WAR ON TERROR SPECIAL
Anthony Tucker-Jones, Iain Ballantyne, & Peter Hore (UK)
Charles Strathdee & G. Keith Jacobs (USA)
With Iran seemingly determined despite the opposition of the international community to acquire a nuclear capability and Pakistan and India already in the club, it was inevitable that the Proliferation Security Initiative would make its presence felt on the high seas of the region.
Last month the Australian frigate HMAS Melbourne (05) took part in the latest of a series of PSI exercises to be held around the world. Melbourne was reinforced by a RAAF P-3C Maritime Patrol Aircraft detachment also deployed to the Middle East. They were taking part in the US-led exercise Sea Sabre in the Arabian Sea, not far from Iran and Pakistan. A defence ministry statement explained that the exercise scenario involved the Australian forces in the "collection, analysis and integration of intelligence and operational resources to support the detection, location and interception of a merchant vessel suspected of carrying Weapons of Mass Destruction-related equipment."
The Republic of Singapore Navy assault ship RSS Endurance (LST 207) worked closely with the Spanish frigate SPS Victoria (F82) during Sea Sabre. Members of Spain's 19th Special Forces Unit went aboard the Endurance during one phase of the exercise. Endurance played a compliant and non-compliant target vessel for boarding teams from Spain and other countries.
The Arabian Sea exercise was the first of six PSI exercises planned world-wide this year. The others are scheduled to be:
Where Australia cannot commit units, then she will send observers.
Australian Defence Minister Robert Hill observed: "We feel that it is important to have the capacity to support the existing non-proliferation diplomatic regime. Having the military capability to deter or defeat illegal transfers of WMD and their precursors should be a significant deterrent."
HMAS Melbourne was diverted from her usual duties in the northern Gulf to take part in the PSI exercise. She replaced sister ship HMAS Newcastle (06) in the Gulf last November. Key duties for Melbourne and other Coalition warships include monitoring, intercepting and boarding vessels suspected of illegally trafficking oil or other unregulated cargo. It is the second time in 18 months that Melbourne has deployed to the Gulf, having contributed to the Coalition Maritime Interception Force (MIF) that enforced sanctions on Saddam's Iraq prior to the war last year.
With deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in Coalition custody, awaiting the day when he will answer for his crimes against humanity, several incidents in the Gulf region have pointed towards a rise in Al-Qaeda activity. And, as discussed in this magazine in recent editions, a clear link between the terrorists and drug running has been exposed.
First, in later December, a boarding team from the destroyer USS Decatur (DDG 73) discovered an estimated two tons of narcotics, with an estimated street value of US $8-10 million, aboard a 40-foot dhow intercepted close to the Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf.
A US Navy spokesman explained: "The dhow's 12 crew members were taken into custody and transferred to Decatur. The smuggling routes are known to be used by Al-Qaeda, and three of the dhow's crewmembers are believed to have links to the organisation."
Five days later, in a sophisticated combined operation, another suspected Al-Qaeda drugs shipment was intercepted. In fact, it was intelligence gained from the earlier interception by USS Decatur that led to the USN boarding two dhows in the northern Arabian Sea, this time discovering what is believed to be pure heroin and methamphetamine. A P-3K Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) from the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) initially located the two suspect boats. RNZAF and other MPAs from Australia, the UK and the USA tracked the dhows for the next 48 hours. Meanwhile, the AEGIS guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea (CG 58) was directed by Commander, US Naval Forces Central Command (CENTCOM) to conduct an interception. With a Royal Air Force Nimrod MPA patrolling overhead, the Philippine Sea intercepted the two dhows at dawn. One of Philippine Sea's search teams found approximately 150 pounds of methamphetamine aboard the first dhow. The second suspect boat tried to outrun the interception forces, with its crew throwing approximately 200 bags of drugs overboard. On getting aboard the second dhow, the Philippine Sea's sailors discovered what is believed to be pure heroin. The 14 crewmen from the first dhow and seven crewmen from the second dhow were all taken into USN custody for further screening and legal processing. Rear Admiral Jim Stavridis, commander, USS Enterprise (CVN 65) Aircraft Carrier Strike Group observed: "Coming so quick on the heels of our earlier drug dhow capture, this operation tells me that our intelligence coordination, teamed with the actions of the brave sailors conducting these boardings are right on the money."
The USN was by the end of 2003 holding four confirmed Al-Qaeda terrorists seized during boarding operations in the CENTCOM area. Vice Admiral David Nichols, the head US Naval Forces CENTCOM, and 5th Fleet, revealed that two vessels had been stopped and searched. In one instance, sailors detained one individual; in the other it was three. The trio of suspects was probably taken from the dhow intercepted by the Decatur, while the other Al-Qaeda suspect may have come from a mystery ship attempting to sneak him into Iraq.
"We're having some success at disrupting movement, not only of terrorists going into Iraq but other terrorist activities in the region," said Vice Admiral Nichols. "Frankly, drugs and terrorists use the same network and stopping one will stop the other." Then, a further interception was made on New Year's Day, when another dhow was intercepted in the northern Arabian Sea. Coalition forces detained fifteen people and an estimated 2,800 pounds of hashish (of approximately $11 million street value) was seized. Following indications that the dhow was involved in smuggling activities, an Australian P-3 located and tracked the vessel. The assault carrier USS Peleliu (LHA 5), the cruiser USS Port Royal (CG 73) and assault ship USS Germantown (LSD 42), as well as elements of the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), executed the interception. Boarding teams discovered the hashish underneath blocks of ice and in hidden compartments.
