From the operations room: A look behind the scenes at the hunt for illicit drug traffickers

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Article / December 15, 2016 / Project number: cjoc

By: Captain Rick Donnelly

Canadian warships HMC Ships Brandon, Edmonton and Kingston have recently finished sailing off the east and west coasts of Central America, hunting for vessels of interest attempting to smuggle illicit drugs from South America to the shores of Mexico and North America.

The vessels range in size and sophistication from non-descript fishing vessels, or ‘pangas’, to high-performance ‘go-fasts’ which are built for speed, packing 400 horsepower or more; their preferred routes change by the day. Despite all of this variance, or perhaps as a result of it, one thing remains unchanged: these Canadian warships do not hunt alone.

While out on the seas, the physical chase and interdiction provides for a very dynamic environment, with Canadian ships deploying rigid-hulled inflatable boats (RHIB) in the event of a vessel sighting. Each RHIB carries a team of United States Coast Guard (USCG) Law Enforcement Detachment (LEDET) officials, armed and trained to board suspect vessels. However, it is within the operations room of each respective ship that the planning and plotting occurs.

Dimly lit, with various screens displaying information ranging from radar sweeps to plotted navigational maps, one could easily envision a scene from a Tom Clancy novel, and they would not be far off the mark.

The operations officer serving aboard HMCS Brandon, who cannot be named for operational security reasons, spoke to the nature of the chase. He chose his words carefully, as much of what happens behind the door of the operations room is confidential or secret.

“We try to maintain a battle rhythm at sea, where we have a cycle of information flow. That’s the key to operations, particularly this one, where information about ‘enemy activity’ is the key to success,” said the operations officer. “We’re trying to outthink the bad guys, which in this case are these transnational criminal organizations. Their goal is to move narcotics from their home bases in Colombia and areas near there into North American markets, and sometimes even farther afield than that. Our mission is to interrupt or interdict that flow of illegal narcotics.”

The “information flow” the operations officer described refers to  information provided to the ship by the Joint Interagency Task Force-South (JIATF-S). JIATF-S is a U.S. national task force responsible for conducting interagency and international detection and monitoring operations, and facilitating the interdiction of illicit trafficking of drugs, weapons, money, and people. JIATF-S coordinates air and sea surveillance in collaboration with the U.S. military services, U.S. Coast Guard, international allies, and law enforcement partners.

“We receive information from JIATF-S who maintains tactical control of our ship,” said the operations officer. “JIATF-S will feed us information about activities on the water. We digest that information, and then work together with the JIATF-S Watch Team to come up with a tactical plan that suits the capabilities of this ship. According to that plan, we come up with a goal of the day, or goal of the week, where we try to put our ship in a location to be effective in interrupting that flow of narcotics.”

JIATF-S maintains partnerships with both stakeholders and nations in the region, who provide the task force with information to support interdiction activities.

Relationships don’t stop with strictly information, however.

“Interoperability has been a key to success; Op CARIBBE is both inter-agency and international,” said the operations officer. “A number of different nations have put assets into this mission. The ability for aircraft and ships of different nations to work together effectively under the direction of JIATF-S is absolutely critical; interoperability is the only way this mission is going to be effective.”

The operations officer aboard HMCS Brandon is no stranger to ship-borne operations, having served on missions both at home and around the world over his nearly three decades of service. Despite the length of time he has served, the novelty has not worn off. His excitement over being involved in Op CARIBBE remains unwavering.

“In my 29 years in the Navy, and all of the operations I’ve been on, this one is my favorite. Op CARIBBE is a reason for people to look at joining the Navy. For a young person, be it through the regular force or reserve, to be able to come out and be able to do this kind of work and have a very real and positive impact on the quality of life of citizens, not just at home in the continental U.S. and Canada where these drugs are destined to go, but to be able to disenfranchise these criminal organizations that prevent quality of life for people in Colombia, for example, it’s a global win to be able to have that sort of impact. It’s a very rewarding thing to be a part of.”

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