FORT SHAFTER, Hawaii — Armed teams from Japan, South Korea and the U.S. boarded a ship Wednesday during a mock search for weapons of mass destruction about 10 miles off the coast of Honolulu.
The at-sea drill was part of the inaugural Fortune Guard exercise, which sprang out of the 2003 Proliferation Security Initiative. President George W. Bush launched the initiative in the wake of growing concern over the inability of nations to legally seize WMDs being smuggled across the seas — even after ships had been stopped and searched.
More than 100 nations have now endorsed the PSI, which seeks to curtail the illegal trade.
Wednesday’s drill, which was observed by about 50 participants from 18 countries in the Pacific region, was held for two reasons, said Lt. Commander David Leather, who works for U.S. Pacific Command on issues involving WMD.
First, the search-and-seize drills demonstrate capabilities that other endorsing nations might want to develop, he said. Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and the U.S. are considered “operational experts” among the endorsing nations of the Pacific.
But the drill is also being held in a public forum because it “demonstrates to possible proliferators that there is a core group of nations out there — likeminded nations — that are not going to stand for proliferation,” Leather said.
For the sea drill, the USNS Henry J Kaiser, a military refueling ship, posed as a commercial tanker.
“This drill is specifically directed at a large commercial ship that may be carrying something that could be used in the production of WMDs,” Leather said. “So it’s not looking for the shiny bomb.”
Boarding was done in three separate phases, with each country’s team working independently.
The U.S. Coast Guard’s Maritime Safety and Security Team-Honolulu wrapped things up by “detecting” uranium-238 in a shipping container.
The heavily armored and armed Guardsmen each carried a radiation “pager” device that automatically beeps when a certain level of radioactivity is detected, said Paul Frantz, the team’s commander. Some radiation is naturally emitted, while others might emanate from fissile material that could be used for nuclear weapons.
“From there they use the secondary equipment to isolate the isotope and are able to send that back to an agency that can identify it and determine if it’s naturally occurring or not,” Frantz said. “From there you can look at the manifest and determine whether that should be there or not.”
Fortune Guard will be held next year in New Zealand, followed by Singapore, Australia, Japan and South Korea.
“We want to make sure that it’s happening on an annual basis, that the drum beat continues,” Leather said.