In the News

In the News

Naval boarding is the oldest and most enduring methods for a ship to capture or subdue an opposing vessel, and is almost as old as maritime operations itself. One of the earliest recorded uses of the tactic was believed to be in the conflict between the Egyptian forces of Ramesses II against the Sea Peoples, a confederacy of naval raiders, in the 1270s BCE. The tactic was later used by the ancient Greeks, Romans and Persians, by pirates and privateers of the medieval and middle ages – and is still the favoured tactic of today’s African and South East Asian pirates.

Counter to criminal pirating activities, the principal function of modern day naval boarding activities by nation states is a maritime constabulary function in an unopposed action – to inspect a ship, its cargo and crew – to ensure there is no contraband or illegal migrants on board, and that the vessel is pursuing legitimate activities.

NATO quickly launched Operation Active Endeavour after the 11 September 2001 attacks. This maritime mission was conducted in the Mediterranean Sea by surface ships, submarines and maritime patrol aircraft under the overall command of NATO’s Joint Forces Command in Naples, Italy, to demonstrate its commitment to deter and disrupt terrorism. 

By the time the operation terminated in October 2016, its years of monitoring and boarding any suspect ships while patrolling in the Mediterranean Sea, helped NATO secure one of the busiest maritime trade routes in the world. 

This new tactical requirement had created a resurgence of vessel boardings and searches. In the last 14 years, the RCN has engaged in over 13 named deployed operations that have relied heavily on the use of naval boarding parties.


(Photo: Tim Dunne)

The increased frequency and evolving challenges within the maritime operating environment had begun to outpace Canada’s boarding capabilities.

Hellenic Commodore I. Pavlopoulos, Commandant of the NATO Maritime Interdiction Operational Training Centre at Souda Bay, Greece, told Surface SITREP that boarding missions are “important and can be dangerous. For that reason, training of boarding parties is extremely valuable.”

Capability Gap
In 2011, a study ordered by then Chief of the Defence Staff, General Walter Natynczyk, showed that a Canadian Special Operations Task Force would be fully capable of conducting an ‘opposed boarding’ to confront a vessel’s crew that  was willing to use lethal force to fight off a boarding attempt. However, a sustained military boarding capability in overseas operations would require both RCN and RCAF support for success. Following the completion of the study, Gen Natynczyk addressed this gap in his CDS direction to the three commanders: “Past maritime operations point to the necessity to board vessels of interest in expeditionary operations. Currently, there is a capability gap which must be bridged between the boarding of obstructed or compliant vessels of interest and the opposed boarding of vessels of interest.”

Bridging this “capability gap” gave impetus to the development of new approaches within both the RCN and the RCAF. The following year, the RCN, RCAF and Canadian Special Operations Command (CANSOFCOM) jointly evaluated these issues and, from this, the Expeditionary Opposed Boarding Proof of Concept was born.

The “Proof of Concept” involved specialized insertion, tactical training and equipment for 20 RCN members and the aircrew of a CH-124 Sea King. The training program, which ran for approximately three months, culminated in a series of validation exercises on the West Coast. Only eight candidates succeeded. However, despite the high attrition rate, the exercise gave participants an opportunity to demonstrate their innovation, determination and adaptability to meet a common operational goal; assess whether this could be achieved as a standing capability; and, equally important, what would it look like.

The RCN then took its inaugural step to establish a sovereign Canadian naval boarding capability that could provide direct support to a CANSOFCOM-led boarding, and independently launch a boarding operation tailored to meet the situation: opposed, obstructed, or advanced obstructed boardings. 


(Photo: Tim Dunne)

In March 2013, when then RCN Commander Vice-Admiral Paul Maddison reviewed the final report, he reinforced the successful results of the Proof of Concept and the original CDS guidance with his own assessment: “…[this] capability has the potential to be an important component of a deployable force package in support of the Government of Canada.”

VAdm Maddison’s successor was VAdm Mark Norman. His June 2014 tasking directive turned the concept into operational reality: “Feedback from recent operational deployments have emphasized the role of a Naval Boarding Party (NBP) as a vital littoral sensor and weapons system. As a result, there is a requirement to update the concept of operations for the RCN boarding party capability to keep pace with today’s operating environment and evolving threats.” 

Responsibility for continuing development of this project fell to Lieutenant Commander Wil Lund, based on his experience in surface ships, submarines and Canadian Special Operations Command.

