Monday, September 17, 2012

IMCMEX12

U.S. 5TH FLEET AREA OF RESPONSIBILITY (Aug. 29, 2012)The mine countermeasures ships USS Pioneer (MCM 9), left, USS Devastator (MCM 6), USS Sentry (MCM 3) and USS Dexrous (MCM 13) approach for an astern replenishment at sea with Afloat Forward Staging Base (Interim) USS Ponce (AFSB(I) 15). Ponce, formerly designated as an amphibious transport dock ship, was converted and reclassified in April to fulfill a long-standing U.S. Central Command request for an AFSB to be located in its area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Toni Burton/Released)
I think this is a big deal.
Navies from six continents and more than 30 nations kick off the most widely attended international exercise ever held in the region, Sept. 16.

International Mine Countermeasures Exercise (IMCMEX) 12 is the first of what is intended to be a recurring partnership event.

"This exercise is about mines and the international effort to clear them," said Vice Admiral John W. Miller, commander, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command. "Represented here are the best of our individual countries' efforts dedicated to securing the global maritime commons and I look forward to  seeing how this exceptional team of professionals moves forward."

The wholly defensive exercise consists of two distinct phases, the first is a symposium where senior leaders from participating countries will exchange ideas and view the latest mine hunting, sweeping and neutralization technologies provided by a panel of industry representatives and presenters.

In the second phase, ships, crews and observers get underway to train together to prepare for tactical execution. Ships will conduct at-sea maneuvers in three separate geographic areas, which will include mine  hunting operations; helicopter mine countermeasure operations; international explosive ordnance disposal mine hunting and diving operations and small  boat operations focused toward underwater improvised explosive devices.

"Everyone here at IMCMEX 12 understands that countering the threat posed by mines is a critical mission to ensure security in the maritime domain," said  Rear Adm. Kenneth Perry, commander, Task Force 522 and exercise director. "The work we will do here will strengthen relationships and enhance mine countermeasures interoperability among participating navies."

The exercise will finish with leaders, liaison officers and observers gathering to discuss lessons learned during the three phases to further foster interoperability among participants.
I think we all recognize this is one of the constructive way the region is responding to Iranian threats, so there is no need to discuss the geopolitical angles here. Several other thoughts come to mind.

First, 2012 has been a busy year for the US Navy, but in my opinion the most impressive thing the US Navy has done is rapidly forward deploy 5 ships for mine warfare to the CENTCOM area of responsibility on a simi-permenant basis. Starting with the four MCMs from San Diego, for the Navy to basically pick up and completely relocate the infrastructure for 4 Mine Countermeasures ships, including the ships and crews, and move them from San Diego to Bahrain - and insure the vessels are mission functional all within about a 6-8 month time period is truly remarkable. When one starts to think through all the various people with responsibility and touch to this activity it truly is incredible what the Navy has done. It was almost certainly a huge mess, but nothing hard work couldn't accomplish - and did accomplish. Throw in the refit and forward deployment of the USS Ponce (AFSB(I) 15) and in my opinion this activity has been to date in 2012 the single most impressive activity by the US Navy.

Second, the participation of over 30 nations for a mine warfare exercise in that part of the world is a big deal. I spoke with Rear Admiral Kenneth Perry on Friday afternoon and he mentioned this is the largest mine warfare exercise in that regions history in terms of scope and size. Getting the international community together for this kind of exercise - specifically in that part of the world - is incredibly important because it sets up exactly the kind of real work cooperation and experience necessary in practice should the activity ever be necessary in a real world emergency. Exercises like this help sailors from various parts of the world come together and understand not only what each others capabilities are, but how they can work together more productively. It is important, because mine warfare is time consuming art towards detection and neutralization as much as it is a science of the same activity, and through cooperation naval forces can reduce the time necessary in conducting the hard, ugly business of removing mines.

Third, everyone knows that mines have done more damage to US Naval forces than any other weapon system since WWII, but that still didn't stop the Navy from spending less money and providing sufficient resources for mine warfare for the last several decades. If you have ever heard an insult of US Navy mine warfare (MIW) capabilities relative to other nations - particularly NATO nations, it was almost certainly a well earned insult. Things are changing though. Over the last few years investment in US Navy MIW is up, considerably, and as a warfare area it is no longer seen as something the US Navy could ignore as critical to the way we fight. The reuse of USS Ponce for purposes of an Afloat Staging Base and modernization of the MCMs to use the Expendable Mine Neutralization System (EMNS) and SeaFox UUV are only a few examples of technology capabilities being upgraded, but just as important (I think) over the long haul are the software and data systems on the back end that will help sailors get better at their warfare specialty by being able to accumulate and use mine warfare data - both ours and the data of our partners - in ways not previously available. Whether it is art or science, having better, more accessible data improves the quality of work being done and can have huge payoffs over time - and I believe that is the impact we will see. ICMCEX 2012 is testing new software and data management systems, and while it is a very small part of the exercise, it is a part I believe matters a lot.

Fourth, I asked Rear Admiral Perry about CONOPs for the USS Ponce and he felt they were all in place, that the Navy is ready to go with a Mine Warfare Command Ship. USS Ponce is not a tender, but the ship does have a logistical support capability for the MCMs in addition to the aviation, manned and unmanned deployable, and C2 capabilities one would expect from a mine warfare command ship converted from an LPD. Mine Warfare is more than just sensor and neutralization technologies - indeed it can quickly become manpower intensive work requiring small boats, divers, and all kinds of other specialists depending upon environment and conditions. The addition of a capability like USS Ponce is a huge upgrade for US Navy mine warfare capabilities, because it doesn't steal from the already over tasked Marine Corps an amphibious ship to conduct US Navy specific operations.

CDR Chris Rawley has more on IMCMEX12 and MIW on his blog Naval Drones - worth checking out.

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