This speech was given by Dan Goure at the Lexington Institute’s and the American Hellenic Institute’s Capitol Hill briefing titled “Souda Bay: NATO’s Military Gem” on March 21, 2016.
The Middle East is afire, the war with ISIS is expanding and intensifying, Russia has returned to the region as a military power and the flow of migrants to Europe shows no sign of declining. The Eastern Mediterranean is at the center of a titanic geopolitical and strategic struggle. The outcome of this struggle could not only determine the fate of the region for decades to come but also the stability of other continents. The U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) need a stronger presence in the Mediterranean to monitor activities, and to prevent attacks on members and partners.
The increasing conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean calls for a stronger U.S. and NATO naval presence in the region. The alliance must adapt by developing a new approach to its southern flank, increasing its presence, developing a European Maritime Security Strategy, and building ally and partner relations and regional security architectures. To deter aggression in the region, NATO also needs to boost the military power of its existing members. Greece is one example of a member nation that could increase its involvement, and thereby strengthen NATO’s capabilities.
Greece has a long history with the West. Much of the history of the Western world was written in the eastern Mediterranean, Aegean Sea and by Greece. For 2,500 years Greece has been at the forefront of the western civilization and a front line state in defending Europe from forces to the East. It is no different in the 21st Century.
Today, Greece serves as a key geopolitical point for NATO. The country forms the alliance’s southern tip, and its large eastern border is exposed to volatile conflicts that unfold in North Africa, the Middle East, and the Persian Gulf. According to Admiral James Stavridis, “Greece occupies a geopolitical position as a solid southeastern anchor to the NATO Alliance. The remarkable bases on Crete are particularly critical when looking at the instability in the Levant. NATO should work with Greece, the United States, and other allies to strengthen the bases and increase their utility to NATO and the European Union.”
Greece’s geographic position makes it particularly valuable as an ally to the United States and the NATO Alliance. But Greece is more than just its location. Greece has always been a stalwart ally. Greece is a trusted friend, one that keeps its commitments. It is one of only five alliance members that meet the NATO goal of spending two percent of gross domestic product on defense, consistently surpassing the minimum as far back as 1988. Given Greece’s recent economic difficulties, this is remarkable. It also implies that there is nothing that prevents the other NATO countries from meeting the two percent threshold other than a lack of will.
The Hellenic Republic regularly participates in military exercises with allies and partners, and hosts U.S. forces and multiple NATO facilities. Greece’s contributions allow for alliance cohesion, and the security of the Mediterranean and Europe by helping with reconnaissance missions, logistics, maintenance, and air refueling support.
Crete is NATO’s permanent aircraft carrier in the Eastern Mediterranean. Its location is of paramount significance. There are only a handful of truly strategic bases available to NATO. The U.S. Naval Support Activity Souda Bay is a strategic logistics and maintenance point that supports both allied and U.S. ships and aircraft conducting operations in the Mediterranean Sea. American forces rely on the strategic location and support capabilities of Souda Bay to sustain U.S. forward presence and respond to crises in the Eastern Mediterranean. Souda Bay is one of the few locations capable of hosting a permanently based aircraft carrier in the Eastern Mediterranean along with destroyers and amphibious ships that would allow for quicker and cost effective responses in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Persian Gulf.
In addition, NATO Maritime Interdiction Operations Training Center at Souda Bay serves as a “One Stop Shop” in the area by educating maritime law enforcement. The NATO Missile Firing Installation is located nearby, serving as the only place in Europe where missiles can be test fired, and is capable of hosting Marine battalions when forces are needed in the region. The value of such ranges cannot be over stressed. In the United States, the complex of ranges and related facilities that are part of the Southwest Defense Complex constitute unique and absolutely vita defense assets for the entire Free World. NATO allies do much of their training of air units on these ranges because no comparable resources exist on the Continent.
The NATO Fleet Operational Readiness Accuracy Check Site ensures vessels are working properly so alliance members can share accurate information. Athens, Washington, and NATO should identify more synergies to work together and protect peace and commerce in the Mediterranean Sea.
Forward stationing of U.S. naval forces is a recognized way of multiplying the presence and effectiveness of a shrinking fleet. U.S. Navy has homeported ships in Japan, Singapore and Spain. Washington should consider permanently basing U.S. naval forces at Souda Bay to more rapidly respond to crises, reinforce allies’ perception of American might, and provide more stability in the region. Basing more ships and crews abroad will boost overseas operations with a smaller budget, even after more money is spent on maintenance, personnel and operating additional ships to rotate crews.
America and NATO ought to consider expanded deployments of forces to Souda Bay. NATO also should take greater advantage of what Souda Bay offers in the way of training facilities such as the NATO Missile Firing Installation and the NATO Maritime Interdiction Operational Training Center, and other facilities on the island. NAMFI is capable of hosting Marine battalions which is very useful for accommodating personnel in the region.
NATO should consider operating E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft, Global Hawk and other unmanned surveillance systems at Souda Bay. Such a decision would boost NATO’s real-time intelligence in theater. In addition, deploying a Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force to Souda Bay combat search and rescue capability on Crete could provide for quicker responses across Europe, Africa and the Levant. The Marine Corps has developed a unit long range maneuver and deployment capability consisting of the MV-22 Osprey aircraft working with KC-130 tankers. Together, these aircraft provide the Marine Corps with a rapid and extremely long range crisis response capability.
Other improvements to increase collaboration include ensuring NSA Souda Bay is provided with modern technology so that personnel and sensitive information are secure. The U.S. should send an official user national request to NAMFI – America withdrew from the facility in 1992. This will create a more stabilized relationship, and U.S. officials could be based onsite after America becomes an official member. Better utilizing Souda Bay should come naturally as it is located very close to key danger areas.
There is a direct security linkage running from Souda Bay’s unique position and capacities to the steadfast commitment of successive Greek governments to support U.S. and NATO operations in the region, to the role of the alliance itself as the first line of defense for the Free World all the way to Washington and core U.S. national security interests. In many ways Souda Bay is as important to U.S. national security as it is to the Greek Nation.
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