Prepositioning Ships play in Southeast Asian anti-terrorism exercise
Lopez and Phillips unite to combat terrorism during Southeast Asia exercise
Article and photos by Edward Baxter, SEALOGFE Public Affairs
Royal Malaysian navy Lt. Sharil Tikri radioed his commander that the ship's cargo manifest and crew list all checked out.
Finding no reason to search the ship any further, the Malaysian navy allowed Military Sealift Command's prepositioning ship USNS 1st Lt. Baldomero Lopez to continue on its voyage.
Naval forces from the United States, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and the Philippines participated in the annual Southeast Asia Cooperation Against Terrorism exercise Aug. 16-21.
Lopez, along with fellow Maritime Prepositioning Ship MV Pvt. Franklin J. Phillips, played the role of suspicious merchant vessels during the exercise. USS Jarrett, USS Ford and USS Harpers Ferry also participated in the exercise designed to highlight the value of sharing information in a multi-national environment, as well as conduct training in maritime interception operations.
Combined, Lopez and Phillips were boarded on five occasions by representatives from four Southeast Asian countries. "Lopez provides a realistic platform to conduct this type of training since, in many ways, it's just like any other commercial cargo vessel," said Lopez's master Capt. John Waters.
During the training scenarios, Lopez transited southwest from Phuket, Thailand, while Phillips left Brunei's capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, heading east through the South China Sea. Both ships were destined for Singapore.
"Terrorism is a major concern for every nation participating in SEACAT, and the exercise means we can network and learn to share information," said Lt. Surasak Inprom, a Royal Thai navy liaison officer embarked aboard Lopez.
The exercise kicked off when a U.S. Navy P-3 maritime patrol aircraft observed Phillips transferring cargo pallets to another commercial cargo vessel. The transfer stopped suddenly when the ship's crew spotted the passing P-3. Earlier, officials in Vietnam notified Brunei's authorities that Phillips' cargo manifest was not in order. In the exercise scenario, Vietnam was Phillips' last port of call.
After Brunei authorities received the intelligence, they dispatched one of their Air Force Bell 212 helicopters to land a boarding team. The team from Brunei's special forces regiment secured Phillips' bridge and engine room, checked crew members' passports and quizzed the master as to the ship's cargo and destination.
The Brunei team released Phillips after they found no legal reason to detain the ship, but acting on intelligence from Brunei, Malaysian authorities continued to monitor and track the ship.
"The exercise opens dialogue between participating nations and provides each nation an opportunity to test out its assets," said Phillips' master Capt. Alexander Olaes.
The next day, off the coast of Phuket, a team from the Royal Thai navy frigate RTN Chaophraya boarded Lopez after the ship issued a distress call that it was under attack by pirates. After Thai officials thoroughly searched the ship's living accommodations, they found a stowaway hiding in a closet.
The stowaway, played by U.S. Coast Guard Gunners Mate 1st Class Chris Barton, told Thailand's boarding officer Lt. Yuttapon Ruangrit that pirates left him behind after they fled from the ship in a panic. Barton also revealed that the pirates were looking for weapons since Lopez was reported to be an arms smuggler.
A four-man U.S. Coast Guard Team from Maritime Safety and Security Team 91107, based in Honolulu, Hawaii, was embarked aboard both Lopez and Phillips for the exercise - to assess where teams excelled and where they could improve.
"It's important for our team to work with other countries, share ideas and concepts, better communicate and get everyone on the same page," said U.S. Coast Guard Port Security Specialist 1st Class Edward Stankos.
After questioning the ship's master and checking out the ship's documents, Thailand's boarding team found no hard evidence to back the alleged pirate's claim. The stowaway was brought back for interrogation to the frigate where he revealed more details about Lopez's role as a smuggler. Thailand relayed the intelligence to Malaysia, which monitored Lopez through the narrow and busy Strait of Malacca.
With a Lynx helicopter hovering near Lopez's flight deck, the Royal Malaysian navy frigate KD Jebat deployed a team by small boat, Aug. 19. From the boat, they boarded Lopez just off the Malaysian coast.
The team secured the bridge and engine room and questioned the master about the ship's cargo, last port of call and destination. The Malaysian team later released Lopez but notified Singapore's navy to continue monitoring Lopez.
Just after sunrise, Aug. 20, an eight-man team from the Republic of Singapore navy and coastal police boarded Lopez by commercial pilot boat, as Singapore's naval patrol craft RSS Dauntless circled Lopez. Once on board, teams fanned out quickly over the main deck. Other team members secured the bridge and engine room and checked the ship's documents.
Lopez's crew members were assembled in the crew's lounge, but one was reported missing. Alarmed, the boarding team searched the ship's living accommodations, finding the missing crew member sleeping in his rack. He was questioned extensively before Lopez's master confirmed him as a member of the crew.
The Singapore boarding team and U.S. Coast Guard team members held discussions to evaluate the performance of the exercise participants and to highlight lessons learned.
"The Singapore navy team was very systematic in its approach and asked some very good questions during the search," said U.S. Coast Guard Electronics Technician 1st Class Dustin McAninich.
The exercise scenario concluded with Singapore's boarding teams finding illicit weapons on board both Lopez and Phillips and taking the ships' masters and crews into mock custody immediately.
"SEACAT is an excellent opportunity to share information and learn from each other," said Singapore navy Capt. Ivan Chua, a liaison officer embarked aboard Lopez. "We watched how other navies conduct their boarding operations, and we'll pass that information back to commanders in Singapore."
Throughout the exercise, liaison officers from Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia were embarked aboard Lopez, and officers from Singapore and Brunei were embarked aboard Phillips. "We made new friends during the exercise," Chua said.
"We all shared stories about our naval careers, our families and our lives back home and grew quite close after just a few days together at sea."