The United States and 10 other nations have embarked upon a controversial plan
to limit the spread of weapons of mass destruction by blocking suspect shipments
by air, land or sea.
Since May, when President Bush launched the effort—known as the Proliferation
Security Initiative—the U.S. Navy and allied forces have conducted five
maritime-interdiction exercises in the Pacific Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.
Another one, the first to be led by the United States, is scheduled later this
month in the Arabian Sea. Four more are planned in coming weeks.
PSI is “an essential component of the U.S. strategy to combat proliferation,”
John R. Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security,
told an audience in November, during the American Spectator Dinner in Washington,
D.C. With this initiative, he said, the United States plans “to work with
other concerned states to develop new methods to disrupt the proliferation trade
at sea, in the air and on land.”
Cooperating with the United States on PSI, thus far, are Australia, France,
Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal and the United Kingdom.
In all, Bolton said, more than 50 countries have indicated support for PSI “and
are ready to participate in interdiction efforts.”
The cooperation of other nations, he conceded, is important because the right
to conduct maritime interdictions is restricted under international law. A country
usually can board a ship in one of its own ports or territorial waters without
permission. In international waters, however, a country can board a ship forcibly
only if it flies that country’s flag, claims no nationality at all, or
is suspected of piracy or carrying slaves. Thus, the United States is seeking
as many countries as possible to participate in PSI, particularly key maritime
“PSI has been a fast-moving effort, reflecting the urgency attached to
establishing a more coordinated and active basis to prevent proliferation,”
The Bush administration claims this initiative is necessary, as potential enemies
seek to develop WMD. Saddam Hussein’s removal from power in Iraq has “unquestionably
improved the international situation,” Bolton said. But “state sponsors
of terrorism—such as Iran, North Korea, Syria and Libya—are aggressively
working to acquire weapons of mass destruction and their missile delivery systems.”
To block these efforts, the United States and its allies will use diplomatic
tactics whenever possible, Bolton said, but they “must be willing to deploy
more robust techniques, such as the interdiction and seizure of illicit goods,
the disruption of procurement networks, sanctions or other means.” No
option, he warned, “is off the table.”
Properly planned and executed, “interception of critical technologies
while en route can prevent hostile states and non-state actors from acquiring
these dangerous capabilities,” Bolton said. “At a minimum, interdiction
can lengthen the time that proliferators will need to acquire new weapons capabilities,
increase the cost and demonstrate our resolve to combat proliferation.”
In September, the 11 PSI partners met in Paris and agreed on a set of principles
laying out practical steps necessary to interdict shipments of WMD, delivery
systems and related materials flowing to and from states and non-state actors
While participants agreed that North Korea and Iran are “states of particular
proliferation concern,” PSI efforts are not aimed at any one country,
but at halting worldwide trafficking in WMD, delivery systems and related materials,”
Participants agreed to hold a series of 10 sea, air and ground training exercises
that would include both military and law enforcement assets. The first exercise—called
Pacific Protector—took place in September in the Coral Sea. Led by Australia,
Pacific Protector involved about 800 military and law enforcement personnel
from around the globe.
Australia contributed a frigate, a customs vessel and surveillance aircraft.
The United States provided the destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG 54), a Coast
Guard Law Enforcement Detachment and a cargo ship, the MV Pvt. Franklin J. Phillips
(T-AK 3004). Also participating were a Japanese Coast Guard patrol vessel and
a French maritime patrol aircraft.
In this exercise, the Phillips—a.k.a. MV Tokyo Summer for this drill—served
as the target vessel. The exercise began when the Japanese patrol vessel got
word that Tokyo Summer was suspected of carrying WMD-related items. She was
pursued, surrounded and ordered to stop.
A Japanese boarding team rappelled from helicopters onto the suspicious vessel,
which was then searched for weapons, and the weapons were seized.
“This was a very rudimentary, very simple operation just to go through
the numbers as to how—if we were asked by our governments—we could
collaborate to do interdiction of shipping,” said Adm. Walter F. Doran,
commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
“We know how to do this,” Doran told a group of defense writers
in Washington. “We’ve done maritime interdiction in the [Persian]
Gulf for the last 12 years or so.