Out of all the individuals detained in the spate of interceptions, 10 have been transferred to what the US Navy calls "a secure, undisclosed facility for further questioning." A USN spokesman elaborated: "These 10 were transferred after initial interrogations revealed possible Al-Qaeda affiliations deemed noteworthy enough to pursue further. The other crewmembers have been turned over to officials of a country in the region." Rear Admiral Bob Conway, ESG-1 commander, gave the opinion that the interceptions "perfectly suited" the capabilities of the various USN units deployed to the Gulf region. "We are designed to provide combatant commanders with the flexibility to conduct operations across the spectrum of conflict. The immediate nature of this tasking challenged our ability to locate and intercept the dhow on short notice." Speaking after the latest interception, Vice Admiral Nichols said: "Many terror organisations have been assessed to use drug money to fund their operations. It is easy to see how Al-Qaeda could use this money-making network to fund their operations."
As the US Marine Corps' 1st Division prepared Stateside to take over from the US Army in Iraq later this year, arms cache discoveries by Coalition troops in the areas where the leathernecks will soon have jurisdiction, have also yielded clear evidence of an Al-Qaeda presence. For example, during a raid southeast of Samarra, Al-Qaeda training manuals and propaganda leaflets, were uncovered alongside ceramic body armour and a VHS tape labelled "Sheik of the Muhaddin (sp) Osama bin-Laden." In the first 24 hours of the New Year in Iraq, the Coalition conducted 1,571 patrols, 28 offensive operations,
15 raids, and captured 88 anti-coalition suspects. More evidence of foreign fighters in Iraq was uncovered. A Coalition spokesman said: "Coalition soldiers captured a high value target, Abu Muhammad, a key facilitator operating in the Al Anbar province. He's believed to be responsible for moving foreign fighters and large sums of cash throughout the area. He was caught trying to escape Iraq, along with three additional enemy personnel. At the Al-Tabul Mosque in Baghdad, 32 terrorist suspects were detained, and based on their dialect, several of the detainees were suspected to be foreign nationals. Confirmation of the suspects' nationalities and any possible connections to foreign terrorist organisations has not yet been established. Despite the clear use of this mosque for criminal, terrorist and anti-Coalition activities, the greatest care was taken by Coalition forces to uphold its sanctity and to use the minimal amount of force necessary to conduct the operation. There were no casualties."
As part of the Coalition's campaign to keep the pressure on terrorists in the Middle East, Britain's newest frigate has deployed on her maiden assignment to the region. HMS St Albans (F83) left Portsmouth on November 10 at the start of a six-month mission. It will see her patrolling waters from the Horn of Africa to the northern Gulf, interrogating suspect vessels and sending out boarding parties in search of terrorists. St Albans, which is the last of 16 Type 23 frigates built for the RN has taken over duties from sister ship HMS Kent (F78). Meanwhile the Type 23 frigate HMS Norfolk has been 'up threat' in the Gulf itself. On the way south, St Albans called at the Jordanian port of Aqaba, before sailing down the Red Sea to rendezvous with French, Spanish, Italian and US naval forces to conduct counter-terrorism patrols off the south-western tip of the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa. Within a few days, St Albans' boarding teams had investigated several small vessels that might have been assisting terror groups.
A SEAL team from the US Pacific Fleet area has conducted joint anti-terrorism operations for the first time with Indian Navy Special Forces personnel.
The exercises were part of an agreement concluded in meetings between Indian chief of naval staff Vice Admiral S.V. Gopalachari and Vice Admiral Robert Willard, Commander, US Seventh Fleet. During the past year, the two navies have conducted five joint exercises and it is anticipated more extensive and more frequent exercises will be held in 2004. India has also expressed interest in obtaining four or five retired Spruance Class fleet destroyers, as part of expanded overall cooperation between the two governments and their navies fostered by shared aims in the War on Terrorism.
Canada has decided to maintain its contribution to the global War on Terrorism after, having decided a few months ago to give its navy a complete rest.
The Canadian fleet has committed a frigate to the USS George Washington (CVN 73) Carrier Strike Group, which has just arrived in the Gulf to take over from the USS Enterprise CSG. HMCS Toronto (333) is the first ship deployed by Canada under its reduced commitment, named Operation ALTAIR.
Having carried out a full work-up as part of the USS Enterprise Carrier Strike Group (CSG) the USS Cole (DDG 67) has made her first port visit overseas since the Aden attack of three years ago that killed 17 of her sailors and nearly sank her. The Arleigh Burke Class destroyer called at Naval Station Rota, Spain last month (December). It was part of her maiden deployment since being repaired at a cost of around US $250 million. The ship now has a "Hall of Heroes", with 17 brass stars embedded in the new blue floor of the mess decks where a gaping hole used to be. They represent a memorial to the 17 sailors who perished. As a member of the Enterprise CSG, the Cole is assigned to the front line in the War on Terrorism. The CSG's ships are spread out across a wide area, from the Mediterranean to the Gulf, part of the US Navy's efforts, with Coalition partners to disrupt terrorist networks.
For more on the American-led War on Terrorism, buy the latest edition of WARSHIPS IFR magazine.