The three-member Coast Guard boarding team stepped from the darkened bowels of the ship into the sunlight of the vessel’s aft deck. They didn’t stand a chance.
One of the rogue ship’s crewmen stood 15 ft. in front of the Coast Guard boarding team with a loaded weapon behind his back, refusing to place it on the deck as the team was ordering. The Coast Guard team raised their weapons and trained their sights on the obstinate crewman’s center mass, just as they’d been trained.
The boarding officer in charge of the boarding yelled, “Drop the weapon! Do it NOW!” But the crewman refused to comply.
All eyes were on the armed crewman, and that was the team’s fatal mistake. One deck above them, another of the rogue ship’s crew took position against a railing. The man aimed his weapon down at the boarding team and unceremoniously began firing. In less time than it takes to say “mission failure,” the three Coast Guardsmen were lying on the deck wiping paint off each other’s backs.
This was the scene on day four of the Navy’s Visit, Board, Search and Seizure Training at the Afloat Training Group, Middle Pacific (ATG MIDPAC) in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Boarding teams from the Navy and Coast Guard spend five days there learning boarding procedures, self-defense, team communications, search tactics, and container climbing and rapelling. This training prepares them for operations such as U.N. sanctions enforcement in the Persian Gulf.
On day four of the training, boarding team members from the Coast Guard Cutter Rush, a 378-ft. ship home ported in Honolulu, attempted to inspect the VBSS training ship Yocona.
The Yocona is a 213-ft., 57-year old, decommissioned, gutted-out Coast Guard Cutter. Below deck, Yocona is a labyrinth of small compartments, narrow passageways, steep ladders, watertight hatches, piping and machinery. Navy weapons experts who know the vessel inside and out were charged with manning the vessel. They were armed with semi-automatic paintball guns, with other weapons hidden throughout the ship.
Every part of VBSS training simulates conditions the boarding teams could face in the real world, said Chief Gunners Mate Russell Hager, a VBSS senior instructor and the training safety officer.
To make the training more realistic (and more difficult), the instructors make the interior as dark as possible and keep the boarding teams moving through different sections of the ship so they never get too familiar with their surroundings.
“We chose paintball over laser tag and other systems because it’s more reliable, different colored balls tell us who hit who, and you can feel a paintball,” Hager said, “We want these scenarios to be as realistic as possible.”
In the next scenario, a five-member team heads into a compartment on their way to securing the wardroom. Before opening the hatch, they turn off all the lights in the room they are in. This prevents backlighting, which silhouettes anyone standing in the doorway, making them easy targets for the Navy snipers who could be waiting around any corner.
The Coasties enter the compartment “Israeli” style; four team members shine their lights into the black room, illuminating it and temporarily blinding anyone inside. After a quick look, they shut their lights off, rush into the room with weapons raised, scatter into “cover and conceal” positions, and then turn on their lights again to locate, blind and target anyone in the room.
The fifth team member comes in behind and secures the hatch behind them so that nobody can “six the team,” meaning to come up from behind and waste the team while everyone is focused on securing the room in front of them.
Two instructors follow the team into the room, smiles on their faces as they see the Coasties executing the space-to-space search tactics, lighting techniques and cover and concealment maneuvers flawlessly. After searching every part of the room for weapons and people, the room is deemed secure.
The next obstacle is a spiral staircase, which will lead the team into the wardroom. The boarding officer motions for his team to “leapfrog” up the staircase. With this technique, three men provide cover while one man moves up the stairway, establishes a position, and then provides cover for the next man to move forward.
Once up the stairway, the Coasties find a man (operations specialist 1st class Gary Brown, a VBSS instructor) lying on the deck of the wardroom, complaining of stomach pain, pleading with the Coasties to get him to a doctor. Just behind the boarding team, the other instructors are betting that the Coasties’ natural instinct to help the injured man will overcome their situational awareness, and they’ll rush to the man’s aid before clearing the room of possible snipers. The bet pays off. One of the Coasties rushes in to the man’s aid and is immediately taken out by a sniper (Fire Control Technician 1st Class Keith Casey, another VBSS instructor). None of the boarding team members can see where the sniper is hiding from their positions outside the wardroom.
Things go from bad to worse. Casey fires off five rounds into the doorway, and another boarding team member is down. The sniper continues firing into the doorway as he “slices the pie” to get a shot at another Coastie. Slicing the pie refers to edging around a wall or obstacle in small increments, to minimize the amount of body exposure to the “fatal funnel”, the cone-shaped area in front of a doorway where line of sight fire from another room is most deadly.
As the sniper comes around, one of the Coasties turns on his flashlight, blinding the sniper. The tables have turned, and the Coasties open up on the sniper, allowing the team to grab their injured teammates and withdraw from the situation as they’d been trained.
After each scenario, the instructors break down what the team did right and wrong. The problem this time was going after the injured man before securing the room.
It’s a long, tough day for the Coast Guard boarding team.
“After day four, we were pretty tired of being shot up by the Navy instructors,” said Seaman Sean Meetze, a boarding team member from the Rush.
“Everybody gets their butts kicked on day four. It’s the first day of tactical movements and they’ve got a lot to learn,” said Fire Control Chief John Cranford, the senior course instructor at VBSS. “But it has to be that way. Learning from mistakes is the best way of learning. And the shock of actually getting hit really boosts the learning curve. The little mistakes they make on the first day, they won’t make any more.”
“On the first day of tactical movements, we were too hesitant to use “deadly force”, so we were getting blown away,” Meetze said. “But by Friday, everyone was saying, ‘Look, stick to the use of force continuum, but if we have to take these guys out, let’s do it without getting shot.”
Day five of VBSS is time for full-fledged boarding scenarios, with no instructors to fall back on.
“We did the boardings using all the tactics we learned during the previous week, and everything just fell into place,” Meetze said. “Friday was a good day for the Coast Guard.”
In one Friday scenario, Meetze and two other Coasties were deep inside the blackness of the ship again, searching for a crewman. Suddenly word came over his radio that the second part of his boarding team was coming under fire on the bridge.
“We immediately started to egress the boat,” Meetze said. “It was so dark, you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face, so we had to go slowly. We didn’t want to turn our lights on because then you’re a target.”
As soon as Meetze’s team stepped out of the darkness into the sun on the ship’s aft deck, the paintballs began to fly.
“We just came out and all we heard was ‘Ping, Ping, Ping’ all around us,” Meetze said.
Meetze’s team dove for cover as the five instructor/snipers on the rear of the ship sprayed their positions. Using suppressing fire, leapfrogging, and cover and concealment, Meetze’s team was able to take out two of the five instructors and suffered no losses as they quickly exited the ship.
“Because we are outgunned and outmanned, it was better to get off the ship alive and come back with better odds,” Meetze said. “And we always come back. You can’t hide from the Coast Guard.”
While the Coast Guard was forced to leave the ship, it was a successful mission. VBSS instructors make sure that everyone going through the course understands that VBSS was not designed to teach them how to take down ships, but to be part of a team that can survive if a boarding goes wrong in the real world.
After all the scenarios were played out, the instructors divided the Coasties into two teams of seven, sent one to the bow, one to the stern and told them to go at it. The battle royal for possession of the Yokota was on.
“It was awesome,” Meetze said. “It was like playing cowboys and Indians when you’re a kid.”
“We enjoyed teaching the Coast Guard team,” Cranford said. “They knew their levels of force and verbal communication techniques, and were real hard to rattle. I guess that’s from all their experience dealing with the public.”