NATO ambassadors see display of naval might
Stars and Stripes June 7, 2003
OFF THE COAST OF ALICANTE, Spain — A row of nine ships from seven nations cruised out into the Mediterranean Sea with only a couple of football fields of water between them.
On command, they steered in unison to the left like a group of Olympic synchronized swimmers on cue. Some background music from the bridge, perhaps a rendition of Swan Lake, would have been fitting.
The turn was the simplest of maneuvers in a day of Harrier fly-bys, troop drops onto ship decks and small-arms demonstrations.
While ship captains were not vying for high marks from judges, they were performing on Thursday — for NATO ambassadors, VIPs and about 60 journalists. The purpose was to show alliance policymakers what NATO’s naval forces can do and to give an example of the alliance’s value and solidarity.
The timing was appropriate.
Although the sea display was planned months ago, the maritime showcase comes when the alliance’s 19 member nations are trying to smooth the rifts caused by March’s Iraq war and modernize their forces for post-Sept. 11 challenges.
“One of the things that I’ve said consistently is that we don’t give enough value to what is already here in NATO,” said Marine Gen. James Jones, who is both the top American officer in Europe and the alliance’s top commander on the continent, “and the Standing Naval Forces in the Mediterranean and in the Atlantic are prime examples of a very integrated force that is a world-class force with world-class capabilities to include amphibious force projection. That is an essential component of the NATO Response Force,” he said, referring to the creation of a flexible rapid-reaction force that the alliance agreed to form during a meeting last December in Prague, Czech Republic. The aim of the force is to respond to crisis situations on a moment’s notice. Member countries would rotate in and out of the force an undetermined number of troops and assets.
Standing Naval Forces in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean were formed about 11 years ago to bolster the alliance’s naval force. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States, NATO launched the largest maritime operation in its 54-history: Operation Active Endeavour.
The mission includes patrolling the Mediterranean and the Strait of Gibraltar to deter terrorists from using the water routes and to gather intelligence on suspicious ships traveling in the region.
NATO has lauded the operation as a shining example of how the alliance is contributing to the global war against terrorism.
Since the operation started, illegal immigration has dropped 50 percent and insurance companies have decreased premiums on commercial ships using what is seen as safer sea routes by as much as 20 percent.
Thursday’s demonstration off the coast of southeastern Spain is an annual event, but it offered a snapshot of how land and air forces in NATO would operate in the future.
The alliance is undergoing a massive restructuring as the U.S. military is reshaping its force overseas. Critics question the organization’s relevance, since it was set up to fight the Cold War. But alliance officials point to the naval forces and a soon-to-begin operation in Afghanistan as reasons NATO remains relevant.
Earlier this month, the alliance selected a U.S. admiral to lead the transformation process. It is a huge step for the 54-year-old organization.
“This will be the most restructuring of NATO’s command structure since NATO was created,” said NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson.
The alliance overhaul comes as the United States takes a hard look at the force structure in Europe. The Pentagon is looking at shifting many of its forces in Germany east to new alliance members, such as Poland. Planning is in the embryonic stages, but Jones said any reduction in forces would not affect the U.S. commitment to the alliance.
It is too early to tell what America will have to offer to the alliance’s response force, Jones added. In Standing Naval Forces Atlantic, the United States contributed one ship, the USS Porter, a ship that fired Tomahawk missiles during the Iraq war before joining the alliance’s naval force.
During Thursday’s exercise, it traveled about 35 miles out to sea with the other ships and a submarine. The roughly 75 VIPs aboard the various ships got a close-up view of the armada, the alliance’s only permanently assigned force.
“This is an opportunity to show them what NATO forces can do,” Lt. Cmdr. Harvey Burwin, an Allied Forces Southern Europe spokesman, said aboard the Spanish frigate Victoria.
“And, as you can see, we do a lot really.”