By Lt. Mathuel Browne
Navy Reservists were at the helm of U.S. Africa Command sponsored exercise Phoenix Express 2021 that took place here May 17-28. The multinational maritime exercise brings together North African, European and U.S. maritime forces with the goal of enhancing cooperation and expertise related to maritime security in the Mediterranean Sea.
Sailors from Navy Commander Naval Forces Europe/Commander Naval Forces Africa/Commander Sixth Fleet Maritime Partnership Program Detachment 205, based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, were tasked with organizing the exercise in support of U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa, who led in the executing of the event objectives.
“Our support of Phoenix Express is all about building partnerships and cooperation,” said Capt. Harry Knight, exercise director, and commanding officer of the detachment. “One of the great strengths of our U.S. Navy is our allies and partners, and this exercise strengthens those relationships.”
Originally, plans were in place to lead the exercise in 2020. Then the pandemic hit, putting everything on hold. A year later, the event was given the green light and DET 205 fulfilled its role directing more than 1,000 participants and 11 partner nations in Tunis and Bizerte, Tunisia, as well as in the Mediterranean Sea.
Lt. Cmdr. Evan Werner, one of this year’s organizers and the detachment’s operations officer, made sure all of the exercise participant travel arrangements were in place and each person was ready to support.
“My role was to integrate our unit into Phoenix Express’s operational planning and make sure that our personnel were prepared to participate and mentor exercise participants,” said Werner. “Upon arriving in Tunisia, I transitioned to running and organizing the visit, board, search, and seizure (VBSS) training in Bizerte for our African Partner Nation participants and the U.S. Coast Guard Trainers. At the conclusion of the VBSS training in Bizerte, I arrived in Tunis to assist the exercise’s control group where I was involved in sending out daily scenarios to underway maritime interdiction teams that drove VBSS training at sea.”
Phoenix Express focuses specifically on maritime security operations to counter illegal activities in the Mediterranean such as human trafficking, smuggling, and illicit, unreported and unregulated fishing. During the exercise, a combined maritime operations center was stood up in an expeditionary location where watch teams conducted communication drills and practiced regional information sharing. This operations center directed the exercise’s multinational surface action group and aircraft in ship boardings, airborne maritime patrol operations, and search and rescue drills.
The diverse set of skills and experiences of the detachment Reserve Sailors, like those of Lt. Jeremy Mock, proved to be essential in the effective execution of the exercise tasks. Mock, a supply corps officer and the unit’s on-ground logistics planner for the exercise, was able to use his knowledge as a civilian business owner to prepare for support in the exercise environment.
“This year, it is my responsibility was to coordinate with Sixth Fleet, AFRICOM, and all of the partners on the requirements here,” said Mock. “This includes finding out what ships they are bringing here, how much fuel they will need, and what they’ll need when they come into port. We are also required to manage the berthing for the participants. There were barriers to understanding the language and culture, but we were able to work through them for a successful exercise.”
Information Technology Specialist 1st Class Brian Stephan’s prior exercise experience allowed him to hit the ground running while setting up the necessary IT communication support for Phoenix Express.
“I have done another Phoenix Express in Morocco in 2019 and the Obangame Exercise in Nigeria a few years back,” said Stephan, Reserve detachment’s lead petty officer for operations. “During the exercise, it was my role to setup the communications and SharePoint for the operations center. Our team was pretty much in charge of all communications and internet access during the event.”
Phoenix Express provides an opportunity to work side-by-side to better synchronize and rehearse for potential real-world scenarios — as well as create an environment where the U.S. and participants learn from each other.
“I think that Phoenix Express is more than the learning and educational piece of it,” said Mock. “I think that it helps us better understand each other’s cultures and how we all work before we are in a real-world situation.”
The exercise is one of three regional maritime exercises executed by U.S. Naval Forces Africa’s Navy Reserve Maritime Partnership Program detachments. These exercises are part of a comprehensive strategy to provide African forces and international partners collaborative opportunities to improve regional maritime safety and security. They also demonstrate the valuable contribution the Navy Reserve provides within an operational environment.
The U.S. Navy has remained operational throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Reserve team supported the safety of each participant by following all COVID-19 safety precautions and regulations during the event.
U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa/U.S. Sixth Fleet, headquartered in Naples, Italy, conducts the full spectrum of joint and naval operations, often in concert with allied and interagency partners in order to advance U.S. national interests and security and stability in Europe and Africa.