Operation Iraqi Freedom & the U.S. Coast Guard
LCDR Greg Magee, USCG
In October 2002, the Coast Guard received a request for forces from U.S. Central Command for a variety of Coast Guard forces to support possible military action against Iraq. There were several areas of expertise that the Navy desired to utilize:
1. Pollution response. Operation DESERT STORM saw Saddam Hussein use massive oil spills as a weapon against coalition forces.
2. Port Security. This also included the ability to deploy self supporting forces to occupied territories while port infrastructure is being rebuilt.
3. Maritime Interdiction Operations (MIO). This involved boarding vessels at sea to enforce United Nations sanctions and to prevent the entry of contraband into a war zone.
4. Littoral warfare operations. The ability to enter shallow waters and sustain a creditable Naval presence.
Part of regularly scheduled operations was the deployment of a High Endurance Cutter to conduct MIO. At least two USCG Law Enforcement Detachments maintained a presence at all times in the Arabian Gulf, operating off Coalition Naval vessels to enforce U.N. sanctions against Iraq in place since DESERT STORM.
Additional forces requested two Port Security Units, equipment and personnel with the ability to respond to large scale oil spills, and four Coast Guard Island Class Patrol Boats. For oil spill response, elements and equipment from the Coast Guard's National Strike Force were deployed aboard amphibious assault ships in the region. The buoy tender WALNUT with built in oil skimming equipment deployed from Hawaii for this mission. The tasking for the patrol boats was force protection of major assets and littoral warfare. While two U.S. Navy PCs deployed to the Gulf, the Coast Guard was viewed as an expert in MIO operations and less escalatory presence in the region. This total Coast Guard force represented the largest wartime deployment of Coast Guard forces since Vietnam.
Four WPBs, AQUIDNECK, ADAK, BARANOF, and WRANGELL were transferred to control of Coast Guard Atlantic Area (LANTAREA) and completed a three month workup period in Portsmouth, VA. This work up period included Special Emergency Operations training, special Law Enforcement training and a variety of administrative and medical preparations for overseas deployment. During this period, Patrol Forces Southwest Asia (PATFOR SWA) was created from personnel from 24 different LANTAREA Commands, including elements of the Coast Guard Mobile Support Unit, Baltimore and the crew of USCGC SAPELO.
In January 2003, all four vessels were loaded aboard the Military Sealift Command chartered vessel INDUSTRIAL CHALLENGER for a 35 day transit to Manama, Bahrain. The crews remained behind in Portsmouth and deployed in late February. On March 6 the cutters were offloaded and fully operational within 72 hours. In late January, National Strike Force personnel /equipment and two Port Security Units were in place. In late February, the high endurance cutter BOUTWELL along with WALNUT arrived in theater. BOUTWELL deployed with an HH-65 helicopter from Air Station Barbers Point that proved to be an exceptionally reliable air asset for coalition forces.
The exact nature of combat operations was unknown and four patrol boats, Port Security Unit 309, and the High Endurance Cutter DALLAS were deployed to the Mediterranean along with Patrol Forces Mediterranean. Their mission was to provide security support should U.S. forces have to attack Iraq from Turkey.
All cutters immediately deployed to the Northern Arabian Gulf for combat operations in support of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM (OIF). Operation IRAQI FREEDOM (OIF) commenced on 19 March 2003. The WPBs were an integral part of the maritime portion of OIF, protecting amphibious and mine laying forces and patrolling mine laden waters of the Kwhar Abd Allah waterway. Notable highlights of Coast Guard involvement include: capturing the first maritime prisoners of war, interdicting an attempted breakout of over 70 smuggling vessels, and escorting the first humanitarian aid shipment into Iraq.
A suicide boat and weapons cache found by USS CHINOOK and Coast Guard LEDET 205 on the banks of the KAA, illustrating the danger posed to maritime assets in this waterway.
Iraqi tugs were frequently used around KAAOT and MABOT for replenishing the platforms and tending tankers alongside. It was not uncommon to see tugs with barges or with 55-gallon drums on deck used for carrying fuel. USS CHINOOK and USCGC ADAK sighted and boarded one of these tugs and discovered the barge had 55-gallon drums concealing a sophisticated mine laying system. The Captain of the vessel cited the presence of the “white patrol boats” as the reason he was not able to release all of his mines.
Back in Bahrain, PATFOR SWA established its own base of operations and stood up an operations watch handling scheduling and logistical issue for the deployed WPBs.
Port Security Units 311 and 313 conducted operations at Kuwait ports and the Iraqi port of Az Zubayr. They also provided security teams on the off shore oil platforms once Naval Special Warfare units secured them. PSU 309 was brought over from the Mediterranean in May to support Kuwait Sea Ports of Debarkation.
National Strike Force personnel returned to the U.S. following the successful capture of major oil transfer facilities before they could be used to release oil into the Arabian Gulf. While inspecting the port of Umm Qasr, the buoy tender WALNUT discovered a large supply of buoys and related equipment. They replaced all the aids to navigation in the Kwhar Abd Allah waterway, greatly improving the ability for shipping carrying humanitarian supplies to reach Iraq.
Following OIF, the WPBs began cycling through Bahrain for much needed maintenance. Each of the cutters averaged 900 underway hours per month. While no major breakdowns occurred during the 25 days of operations, extensive maintenance was needed.
PATFOR SWA provided total customer service, doing everything for the WPBs during their limited inport periods including all maintenance, hull preservation and supply ordering. The goal of PATFOR was to has the cutters only provide simple watchstanding while inport. During the first six months of the deployment, PATFOR SWA maintained its own Compound. This Compound was expensive and had extensive force protection requirements that PATFOR was not billeted for. In July, 10,000 square feet of warehouse space was acquired along with office space on NSA Bahrain, allowing for a move off the Compound and increased efficiency.
In July 2003, all PATFOR personnel rotated back to the U.S. and were replaced with additional Coast Guard personnel. Coast Guard presence continues with patrol boats and PATFOR SWA maintaining a continuous presence in the Arabian Gulf.