When NATO warships deploy to the eastern Mediterranean, Black Sea or go east of Suez, they frequently visit Souda Bay, a harbour on the northwest coast of Crete. Here we look at this facility and its importance to Royal Navy operations.
The Island of Crete was the scene of bloody conflict during World War II. British, Australian and New Zealand defenders were landed to protect the island, but despite the slaughter of hundreds of invading German paratroopers, the allies were defeated and the Royal Navy was called upon to cover a chaotic evacuation. The RN did not let the army down, around 15,000 troops were saved but at a cost of 2,000 sailors killed. Three cruisers and six destroyers were lost and 13 major warships seriously damaged in the Battle for Crete. The RN had no aircraft carriers available to protect the operation and this episode was a classic demonstration of how a fleet cannot survive without its own air cover.
In the 1950s the US Navy established a presence at Souda Bay primarily to support operations against the Soviets in the Mediterranean. In 1969 a permanent US base was established, known as Naval Support Activity (NSA) Souda Bay since 1980. Home to around 750 military and civilian personnel, the base employs around 400 Greek workers and contributes around €34M per year to the economy of the island. There is an airfield (that also functions as a civilian airport), a small Hellenic Naval base and the port village of Souda but the main NATO naval facility is a harbour on the north side of the bay. The harbour has deepwater berths for major warships and is an important logistic hub for vessels to ensure warships are fully stored and fuelled on their way into and out of theatre.
The last decade has seen a resurgence in the strategic importance of the Levant and Eastern Mediterranean. This is mainly due to Russian activity in Syria and its increasing naval presence using its Syrian naval base of Tartus. The invasion of Crimea and interference in Ukraine has added to the tension in the Black Sea, with increasing numbers of NATO vessels making visits to provide a measure of reassurance to Russia’s neighbours. A UK ‘partial ‘pivot towards the Indo-Pacific will also add to the number of vessels passing through on their way to the Suez canal, in addition to the substantial US Navy traffic to and from the Gulf region. This changing political landscape has seen Souda Bay assume importance to NATO, not seen since the height of the Cold War.
Besides logistic support, NSA Souda Bay has another important role to play ensuring warships are at peak performance. The Island is home to NATO Fleet Operational Readiness Accuracy Check Site (FORACS) Greece (NFG). This is an instrumented range used for the calibration of sensors, weapons, communications and navigation systems. NATO has two other FORACS sites – AUTEC (NFA) Andros, Island in the Bahamas and Norway (NFN) near Stavanger.
FORACS capabilities are extensive and can be used to calibrate sonars, radars, electronic warfare equipment, electro-optical sensors and periscopes. Inertial Navigation, gyroscopes, GPS, electromagnetic and doppler logs can be tested along with radio communications equipment tactical data links and their antennas.
A ship or submarine preparing to make use of the range is made ready during an alongside phase where the crew is briefed and the ship is calibrated ready for testing, establishing the precise centreline and measuring any error in the gyrocompass. Instruments are fitted for communications with the facility ashore, along with sensors and data recorders.
The vessel then proceeds to sea for the on-range phase, typically the tests will last for two days for submarines and ships of frigate size and above. The FORACS staff comprises at least 5 engineers and technicians and the ship must provide a liaison officer, a representative bridge team and the operators for the sensors under test. The range ashore will track the ship’s position and attitude, and the ship’s sensor operators track dummy targets. Thousands of bearing and range measurements are recorded for post-processing and reporting. FORCAS will send a signal to the ship and its home command within 24 hours of completion outlining preliminary results, with a detailed report following within 10 working days.
Collectively this serial is known as the Operational Capability Confidence Check (OC3). It’s a pre-requisite for most RN units deploying East of Suez to undertake these tests to give confidence that combat systems are working within the required parameters prior to conducting operations. There are significant benefits to making use of the FORACS facility. The ship and commands have a measure of sensor and operator performance and a measure of the quality of installation, maintenance and accuracy of its equipment. The alignment and accuracy (both spatial and temporal) of sensor suites is optimised ahead of when they will be most needed. The benefits are also NATO-wide, providing assurance of interoperability and readiness using common equipment, procedures and facilities.
The NATO Maritime Interdiction Operational Training Centre (Greece) is another important facility used by the RN at Souda Bay. NMIOTC describes its mission as “To conduct the combined training necessary for NATO forces and Partners to better execute surface, sub-surface, aerial surveillance, and special operations activities in support of Maritime Interdiction Operations (MIO)”.
The centre offers a variety of courses from theoretical classroom-based modules to practical training. MIO requires both specialist knowledge as well as practical skills. Classroom teaching covers legal & ROE, communications, intelligence, physiological and negotiation techniques, planning and information dissemination aspects. The practical modules include container inspection, small arms training, tactical sweep, crew control and suspect handling, small boat handling and insertions, heliborne insertion and how to operate under multiple threats. Individual navies can select the appropriate modules and buy a tailored training package appropriate to the needs of their ship’s company.
The centre also has a NATO-wide benefit by developing joint MIO tactical doctrines, training directives and manuals as well as conducting research, experimentation, modelling and simulation.