On Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced that the United States would be sending one of its ships to help with the refugee and migrant crisis in the Aegean Sea.
The move, one that will expand NATO’s presence in the region, also marks the first U.S. military involvement in a tragedy that has claimed the lives of thousands attempting to flee the battlefields of the Middle East.
“The United States will be contributing . . . by sending the U.S.N.S. Grapple to support [the NATO mission],” Carter said during a press conference following a series of meetings with defense ministers.
The Grapple, a SAFEGUARD class salvage ship commissioned in 1986, served with the U.S. Navy until 2006 when it was decommissioned and transferred to the U.S. Military Sealift Command. At just over 250 feet long, the Grapple has a crew of 30 and has predominately participated in salvage operations, according to a website dedicated to the ship. Though usually home to deep-sea diving equipment, the Grapple is equipped with two inflatable boats and two other tenders that could help intercept the smaller craft favored by migrants.
According to the Grapple’s website, the salvage ship has participated in a number of high-profile deployments, including helping recover the wreckage of flight TWA 800 in 1996 as well as participating in search efforts for an Egypt Air flight that crashed off Nantucket in 1999.
More recently, the Grapple has been working with countries, such as Spain and Algeria, on joint-diving operations in the Mediterranean.
The Grapple will be joining NATO Maritime Group Two, a flotilla of three warships commanded by Rear Adm. Jörg Klein of the German Navy.
In March, Gen. Philip Breedlove, then the top NATO commander, authorized the immediate deployment of the group to conduct “surveillance and reconnaissance” in the region.
When the Maritime Group was first ordered into the Aegean, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called the situation “demanding,” but has since said that NATO’s efforts as well as those by the Turkish and Greek coast guards are having a positive effect at stemming the migrant flow.
“This deployment has helped make a difference, and it continues to be effective,” Stoltenberg told reporters Wednesday, adding that NATO is trying to expand its role in the region to better help counterterrorism operations and lending help to nearby countries.