ABOARD THE DESTROYER GRAVELY — The Mexican navy patrol boat Independencia halted the U.S. destroyer Gravely in Caribbean waters Sept. 23, announcing a search for contraband.
The boarding team climbed a Jacob’s Ladder onto Gravely’s flight deck and proceeded to search engineering and berthing areas before heading to the bridge to ask the captain some questions.
Through an interpreter, the Mexican boarding officer asked probing questions about the ship’s crew, cargo and destination. Satisfied with his answers, his team left without incident.
Less than an hour later, Gravely’s visit, board, search and seizure team returned the favor, with Lt. j.g. William Goodyear leading his team onboard the Independencia.
The back-and-forth was a training scenario — one of many conducted over the course of the nearly two-week Atlantic phase of UNITAS, a joint exercise hosted this year by the U.S.
The exercise kicked off Sept. 17 in Key West, Fla., where the ship basin there saw its largest concentration of warships since at least the 1970s, but possibly since World War II.
The operations wrapped up Sept. 28 off the southern coast of Cuba, with closing ceremonies on the Canadian supply ship Preserver.
It’s the 53rd year for UNITAS, Latin for “unity.” While the U.S. is playing host this year, the honor often goes to a Central or South American country.
UNITAS annually has Atlantic and Pacific phases. This year’s Pacific phase was hosted by Peru in May.
During the Atlantic phase, 13 ships from seven nations participated, while four other nations observed. Most participants were from the Americas, though the United Kingdom sent Dauntless, an air defense destroyer.
Even participating countries sent observers to other countries’ vessels as part of the learning experience. For example, Gravely had officers from the Brazilian and Mexican navies onboard, as well as an enlisted sailor from the Dominican Republic.
“Obviously there are political waves that ebb and flow, but the navies remain working together,” said Rear Adm. Sinclair Harris, commander of 4th Fleet and this year’s exercise.
Navies of the Americas and Europe have to contend with the threat of drug trafficking, and sometimes human smuggling, in these areas, Harris said, and sharing best practices and training is one way to combat this organized crime.
Drugs, mainly cocaine, are smuggled from Central and South America — mainly by “go-fast” boats, but sometimes by aircraft heading north. In recent years, officials have also worked to interdict guns and other goods, such as tobacco and alcohol, that cartels purchase in the U.S. and attempt to smuggle south.
“The fact we come together each year to practice and train and become stronger partners is more important now that ever before,” Harris said during the exercise’s opening ceremonies. “None of us can do this by ourselves. We’re all under strain by budgets, so we have to do this together.”
The two-week exercise had the navies moving in two-column formations reminiscent of World War II — allowing the crews to practice shiphandling in close quarters with vessels of various sizes.
Exercises were to include higher-level warfare, Harris said, including missile- and gun-shoots against drones, as well as scenario-based exercises against each other.
In one scenario, the force was split into blue and orange forces. The blue, headed by the Columbians, were “the good guys” and the orange, headed by the Brazilians, were the “bad guys,” said Capt. Ace Van Wagoner, commander of Destroyer Squadron 40.
Gravely, a Norfolk, Va.-based ship in commission less than two years, was on the orange side.
The ship’s crew is training for the ship’s first deployment early next year with the Truman Carrier Strike Group, which will head to the Persian Gulf.
Working an exercise of this scope is a bonus to the crew, said Cmdr. David Dry, Gravely’s commanding officer.
“It’s really value-added for us, as we’re at the point where we’re losing the plank owners — the initial crew — little by little, every week,” he said. “Nearly all of them will be gone by sometime in our deployment last year. So I’m in the process of building a new team, while we’re also preparing for deployment, and this kind of extra work can only help.”
The UNITAS underway period will be followed by exercises in October with the rest of the strike group; by the time Gravely returns to Norfolk in late October, it will have completed its longest underway period — six weeks.
But from here on out, the training gets longer and more intense until early next year, when the ship enters its final workups for deployment.
“UNITAS is a unique opportunity for our crew to work in such close company with this many other ships,” Dry said. “It also gives us real-world practice in overcoming language barriers during day-to-day operations, as well as adapting to our partners’ tactics and procedures at all levels of operations.”
For a ship that’s spent most of its early underway time on solo shakedown cruises, the experience for the crew is invaluable, especially for young sailors and officers looking to qualify as watchstanders.
“The extra experience we’re getting …. learning to operate this close in with other ships, is really helping our junior officers as they work towards their officer-of-the-deck qualification,” said Lt. j.g. Brian Gordon, one of the ship’s plank owners, who is due to rotate soon to one of the Navy’s riverine squadrons. “They’ll be able to build on this experience all the way through to deployment, and they’ll be better shiphandlers for the experience.”
As for the boarding operations, Dry said his VBSS team faces the same difficulties as the rest of the crew in getting new people qualified as the veterans begin to move on to other assignments.
With all the schools required to get VBSS teams up to speed individually and as a group, Dry said having an opportunity to train with other navies’ boarding teams is invaluable. It gives officers and enlisted team members the chance to observe the other countries’ procedures and rules of engagement while practicing their own, Dry said.
“Navigating things such as language barriers is real-world experience and something that could happen on deployment if called on to do maritime interdiction or counter-piracy operations,” he said.
Still, he said, watching the Mexican navy invade his ship was odd.
“Usually it’s the United States doing the boarding and asking all the questions,” he said. “We got to experience the shoe on the other foot here and to see from the other side how it feels to have your ship inspected by someone else — and to be on the receiving side of questions we’re normally asking. That’s an invaluable experience, too, and one I’m glad my crew has had.”