Phoenix Express 2008 tests maritime interdiction operations multinational capabilities

USS NASSAU, At Sea During the two-week Phoenix Express 2008 (PE 08) exercise, that began April 8, service members from 11 nations came together in an effort to improve their collective abilities to perform maritime interdiction operations (MIOs).

Altogether, 13 teams from nine countries participated in the MIO events. Specifically, teams from Algeria; Greece; Malta; Morocco; Portugal; Spain; Tunisia; Turkey and the U.S. all utilized the exercise as an opportunity to hone their collective skills both individually and as multinational teams.

These operations are how multinational navies confront possible threats from other craft that are encountered while out at sea. For the U.S. Navy, MIOs are handled by each ship's visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) teams. VBSS teams help to ensure mission readiness while focusing on the importance of maritime security operations (MSO).

MSO helps set the conditions for security and stability in the maritime environment and complements the counterterrorism and security efforts on the high seas and in nations' littoral waters.

"The mission of a VBSS team is to board a ship, whether it is compliant or noncompliant, and find out whether there are any extra personnel aboard the ship or any cargo they're not supposed to have, such as any contraband or weapons," said Marine Corps Capt. Nicholas K. Zetz, Marine Corps Security Forces Company, Rota, Spain.

The teams from each country practiced MIO throughout the PE 08 exercise, which was broken up into two phases, inport and at-sea.

While inport in Souda Bay, Crete, the teams worked with the newly established North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO) Maritime Interdiction Operational Training Center (NMIOTC), which provided a practical training environment for the teams. There, teams were able to hone skills in small arms training, fast rope insertion, tactical sweeps, crew control and multiple threat scenarios.

"The mission of our center is to conduct training necessary for NATO forces to better execute surface, sub-surface and aerial surveillance and special operational activities in support of maritime interdiction operations," said Hellenic Navy Commodore Konstantine Ifantis, commanding officer, NMIOTC. "The center has the potential to not only train Naval units in MIO, but also to provide proposals for new doctrines, tactics, methods and equipment in this growing field of maritime security operations."

The center offered a unique opportunity for the service members from each of the participating nations to view and compare tactics on a first-hand basis.

"It's a good learning exercise, you get to learn what others know from the experiences that they have in their countries or other countries that they have had experience dealing with in their combat situations," said Marine Corps Cpl. John Young, squad leader for the Supreme Allied Command's Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team (SACFAST), 6th Platoon.

"MIO and VBSS are both dynamic products, it's a dynamic skill that changes year-by-year," said Navy Lt.j.g. Reynel Saa, VBSS officer, Nassau Expeditionary Strike Group. "As a collective VBSS team with other countries, it's important to continue to train, because we can't do all the boardings. So as a coalition, if we can have some of the other countries helping out with those boardings, it makes our lives a lot easier."

The second phase of the exercise was performed at sea and offered the MIO teams several different chances and ways to board simulated suspicious craft. With some of the naval vessels acting as boarding platforms, teams were offered multiple opportunities for practical training in an open, littoral environment.

"During the exercise we conducted fast-rope exercises and traditional RHIB embarkations," said Saa. "We also conducted helo-deck landings as well."

The simulated target vessels for these training exercise were often the amphibious transport dock ship USS Nashville (LPD 13) and the fleet replenishment oiler USNS Patuxent (T-AO 201). Landing craft utilities (LCU) from the amphibious assault ship USS Nassau (LHA 4) were also used as target craft in several scenarios. Nassau herself was utilized as a central hub for the exercise, hosting many liaison naval officers from the other participating countries.

"We served as essentially a hotel and command center for about a 150 people from 10 different nations," said Navy Capt. James R. Boorujy, commanding officer, Nassau. "We carried a number of the boarding teams from several of the countries that participated, so we were very much the center of the operation."

Two helicopters from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 28 provided transportation from Nassau's flight deck to the target vessels, often taking foreign teams who had never flown in an American helicopter.

While not performing boarding exercises, the multinational teams also found other ways to improve their collective skills, including friendly competitions and small arms firing.

"The small arms training that we did aboard the ship was really a way to do a weapons exchange with other countries," said Zetz. "We gave them an opportunity to fire some of our weapons like the Mossberg shotgun or our Beretta 9mm's, and the Maltese let us fire their MP5s."

The at-sea phase of PE 08 came to a close April 19, in Augusta Bay, Sicily, where the participating countries met to discuss the outcome of the exercise.

"Looking at the reports, one of the common trends was the level of professionalism," said Saa. "That says a lot. If there's one thing that's really truly important when you're conducting VBSS it is professionalism. That may be the first time that that vessel's master ever meets an American, and you never get a second chance at a first impression. So you really need to show that you're a professional and you're not there to harm them. That's the message that we need to put out there every time we do this."

"One of the successes that Nassau can take away is that we can operate with many different countries," said Boorujy. "We can bring their helicopters in, we can bring the boarding teams in and they can work from this very capable platform."

PE 08 is the third annual exercise in a long-term effort to improve regional cooperation and maritime security. The principal aim is to increase interoperability by developing individual and collective maritime proficiencies of participating nations, as well as promoting friendship, mutual understanding and cooperation.

Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Coleman Thompson
Nassau Expeditionary Strike Group Public Affairs

Published on: 2008-04-24

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