ISIS a maritime threat, navies taking no chances
Largest naval exercises get underway in Middle East
MARINE MAMMAL PROGRAMME: Codi, a California sea lion, shakes hands with his handler after conducting a search operation during the International Mine Countermeasures Exercise in Bahrain.
International navies are working together to keep maritime threats at bay in regional waters as the Middle East and the world grapples with the rise of terror groups like the ISIS in Syria and Iraq. The focus may be on the war against the ISIS in these battle-ravaged countries but it is possible the group could turn their eyes to the high seas, said senior naval officials in the Bahraini capital where the US Navy’s 5th Fleet is based.
A WELCOME BREAK: UAE and US navy personnel take time out after a mock drill. — KT photos by Juidin Bernarrd
“They (ISIS) have aspirations, but we must be prepared,” said Vice Admiral John W. Miller, Commander, US Naval Forces Central Command, 5th Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces, as the US Navy leads the world’s largest naval drill, the International Mine Countermeasures Exercise, with 44 participating nations and 6,500 personnel training over two weeks.
The UAE is an active participant in the exercises and has sent a strong contingent of troops to train with like-minded countries.
Vice Admiral Miller said new actors are emerging on the terror stage and one of them is the ISIS which has global ambitions. “It is important to be prepared to take on the challenges faced by mariners and to keep commercial shipping and marine installations safe,” he said.
Such exercises are loom large as several extremist groups emerge and join forces across the world. Nations are aware of the risks posed by these non-state players to economies and have coordinated efforts to prevent attacks and protect their critical infrastructure. They have a common resolve and friendly navies have reason to cooperate against a common, as yet, unseen foe, officials said.
When asked if Iran could be roped in to protect vital sea lanes and straits like Hormuz, Admiral Miller evaded a direct reply and said there is scope for other nations to take part in the massive exercise which has been broadened to include maritime security operations and protection of infrastructure like ports. Iran had threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz three years ago in retaliation for sanctions slapped against it by the West for its alleged nuclear programme.
Negotiations between Western powers and Iran are at a critical stage now and a breakthrough is expected anytime soon. The regime, which has shored up the Assad government in Syria, is also believed to be playing an important role in containing the ISIS influence. Relations with the West are on the mend, according to some experts.
However, officials confirmed Iran is not taking part in the exercise. Russia, which has been on a confrontation course with Europe and the US over its hegemonic designs in Ukraine, is another power missing from the drills. China and India are also absent.
“Freedom of navigation is critical in keeping the global economy running smoothly,” said Commodore Keith Blount, Combined Maritime Forces deputy commander and IMCMEX lead. Officials said 38 warships are taking part in these exercises which “offers a unique opportunity” for nations to work together to keep sea lanes open for legitimate trade. The exercises cover the Northern Arabian Sea, Red Sea, the Suez Canal, Bab Al Mandab and the Strait of Hormuz where 20 per cent of global oil passes to the Gulf of Oman and beyond. Officials said mine counter measures (MCM) are being conducted in Bahrain, the Central Arabian Gulf, Oman and Aqaba, near Jordan to demonstrate “multinational capability” and “improve interoperability”.
Underwater drones like Seafox will be tested in the waters and navies can learn from the experience, naval officials said.
During the exercises, the afloat staging base concept will be tested. The US Navy’s Afloat Forward Staging Base USS Ponce and the British Navy’s ambhibious assault vessel Cardigan Bay will provide support during the training.
A statement from the US Navy said operations will include divers, small boat exercises, unmanned underwater operations and port clearance.
Hunting for mines
Khaleej Times later boarded the Mine Counter Measures, Hunt Class vessel, the HMS Atherstone during the exercise and witnessed its ability to scan, detect and destroy mines at the bottom of the sea. The ship carries a Seafox underwater drone and has advanced sonars.
The US Navy has also brought its Marine Mammal Programme for the exercise, which uses sea lions and dolphins to alert mariners and shipping authorities of mines and suspicious activity near ports, piers and ships.
These animals are the natural safeguards against enemy activity near critical marine infrastructure and can be deployed within 24 hours, according to officials.
The MK6 Marine Mammal Programme which Khaleej Times saw in action, uses these friendly animals to detect and interdict swimmers and divers.
An advanced version of this animal bomb detection system adds sonar and radar to direct the beasts near contacts across large operational areas, and the animals can independently search in places where sensors are limited by the topography.
These sea lions are also trained to mark the location of the mines or satchel charges attached to ship hulls.
Officials said these mammals have been deployed to 11 countries so far and they are an asset to the navy.
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