Rigid-hulled inflatable boats: a tactical edge in catching traffickers

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Article / November 7, 2016 / Project number: cjoc

By: Captain Rick Donnelly, Operation CARIBBE Public Affairs Officer

If you want to effectively chase down drug runners, you have to be extremely quick and nimble, ready to engage a tactical action at a moment’s notice. As law enforcement activities have become more adept and effective at interdicting the actions of the various drug cartels working to ship illicit drugs into North America, so too have the evasion tactics of those very same cartels. It is akin to a chess match; moves result in counter-moves.

Her Majesty’s Canadian Ships (HMCS) Brandon, Edmonton, and Kingston are all currently deployed on Operation CARIBBE in support of Operation MARTILLO, a joint multinational effort led by the United States Coast Guard (USCG) to eliminate illicit drug-trafficking of narcotics in the Caribbean Sea and the Eastern Pacific Ocean.

While these three ships, known as Maritime Coastal Defence Vessels (MCDVs), are extremely manoeuvrable due to their smaller size and their fully-steerable azimuth-pod propellers, it can be difficult for them to overtake some of the faster-moving vessels. This is where the ships’ deployable Rigid-hulled inflatable boats (RHIB) come into play.  It is the RHIBs that act as direct interdiction vessels for each ship.

During a pursuit of a suspected smuggling vessel, when it is time to move in for the final interception,   one or more RHIBs is launched from the ship.  The RHIB approaches the target vessel, questions the crew and prepares to conduct a boarding.

Each RHIB deployed for an intercept carries a team of a  Royal Canadian Navy boatswains and members of a  USCG Law Enforcement Detachment (LEDET). In the event that suspected narcotics are discharged over-board by a target vessel, RHIBs search and secure the area of the sea where the narcotics were dumped and retrieve them as evidence. The RHIBs often have to operate in fairly heavy seas.

Petty-Officer 1st Class Rich Pearce, the Coxswain of HMCS Brandon, spoke about the skill set required to pilot a RHIB under tactical situations.

“It takes a lot of concentration, and an understanding of how the RHIB is going to handle under different seas-states,” he said. “The sailors who pilot these RHIBs are determined and focused, and are always looking to better themselves in the interest of the mission.”

The most common type of boat encountered during interdictions are known as ”pangas,” low-slung fishing vessels between 15 and 45 feet long, made of wood and fibreglass which make them light and manoeuvrable and sometimes challenging to see. However, in their efforts to change their operating patterns, the cartels are using a wide variety of vessels, including fast-moving speed boats, and more recently, semi-submersible submarine style craft.

Given the low-profile nature of most of these vessels, the RHIB has proven to be a most effective means of allowing the USCG LEDET to overtake and board many of the vessels they encounter.

The Chief Petty Officer of the USCG LEDET serving aboard HMCS Brandon noted the critical importance of the RHIB in carrying out their mission.

“We deploy on the RHIB, so we wouldn’t be able to do our jobs without it. One of the advantages of sailing on HMCS Brandon is the boat coxswains on board RHIBs who get us to our targets do so with a great amount of skill. They’re a critical part to the success of our operations here.”

2016 marks the tenth year that the Canadian Armed Forces has deployed on Operation CARIBBE.

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