy’s main entrance. As the protesters became increasingly more physical and aggressive, the National Guard forces had the opportunity to experience the confrontation up close and personal. The protesters even attempted to break the line and pull away the National Guardsmen, resulting in a highly realistic, physical experience.
The culminating event of the exercise was a mock explosion, enhanced by several smoke grenades, and multiple simulated injuries to embassy LGF members and protesters. The injuries provided an opportunity for medical responders from the embassy and the National Guard to test their emergency medical skills and reaction time. The teams reacted quickly to provide assistance and stabilize the injured.
In the confusion caused by the simulated IED explosion, three U.S. soldiers entered the compound with weapons inserted with blank bullets. The intruders then hid themselves in the facilities storage building outside of the main chancery. Poletes then gave permission for approximately 50 Latvian National Guard troops, in coordination with RSO staff and MSGs, to search the NEC compound for the intruders. By this point, inquisitive neighbors were enjoying the show and somewhat noisy disruption to their Sunday morning. In order to not shock and panic the suburban Riga neighborhood, the Ministry of Defense had notified the surrounding neighborhood in advance of the exercise.
Ultimately, Latvian National Guard forces located and neutralized the intruders, marking the end of the exercise. The intensity of the exercise was soon replaced by smiles, handshakes, and a group photograph with visiting officials, including Deputy Chief of Staff for the Latvian Armed Forces Brig. Gen. Imants Ziedins, and Cmdr. of the Latvian National Guard Col. Egils Leščinskis. U.S. military participants and observers provided valuable feedback to the Latvian National Guard about the exercise that will increase their capability to conduct military operations in urban environments.
Poletes addressed the group and praised the exercise as a strong example of collaboration between the Latvian National Guard, U.S. Embassy, and U.S. military during the realistic scenario. Noting the embassy’s priority efforts in the area of defense and security cooperation, Poletes commended Latvia for its partnership with the U.S. as a NATO ally that meets its obligation of spending two percent of GDP on defense. He also praised the RSO team for their foresight in recognizing the value of such an exercise to the embassy’s local guard force.
What began as a long-shot idea, ended in a powerful joint exercise and opportunity for the U.S. Embassy and Latvian National Guard to train together and increase capabilities.
Chad Twitty is a public affairs officer at Embassy Riga.