CBS Reports on MSRT Exercise

CBS New had a June 14, report on the Coast Guard’s Maritime Security Response Team (MSRT). Their report includes a video of the exercise. The video of the same exercise, above is a bit different. It shows the exercise as a bit more complex. It included at least three boats and two helicopters. It also looks like both helicopters conducted fast roping.

As a former exercise planner I have a few observations and comments.

The Exercise:

First I would have to acknowledge that we don’t know how far along the teams are in their training or exactly what the training objectives were.

This may have been more PAO effort than training.

Only bad guys died, none of the good guys. Miles gear and a smart, well trained, agressive red cell would have made this much more meaningful.

These had to be the dumbest opposition forces in history. They made no coordinated effort to prevent the boarding.

There were no warning shots or other evidence of an effort stop the vessel and determine if the vessel and crew were in fact hostile. If the crew and vessel were known to be hostile, we probably should have shot it up before the boarding.

It looks like the “fast rope” boarding from the helicopter not only happened before the boarding from boats, it happened before the boats were in position to provide supporting fire to pen down the terrorists and prevent them from engaging the helicopter and the team fast roping from it. Members of the fast roping team were standing around on the stern waiting for the team from the RHIB while bad guys were still on the same deck hanging out forward.

I have to wonder why they used a Navy H-60 instead of a Coast Guard helicopter. I thought all Coast Guard helicopters were now capable of air-borne use of force. While there are certainly plenty of Navy H-60s in San Diego, that is not the case in other West coast ports.

The vessel was unusually easy to board. A different configuration would have been much more challenging.

The Concept:

Unfortunately when you create an “elite team” there is a tendency to say that is their job, the rest of us don’t have to worry about it. Unfortunately the rest of the Coast Guard cannot simply go back to SAR and stop worrying about this terrorist stuff.

We have, I believe, only two Maritime Security Response Teams, while we have at least 30 ports that are potential terrorist targets. For rapidly developing threats the probability that an MSRT will be in the right place at the right time, or that they will be able to get there is slim.

During WWII both the Germans and the Japanese formed elite fighter squadrons that did extremely well but the concept was disastrous. What worked was what the US did. The US used its best fighter pilots to train others. It raised the general level of competence of the entire force.

The MSRTs could certainly be useful in a slow developing scenario like a cruise ship take-over, but perhaps their greatest role might be as OPFOR, training local units in how to respond, a sort of Red Flag/Top Gun role.

Thanks to Daniel for bringing this to my attention. The criticisms are mine not his. 

10 thoughts on “CBS Reports on MSRT Exercise

  1. I agree with your points, Chuck, and as I watched the video I was rather stunned at many aspects of the exercise. Other than the fast roping (which got better toward the end), the performance demonstrated was no better than what I would expect of recruits after watching a training film. I cannot believe MSRT isn’t far better. The only conclusion I can come up with is this was staged so as not to give away their true capability. It doesn’t even look good from a “staged for the media” standpoint.

    As far as using them as OpFor, there is some value in the concept. The 11th Armored Cavalry Regt. (Army’s OpFor) has become a nearly undefeatable force at the National Training Center, simply because they are constantly “in the field” and doing the mission. However, that level of OpTempo also makes them unusable in a real conflict, due to attrition and worn out equipment.

    Does the CG not still have 10-12 MSSTs, which are distributed to high-risk ports? My questioning of the MSRT concept is the same as yours. The chance of being in the right place at the right time is low. In my opinion, bringing all the MSSTs and the 2 MSRTs up to an effective level is key, because then the CG will have an effective force distributed where likely needed. It would probably be smart to identify the “high threat sectors” and have an MSST/MSRT for each. A key aspect of high performance is no diversion of focus. This is counter to the CG “can-do” spirit somewhat. The operators in these units must be 24/7 training or otherwise dedicated to this mission, and not diverted to similar “other missions” such as TacLET boardings.

    Aviation assets are a bit troubling. I would argue the CG has the best aviators in the world for manuevering near/around vessels, conducting a/c to deck ops, and intercepting vessels. The problem is the quantity of assets and budget limitations. Considering the number of helicopters in the CG inventory, the geographical dispersion of those limited assets (especially considering where the “high threat sectors” are vs. where helo assets are), and the time constraints (considering their SAR mission priority and need for a lot of training time for both AUF and MSST/MSRT vessel interdiction tactics), there is neither time, money, or abundance of assets to truly make this type of operation an all-CG show. That in itself is risky too, because thinking any old H-60 crew can be thrown together with any MSST/MSRT and glorious, amazing performance will happen, is guaranteeing the disaster of the Iranian desert in 1980 all over again…

    So, if the CG is going to get serious about this: 1] More money (for more training, more teams, more aircraft); 2] More aircraft (probably 2 squadrons’ worth, distributed to the high threat sectors); 3] Consolidation of MSRT and MSST and possibly standing up more teams (enough for each identified high-threat Sector). As it stands, if needed, I’m worried about casualty levels and effectiveness of accomplishing the mission…

    • If you have seen my previous thoughts on FAST roping, you know I think it is probably one of the dumbest tactics ever to see wide spread acceptance. There may be times when you have to do it. There are things you can do to make it more likely to work, but hovering a helicopter directly over hostile active shooters is just not smart. It is definitely not a first choice.

      If we know these people are hostile, we are not there to arrest them, we are there to kill them as quickly and efficiently as possible while trying to avoid harm to our own people. We don’t need to board. We just need to sink it.

      We were using the wrong tool. We are not going to get a lot more people, we need to train our people to deal with these threats and we should not be using the most complex and dangerous solutions.

      What if the vessel had been rigged to explode? It happened to Bruckenthal. and it happened when the British raided St Nazaire (https://chuckhillscgblog.net/2011/02/03/a-tale-of-two-harbor-defense-organizations-part-one-2/)

      What were we trying to accomplish? We did not want the vessel to enter an American port with its cargo of toxins. Hopefully we did not want any of our people to get hurt. Therefore we need the ability to destroy the vessel quickly, from a distance that precludes their hurting our people.

      • Agreed. However, there is also the other favored terror tactic: mass casualties/abduction. Much of the Islamic terrorist actions in the middle east have been taking over mass transit, buses, Achille Lauro incident. I think the exercise he is staged on an excursion boat for that concept. There may be a need to attempt to rescue hostages… When the Achille Lauro happened, there was no MSST or MSRT. (Not that a cruise ship in the eastern Mediterranean would have been a USCG problem, but the threat is there.) Fast roping in a hostile environment is possible with the correct tactics, but the smaller the vessel, the higher the risk, definitely.

      • A cruise ship takeover was what I was thinking about when I said there might be a time when Fast Roping might be necessary. In that case, the terrorists are likely to be vastly outnumbered but the passengers and crew. After 9/11 the terrorist may have their hands full just controlling them. Certainly they cannot all be available to repulse a boarding attempt.

        Using as many boats and helicopters as possible, to provide distraction, fakes, and covering fire would certainly help. Need at least two helos, one for over-watch in addition to the one doing the FAST roping. More is better.

  2. Chuck,
    Thank you for your comments and retired perspective of a national televised broadcast.
    Thank you for your service as a cuterman, but a career as an Officer nearly two decades ago clearly do not make you an expert in advance interdiction.

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