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USS Vella Gulf is first warship to escort military convoy to Europe since 1986

Ukrainian and U.S. Sailors aboard of the guided-missile cruiser USS Vella Gulf (CG 72) work together on the forecastle of the ship as it departs Sevastopol. (Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Brian Glunt/U.S. Navy)

The Norfolk-based USS Vella Gulf is doing something the U.S. Navy hasn’t done since the Cold War: escorting a military convoy across the Atlantic Ocean.

The guided-missile cruiser is protecting three civilian-crewed ships that are carrying 1.3 million square feet of Army equipment to Europe for one of the largest military exercises involving U.S.-based forces in decades.

The need for a military escort comes as Russia increasingly flexes its military might in the Atlantic Ocean.

“The Atlantic is a battlespace that cannot be ignored,” Vice Adm. Andrew Lewis, commander of the Norfolk-based 2nd Fleet, said in a statement Friday. “We need to be prepared to operate at the high end alongside our allies, partners and adversaries alike as soon as we’re underway.”

The Navy isn’t expecting hostilities but is using the deployment to hone its convoy operations. The United States relied heavily on maritime convoys during World War I and World War II, but significantly less so during more recent conflicts.

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The last time the Navy escorted a military convoy across the Atlantic was in 1986.

But if called upon, the Department of Defense expects to move about 90 percent of its supplies and equipment from the U.S. to a conflict by sea.

The Vella Gulf is part of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower carrier strike group, which has spent the past few days “clearing” the sea lanes the convoy will use by ensuring there are no enemies on the surface or underwater.

The Vella Gulf is a few days behind the rest of the strike group and will also train to protect the convoy against simulated attacks.

“The Atlantic has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. It’s not what it used to be,” Cmdr. Troy Dennison, director of current operations at 2nd Fleet, told reporters on a conference call. “The minute ships get underway from Naval Station Norfolk we treat them as contested waters now. That’s the new reality.”

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© 2020 The Virginian-Pilot