Strategic since antiquity, Souda Bay outpost is key to Navy’s supply chain
By STEVEN BEARDSLEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 21, 2013
SOUDA BAY, Crete — Lounging in the air-conditioned cool of the local Morale, Welfare and Recreation center, a group of British submariners visiting this port basked in a rare luxury on a recent afternoon: free Wi-Fi.
Beefing up the local Internet connection has been a recent priority at Souda Bay, a joint Greek-U.S. base where staffing is minimal, tours unaccompanied and the mission largely unchanged over the decades. The installation is a forward operating site for U.S. and allied operations around the Mediterranean, a remote base that offers a deep-water harbor for resupply and maintenance near Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
Recent military operations have underlined Souda’s significance in the Mediterranean — and shown how larger strategic movements depend on the low-key activities of small, isolated outposts.
“It comes in spurts, depending on what’s happening in the world, pretty much,” Petty Officer 2nd Class Armando Calvillo, a boatswain’s mate, said of activity on the base. “Especially on my side. If something is popping off in the world somewhere, of course we’re going to get a lot of ships coming in to resupply, a lot of amphibious ships.”
Set on 110 acres inside a Hellenic Air Force base in western Crete, Naval Support Activity Souda Bay counts 1,100 personnel, of whom roughly a third each are military, civilian and local nationals, according to its executive officer, Cmdr. Demetries Grimes. A single chaplain serves the installation, as does one Fleet and Family Services employee.
The U.S. presence formally began in 1969 as a detachment before moving to a full land presence in 1980. An airfield within the base and a NATO pier facility at the harbor below, which is run by the Hellenic Navy, currently feed Souda’s daily activity.
The Venetians, Ottomans and Germans have all prized the bay, which is roughly nine miles long, between one and two miles wide and shielded by mountains on both sides. It offers three anchorages, the deepest running between 390 to 490 feet and capable of anchoring an aircraft carrier.
“We’re the only pier in the Mediterranean where we can put a carrier pier-side,” Grimes said. “And the same thing with submarines.”
Such flexibility, combined with its location, has made Souda an international stop in the Mediterranean. European vessels traveling to and from Africa for anti-piracy operations pull in to refuel and resupply. U.S. supply ships stop for security teams to board before they enter pirate-infested waters. Carrier strike groups operating in the area bring destroyers or cruisers to pier, and occasionally a flattop — a carrier — itself will anchor in the harbor.
Souda Bay averages several hundred ship visits a year and more than 75,000 personnel coming through the harbor alone, Grimes said. Aircraft sorties and detachments add another 30,000 to 40,000, he said.
The recent increase in deployment time for U.S. warships — from an average of seven months to nine — is translating to more visits from resupply ships. Ballistic missile defense patrols make regular stops at the harbor, as well. The Navy’s planned forward deployment of four Aegis ballistic missile destroyers in Rota, Spain, should also mean more traffic for the small installation, he said.
“I would expect that as we have more ships that are forward deployed, we’re going to have more frequent visits of vessels coming in,” he said.
Last year’s attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya, brought another change to Souda Bay, when a Marine anti-terrorism detachment was stationed on site as a quick-response measure for the region.
Tours here typically run between a year and 18 months, Grimes said, with many of the sailors fresh out of boot camp. They have the usual on-base amenities, including a Navy Exchange and Mini-Mart, a theater and bar. Round-trip flights to Athens run about 150 euros.
The surrounding area is rich with beaches and heavy with European tourists in the summer. Chania, the largest nearby city, with a population of 53,000, is about 10 miles from the base. While the island offers room to explore, the area around the base can feel small, said Petty Officer 1st Class Robert Kelly, a master-at-arms.
“You run into everybody you see on base off-base because everybody goes to the same general areas,” Kelly said. “So you can’t really escape this area.”
Short tours also mean frequent turnover, which can translate into lost focus and constant retraining, Kelly and Calvillo, the boatswain’s mate, agreed. Yet the base’s intimacy offers some benefits. Marines from the anti-terrorism team, required to remain on the base at all times, have volunteered to train sailors in visit-board-search-and-seizure techniques, an unusual gesture, Kelly said.
Calvillo, whose last assignment was on the amphibious transport dock USS Denver, said he’s gained a better understanding of Navy supply operations and their significance, something he had previously given little thought to. He tells newer sailors to view their work through the spectrum of larger operations in the region.
“Seeing that helps breaks the groove of just, ‘OK, I’m going to work, I’m going back home,’ ” he said. “When I see that, I know what I’m doing.”