“But this is a different situation, because now you are on the high seas,
the scope is larger and you are not dealing with smugglers breaking U.N. sanctions,”
Doran said. “You could be dealing with a whole host of other things.”
The next event—Sanso 2003—was more complex. This 10-part exercise
took place in October in the Mediterranean, with Spain taking the lead. The
United States contributed the guided missile frigate USS Nicholas (FFG 47) and
a P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft. Five other nations provided naval assets.
Sanso was patterned after a December 2002 operation in the Arabian Sea when
elements of the Spanish Navy, with U.S. help, boarded a Yemen-bound ship carrying
North Korean Scud missiles.
During Sanso, which lasted four days, vessels from several nations played the
part of merchant ships suspected of carrying WMD-related materials. In a series
of drills, the target ships were boarded and inspected by teams from other countries.
In one drill, the Nicholas acted as the target vessel. In another, the French
Frigate FS Jacouvet did so. In yet another, two Spanish Navy auxiliary ships
served as targets.
The commanding officer of the Nicholas, Cmdr. Chris Swallow, said in a statement
that the exercise was “very successful,” proving the participants
“are ready to execute joint interdiction operations at a moment’s
France was scheduled to lead the next maritime exercise in the Mediterranean
in late November. Italy was to follow with an air-interdiction drill in December.
Other exercises are planned for the months ahead.
U.S. experiences with maritime interdiction operations date to the Navy’s
birth in Revolutionary War, when Capt. John Paul Jones conducted raids against
British shipping. During the American Civil War, U.S. Navy MIOs played a major
role in blockading Southern ports.
In recent times, the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard—often in cooperation—have
employed MIOs against smugglers of drugs, illegal migrants, contraband oil and
Since 1980, the Coast Guard has interdicted an estimated 305,000 undocumented
migrants headed from 62 countries toward the U.S. shoreline. In 2001 alone—the
most recent year with available figures—the Coast Guard seized more than
135,000 pounds of cocaine, setting a maritime cocaine seizure record for the
third consecutive year. Most of the drug interdictions took place in the Caribbean
Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and the eastern Pacific Ocean.
First Gulf War
On the far side of the world, in the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea and the western
Indian Ocean, the United States and its allies have conducted MIOs for years.
Since the first Persian Gulf War, 42,409 vessels have been queried, 2,917 have
been boarded, and 2,299 have been diverted for further investigation, said a
The percentage of boardings picked up with the invasions of Afghanistan and
Iraq. In 2002, there were 4,995 queries, 2,917 boardings and 887 ships diverted.
In 2003, at last count, there were 4,334 queries, 2,582 boardings and 427 ships
“These numbers represent MIOs in the Central Command Area of Responsibility
only,” the spokesman added.
Before the invasions, U.S. and coalition MIOs focused on enforcing U.N. sanctions
against Iraq’s smuggling of contraband goods, such as oil. In May, after
the fall of Saddam’s regime, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution
1483, calling for U.S. and coalition forces to provide law enforcement and peacekeeping
functions in Iraq until that country can fend for itself.
Under Resolution 1483, “all vessels entering or leaving Iraq are subject
to inspection by coalition naval forces,” the spokesman explained. “If
a vessel is carrying illegal oil or other prohibited cargo, [such as weapons
and explosives], it will be detained and may be subject to confiscation under
the Iraqi judicial process.”
U.S. and coalition forces in the Arabian Sea and nearby waters also are on
the lookout for vessels carrying terrorists or weapons. “The purpose of
these operations is to widen the net to capture Osama Bin Laden; members of
al Qaeda, the Taliban and other terrorist groups, and their weapons,”
the spokesman said.
To conduct MIOs, the United States can bring to bear a variety of maritime
- U.S. carrier strike groups, consisting of aircraft carriers and their 75 fixed-wing
aircraft and helicopters, cruisers, frigates, destroyers, submarines and support
- Expeditionary strike groups, which are built around amphibious assault ships,
rather than carriers. They embark a Marine expeditionary unit with 2,200 combat-ready
Marines, their equipment and aircraft, both fixed-wing and helicopters.
