This year’s International Mine Countermeasures Exercise (IMCMEX) was more than just the clearing and disposing of inert mines, it also featured Maritime Security Operations (MSO).
MSO are critical to the free flow of trade and keeping the sea lanes open and free of dangers. To be proficient at MSO, as in all aspect of life, practice makes perfect. The MSO portion of IMCMEX includes drills to protect commercial merchant ships transiting dangerous corridors. International navies work with commercial shipping representatives to coordinate naval escorts through high-risk shipping lanes. Escort ships (including coastal patrol ships), embarked security personnel, and visit, board, search and seizure teams form the core of these operations.
The protection of commercial shipping and safe transit operations are a critical shared interest that transcends typical geopolitics, which is reflected by the participation of more than 30 merchant vessels from more than ten major civilian shipping companies in this year’s MSO maneuvers.
Shipping industry representative, Alex Walker, shared how important a practiced, well-oiled working relationship between militaries and the shipping industry is to worldwide commerce.
“The shipping industry is pleased to participate with the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and coalition forces for this important exercise. It is vital to all our industry members that we participate in these maneuvers that allow us to practice with participating navies in order to help ensure the safety of our mariners and to keep sea lanes open.”
This year’s IMCMEX has included a broader and deeper level of participation from the merchant shipping industry, including individual shippers as well as larger shipping companies. Walker believes that this is due to the fact that both military and civilian mariners recognize the importance of mutual cooperation and training opportunities to enhance security of sea lanes.
“Working in tandem with our military partners provides the industry a rather unique opportunity to gain knowledge and learn from the participating navies’ expertise. Many new shipping representatives have chosen to take part in this year’s exercise because they are eager to avail themselves of this technical expertise,” said Walker.
This marks the second time in which representatives from the merchant and civilian shipping industry participated in IMCMEX maneuvers. The first time shipping industry representatives were active members of MSO exercises was during IMCMEX 13, where only a handful of civilian shipping personnel took part. This year, the number increased to 500 civilian mariners, and 50 shore-based staff.
In addition to the 30 ships from ten different companies, seven distinct flag states (including Bahamas, Greece, Hong Kong, Isle of Man/UK, Liberia, Marshall Islands, and United States) were represented in the exercises. These merchant companies and the military navies participating in the maneuvers also had the benefit of four “Company Emergency Support Centers” located in Bahrain, Dubai, Norfolk, and London to lend operational support. Walker also said that he felt these additions added depth and realism to the military exercise for all participants.
“Overall, merchant shipping representatives believe exercises like this year’s IMCMEX offer a low cost, high impact opportunity for truly strengthening relationships between mariners, military and civilian alike,” said Walker. “IMCMEX allows navies to work aboard industry ships, while civilian merchants are allowed to practice [MSO] maneuvers they would not normally have an opportunity to perform.”
The increase in participation from the shipping industry has been a welcome development this year for Cmdr. Clement Wong, officer in charge, Naval Cooperation and Guidance for Shipping (NCAGS) here in Bahrain.
During the exercise, NCAGS acts as the link between the international naval forces and commercial shipping. NCAGS maintains support of the maritime environment by helping to resolve any potential conflicts between Navy operations and merchant shipping.
“NCAGS serves as an important bridge between naval forces and the shipping industry,” said Wong. “Ensuring safety of shipping lanes and freedom of navigation is at the center of what we do. We are so pleased that an increased number of commercial ships have chosen to participate in this year’s exercises, as it reflects the importance the industry has placed on maritime security.”
Eighty Sailors from 40 U.S. Navy Reserve units are in Bahrain to support this year’s IMCMEX, many of whom belong to one of six NCAGS units.
MSO, when performed in conjunction with Maritime Infrastructure Protection (MIP) and Mine Countermeasures (MCM) operations, comprises the concept of “port-to-port” protection of shipping and commerce from its origin point to its destination. Separately, each of these mission areas are potentially susceptible to failure as their required area of expertise is high, but limited in capacity and scope. However, when joined together these components form a formidable defensive capability, devised of a variety of international forces and capable of protecting shipping from violent extremist threats.
With a quarter of the world’s navies participating including 6,500 Sailors from every region, IMCMEX is the largest international naval exercise promoting maritime security and the free-flow of trade through mine countermeasure operations, maritime security operations, and maritime infrastructure protection in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility and throughout the world.