CAMP LEMONNIER, Djibouti — Before sunrise, the sailors slip off base in a boat-hauling convoy through the darkened streets of Djibouti, harbor-bound.
Sailors of the Coastal Riverine Squadron-1 Forward Wave 2, deployed to Camp Lemonnier to guard big U.S. Navy ships cruising into Djibouti’s port, have the tricky task of offloading their 34-foot Sea Ark vessels onto a crowded ramp occupied by rickety fishing canoes.
“You have to be careful here. People sometimes are sleeping under those boats,” said U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Alan Tubbs, who leads 69 sailors deployed with CRS Wave 2.
On a recent morning, the offload went off without a hitch as the three Sea Arks slid past the overturned wooden fishing boats and headed out to deep water.
With Yemen a mere 50 miles across the narrow stretch where the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden meet, and Somalia directly to the south, the tiny nation of Djibouti is nestled in a key strategic zone where the U.S. maintains drones, special operations forces, crisis-response soldiers and an array of airlift capability. It’s all aimed at countering threats and building the capabilities of partner militaries.
But when it comes to securing Djibouti’s waterways for passing U.S. Navy vessels, the job belongs to the Navy’s Coastal Riverine Squadron. Formed soon after the 2000 terrorist attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, Coastal Riverine squadrons provide security for Navy ships navigating dangerous waters around the world.
The high-speed boats, which can reach speeds of about 40 knots (46 mph), are mounted with two .50-caliber machine guns and one M240 7.62mm machine gun at the front.
“When you are postured like that, people don’t want to come near you,” Tubbs said.
Ultimately, the squadron’s job is to de-escalate tensions and ensure no unknown vessels get near U.S. warships, which often refuel in Djibouti.
The hardest part of the job, sailors say, is distinguishing when an unidentified boat poses a true threat. In a busy harbor often filled with fishing boats, language barriers pose a challenge, sailors said.
If a boat does approach, the team goes through a variety of measures to ensure the boat keeps its distance. Loud speakers, flares and aggressive boat maneuvers that kick up white water all send a message of warning to the approaching vessel, sailors said.
“It’s to show an aggressive posture, said Petty Officer 2nd Class Javan Wells, patrol leader. “Our job is to prevent things from developing into a threat in the first place.”
As the team cruised the Djiboutian waters, running through maneuvers and monitoring the security landscape, Tubbs quizzed team members on the rules of engagement.
If a true threat emerges, there is no time to call up the chain for approval to open fire. That means the decision to attack is delegated to the boat’s coxswain.
There is no room for mistakes. Any misfire on civilians would result in a major diplomatic row, Tubbs said.
“That’s why we go through these test rides,” he said. “I need to be comfortable in what they are doing out here.”