The boarding party swept through the boat, rifles at the ready, looking for hidden stashes of illicit cargo, but they wouldn’t encounter the typical challenges — livestock, rotting fruits and vegetables, or hostile crews — and they weren’t even at sea.
Dubbed the “ship-in-a-box,” the full-scale fishing dhow inside a warehouse has become a key training tool in efforts to combat threats in Middle East waters, such as drug trafficking that funds extremists in places like Afghanistan.
It’s run by the Maritime Engagement Team, a group of 10 U.S. Coast Guardsmen who specialize in maritime enforcement operations.
Known as the MET Facility, the compound also includes a pair of stacked shipping containers simulating cargo aboard a ship and is in high demand from U.S. and partner forces.
The team recently took Stars and Stripes on a walkthrough of the facility to show how they use it to practice safety sweeps, close-quarter battle techniques, quick exits and searches.
“They’re searching for illicit materials and we’re trying to deter illicit activities,” said Coast Guard Capt. John Gregg, the team’s commander. “Sometimes there are narcotics that are found, and we have had experiences where boarding teams have found weapons.”
The facility has been around since 2003, mainly to keep Coast Guard members up-to-date on qualifications, but it has recently become a valuable training environment where the Americans and partner countries can share best practices. The team’s 2019 calendar is already fully booked, officials said.
“We realized that we really had the capacity here, and as we began to build our own capability with this facility, it really had a lot of promise,” Gregg said. “So, we started to have engagements with partners and that demand signal grew.”
Last year, 27 countries sent nearly 800 participants to the facility.
Earlier this year, security forces from four Gulf countries came together with the Americans at the facility for an exercise in ship-boarding tactics.
“Each country has unique methods when it comes to inspection and approach,” said Capt. Saleh Alfodary of the Kuwaiti coast guard, in a U.S. Army video in January highlighting the exercise involving Kuwaiti, Saudi, Bahraini and Emirati teams. “This exercise was held on the basis of standardizing methods of inspection, uniting our understanding and theories and creating a foundation for cooperation and relationships between the largest nations in the Arabian Gulf.”
The increased demand for the facility comes as boarding parties, known as visit, board, search and seizure teams, have scored some of the largest smuggling busts since the Combined Maritime Force here transitioned from a U.S. force to a multinational counterterrorism and maritime security coalition after 9/11.
Just before Christmas, the British destroyer HMS Dragon boarded a pair of dhows carrying nearly 11 tons of illegal drugs — the largest CMF bust so far. In December and January, the U.S. destroyer USS Chung-Hoon busted two more vessels hauling about 10 tons of hashish in the Gulf of Aden.
To hone their skills prior to the busts, Chung-Hoon’s boarding team had trained at the ship-in-a-box and had received training onboard their own ship.
“I am grateful that Chung-Hoon was able to play a small part,” Cmdr. Brent Jackson, the ship’s skipper, said in a statement following one of the drug busts.
Although the MET trains for many scenarios, U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Philip Cook said that most boarding parties encounter cooperative crewmembers. During practice runs, participants have fun with role-playing and hand-to-hand combat exercises that add authenticity to the experience and prepare them for less compliant crews.
Any flagless vessel is deemed “stateless” under international law and patrols seek out such vessels for boarding, using a checklist to assess red flags, or what the team calls “tripwires,” that represent threats or questionable behavior and set the tone for a boarding.
“Our job is to establish positive control,” said Cook, who said he enjoys sharing tips on how to find hidden compartments.
Positive control could mean dealing with combatant crew members, clearing spaces with “questionable” cargo or providing medical assistance, he said.
Many partner navies in the region conduct coastal operations as part of their daily missions, a sharp contrast to the deep-water U.S. Navy, officials said. The MET specializes in those coastal engagements, which is what draws regional partners to work with them.
“They are great at partnering with regional navies and coast guards,” said U.S. Navy Capt. Adan Cruz, commodore of all surface patrol forces in the 5th Fleet. “Because of the Coast Guard presence here, it makes it easier to engage with the other regional coast guards who are doing similar operations.”
Of the 20 U.S. ships permanently stationed in Bahrain, six of them are Coast Guard cutters.
“Most navies are not in the business of power projection. They’re in the business of enforcing sovereignty,” Gregg said. “Most other countries, whether it’s navy or coast guard, are in the business of fisheries enforcement, countersmuggling, search and rescue — missions that very much dovetail with what the U.S. Coast Guard does.”
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