Col. John Conklin was given three days’ notice before deploying to Bahrain to lead a team to establish an international maritime security headquarters aimed at securing freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf region.
He packed his bags, left his home in Louisville, Kentucky, and headed for the airport.
The maritime mission may seem unusual for an Army Reserve Soldier, but for Conklin, and the other Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen and civilians of the Joint Enabling Capabilities Command’s Joint Planning Support Element, it comes with the job.
The Joint Planning Support Element or JPSE (pronounced gypsy) deploys on short notice to assist joint force commanders with establishing joint force headquarters. They also plan operations, logistics support, implement knowledge management, intelligence gathering, and provide a public affairs capability. When needed, they support humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions.
“It’s a tremendous tasking to stand up a coalition task force — with this unique mission, and the operating environment, but what we’re accomplishing is incredible,” Conklin said.
When he arrived in early October, Conklin served as the chief of staff of the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC). He integrated a U.S. joint team with officers from the Royal Navy to plan and stand up Coalition Task Force Sentinel, the military organization under IMSC. The coalition task force soon integrated another team from the Australian Navy.
The team developed a plan, wrote an operations order and stood up IMSC.
Bahrain joined in August. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates joined in September, and Albania, the newest member, joined in November.
In a little over two months, Conklin and his crew of active and reserve Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen and one DoD civilian successfully built an international joint force headquarters from nothing. Officially dubbed the IMSC, the U.S.-led coalition formally launched in November, opened a new command center at Naval Support Activity, Bahrain, and welcomed its first appointed commander, Rear Adm. Alvin Holsey.
The IMSC leads Operational Sentinel, U.S. Central Command’s multinational maritime effort to ensure freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf region.
Its mission — to protect international commerce by safeguarding freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf, Gulf of Oman, the Red Sea, the Straits of Hormuz and Bab el-Mandeb.
Countries that joined the IMSC provide warships to escort their nation’s commercial vessels through the region. Through the construct, participating countries have the benefits of information sharing and enhanced awareness and surveillance in one of the most vital shipping lanes in the world.
More than 17,000 ships per year pass through the Bab al-Mandeb and 42,000 through the Strait of Hormuz. Any closure in that waterway would have international consequences – impacting economies all over the globe. It’s tricky work.
“Coordinating with the various countries navies to provide vessels in the right place at the right time is a rewarding mission, Conklin said. “I don’t think very many people in the Army ever get experience in this — where you are standing up an international maritime task force, where you watch allies join, and you see the impact you’re having.”
The mission is defensive, and the construct is scalable to match the threat level. The maritime coalition is already seeing progress.
Conklin said, since establishing the IMSC, the area has seen a significant drop in state-sponsored malign activity against merchant vessels in the region.
Conklin and his team will be on the ground until a more permanent group replaces them, but that comes with the joint planners’ mission. The groundwork his team has laid will endure as long as a threat looms.
“We plan and stand up task forces and continue until follow on forces show up. Once the follow-on forces show up … the JECC team will redeploy back to Norfolk, ready for our next mission,” Conklin said.