Largest international mine countermeasures exercise underway in Middle East
By HENDRICK SIMOES | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 2, 2014
MANAMA, Bahrain — A total of 6,500 personnel and 38 warships from 44 navies are taking part in a U.S.-led mine countermeasures exercise in the Middle East, officials said Sunday.
The international exercise, the third and largest so far, is being conducted by the U.S. 5th Fleet, whose area of responsibility covers about 2.5 million square miles of water. Its sea phase started on Sunday, although preparations have been ongoing for several days.
The Persian Gulf, Gulf of Oman, Gulf of Aden and Red Sea contain three critical choke points for maritime shipping and navigation. Nearly 20 percent of the world's oil supply transits through the Strait of Hormuz.
"I think nations see it as an excellent training opportunity," 5th Feet Commander Vice. Adm. John Miller, told reporters Sunday.
"The tremendous number of nations participating in this exercise sends a clear signal that threats to global commerce will not be tolerated."
Officials said they have broadened the focus of the exercise to include maritime security operations such as escorting and defending commercial shipping, and maritime infrastructure protection drills, for oil rigs and harbors.
For the first time, the exercise has expanded beyond the Persian Gulf waters, into the Gulf of Oman, Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.
The timing of the exercise coincides with international negotiations to reach a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran. In the past, such U.S. military exercises in the Persian Gulf have typically drawn heavy criticism from Tehran.
Next week Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to participate in a trilateral meeting in Muscat, Oman, with Iran's foreign minister and senior European Union officials, as part of the EU-coordinated P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran.
Miller said this exercise was scheduled immediately after the last mine countermeasure exercise in May of last year, and the date was chosen to fit in with other international exercises to maximize participation.
Officials said the exercise has increased in complexity, along with the involvement of more nations, ships and unmanned vessels. This year the exercise will feature some new technologies, including an airborne laser mine detection system and an unmanned surface mine hunting vessel towing a sonar behind it.
The exercise runs through Nov. 13.
Naval Aircrewman 2nd Class Arron Hall operates the surveillance control station of an MH-60R Seahawk helicopter from the Battle Cats of Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 73 during the International Mine Countermeasure Exercise, IMCMEX on Oct. 31, 2014. IMCMEX is a joint mine countermeasure exercise involving 44 navies.
ERIC COFFER/U.S. NAVY