- Coast Guard cutters, Navy coastal patrol ships and the Naval Special Warfare
Command’s Mark V Special Operations Craft, which can deliver boarding
teams quickly to suspect vessels.
- Land-based P-3C Orion and carrier-based S-3B Viking aircraft, which can provide
long-range maritime surveillance.
Interdiction operations are considered sensitive, because some nations do not
approve of the forcible boarding of merchant ships on the high seas, no matter
what their cargo. Also, the Navy is not eager for enemies to learn details of
U.S. tactics in such operations. For these reasons, Navy officials declined
to talk about MIOs for the record. However, a Navy officer with MIO experience
agreed to discuss the subject in general terms on a background basis.
The interdiction effort, he said, begins as soon as U.S. and allied commanders
receive an intelligence report that a ship thought to be bearing weapons of
mass destruction is leaving a foreign port. The vessel can be tracked, from
the time it leaves port, by satellite, radar, aircraft, surface ship or submarine.
The ship can be intercepted at any time, by a single Navy vessel or squadron
of them strung out in a long picket line to prevent escape. The ship can be
queried by radio about its cargo and destination. If the responses are not satisfactory,
the ship can be ordered: “Heave to, kill all engines and stand by for
Navy boarding teams are trained in tactics known as visit, board, search and
seizure. They learn how to embark and debark foreign vessels, to review documents
and inspect the ship, its cargo and personnel. They are taught to identify and
control threats and hazards, collect evidence and intelligence information,
and manage medical emergencies.
Boarding teams often include members of Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachments,
which are deployed on many Navy ships to help conduct MIOs. Under the Post Civil
War-era Posse Comitatus Act, U.S. military personnel have limited powers to
arrest civilians suspected of breaking the law. Because the Coast Guard is not
part of the Defense Department and has law-enforcement responsibilities, LEDETs,
as they are called, have full arrest powers.
If U.S. commanders suspect that a target vessel will resist boarding, they
have the option of dispatching a team from one of the Navy’s Sea, Air
and Land (SEAL) commando units or a Marine Corps Maritime Special Purpose Force.
An MSPF is a part of every deployed MEU.
SEAL and MSPF teams train to fast rope from helicopters to the deck of a foreign
ship, engage hostile forces and gain control of the vessel. During the entire
operation, the helicopters—with snipers aboard—hover overhead, providing
Once the foreign ship is brought under control and searched, if contraband
is found, the vessel can be ordered to a friendly port, where its cargo can
be impounded and the crew interrogated and, if warranted, arrested.
The Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Vern Clark would like to see more nations
help in conducting such searches. Speaking in October to navy and coast guard
leaders from 75 countries at the 16th International Seapower Symposium in Newport,
R.I., Clark called for “a worldwide coalition of military and law enforcement
organizations” to police the world’s oceans.
“This coalition would share information to track shipping around the
world to end the illegal exploitation of our sea lines of communication and
stop terrorism at its root,” Clark said.
It is imperative to protect the world’s sea lanes, Clark said. “Thirty
percent of the world’s economy depends on trade. [A total of] 99.7 percent
of all intercontinental trade travels by sea, carried by [more than] 46,000
vessels, servicing nearly 4,000 ports.”
Attacks against these shipments are on the rise. “During the first half
of , there was a record of 234 reported attacks against seafarers,”
Clark said. “This was the worst six-month period since the International
Maritime Bureau started compiling piracy statistics in 1991, and a full 34 percent
increase over the same period last year.”
Piracy is a form of terrorism, Clark said. “It’s clear that we,
as leaders of the navies and coast guards of the world, have the shared responsibility
to keep our oceans free from terror and allow our nations to prosper.”
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which has been carrying out maritime
interdictions in the eastern Mediterranean for more than a decade, is sharpening
its focus on such operations. The NATO’s Allied Command Transformation,
which was established in last year’s reorganization, is planning a Maritime
Interdiction Operations Training Center, to be located in Greece.