Countering Maritime Threats

Twenty-three countries attend the International Maritime Exercise in Bahrain


Plumes of smoke traced the horizon near the Bab el-Mandeb, the strait at the mouth of the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen. The distress call over the radio confirmed that an unidentified tanker was dead in the water, its engines immobilized by an explosion. Intelligence reports suggested that the tanker had been targeted by an unmanned, remote-controlled skiff moments before the explosion.

A multinational naval team assigned to deal with the catastrophe — Pakistanis, Iraqis, Canadians, Americans and Thais — had a lot of work to do. Gas leaking from the tanker’s hull set the sea on fire, and a Canadian frigate 20 nautical miles away in the Red Sea was dispatched to investigate.

Naval officers scrambled to determine which, if any, rebel groups were claiming responsibility for the attack, monitoring social media for clues. Tanker owners were urged to arrange salvage crews and tugs to return the ship to port. A public affairs team fielded calls from the media.

Multinational naval officers, including those from Pakistan, Iraq and Egypt, participate in a briefing during IMX. UNIPATH staff

“Coalitions are the main way to deal with emerging threats,” said Pakistan Naval Commander Asif Khan, who collected details on the evolving maritime and environmental disaster in the Bab el-Mandeb from his laptop computer. “Who knows what is next with criminal groups and terrorist groups?”

This was one of the realistic scenarios concocted for the International Maritime Exercise (IMX) 2017, held in Manama, Bahrain, in May 2017. A successor to the International Mine Countermeasures Exercise, IMX will be held every two years with a focus on protecting shipping in and around the Arabian Gulf and Red Sea.

This year’s inaugural exercise included about 90 participants from 23 countries who handled scenarios that called on their analytical, planning, intelligence-gathering and operational skills (The next iteration of the exercise in 2019 will add actual ships, helicopters and other naval forces).

Officers came from Bahrain, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Egypt, Italy, Iraq, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Pakistan, the Philippines, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Turkey, Singapore, the United Kingdom and the United States. Several members from the Oil Companies International Marine Forum (OCIMF), a voluntary association of oil companies with an interest in the shipment of crude oil and oil products, also participated in the exercise. This civilian organization’s inclusion in the exercise was critical in coordinating maritime issues with merchant vessels and the coalition military maritime force.

Additionally, a U.S. Navy organization, Naval Cooperation and Guidance to Shipping (NCAGS), participated in the exercise. NCAGS was established to provide advice for safe passage of merchant ships worldwide.

Participants also had a chance to tour the USS Ponce, a ship used at the time as a floating base for minesweeping boats and helicopters in the Gulf.

Navy Staff Lt. Col. Muamin Said, the senior naval officer from Egypt engaged in IMX, praised the realism of the scenarios, which dealt with threats such as piracy, terrorism and smuggling.

“The wide number of participants from coalition forces gave us a great opportunity to learn new approaches to solving problems and deterring threats. It is very beneficial to work in a large team to protect world trade and international waters,” Lt. Col. Muamin said. “The area of operations is massive and needs a team effort to stabilize it effectively.”

The USS Ponce, seen here in 2015, played an important role in the International Maritime Exercise in Bahrain in 2017.
Petty Officer 1st Class JOSHUA BRYCE BRUNS/U.S. NAVY

The planners for the exercise, using simulations injected from faraway Suffolk, Virginia, in the United States, worked to ensure the training audience acclimated itself to a coalition environment.

Maps projected on screens in the tents showed more than 200 blips moving across the waters in places such as the Straits of Hormuz, green representing merchant vessels and blue representing friendly military vessels. In the real world, those blips would number in the thousands.

Over nearly 10 days, an accumulation of crises tested the skills of naval officers. Reports emerged that the hostile nation of “Stoneland” appeared to be loading crates of mines on ships near the Straits of Hormuz. As if that were not enough, the next day two missiles were “launched” from rebel positions in a country on the Red Sea.

“The exercise addresses some possible threats in the real world that may impact this very sensitive area of the world economy and find the best solutions to them,” said Maj Ghanim Abdullah Al-Kaabi of the Qatari Naval Force. “We have been participating in many exercises with the U.S. Navy at sea; however, this is the first exercise on land.”

Cooperation between naval forces and merchant shipping is key to securing the waters around the Middle East. That point was drilled home at a senior leader seminar held before the start of IMX that attracted senior naval commanders from around the world. Much of the research and analysis about maritime trends in the region — particularly the flow of critical oil tankers through chokepoints — is the work of private companies that share their data with navies patrolling the area.

“Large exercises like this bring many opportunities to learn tactics, use of weapon systems and different approaches to single problems. It is very important to have strong multinational partners to work as a team to protect the vital resources of the region,” said Capt. Mohamad Hamad Ibraheem of the Royal Navy of Bahrain.

“Bahrain’s role in this exercise is hosting all participants as well as offering skilled teams. As a Bahraini soldier, I am very proud to see all nations coming to my country to be part of this significant event and will seize the opportunity to work closely and learn from them.”

Maj. Faris Musad Khalaf of the Kuwait Coast Guard said IMX aids his mission to police territorial waters for smugglers and infiltrators and conduct search and rescue missions.

“Our participation in this exercise will improve our tactical capability to protect our national waters and enhance our cooperation with friendly forces,” Maj. Khalaf said. “In addition, we form great relations with militaries in the region.”

Planners hope to expand IMX in its next iteration in October 2019. In addition to the staff officers working from tents, multinational flotillas will take to the seas securing shipping lanes and policing criminals.

“What we are doing this year is a platform for IMX 19,” said Royal Canadian Navy Lt. Cmdr. Ralph Underhill, lead exercise planner for IMX. “It will be a much bigger affair.”