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Aboard NATO Ships in the Caribbean

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The SNMG-1 commander’s duty: A challenging job

Standing NATO Maritime Group One (SNMG-1) is one out of four of NATO’s maritime groups. It is a multifunctional seagoing force, on task continuously giving NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) the ability to respond quickly and with flexibility to promote her interests anywhere in the world. The group, previously known as Standing Naval Force Atlantic (STANAVFORLANT) was officially renamed SNMG-1 in January 2006. In late March and April the Group, under the command of Rear admiral Michael K. Mahon engaged in presence operations around the Caribbean Sea. 

This is the first time NATO has ever deployed to the Caribbean for presence operations, which are designed to build maritime situational awareness and demonstrate NATO’s capability to deploy and sustain forces at strategic distances.

In an exclusive interview at sea between Curacao and Martinique, Rear admiral Mahon explains the importance and the challenge of his daily routine on the flag ship USS Mahan (DDG 72).

“From early morning to late at night my focus of effort is on training my staff and the ships that currently sail in the Group to be prepared to perform the missions that could be assigned to them by NATO. That sounds pretty broad and general, and it’s intended to be that way because throughout the entire day, that’s what is in the back of my mind,” states “The Admiral”, as he generally is called among his staff of international navy officers and the 320 crew of the flag ship USS Mahan, an Arleigh-Burke class destroyer.

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“I’m always asking myself how to push these ships and my staff in a certain direction to make them better in what they do together. To reach this goal I look for ways to integrate them better so they can learn from each other. When NATO decides to deploy SNMG-1, my staff and I are ready to accomplish the mission. The ships that we’re having right now (USS Mahan, FGS Sachsen, and RFA Wave Ruler) probably won’t be with us when we get assigned to a mission.  Actually it might be a totally different group—that’s why I need to focus on the readiness of my staff. That’s the most important thing.

Early morning

“So every day I train my staff and try to get the most out of them,” admiral Mahon resumes, after an important telephone call. "In more specific terms I start the day early in the morning with a staff meeting about the events that occurred the night before and in the early morning during the watch. Usually I have a fairly good idea of what is going on because my battle watch officer keeps me informed. If necessary he even briefs me during the night. Then I’ll make either a decision or acknowledge him—he’s done the right thing. After the staff meeting we usually go through a major training evolution, which goes back to my original point, because it improves the readiness of the staff and ships. I try to do this early in the morning so that they are fresh and anxious to do it.

Humanitarian missions

“At the moment our time is filled with training exercises that force all to work together and deal with tactical problems. It could be anti-submarine, it could be anti-air or anti-surface warfare exercises. It also could be an exercise for humanitarian missions, but at this time the ships are more focused on warfare, because I have to prepare them for an evaluation exercise called Noble Mariner, this month in Northern Europe. Within the context of that exercise we have to be able to do some humanitarian missions, but because of the type of the participating ships and the composition of my staff our primary mission in those tasks would be to provide protection for the ships, whose task it is to actually deliver these capabilities.

“For example, we might be tasked to do an assistance mission with ships, that would have to be going to provide doctors and nurses as a non government support in a disaster. My ships would be responsible for providing security so the crew could safely go ashore to help. We also could find ourselves in the situation where we are the only Navy ships around. In that case we could in fact be responsible providing humanitarian assistance along the lines of medical and water and food support, whatever we could deliver. Certainly not on the scale of a big amphibious ship or an aircraft carrier, but just think about what a very small town of 300 people would need, and we could provide those kinds of capabilities.

“We also train for non-combat evacuations. A very good example how SNMG-1 ships could support, is the evacuation from Lebanon in the Summer War between Israel and the Hezbollah. Ships like USS Mahan and FGS Sachsen went to Beirut and embarked as many of their national citizens as they could and evacuated them to Cypress. The British type 42 destroyer HMS York went alongside, loaded up as many civilians as they possibly could carry, took them to Cypress, went back and got some more. That’s the kind of action these ships can do in an emergency situation.

“At the moment the British supply ship Wave Ruler, currently in our group, is prepared to evacuate people in case the volcano La Soufriere on the island of Montserrat would explode.

Warfare exercises

“In our present situation the integration of ships and staff is the first mission, which obviously is most demanding in warfare tasks. If we get the integration well in these stressful circumstances we certainly can do it in a less tense situation like humanitarian missions we might be assigned to do. Building cohesions, coordination in communications and effective communication up and down in the chain of command is one of the hardest things I’ll have to do. I’m also teaching officers in what we call situational awareness to have a good understanding of what is going on around them, so they can make the right decisions. Some are very good at that, some are not so good. As the commander of the group I have to find that out!  And then it’s my job to try to make them all as good as each other. That’s my biggest challenge!

“The current exercises give me the opportunity to observe each individual’s capabilities and focus on personal training opportunities to these people. I try to figure out how each individual brain works best. Some obviously learn primarily by seeing and reading things, others first and foremost by listening.

A good mix

“Situational awareness is really tough. As commander you learn about your people, about their capabilities and limitations. Then you try to match them up in watch sections, so that you have a good mix and that they are able to get along, confirm each other’s capabilities. That applies in CIC (Combat Information Center), on the bridge and all around the ships.”

Next month Standing NATO Maritime Group One will be certified as the maritime component of the NATO Response Force Nine (NRF-9) as a very high readiness naval force.

The Admiral concludes:  “When there is a crisis in the world where NATO chooses to send naval forces to, we’ll be the one that would get assigned after July 1. The group staff changes every year, the ships every six months so there is a constant change that forces and allows us to be fresh and ready to do any mission that needs to be done.”

Els Kroon is a Dutch former teacher who now lives and works as an award-winning free-lance photojournalist on Curacao.

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