By Vice Adm. John W. Miller
Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command/Commander, U.S. 5th Fleet
Yesterday, 41 nations joined us here in Bahrain to take part in International Mine Countermeasures Exercise 2013, the largest exercise of its kind in the region. Through the course of the exercise from May 6 to 30, a wide spectrum of defensive operations designed to protect international commerce and trade will be exercised; mine countermeasures, maritime security operations and maritime infrastructure protection.
Participating nations will operate 35 ships and 18 unmanned underwater vehicles, and incorporate more than 100 explosive ordinance disposal divers during the exercise events.
The exercise begins with reception and staff integration, followed by a three-day maritime infrastructure protection symposium. Then, we get underway for an afloat operations phase and a re-integration phase where participants discuss best practices and lessons learned for future exercises.
Similar to IMCMEX 12, participants will exercise the afloat staging base concept aboard USS Ponce (AFSB(I) 15) and RFA Cardigan Bay (L3009), and will cover surface mine countermeasures, mine hunting and airborne mine countermeasures operations, international explosive ordnance disposal training, diving operations, small-boat exercises, unmanned aerial vehicle operations, unmanned underwater vehicle operations and port clearance operations.
New to this year’s exercise, maritime security operations will introduce shipping escort and visit, board, search and seizure operations that will include representatives from maritime shipping industry that were involved in exercise planning and will play a significant role in shipping escort events. Industry representatives also will lead an oil spill response tabletop discussion during the exercise.
The maritime infrastructure protection portion of the exercise focuses on protecting maritime points of origin and arrival such as ports, gas and oil platforms, oil terminals, ships, and even desalinization plants that are so vital to the western side of the Gulf. This portion of the exercise will include shore and harbor security operations; visit, board, search and seizure teams; and specialized aircraft.
Unmanned Underwater Vehicles
We are making a great deal of progress with unmanned underwater vehicles and other unmanned systems. There is very promising technology that is being developed and leveraged in the mine countermeasures mission area. Here in the heat of the Gulf, the amount of time a person can stay on the deck of a ship, or small boat is quite limited. You can work an unmanned underwater vehicle longer in these conditions and you don’t have to rest unmanned underwater vehicles. But it is important to remember, you still need a Sailor to evaluate the data from these systems, to interpret it and then make decisions about what to do with the information. So, while unmanned underwater vehicles may take Sailors out of the minefield, we are not going to take Sailors out of the mine countermeasures business.
International Maritime Exercise Force
One of the chief lessons learned out of International Mine Countermeasures Exercise 2012 was the value of command and control. How do we communicate with so many nations and communicate effectively enough to exercise the tactics, techniques and procedures to conduct mine countermeasure operations – and then to do all of that securely? Last year, we encountered difficulties and impediments inherent in most international exercises. Some nations don’t have the ability to talk securely at sea; others have systems that are not necessarily compatible. So we have spent the last several months working to better integrate our communications. We think we have that part right and that understanding will enhance this exercise. In the end, the basic tactics and techniques of finding mines, identifying mines and then neutralizing the mines are relatively universal across the force we have assembled.
To further exercise consolidated command and control, my deputy, Commodore Simon Ancona, Royal Navy, will run the exercise. He will serve as the mine warfare commander with an international maritime exercise force staff made up of representatives from nations in and outside the region. This group brings together the operational experience of the gathered nations and, through mission area experts, ensures enhanced coordination between participating units. A core tenant of the international maritime exercise force is a firm commitment to have each participating nation reach their exercise goals and further a mutual development in technical and procedural acumen.
International Attention on Maritime Threats
There are six major maritime chokepoints in the world – three of them are here in this region: the Suez Canal, the Strait of Bab Al Mandeb and the Strait of Hormuz. So why is that important? Nearly 20 percent of the world’s oil transits through the Strait of Hormuz every day. Imagine the effect on the global economy if suddenly that oil stops flowing. This region is important to the whole world.
As mariners, we realize the maritime environment is a challenging operating environment, which becomes more challenging when there are activities in key strategic waterways to inhibit the free movement of our forces or commerce. One thing we all understand, and the primary reason that we conduct this exercise, is that in whatever fashion mines are put into the water, the global community is going to demand that they are removed, and removed quickly. If 41 nations are willing to come here and practice mine countermeasures, just imagine how effective the global mine response would be if someone actually put mines in the water.
What do you think is the most important part of this exercise?