Greece’s military base in Souda Bay, Crete, is an “essential hub” for NATO operations in the Mediterranean, combining world-class facilities with access to North Africa, the Commander of Allied Joint Force Command Naples and US Naval Forces Europe and Africa, US Navy Admiral James Foggo, told Kathimerini in an exclusive interview.
Admiral Foggo expressed concern about rising tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, noting he has confidence in the readiness of the Hellenic Navy to help NATO, if needed.
Has the Eastern Mediterranean become one of the tensest geopolitical regions in the world?
I came here for the first time in 1984-85 on a US Navy submarine. Back then, we were in the middle of the Cold War, but it was a different scenario. It was two major powers and two major pacts – the NATO Alliance versus the Warsaw Pact. There were many Russian ships and submarines in the Mediterranean. Over the course of decades, that changed. I was in France when the wall came down and when I came back things were much different. There was a paucity of adversarial shifts in the Mediterranean. In fact the Russians had no submarines here. If we look at the scenario today, post-illegal annexation of Crimea, they’re back and they’ve made the Eastern Mediterranean a base. It’s nothing new, from the standpoint of Tartus and Assad’s father who made that deal in 1971. But they’re using it a lot more now. And there are a lot of other nations or non-state actors who are playing roles in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Levant which are destabilizing – the Iranians, of course the Syrians and the Lebanese Hezbollah.
You mix all that with transportation of ships, both legal and illegal trafficking, the potential for terrorist activity on high seas, the potential for interaction between Russian forces, Syrian forces, NATO forces, American forces. And this is a very volatile cocktail and it has raised tension in this region of the Eastern Mediterranean in the Aegean, which is why it is so important for the Hellenic Navy to be as strong as it is and so our relationship has never been better between Greece and the United States, and certainly between the Hellenic Navy and other NATO nations and the Hellenic Navy and the US.
Recently there was a joint exercise between US and Israeli forces and there was a Greek submarine involved in that exercise. Would you say that Greek submarines (Type 214) are useful toward that direction?
Absolutely. I made my first ever trip to Salamis. While I was there, I had the chance to tour your fleet with the fleet commander and the first unit that I went to was the brand-new 214-class submarine. I have to tell you, I really credit [Chief of the Hellenic National Defense General Staff] Admiral [Evangelos] Apostolakis in the Greek Navy for bringing that program to fruition. I used to be an inspector for the Atlantic Fleet. We went out and we rode a lot of submarines. I have an eye for detail when it comes to cleanliness, preservation, and storage […] It was absolutely immaculate, and so was the rest of the ship. It was very impressive. It is a capability that is at the high end of diesel-electric submarines. Extremely quiet, extremely lethal, and it is exactly what we need in the Mediterranean, in NATO, to help us maintain a safe and secure environment on the high seas.
We often hear about the importance of Souda Bay from American officials. How much has that changed in the last two or three years? And what does that mean in terms of operations, joint exercises, drills?
Souda Bay is an essential hub. It has an airfield which we utilize all the time under the good graces of our agreements with the Greek government and I thank you profusely for that. It also has the added benefit of having a world-class port facility and a new pier where we can moor an aircraft carrier. We’ve done that several times, we’ve done it both for Liberty, for the crew and also for maintenance purposes. It is an essential hub in the Mediterranean, not just for US ships but NATO ships.
Additionally, one of my favorite places to go is the NATO Maritime Interdiction Operations Training Center (NMIOTC) which is run by the Hellenic Navy with a Hellenic commanding officer and a Turkish executive officer. I spoke there last time when I was the 6th Fleet commander about security on the high seas. We train marines, we train navies on how to do hostile vessel boarding search and seizure (HVBSS) – this is very important. We train people how to do that in that facility and it is absolutely world-class.
So we have an airfield, a port facility, a maintenance facility and a magazine for weapons and we have a center for excellence, for training amphibious operations on high seas. We also finished up [on Friday] exercise Phoenix Express, which is run by Naval Forces Africa, that allows for training and proficiency of navies in the Maghreb. It is really important because as we look south towards Maghreb and the Sahel, there is a lot of potential for conflict, particularly in the Sahel and the Sahara. So this is another added value of the base in Crete.
