May 17, 2020 - 10:01
‘Every challenge brings a new opportunity to succeed’

Rear Admiral Ignacio Villanueva
34th Rotation Force Commander

The most distinguishing characteristic of the EU NAVFOR SOMALIA FHQ 34th rotation Hand-Over Take-Over (HOTO) ceremony was… that there was no ceremony. This article recounts the story, including the challenges EU NAVFOR and some participant nations had to overcome in order to put the FHQ 34th rotation afloat in the middle of the global COVID-19 pandemic. The author believes the events turned out to be a story of accomplishment and success, with lessons worth retaining for the future.

As with previous rotations, the beginning of the 34th rotation was routine and unremarkable. The ATALANTA Force Generation Conference set the manning requirements, nations looked for volunteers or simply assigned deployers to their posts, and young officers started to contemplate their first operational experience. The size of the staff corresponded to the inter-monsoon period and was initially set at 24 people, including myself.

Early plans called for the flag ship NUMANCIA and the 34th rotation to depart Rota Naval Base together on the 1st of February, but when the 33rd rotation was extended in the Area of Operations (AOO) for a month, the NUMANCIA ended up leaving Rota alone while the 34th rotation stood by.

The plan evolved for the 34th staff rotation to take Joint Mission Preparation (JMP) training together the 10th-12thth of February, then send the advance party (COS, ACOS N5 and ACOS N3) to NUMANCIA a month prior to the HOTO in order to get continuity on the staff effort, and then fly the rest of the staff on the 14th of March for a HOTO period and a ceremony in Djibouti on the 17th of March. To recover the staff training and integration period lost during the transit of NUMANCIA to the AOO, we managed to plan a concentrated battle staff training and a period of integration at Rota Naval Base just prior to the staff departure to the AOO. This concentration phase would substitute for the training lost, and the incoming Spanish national logistic flight to Djibouti accommodated moving the flight back to the 14th of March, exactly when needed. The plan seemed to be perfect:  assemble the staff in Rota, build our battle staff training, and then fly all together direct Rota to Djibouti.

“I was incredibly pleased with the planning effort. I did not consider at the time that there is no plan that survives the first encounter with the enemy”

Three weeks prior to our departure, news about a new coronavirus originated in China started populating the news, and on the 11th of March, the World Health Organization declared a worldwide pandemic.

The regular medical protocol in Spain for anyone to deploy had to be adjusted, and besides a medical check and vaccinations, a COVID-19 protocol was added. It was among the first steps of fighting the disease. It was a new environment, and the protocol was simply getting your temperature taken and answering a questionnaire.

The Operation Commander (OPCDR) and I were worried about taking the virus to the ship and risking the mission, so two weeks prior the deployment, we requested a PCR [1] test for all the staff. The request climbed up the military chain of command, but when it reached our National Health Service, the existing protocols did not allow PCR testing for an asymptomatic person. We departed Rota only following the existing protocol.

[1] Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), a method used in molecular biology to rapidly make millions to billions of copies of a specific DNA sample, allowing scientists to take a very small sample of DNA of the COVID-19 virus and amplify it to a large enough amount to determine its presence in the body of a patient.

When we reached Djibouti on the 14th of March, the COVID-19 situation in Spain and Italy was all over the news, and Djibouti authorities literally changed the DIPLOMATIC CLEARANCE while we were flying to destination, and did not allow the group to proceed to the hotel as planned. They gave us two options: either go directly to NUMANCIA, which was waiting for us at the pier, or enter a quarantine at their facilities or the French base in Djibouti. We chose the second option because the 33rd rotation was still on board NUMANCIA and there was no space available.

Those were hectic times and coordination was difficult. The decisions we made at the time seemed radical, but now with some perspective and seeing how countries reacted to the COVID-19 situation, they seem minor. The decision was to cancel all protocol activities, the HOTO ceremony itself, the official dinner with ambassadors, and the ‘in-person’ HOTO between the exiting and entering staffs that would now be done via phone. Initially, the plan was for the exiting Force Commander (FCDR) to meet me on the flight deck, pass me the flag for the protocol picture and then depart to Portugal, but the situation was deteriorating every minute. Civilian flights were cancelled, we were in quarantine at the French base and the only way to leave the country for the exiting rotation was on the returning military flight that brought us to Djibouti on the 14th, which would depart on the 16th.  As the only option, the exiting rotation left on the Spanish military flight, and any contact between staffs was cancelled. The plan developed so that when the quarantine at the French base was over, the entering rotation would simply embark, and I would take command.

Once the exiting rotation had gone, leaving space available on NUMANCIA, in order to convince Djibouti authorities to let us embark directly in a dedicated bus, we managed to obtain PCR test swabs from Spain on a second medical military flight, take samples from all quarantined personnel, and return them to Spain for results. We thought that with a negative test for COVID-19, the Djibouti authorities would consider letting us embark. To my surprise, all 22 personnel were negative except the incoming FCDR who was positive. I was both shocked and asymptomatic. We established a protocol for a COVID-19 positive on base:  I was isolated in my barracks, my four identified ‘close contacts’ were quarantined, I informed Djibouti authorities immediately, then our whole group was evacuated back to Spain in less than 48 hours.  Due to our swift reaction, the virus was effectively contained. Later I discovered none of my declared ‘close contacts’ tested positive and I eventually passed the illness totally asymptomatic.
Quarantine room at French Base in Djibouti

Taking PCR test at French Base by UMAER personnel

I would soon learn the coordination efforts and planning were just about to start. The situation in Spain had worsened in just four days. All the hotels were closed by a government decree, the nation was quarantined at home and the government declared a national state of alarm.

