In remarks delivered at the Crete Naval Base, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-Hellenic Navy base on the island of Crete, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that an American ship would be based at the Souda Bay port in light of recent tensions between Turkey and Greece.
Strain between Greece and Turkey, both NATO members, has heightened recently. Greece accuses Turkey of encroaching into areas where Greece claims territorial sovereignty in the Aegean Sea. Turkish activity included sending a fossil fuel prospective vessel—along with Turkish Navy ships—into Greek-claimed waters and resulted in Athens sending Hellenic Navy ships to the area, and stoking fears of a conflict between two countries.
The Crete Naval Base is of high value to the NATO Alliance. It is the only Mediterranean Sea location capable of servicing so-called supercarriers, larger aircraft carriers with 100,000 plus ton displacements. Rather than sending one of the United States’ larger aircraft carriers however, Secretary Pompeo said that the USS Hershel Williams. But what is this odd-looking ship? And why is it there?
USS Hershel “Woody” Williams
The USS Hershel Williams, named after a World War II Marine veteran who received the Medal of Honor for actions on Iwo Jima, is a type of expeditionary sea base that can support lower-intensity operations such as counter piracy, humanitarian missions, as well as providing some general maritime security.
Taking over these missions allow other more capable, high-value warships to be deployed elsewhere. Thanks to the ship’s large flight deck, the USS Hershel Williams can support both helicopter and tiltrotor aircraft.
Location, Location, Location
Pompeo also acknowledged the USS Hershel Williams’s deterrent value, and the Crete Naval Base’ important location, saying that the ship’s deployment is “literally the perfect choice in light of the facility’s strategic location. And it’s symbolic of a defense partnership that will continue to expand and to grow.”
Indeed, Crete’s utility as a strategically important base is significant. Though the USS Hershel Williams is not itself a potent war fighting vessel, the aircraft it can launch are.
And, from the Crete base, some American aircraft—notably the V-22 Osprey—are within striking distance of several locations that have become flashpoints in both American and international relations: Syria and Libya.
Pompeo’s remarks, delivered from the Crete Naval Base, are a clear endorsement of the Greek position in Athens’ Aegean dispute with Turkey. Less clear is what this deployment means in practical terms for the United States’ recently exacerbated but nonetheless simmering tensions with Russia—though it is likely a clear message to Russia as well.
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer with The National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.