MANAMA // An expeditionary strike force permanently based in the Gulf and capable of rapidly deploying into conflict zones and providing assistance in humanitarian crises across the region, has begun operating as part of the US navy's Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain. The amphibious force, with its own command structure of 45 personnel, will be capable of operating across the Middle East, Indian subcontinent and parts of Africa.
Navy commanders said that the group, known as Expeditionary Strike Group 5, would give the Fifth Fleet, which oversees all US and coalition naval efforts in the region, added strategic flexibility. This, the commanders said, translates into deploying more "boots on the ground" and will be quicker when responding to developing crises in the region. "This permanently assigned ESG ... will provide increased continuity and help foster stronger partnerships throughout the US Fifth Fleet area of responsibility as well as with the Kingdom of Bahrain," said the US navy Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, commander of the navy's central command.
The change of command ceremony took place on board the destroyer USS Benfold at Mina Salman Port in Bahrain on Sunday. Vice Admiral Gortney said that the new command was a force for more stability in the region and did not represent a threat. The commander also said the US military today was in an era where its forces have become more "expeditionary", meaning faster reacting and more flexible. The new strike group will command two task forces, one of which plans and conducts humanitarian assistance and disaster response missions.
The concept of an expeditionary strike group was introduced by the US military in the early 1990s, under which US naval fleets would be able to provide fast reacting, self-sustaining forces to trouble spots, mainly from the Marines and the US navy ranks. The role in the Fifth Fleet was previously carried out by expeditionary groups based in the United States. The new command group marks the first time a self-sustaining US naval force combining sea, air and ground components has been set up in the region.
Rear Admiral Sinclair Harris, who assumed control of ESG 5 during Sunday's ceremony, said: "Fifth Fleet is as challenging an area of operations as any for the US navy, and this goes double for expeditionary forces. "Our motto - flexible, fast, forward - lists the most critical qualities that are necessary for success in meeting the tempo that comes with contingency operations." While he would not disclose what challenges he expected to face during his command, Rear Admiral Harris did emphasise the importance of having an expeditionary force setup in the region.
ESG 5 will serve as the command element of a rapid reaction force consisting of three amphibious assault ships with approximately 3,500 sailors and Marines. The new expeditionary group took over command from ESG 2, which is based in Virginia and commanded by Rear Admiral Michelle Howard. "Maritime expeditionary units embarked on amphibious ships provide theatre commanders with quick reaction force enabling us to project naval power as a means of deterrence or response," she said during the change of command.
Last April Rear Admiral Howard assumed command of task forces, including one created to counter piracy. She became the first African-American woman to command a US ship, as well as the first woman to lead a combined task force in the Fifth Fleet's area of responsibility. She was the on-scene commander during the Maresk-Alabama hijacking crisis off the Somali coast, which ended with the successful rescue of Capt Richard Phillips from Somali pirates.
"One of the great things about serving in this theatre is that you have a great scope of different activities and, I think for all the sailors and marines, the rescue of Capt Richard Phillips would be number one," she said. The Fifth Fleet is responsible for naval forces in the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, Arabian Sea, and coast of East Africa as far south as Kenya. The fleet in Bahrain is comprised of more than 40 ships, with about 3,000 people ashore and 15,000 afloat.