When we arrived in Rota, there were two protocols established, one for me in isolation on base and one for the rest of the personnel in quarantine, at a local base quarters for nationals and in a hotel for the international members of the staff. The hotel was specifically requested to remain open to national authorities to quarantine our staff.

We remained in this situation for 15 days and the plan was to re-embark us as soon as possible. In the AOO on board NUMANCIA, the FHQ was composed of three dedicated members of the staff plus some NUMANCIA crew members acting as ‘dual hatted’ in support of the FHQ, the COS was named acting FCDR and this reduced FHQ received the support from the Operation Head Quarters (OHQ) until our arrival.

As soon as the initial quarantine period of 15 days elapsed, I took a second PCR test, and to my disappointment, I was positive again. I had to go back into isolation and my hopes for a quick medical recovery soon disappeared. We had just lost a new window of opportunity.

However, it took only two days to draw up a new plan. We would re-embark on the 23rd of April in Mombasa (Kenya), at the next NUMANCIA port visit. At that time, members of the FHQ would continue in quarantine.

By this time, a new national protocol was published for all military forces prior to being deployed. All military personnel going abroad for operations would have to initiate a period of 15 days of quarantine with a PCR test and take another PCR test at the end of that period, then go directly to the airlift for final destination. All Force Head Quarters (FHQ) members and the marine security team followed the procedure, and we finally got medically cleared on the 20th of April, just three days prior to our planned day of travel.

We were all excited and ready. We had been in quarantine or isolation for quite a long time and we were eager to fly to NUMANCIA. Unfortunately, situation in Mombasa was not good either, the flight approval never arrived, this attempt was cancelled, and we had to continue in quarantine.

The period between the 23rd of April and 3rd of May were days of intense planning and uncertainty. The Spanish Joint Command for Operations and the ATALANTA OHQ tried to find a suitable combination of a port and an airfield, but Djibouti first and Salalah in Oman latter, denied permission for the necessary combination. Finally, Egypt accepted our plan of embarkation, and on the 3rd of May we headed to the South Red Sea and onto the Berenice Naval Base. During this time, the quarantine was extended, and more tests were taken to the group to keep us medically current.
Repatriation on a A-400M Spanish Airforce

Flag ship NUMANCIA arriving to Egyptian Naval Base at Berenice to pick up 34th Rotation staff and FCDR.

We always kept our faith and a strong sense of camaraderie dominated ‘the quarantine group.’ It was hard for the nationals, but I imagine it was even harder for the international members of the staff, two Italians, one Serbian, one Montenegrin, one German and one South Korean. Finally, the 3rd of May we deployed after 50 days of rigorous isolation or quarantine, having taken all the required PCR and serologic tests among the group.

The flight to Berenice, the COVID-19 checks on arrival, transportation to the Naval base, and embarkation went perfectly, and finally the 34th rotation was on board NUMANCIA. Suddenly, what  seemed to be an initial ‘defeat’ became a huge ‘victory’ and the embarkation of the 34th rotation turned out to be a shining example of resilience, focus, commitment and professionalism, both by operational planners from the OHQ and the Spanish Joint Command for Operations and by the FHQ members who never quit on their desire to serve in EU NAVFOR Somalia Operation ATALANTA.

Arrival from the 34th Rotation FCDR and staff to Berenice Naval Base

When I was in isolation at the French base in Djibouti waiting for the military aircraft to repatriate us, LT Zeljko, the Serbian officer of my staff gave me a book with a dedication. The dedication says: ‘The battle is either lost or won in your heart, and after that on the battlefield.’ The 34th rotation never lost the battle in our heart, and doing so, we won the first battle against the COVID-19 for the EUNAVFOR forces ATALANTA.
The 34th Rotation FCDR and staff getting on board NUMANCIA.

Some personal conclusions

After more than 14 days of reflection on board the flag ship NUMANCIA with the FHQ at full capability and capacity, COVID-free, running Ops and commanding our forces in theater, I have drawn some personal conclusions:

Although many National Security Strategies consider a pandemic as a possible security threat for a given country, very few nations were ready for it, and almost all of them were in new territory. The new virus forced all of us ‘to learn on the fly’ and nations were forced to evolve their protocols in order to deploy personnel abroad. Learning and adapting was the only way to maintain the operational tempo and continuity of Operation ATALANTA.

Spain demonstrated an incredible commitment to the ATALANTA Operation, not only because it supports the force requirements with units, but also because he took incredible effort to put the FHQ on board the flagship ‘under his watch.’ There was always a plan and a strong will to win. I am immensely proud and grateful for the resilience, focus, planning effort and determination that the OHQ and the Spanish Joint Command for Operations demonstrated.
Final composition of the 34th FHQ EU NAVFOR Somalia Operation ATALANTA Rotation on board flag ship NUMANCIA on the 3rd May 2020

I believe the EU NAVFOR Somalia Operation ATALANTA will last until the partner nations no longer have the appetite to provide units, or the logistics in theater turn out to be impossible. During the 34th rotation the EU, Spain, Italy, Serbia, Montenegro, Germany, and KOR, demonstrated they have the will to provide units or assets in order to provide safety to the maritime domain in Somalia.  We need that strength during the COVID-19 situation, but we also need the reassurance of regional countries to provide uninterrupted access to our logistical support.

The quick, decisive, and effective actions taken by the FHQ members, the Djiboutian authorities, the Joint Command for Operations, and the French base authorities once my COVID-19 test came back positive avoided further infections.

The 34th rotation HOTO is the first carried out successfully during the COVID-19 pandemic and I unintentionally became the first immune FCDR in theater.