U.S. Sailors Divert Arabian Gulf Smugglers
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
ABOARD THE USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN, Oct. 20, 1998 Seaman Jeff Hammond and Petty Officer 2nd Class Jamie Malesich may spend their duty days in the dark, but they're definitely in the know when it comes to what's happening in the Arabian Gulf.
Hammond and Malesich work in the combat direction center of this 1,100-foot-long nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. In early October, they were assigned to a special part of the center's mission of tracking all aircraft and ships in the gulf. They scanned the high seas for Navy Destroyer Squadron 21, which intercepts merchant vessels likely to be carrying illegal goods into or out of Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
The Lincoln and its battle group of escort ships have been on a six-month deployment in the gulf since June. The calm quiet below deck was repeatedly shattered day and night as flight deck operations overhead launched and retrieved fighter jets. The Lincoln's air wing sends F-18 Hornets, F-14 Tomcats and other aircraft to enforce the U.N.-mandated no-fly zone over southern Iraq.
Hammond, from Montrose, Colo., watched radar blips denoting ships in the gulf as Malesich, from Englewood, Colo., directed surveillance planes. Both continued working as destroyer squadron commander Capt. Jim Stavridis explained his unit's 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week mission.
"We look at all the ships that go into and out of Iraq," he said. "We make a determination as to whether they're violating any of the U.N. sanctions enforced against Iraq since the end of the Gulf War."
U.N. Security Council Resolution 661 prohibits nations from importing Iraqi goods and exporting goods to Iraq with the exception of oil for food. Resolution 986 limits Iraq to about $10 billion a year in oil exports to buy food. To ensure oil sales buy only food, the United Nations controls the purse.
Resolution 665 authorizes a coalition maritime interception operation to enforce the U.N. sanctions. Currently, U.S., British and Canadian ships patrol the gulf. Australia, Belgium and New Zealand also have taken part in the operation.
"Three or four years ago, we would have been using paper charts to plot positions," Stavridis said. "Now, with computer technology, we tap into a database that fuses and stores all the information collected. The watch officers then can provide direction, make informed decisions, and keep me and the admiral informed about what we're doing up in the northern gulf."
Watch officers Lt. George Capen of San Diego and Lt. j.g. Brian Peterson of Pine River, Mont., go about their business evaluating the database and directing U.S. warships operating in the area.
"They query every merchant vessel, Stavridis said. "We identify ourselves, say we're conducting U.N. operations and ask them where they've come from, where they're headed and what cargo they're carrying."
The command center officers then ask themselves questions. "Have they told us truthfully where they're coming from? We have a pretty good idea," he said. "We look at the radar track, the flag the ship's flying, its exact location. Are they on a logical course and speed for where they claim to be heading?
"We fly aircraft over the ship to get a firsthand, common-sense look," he continued. "If they say they're unladen, we look to see if they're deep in the water. There are clues we can gather from observing them."
After evaluating the situation and the database, the watch officers then decide whether to board and inspect the vessel, Stavridis said. He estimated his 4,000-sailor squadron boarded about 185 of the 550 ships queried in the past three months.
"Most of the ships trying to go into Iraq are legitimate," Stavridis said. "So far this summer, about half a dozen have been caught trying to take illegal cargo into or out of Iraq. We've seen ships trying to bring in computers, televisions, electronic gear, tires and drugs -- all illegal under the U.N. sanctions."
When boarding is deemed necessary, a squadron destroyer, cruiser or frigate will go alongside the vessel.
"We'll put a small rubber boat in the water and a team of about six sailors, led by a lieutenant, will board the vessel and do an inspection," Stavridis said. "It's done in an extremely professional, very polite, courteous fashion. I tell all my boarding crews these are vessels operating on the high seas and their captains will always be treated with respect -- and they always are."
The inspectors check the vessel and its cargo holds, and they sample oil or liquid fuels. They look at the ship's charts and satellite navigation data to see if they match the course and speed the captain claims to be traveling. "We give the ship a thorough going over," he said. "It takes two to six hours, sometimes longer on a very large ship."
Ships carrying humanitarian supplies must show a U.N. authorization letter. "They can't simply say to us, 'We're taking a load of grain into Iraq,' and then we come aboard and it's a big shipment of computer parts."
"Our job as tacticians out here is completed once we find evidence of a smuggler and we turn the vessel over to the United Nations," Stavridis said. Vessels caught smuggling are diverted to a third country, where the cargo is removed and its fate determined under U.N. auspices, he added.
The coalition interception operation queries a large number of ships, he said, but nets only a few smugglers -- "A lot of that is because we've been successful in creating a deterrent mentality in the smugglers." But some do slip through.
Stavridis estimated smugglers move hundreds of thousands of metric tons of oil products by sailing through Iranian territory. "We can't go after them," he said, because Iran prohibits coalition ships in its waters.
"U.S. policy is to try to work with Iran to close that route," he said. "We pretty well cut off everything that goes in and out of Iraq, except what goes through Iranian waters."