Coast Guard presence in Mideast making waves
By CHRIS CHURCH | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 12, 2016
MANAMA, Bahrain — When thinking about military forces operating throughout the Middle East, the U.S. Coast Guard — known by most for its operations around the U.S. — probably doesn’t jump to mind.
Yet the Coast Guard, with its focus on patrolling coastal waters and interdicting smugglers, has a key role to play in a region where illicit trafficking in people, drugs and arms is of serious concern.
Patrol Forces Southwest Asia, established in 2002 to support Operation Iraqi Freedom, is the Coast Guard’s largest unit outside of the United States. It assists with maritime security operations throughout the Fifth Fleet theater with six patrol boats, shore-side support, an Advanced Interdiction Team and the Maritime Engagement Team.
“The goal in our operations is actually twofold,” said Cmdr. Alain Balmaceda, deputy commander of Patrol Forces Southwest Asia. It encompasses “building up the capacity of our partner nations here ... as well as sharing our own tactics with our partner nations to help them provide a stronger force on the water.”
Maritime Engagement Team
Using the Coast Guard’s expertise in countering trafficking and visit, board, search and seizure operations, the 12 members of the Maritime Engagement Team participate in about 50 engagements and exercises throughout the year, said Lt. Eric D. Nielsen, spokesman for Patrol Forces Southwest Asia.
Most engagements last five to 10 days and are a mixture of classroom work and real life scenarios teaching everything from boarding ships and vessels to searching and seizing illicit substances, said MET supervisor Lt. j.g. Meredith Anderson. They work on proper procedures and tactics.
They may conduct the engagements in host nation countries using that country’s facilities or they invite partners to work at their own facilities in Bahrain.
Additionally, the MET is responsible for providing operational proficiency training for the other Coast Guard forces in Bahrain, such as the crews of their patrol boats.
“With having unique skill sets like [visit, board, search and seizure], if you don’t practice them, they become perishable,” Balmaceda said.
At its warehouse in Bahrain, the engagement team has realistic facilities. The team’s shoot house is known as the “ship-in-the-box.” It’s a 3,000-square-foot engagement facility that mimics the conditions found on ships. It has ladderwells and hatches and can be arranged to simulate shipboard spaces.
“It forces you to be in the mind-set of actually being on a ship,” Anderson said.
While clearing spaces of possible threats, teams use Airsoft replica guns to engage and be engaged by opposition forces. The team can elevate the engagements with Airsoft grenades and other explosives.
During these scenarios, teams are tasked with clearing the “Ship-in-the-box” quickly and efficiently and determining who is a threat, said MET member Petty Officer 3rd Class Ashton Bush. “You never know, you might have a hostage or an innocent bystander in a room,” Bush said. “You want to be able to give them task direction.”
Inside the warehouse is a 65-foot fishing dhow, much like what forces may encounter in the Middle East, Anderson said. The dhow has more than 20 hidden compartments that could be used to store weapons and drugs.
“They know a lot of times they are going to get boarded out at sea,” MET member Petty Officer 1st Class Tom Kimberly said of smugglers. “They’re hoping that if they conceal [contraband], if it looks like an ordinary object and it’s well hidden ... they’ll get to go free.”
One of the advantages of using the Coast Guard for these engagements is that its size and mission sets are more in tune with what navies throughout the world do than the U.S. Navy is, Nielsen said. While the U.S. Navy often projects power forward, regional navies are generally more focused on protecting the waterways along their countries’ borders.
“The Coast Guard brings a unique skill set to that as that’s what we typically do in our own service,” Balmaceda said.
Illicit trafficking remains a significant problem in the conflict-prone region, with some of the biggest shipping lanes in the world. More than a third of the world’s oil passes through Combined Maritime Forces’ area of responsibility each year.
U.S. and coalition partners have seized several large shipments of drugs and weapons this year. Australian frigate HMAS Darwin — which worked with the Maritime Engagement Team after arriving in theater — and French frigate Nivose seized about a metric ton of heroin in May. Darwin also seized a large cache of assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, machine guns and ammo heading toward Somalia earlier this year.
The Coast Guard team’s engagement with partner nations is essential to preparing maritime forces for security operations and ensuring a consistently high standard for the Combined Maritime Forces, said Capt. Tony Aldred of the Royal Australian Navy, director of operations, Combined Maritime Forces.
“The experience gained from working with USCG has been directly applied to numerous significant weapon and narcotics interdictions during the past year,” he said.
A participant checks paperwork while searching the cabin of a fishing dhow used for training during a visit, board, search and seizure engagement involving the Egyptian, Iraqi, and Jordanian navies and the U.S. Coast Guard's Maritime Engagement Team in Bahrain on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2016.
CHRIS CHURCH/STARS AND STRIPES