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As part of the largest deployment of US soldiers to Europe in 25 years, Exercise Defender-Europe 20, the U.S. Navy exercises a cross-Atlantic convoy operation. Carrier Strike Group (CSG) USS DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER, using the transit from Norfolk to the Mediterranean, “cleared” together with a submarine and P-8A Poseidon the deployment area. Possibly, the (not specified) submarine mentioned in the reports played the opposing force’s role. Photos of the U.S. Navy show the the TICONDEROGA class cruiser USS VELLA GULF (CG-72) escorting the roll-on/roll-off ship of the BOB HOPE class USNS BENAVIDEZ (T-AKR 306) operated by Military Sealift Command and the vehicle carrier MV RESOLVE. The port of destination of the transporters is Vlissingen (Netherlands).

Defender-Europe 20 is intended to test the ability of the U.S. forces and their allies to deploy forces and equipment from the United States and transfer them to their theatre of operations within Europe. During the exercise, which is led by the U.S. Army Europe and involves 16 Allies, 20,000 soldiers, 13,000 vehicles and other equipment or 1.3 million square feet (approx. 117,000 square meters) of army equipment are to be transported to Europe from (five) ports on the U.S. West Coast or the Gulf of Mexico – and back again.

The convoy operation is intended to validate the (complicated) command and control (C2) arrangements that extend across the Atlantic. After all, the U.S. Department of Defense estimates that 90% of the required supplies are transported by sea. Responsibilities overlap. In Europe, Naval Forces Europe (headquarted in Naples, Italy) is responsible for the maritime part of the operations, i.e. Defender-Europe 20. The 6th U.S. fleet, which is responsible for the eastern Atlantic (and the Mediterranean), is to be integrated into the command structures. The safety of the sea routes in the Atlantic is shared by the 6th and 2nd Fleets. The latter is not a “fleet in being”. Naval units, amphibious forces and aircraft, are placed under its command according to their location and mission. Depending on the situation or on order, Commander 2nd Fleet (C2F) conducts exercises and operations within the area of responsibility of the US European Command, so to speak as an expeditionary fleet, thus providing NAVEUR with a strategic reserve or an additional manoeuvre arm to support that forces can be dynamically deployed.

Transatlantic Command and Control structures

“The coordination between NAVEUR, 2nd Fleet, and 6th Fleet are indicative of a seamless Atlantic Ocean,” affirmed Admiral James G. Foggo III, Commander of the United States Naval Forces Europe (NAVEUR)/Naval Forces Africa and Commander of the Allied Joint Force Command Naples. “This exercise allows us to sharpen our ability to move critical resources across the Atlantic, from the United States to Europe.”

The coordination requirements are even more challenging as the Military Sealift Command (MSC) must be involved. It operates over 130 ships and is responsible for the supply (of the world-wide operating U.S. fleets) and transport tasks.

Beyond these concerns at the operational and strategic level, there are of course also tactical requirements in the training of the command teams of merchant and warships in this form of cooperation.

Captain Hans E. Lynch, Commander Military Sealift Command Atlantic (TF 83): “In a real-world conflict, much of the military equipment must still go by sealift, which makes convoy operations a critical skill set to maintain and practice”. And continued elsewhere: “In the last five years, there has been an increased emphasis on including Merchant Marine shipping in large-scale exercises to enhance tactical proficiency. Exercises that incorporate convoy operations are an extension of that ongoing tactical training.” Concerning Defender-Europe 20, his focus is to identify weaknesses in order to work on improving convoy command and control capabilities. The benefits are already obvious: participating in the U.S. Navy’s planning process enhances mutual understanding and promotes cooperation. Ultimately, deficits could be identified and eliminated together. In addition, the Commodore emphasized the value of the individual training of his bridge crews, who would face higher demands than usual.

Although there are worlds between the dimensions of the convoy operations in World War II and today’s exercise in connection with Defender-Europe 20, the U.S. Navy, far from some political developments in Washington, seems to be aware of the supply task and to take it on. The last convoy exercise is said to have taken place in 1986. Note: The measures in the Persian Gulf to protect shipping traffic there are not convoy operations.

The availability of vessels for Maritime Sealift Command was the subject of an audit in 2019. In his report presented on January 22, 2020, the Inspector General of the US Department of Defence criticised the operational readiness of the 15 ships owned by the MSC and the different criteria for assessing the operational readiness of the ships operated by the Maritime Administration (MARAD) for support and transport operations (35 ships owned by the Department of Transportation).

Hans Uwe Mergener