Since the end of the Cold War, the Mediterranean region has been peaceful, but that is no longer the case. Conflict has exploded in areas that border the sea: Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Gaza, Lebanon, North Africa and the Arabian peninsula. While some of these conflicts place maritime trade routes at risk, the recent discovery of the rich oil and natural gas reserves in the Mediterranean further complicates matters, raising the specter of conflicts over natural resources. Luckily, NATO maintained some of the Cold War infrastructure in the eastern Mediterranean which is proving to be of inestimable value to address new threats.
One example is the Souda Bay complex on the northwest coast of the Greek Island of Crete, a military facility open to NATO countries. The United States Naval Support Activity (NSA) Souda Bay occupies about 110 acres and shares a home with the 115th Combat Wing of the Hellenic Air Force. A Hellenic Naval Base also occupies a large portion of the north and south coasts of the Souda Bay harbor, and there is a civilian airport nearby in Hania. One unique characteristic of Souda Bay is that it has the only pier in the Mediterranean large enough to dock an aircraft carrier.
The U.S. and Hellenic Air Forces use Souda Bay routinely to support joint training activities. In January, the U.S. 480th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron and the Hellenic Air Force’s 115th Combat Wing conducted such an exercise. According to General Frank Gorenc, Commander, U.S. Air Forces in Europe, and U.S. Air Forces Africa, Commander Allied Air Command, “Successful partnering activities like this lead to tangible benefits during peacetime contingencies and crises. Continuing our partnership with the Hellenic Air Force allows both nations to enhance interoperability and readiness. Any opportunity our forces have to fly in new airspace with one of our NATO partners is beneficial. No nation can confront today’s challenges alone.”
The naval and air bases at Souda Bay have also helped NATO in the past by supporting joint U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force reconnaissance missions and air refueling support in Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1991, the Global War on Terrorism and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Souda Bay will become even more valuable as the ISIS threat continues.
Facilities at Souda Bay are not only useful in times of crisis, but also in times of peace. The NATO Maritime Interdiction Operations Training Center (NMIOTC) located at Souda Bay trains members to improve execution of surface, subsurface, aerial surveillance and special operations in support of sanctioned maritime interdiction operations. Such skills are necessary to counter piracy, terrorism and illegal trafficking. Greece funded the construction of NMIOTC and the Hellenic Navy covers ongoing operation and maintenance costs.
Souda Bay will continue to be a focal point for American naval and air forces in the region. The bay’s facilities are in close proximity to Israel (650 miles) and Syria (1,340 miles) which allows NATO to project power into these and surrounding countries, as necessary. Secondly, Athens does not limit the use of its facilities to its forces only. America should commend Greece for its unwavering commitment to provide NATO with necessary air, naval and training facilities to support operations in the region while consistently surpassing the minimum of 2 percent of GDP on its defense budget as far back as 1988. Even though Athens’ economy has been in recession for five years, Greece is a dedicated NATO ally and has remained loyal to its defense responsibilities.