Courtesy of Surface SITREP. Republished with the permission of the Surface Navy Association.
Edward H. Lundquist: Can you share with us your synopsis of the major challenges that face you today in your job as commander of Naval Forces Europe and Africa?
Adm. Mark Ferguson: My position is unique in that I wear three hats. First, I’m commander of Joint Force Command, Naples, under NATO. I have an 800 person staff based in Lago Patria [Italy]. We are an operational level headquarters and I’m the current NATO Response Force Commander for the year. I am also the operational commander for NATO Forces in Kosovo, numbering about 4,500 troops. That consumes a lot of my time and attention, planning operations across the NATO AOR.
What does “sitting NATO Response Force” mean?
Gen. Phil Breedlove is the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe. He has two operational headquarters – one of them is in Brunson, Netherlands, commanded by a German general, Gen. Hans-Lothar Domrose, and the other is my headquarters in Naples, Italy. In alternate years, we command the NATO Response Force. If a crisis happens, or an Article 5 action [Article 5 states that an attack on a NATO ally will be considered as an attack against all members, and all members will take the actions they deem appropriate to respond to the attack], and a NATO operation is undertaken, the headquarters that is certified for that year is the one that steps up and serves as the operational commander.
I would imagine that force would be prepared and certify that year for what the anticipated threat would be.
In November, we conducted a very large exercise called Trident Juncture 15. Our air component commander was a French general based in Lyon, the maritime component commander was Spanish, the special forces were Polish, and the land component was the German Netherlands Corps. We went through this process last year to be certified to assume command of the NATO Response Force for calendar year ’15. General Domrose in Brunssum is preparing his command to get certified for next year. He’ll do that in August/September, and then he’ll assume command of the NATO Response Force in January next year. This experience is unique for a surface officer and quite broadening in its command aspects, in the sense that I have a NATO staff of 800, with NATO flag and general officers from allied nations, and command air, land and maritime forces. Also here at Naples, I have Vice Adm. Jamie Foggo and the U.S. 6th Fleet, along with the Naval Forces Europe and Africa staff. So, I time-share between the two commands as I execute my responsibilities. It’s challenging.
So that’s one hat.
My second hat is Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Africa; and then the other one is Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe. So those are the three responsibilities. And I have three bosses: I look to the CNO [Chief of Naval Operations] for my Naval Forces Europe Title 10 responsibilities; I have responsibilities to Gen. Breedlove in his U.S. European Command hat; and Gen. David Rodriguez as AFRICOM. On the NATO side, we report to Gen. Breedlove as Allied Command Operations, or ACO, in his NATO command role. It’s a pretty demanding environment, and certainly the broadest and most demanding operational command assignment that a 4-star could have for a U.S. Navy command. It’s not at the level of a combatant commander [COCOM], but it’s pretty demanding because it’s multinational, commanding ground forces, working with allies within NATO and the U.S. COCOM structure at the same time.
Just trying to keep all of those straight, that’s a challenge.
Very true. The operational challenge is this is a dynamic and volatile theater that encompasses the full range of security threats from maritime security assistance all the way up to the very high end of warfare, especially as you look at the Ballistic Missile Defense [BMD] ships deployed in support of NATO. So as we look around, certainly you have Europe facing increasing threats to its stability – from Russian actions in the Ukraine, their annexation of the Crimea, and the challenges of operating in the Black Sea. We’re seeing increased pace of operations in the Russian navy on both of the NATO flanks. Second, I would say that we’re concerned with the proliferation of ballistic missiles and the proliferation of advanced surface-to-surface missiles in theater, and in the Eastern Med operating area in particular. Another threat is the chronic social, and economic conditions leading to unstable states in North Africa, in the Levant, with the presence of violent extremist organizations. We are seeing extremists and foreign fighters returning from Iraq and Syria into Europe. This instability in the Levant and Africa is creating a mass migration problem for Italy, Spain, and Greece, a challenge that the European Union is grappling with on NATO’s Southern flank. And on the Africa side, we operate on both coasts. Our base in Djibouti supports forces operating there, from both an ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] and a support standpoint. On the other coast, in the Gulf of Guinea, we do a series of exercises and work with our partners to stem piracy and illicit trafficking. So when I look across the theater, we may be conducting ISR support; a non-combatant evacuation of an embassy; you may see a ship engaged in a counter-piracy operation; or you may have a Aegis guided missile destroyer in a BMD patrol station in defense of NATO, or performing high end operations within the NATO or the U.S. command structure. It’s a dynamic, environment, and the nature of threats and the closeness of the distances, means they may escalate very quickly and require a very rapid response. I would also add that we’re becoming increasingly concerned with the cyber threats through our networks because we rely very heavily on those for command and control, particularly when you look over the recent actions of certain cyber actors. We look very carefully at the vulnerability and defense of our networks, and being able to fight through a cyber-attack as we go forward. I think that’s a lot to handle just on the U.S. and the naval forces side.