U.S., Allies Stage Naval Exercise in Gulf Energy Shipping Hub

By MarEx 2013-05-07 09:17:00

Photo: The Afloat Forward Staging Base (Interim) USS Ponce (AFSB(I)15) transits the Arabian Gulf. Formerly designated as an amphibious transport dock ship (LPD), Ponce was recently converted and reclassified to fulfill a longstanding U.S. Central Command request for an Afloat Forward Staging Base to be forward deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility.

The United States and its allies are preparing for naval exercises in the Gulf energy export hub that will include minesweeping and escorting commercial ships in a region where Iran is seen as a threat both to trade and security.

Forty-one countries are taking part in the two-week International Mine Countermeasures Exercise (IMCMEX-13) to practice minesweeping and protecting ports and energy installations in the Gulf.

Vice Admiral John Miller, Commander of the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, said on Monday the annual exercise was an "opportunity to enhance international naval capability to preserve freedom of navigation in international waterways.

"If 41 nations are willing to come here and practice MCM, just imagine how effective the global mine response would be if someone actually put mines in the water."

Iran repeatedly threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, east of Bahrain, in early 2012 during heightened tensions with the West over Tehran's disputed nuclear program.

Iranian threats to block Hormuz have since subsided, but the nuclear impasse remains.

There is also growing unease in the Middle East over Gulf Arab support for rebel uprisings against Tehran's ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Dropping mines is one way to disrupt shipping through the narrow route through which most of the Gulf's oil and gas is exported and many of the goods it consumes are imported.

The phase of the exercise staged on water, which begins next week, will involve 35 ships, 18 unmanned underwater vehicles and dozens of underwater explosives disposal divers.

In addition to minesweeping and flying drones, this year's event will include oil spill crisis management and protecting offshore terminals that oil and gas exporters rely on.

Last year's exercise included Britain and France, several Middle Eastern states and countries from as far afield as Estonia and New Zealand. The countries taking part this year have not been named.

--Reporting by Daniel Fineren; editing by Mike Collett-White (C) Reuters 2013.