There are American companies that are active in Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone. Exxon is going to drill later in the year. We’ve seen that in previous drills there has been some naval presence from countries that are involved in these activities. Do you see something similar happening again next October when Exxon goes to drill there?
First of all, I’m happy that US business interests are willing to invest in places like Cyprus. I know that there have been recent discoveries of oil and gas, particularly gas that are going to provide solutions for Europe. They are alternative solutions to pipelines that have existed for many, many years and pipelines which have some restrictions when it comes to purchasing power or political oversight and I’m talking particularly about Russian control of gas to Europe and Eastern Europe. So it’s nice to have options. We should tap into that. Obviously there are interests of more than one nation, particularly in regard to Cyprus, and it is my hope that we can figure out as civilized nations how to divide those profits and that particular energy resource so that everybody is happy. I am aware that there has been some naval activity there. I think we’ve kept that under control and it is my hope that in the future we will continue to do so.
Greece is standing in the middle of three crises. What is the country’s stabilizing role in the region?
First of all, the Greek Armed Forces maintain a readiness and a strength that gives me confidence, particularly with regards to your navy. The fact that I saw such professionalism yesterday when I was in Salamis, and I wasn’t just at the submarine force, I was also out on one of your new patrol gunboats and the ship was outfitted with an exceptional package of offensive and defensive weapons which bring tremendous capability to any maritime operation. And so I am confident that, if asked, the Greek Navy would be ready to respond to NATO in any crisis scenario. There are a lot of things going on in the Mediterranean right now which cause pause. In the last 24 to 48 hours we’ve seen activity between Israel and Syria and other state and non-state actors in Syria who have taken up residence there. That is concerning to me. So the strength of your armed forces and your ability to provide capability in time of need is essential.
I had conversations with your Chief of Defense about some of these other areas that we’re interested in at Joint Force Command Naples, in particular the NATO Strategic Direction South Hub. Greece shares those concerns. The focus is in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) but we also talked about the Sahel and the Sahara. We have a refugee crisis of epic proportions in the Mediterranean. You know about this in the Aegean. NATO has successfully controlled the crisis in the Aegean, and brought it down to the level of perhaps hundreds per day when it was thousands a day. The European Union is running Operation Sofia off Libya now and since its conception, we’ve rescued about 45,000 lives at sea. These desperate people land in Europe and put a burden on European economies. Many times they are sent back.
In Naples, we look for ways to create a safe and secure environment to help the area of the Sahel and North Africa with establishing rule of law in places where perhaps there is limited governance or no governance. Greece is interested in that. It has offered contributions to me, to my headquarters and the South Hub.
What’s your view on the tension between Greece and Turkey in the Aegean?
I was involved in the original standup of the SNMG2. When I was 6th Fleet commander we had one of our ships there, the USNS Grapple, to help spot the smugglers as they were coming out. It is to the great credit of both countries, Greece and Turkey, to have collaborated with their coast guard and worked with NATO to make that a very successful operation. So I look at that as a very bright spot to some of the tension that you mentioned in the Aegean. And I’m so happy to hear you mention the Luns Doctrine because when these questions come up in my headquarters, I remind everybody of my own personal background. In 2009 I was the executive officer to the SACEUR Admiral James Stavridis. At the time, Stavridis wanted a slogan for the European headquarters. It was a navy lieutenant commander that came up with this two-word phrase, “stronger together.” So I remind people in my headquarters, when tensions rise, I tell them “we’re stronger together.”
And it’s not particularly always Greece and Turkey, there are others who have disagreements and we try to work them out. It’s my hope that governments [will follow], because at a military and navy level relations are very good.
Apart from traditional powers in the Med, we lately see an ever-increasing Chinese presence. What’s your take on that?
I am frankly impressed with the rapidity with which the Chinese have implemented their One Belt, One Road strategy. As long as that remains a peaceful rise of Chinese forces then that’s fine. They have every right to negotiate and build port facilities to support their navy and their strategy. I know they are here in Piraeus. The Eastern Mediterranean is getting very crowded. Now you have the Chinese on top of the Russians, on top of the Americans, on top of NATO. There’s a need to be a good mariner out there to navigate our ships safely, if necessary stay out of each other’s way and communicate.