image Cooper-ation: 5th Fleet Chief Discussing Exercise With Israel Navy’s David Saar Salame. Photo: IDF, US Navy

From Sixth To Fifth By Force

A Maritime Merry Time

By Amir Oren

Only two nations have been blessed by access to both the Mediterranean and the Red Sea – Egypt and Israel. They have ports and facilities on these two Naval domains and can also provide fast and easy movement between the theaters, Israel by granting overflight (and overland, Ashdod to Elath) rights and Egypt through the Suez Canal.

These two peace partners and members of the pro-American circle, enjoying excellent military and security relations under the Abd-el Fatah a-Sisi Cairo regime, will be among some 60 participants in an ambitious endeavour taking place on either side of their coasts between January 30 and February 17. The main event is IMX22, an International Maritime Exercise championed by the Naval component if the U.S. Central Command, NAVCENT, but it is held in conjunction with Cutless Express 2022 (CE22) under the Med-based Sixth Fleet.

NAVCENT is a headquarters whose main operating force is the Fifth Fleet. This arrangement somewhat resembles the U.S. Navy’s structure over the last 80 years or so. The Chief of Naval Operations used to be a seperate function from the Commander, U.S. Fleet, but the second title has long been subsumed into the first one, a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of equal rank to the Chairman, JCS.

The Vice-Admiral who commands NAVCENT, a 3-Star, is outranked by the Commanding General of CENTCOM, a position which almost always rotates betweem Army and Marine Corps Generals such as James Mattis of the Marines and Lloyd Austin of the Army. The incumbent Marine, Frank McKenzie, is about to retire and succeeded by the Army’s Eric Kurilla, a Paratrooper and Special Forces officer with several close friends with similar backgrounds in the IDF.

CENTCOM’s primary HQ is in Florida and its Chief is also often at the Pentagon, regardless of Video Conferences and Covid. He has a foreward office with staff in the region, but the senior Uniformed American based in the Neighborhood is the NAVCENT/5th Fleet Admiral out of Bahrain. That makes the current occupant of these positions, VADM Charles “Brad” Cooper, an even more important player than usual, as the 4-Stars who used to lead troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are no longer there.

Cooper, an energetic and articulate officer-diplomat who seems destined for the highest rungs in either the Navy or Combatant Command ladders, has already taken Israeli-American Naval collaboration to the next level, or two. Perhaps the right term for what these organisations now do is not co-operate, but Cooperate. He is a frequent visitor to Israel, interfacing with IDF and Navy Chiefs. RADM Daniel Hagari, Israel Navy Director of Operations, has struck a particularly warm bond with him.

Last week, in a conversation at the CSID think tank – tanker seems more proper in this context – in Washington, Cooper brought his audience interesting news and insights. He talked about IMX22, which along with CE22 will demonstrate a broad coalition’s “resolve to maintain freedom of navigation and the free flow of commetce”, deter Iranian and proxy threats and “build interoperability and familiarity with partners” including, for the first time publicly approved by Arabian Gulf rulers, Israel, whose representatives took part in planning conference.

Israeli vessels and personnel deployed as part of a multi-national Armada were already seem last year South of Elath, in a force centered around the USS Portland, which – Cooper now reveals – also carried Special Operations Forces. When asked about his Sailors, Cooper always makes sure to praise Marines, Coast Guardsmen patrolling the shallow coasts of the Gulf and SOCCENT, the Special Operations element of CENTCOM, too, all intertwined for the sake of the same missions.

Portland, which by now has left the area, assisted in setting up a new hub in Jordan’s Port of Aqaba belonging to the innovative Task Force 59, whose claim to classified fame mixes Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, their Naval equivalents Unmanned Surface Vehicles, counter-UAV devices (Laser, etc.) and a futuristic system combining surveillance, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning to go over vast seas and deserts to alert to deviations from usual patterns. Israel, confirmed Cooper, has its hands – and brains – in this endeavour, too.

With the focus on Ukraine to the West and Taiwan to the East, and with Iran’s activities at basically the same level as in recent years, CENTCOM’s priority was lowered and the Fifth Fleet temporarily lost both an Aircraft Carrier task force and an Amphibious Ready Group with a Marine Battalion with its aircraft. Cooper hopes to compensate for that by drawing from the coalition he leads and among whose members he counts on the British, the French, the Pakistanis – and the Israelis. Were an emergency in his area of responsibility to necessitate reinforcements, they will be soon channelled through Suez and Bab-el-Mandeb, cortesy of Sisi and Suez.

IMX22 comes on the hills of some 33 exercises held by the Fifth Fleet and the International Coalition associated with it. This is 10 to 30 times the number of exercises conducted by the Russians out of their Syrian Air and Naval bases and by the Chinese out of their only facility in Djibouty. For the time being, and the fleet in being, America rules the waves, with some help, overt or covert, by Israel, whose Naval outlook has gradually shifted from NATO and Sixth Fleet to South-West Asia and the Fifth Fleet.