|TSG Boarding Team: There is No Ocean Wide Enough to Hide In|
TSG Boarding Team: There is No Ocean Wide Enough to Hide In
By Lt. j.g. Ligia Cohen, U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command
Aboard USS Thomas S. Gates, At Sea -- (NNS) November 22, 2002 -- On a day of high seas, 120 miles off the coast of Brazil, the deck crew of USS Thomas S. Gates (CG 51) lowered the rigid-hull inflatable boat (RHIB) to sea. The 13 members of the boarding team quickly embarked the boat and sped away, negotiating 7-foot swells that caused the RHIB to continuously become airborne and splash back down on the surface.
At sea with USS Thomas S. Gates (CG 51) -- Crew members from the guided-missile cruiser conduct Maritime Interdiction Operation (MIO) training in the Atlantic Ocean. MIO operations are performed by specially-trained personnel who board and inspect vessels to ensure they are in accordance with U.N. resolutions and to prevent transportation of illegal cargo (October 16, 2002).
U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class Aron Tayl
The objective of this wild ride was to conduct maritime interdiction operation (MIO) training against a ship suspected of carrying illegal cargo.
In an effort that required all his skill and concentration, the coxswain got the RHIB alongside and fought the surge to maintain the boat steady enough to allow the boarding team to climb up the side of the vessel. Once embarked, the team dispersed aft, below decks and to the bridge to swiftly gain control of the vessel.
"They have three main goals: take control of the bridge, the engineering plant and the crew," said Senior Chief Gunner's Mate Dionicio Delgado, the MIO/ VBSS (visit, board, search and seizure) boarding team leader.
The only difference from this training MIO to an actual one is that this time, the ship boarded was a friendly Spanish ship, SPS Reina Sofia (F 84), playing the role of a suspicious vessel.
"The sea state was a challenge during training. But the training was worthy, because we need to train not only in calm seas, but also on rough water," said Delgado. "When we’re conducting MIOs, we don’t get to choose the sea conditions in which we want to operate."
Thomas S. Gates conducted this training as part of UNITAS, the largest multinational naval exercise conducted in the Americas. During the Atlantic phase of UNITAS, 12 surface combatants and two submarines, in addition to helicopters and P-3C aircraft from six nations, conducted a variety of traditional at-sea missions such as undersea, anti-surface and anti-air warfare. Counter-drug operations, special warfare and maritime interdiction training also played a key role in this phase of the exercise.
"We took a very aggressive approach to training during our deployment to the U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command operating area," said Lt. Tracy DeWitt, Thomas S. Gates’ weapons officer. "The training paid off. We were very successful in the deployment and were selected to be in charge of the UNITAS MIO exercise, where we coordinated a six-ship, multinational MIO mission."
MIO boardings are inherently risky evolutions, and focus on safety is paramount: Tactical vests should fit, weapons should be properly carried, flotation equipment should be properly worn, and everybody must know exactly what to do. The boarding officer’s role is to interface with the ship’s master and inspect pertinent ship documents, while the assistant boarding officer provides security for the boarding officer and directs the movement of the search and security teams. Concurrently, the security teams neutralize the crew, while the search teams inspect the vessel.
"Nothing gets left unturned," said DeWitt. "They will search every compartment and void looking for contraband, weapons…anything that is not supposed to be there."
Thomas S. Gates maintains two fully trained VBSS/MIO teams at all times, totaling 22 Sailors. The team members are rotated, varying the composition of the teams for each boarding depending on size of the vessel, compliance status and weather conditions.
"For me, one of the most important safety precautions is getting good bearings when you board the ship," said Sonar Technician 2nd Class Thomas Murphy, a VBSS/MIO team member. "You should always look around and determine key points in case you have to back track quickly."
To become a boarding team member, Sailors attend a two-week Visit, Board, Search and Seizure course, where they learn the levels of force, takedown procedures and search techniques and tactics for taking control of a ship, including rappelling. In addition, back aboard the ship, there is continuous training, including maintaining weapons qualifications, scenario-driven exercises and training in non-lethal force all the way up to deadly force.
"One major training resource we discovered was the Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachment," added DeWitt. "These guys provided expert, firsthand experience training to our team."
But conducting a safe and successful MIO boarding requires more than a well prepared boarding team; it requires a total ship effort. The personnel at the Command Information Center initiate the event by providing contact information; the bridge watch then queries the vessel. The small-caliber attack team positions to provide cover for the RHIB as it approaches the vessel, and the deck crew provides support for launching and recovering the RHIB.
From the Arabian Gulf to the Adriatic Sea, the U.S. Navy conducts MIOs to control the illegal traffic of drugs, weapons and oil and to enforce sanctions. In the Caribbean Sea, Thomas S. Gates stands the watch for the security of our nation and of our neighbors.