Commanders stress international teamwork to address threats in Middle Eastern waters

Personnel aboard the afloat forward staging base USS Ponce communicate while the Ponce crew is getting media personnel to and from a mine countermeasures ship in the Persian Gulf during the International Mine Countermeasures Exercise April 10, 2016.


By CHRIS CHURCH | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 14, 2016

MANAMA, Bahrain — Sea mines set in one of the three major chokepoints in the Middle East for international shipping would be a nightmare scenario.

The potential damage to the global economy is considerable enough to bring 30 of the world’s navies together for a massive mine countermeasure exercise in the Middle East to prevent such an occurrence. 

The International Mine Countermeasures Exercise, being led by U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, is not related to any specific group or threat, officials said. But tensions are high around the region in light of recent Iranian activities, as well as  the threat of terrorists and other non-state actors gaining access to sea lanes. 

“There are threat streams out there that point to adversaries seeking advanced tactics, techniques and procedures to employ mines and underwater IEDs,” said Eric Wirstrom, commander of Task Force 52 and Mine Countermeasures Squadron Five. “It keeps me awake at night.”

He was speaking to reporters Sunday aboard the afloat forward staging base USS Ponce.

The exercise — taking place in the Persian Gulf, Gulf of Oman and the Rea Sea — focuses on defense operations to include mine countermeasures, maritime security and maritime infrastructure protection.

Mine warfare operations take time and a lot of manpower, said French Navy Capt. Jean-Christophe Olieric who is overseeing anti-mine operations in the Arabian Gulf during the exercise. 

“We need all people who are interested in freedom of navigation of this area,” said Olieric.  “We know that we have to communicate to know what each ship is doing and that’s the main challenge of this exercise.” 

The training is not only about sailors and ships being able to use their equipment, but is also about officers and staffs learning factors and complications of equipment and how to best work as international teams, said Canadian Navy Capt. Craig Skjerpen, the commander tasked with overseeing all the operations in the Persian Gulf for this exercise. 

Everyone has different skills, different equipment, and different languages, said Royal Navy Lt. Cmdr. Maryla Ingham, commanding officer of the mine hunter HMS Middleton.

She said working together and getting to know each other ensures they can operate together effectively.  

The exercise also helps mine countermeasure operations around the world, as countries can take the training here and put it to use around their shores.  In the Mediterranean, for example, where it is still common to find World War II sea mines, the Royal Navy often works closely with their European counterparts, Ingham said.

Similarly, in the Gulf region, the Royal Navy works alongside the U.S. and different host nations in the region.  

“This is a great place (to train) because it has so many national interests,” Wirstrom said. “It’s a compelling reason to bring the coalition together so that we can interoperate, all to keep the free lines of communication open in a strategically important area.”

The Middle East is home to three major choke points for international shipping, including the Suez Canal, Bab el Mandeb strait and the Strait of Hormuz, where nearly a fifth of the world’s oil transits. During the first Gulf War, Iraq released more than 1,000 mines into the waterway, damaging two U.S. warships and hampering international oil shipping.

Twitter: @CChurchStripes

Personnel aboard the afloat forward staging base USS Ponce wait in the well deck for the arrival of a rigid-hulled inflatable boat carrying media during the International Mine Countermeasures Exercise April 10, 2016.

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