By Kim Dixon
MSCEURAF Public Affairs
|A Royal Moroccan Navy boarding team makes its way to Wheat’s bridge during a visit, board, search and seizure exercise May 23.|
U.S. Navy photos by MC1 Brian Goyak
Maritime security in the Mediterranean Sea has been a concern for millennia, continuing into the modern day. Threats have evolved, though, into a broader concept of security concerns encompassing terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, transnational criminality, illegal immigration and the environment.
The seventh iteration of exercise Phoenix Express – a two-phased maritime exercise conducted May 7-28 – brought together five Military Sealift Command ships, other U.S. Navy forces and 12 allied navies to focus on Mediterranean security issues by training in maritime interdiction operations.
MSC ships USNS SGT Matej Kocak (T-AK 3005), USNS LCPL Roy M. Wheat (T-AK 3016), USNS Kanawha (T-AO 196), USNS Grasp (T-ARS 51), MSC-contracted sea-going ferry MV San Marco and five MSC Europe and Africa reserve component members supported the underway phase of the exercise May 16-27 in the central Mediterranean. The ships participated in various scenarios, including role-playing high-value units in need of protection and target vessels suspected of illicit trafficking.
"Kocak was used as a target vessel for boarding teams to improve their skills at ship boarding," said civilian mariner Benjamin Larrabee, Kocak's second mate. "Due to the fact that the ship is similar to other cargo vessels, it gives the teams an opportunity to become more familiar with the layout of the ship and to improve on the difficulty of boarding such a large vessel."
|Hellenic Navy special forces members fast rope onto USNS LCPL Roy M. Wheat during Phoenix Express 2012, a maritime security exercise.|
Boarding an unfamiliar vessel presents dangers even with a compliant boarding, where the crew of the vessel cooperates fully with the boarding team. Phoenix Express mitigates those dangers through search and rescue scenarios, boarding drills, medical casualty drills, radio communication drills and information management techniques.
"The ship was able to see the interaction of personnel that our crew would normally not be exposed to," said Capt. Christopher Begley, Wheat's civilian master. "The crew learned that other countries have the ability to protect the rest of us who go to sea. We had the opportunity to work with helicopters and pilots from other navies as well as the sea-based boarding forces."
Wheat and Kocak are government-owned vessels crewed by mariners who work for private companies under contract to MSC.
In addition to providing a physical training platform, the MSC ship crews also played the role of commercial crew members, adding increased realism to the scenarios.
"In role playing, I got an opportunity to see how other teams performed from a tactical standpoint," said Andrew Carder, a contracted security officer assigned to Kocak. "Most of the time, I would be participating in tactical operations; for this, I was an observer and learned a lot. I've taken away some of the ideas and practices that the boarding teams use."
As the underway phase was wrapping up May 27, Kanawha conducted underway replenishments with USS Simpson (FFG 56), Greek navy ship HS Navarinon (F 461), Italian navy ship ITS Bettica (P 492) and Turkish navy ship TCG Gelibolu (F 493).
MSCEURAF Navy Lt. Cmdr. Ruth Avelis, Lt. Cmdr. Beth Williams and Marine Transportation Specialist Robert Foster coordinated the participation of all MSC ships. In addition, five MSCEURAF reserve component members from Expeditionary Port Unit 104, operating out of Navy Operational Support Center Syracuse, N.Y., supported Phoenix Express. Navy Chief Boatswain's Mate Shawn Reynolds and Lt. Jonathan Powell provided advanced planning for the ships in Souda Bay, Greece, the site of the exercise's pre-sail conference; Lt. Christina Kasm embarked Wheat; Lt.j.g. Luke Leszyk embarked Kocak; and Lt. Cmdr. Dan Mack deployed to the Combined Maritime Operations Center in Oran, Algeria. Each worked to facilitate the interaction between MSC ships and the other exercise participants.
"I could use my civilian professional management skills in coordinating among the several different people while leading the Navy personnel on board," said Kasm. "I was proud to be part of MSCEURAF supporting the maritime interdiction operations mission in the Mediterranean, essentially making MSC ships operations safer as we helped partner countries better combat illicit trafficking."