MTOG Established
Within five months, the Maritime Tactical Operations Group received its first 31 applicants and, by March 2015, had selected, trained and graduated its first 17 Maritime Tactical Operators, 5 of whom were naval reservists. The unit was established on the West Coast, where it is the Centre of Excellence for Maritime Tactical Operations.

“In reality, we are working to create a robust RCN boarding capability that compliments and supports Canadian Special Operations Command, but specifically supports RCN missions in the maritime domain,” LCdr Lund told FrontLine. “Interoperability between the services was a critical consideration of this initiative, both with equipment and training.”

The core cadre of permanent members, sporting the callsign Neptune, provides tactical training and logistic support for selected personnel formed into four teams – with callsigns named after sharks: Mako, Tiger, Thresher and Reef – to be attached to deploying ships to conduct missions and operations, including boardings, force protection and non-combatant evacuation. Members of these “shark” teams receive advanced levels of training and are fully equipped to be completely interoperable with Canadian special operations task forces, enabling them to conduct independent obstructed boardings and contribute to CANSOFCOM-led operations in a supporting role.

MTOG members are drawn from the combined total of more than 13,000 men and women of the Regular and Reserve Force of the Royal Canadian Navy from across Canada. These naval personnel come from the more than 60 trades within the RCN – from the 38 vessels, 24 naval reserve divisions, various headquarters and shore based establishments – bringing a huge variety of skills and operational experience into the organization. 

MTOG trainers take pains to provide excellence in its training programs, ensuring that team members are fully integrated into the ships’ companies when they deploy (to prevent an “us & them” relationship). While not regular members of the ship’s company, they contribute to the maintenance, routine and effective running of the ship while sustaining their readiness to immediately deploy for a boarding operation.

“We are not merely creating a capability; we are creating a culture,” Lund asserts. “Our operators are our most important resource. We emphasize understanding the commander’s intent as the basis of our missions. We also encourage our teams to exploit any advantages they might encounter and to be able to react effectively in volatile and uncertain situations that may fall outside the original operational plan. Our operators are selected based on their core desire to tirelessly pursue excellence in themselves and the core capability. In our organization, there is no room for an elitist attitude. We are all members of the Royal Canadian Navy and sailors first.”

Domestically, MTOG may be tasked to support Canadian naval ships that are conducting surveillance operations through vessel detection and interception, as well as fisheries and sovereignty patrols. They are also a supporting partner for search and rescue, and security and counter terrorism operations led by other government agencies. Internationally, in providing “Shark” teams to deployed ships, MTOG is a key contributor in the projection of Canada’s power and influence abroad and can support a myriad of RCN tasks such as: international search and rescue, embargo enforcement, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, maritime interdiction, maritime escort duties, intelligence gathering; and counter-terrorism.

While its members receive specialized training and equipment, the MTOG remains a conventional unit that refines and advances the existing RCN constabulary boarding capability that would be interoperable with its special operations cousins. “The capability that the MTOG provides has very specific limits that we always consider in mission planning. We are specialists, but are in no way a Special Operations Force unit,” LCdr Lund explains.


(Photo: Tim Dunne)

The new unit was established on the West Coast to maintain an efficient tooth-to-tail ratio, and its implementation of enhanced naval boarding party (ENBP) teams will have no impact on any existing capability or operation as it continues to develop. The specialized nature of its training, tactics, equipment, employment, the necessary reallocation of resources, and its integration into the existing RCN training cycle required a measured and deliberate four-phase approach to implementation.

Following assignment to the MTOG, the bulk of these operators will return to their original units. As the Centre of Excellence for Maritime Tactical Operations, and further to the development of this new naval capability, MTOG is engaged in developing the existing constabulary capability with a focus on improved training and equipment, leading to a more clearly defined role for these teams. As LCdr Lund underscores, “We cannot afford to create a new capability gap internal to the RCN. The existing capability is included in our operational concept and plays a key role in our operations. As such, we need to ensure interoperability with all of the teams we operate with.”
 
This phase will continue until the group is qualified to move to the final phase: delivery of the Advanced Naval Boarding Party. Personnel will be assigned to one of the four standing teams, which rotate through a force generation cycle whereby, as one team returns, it is replaced by a second. The remaining two teams in garrison will undergo a reconstitution and force generation cycle which will apply lessons-learned from recent operational deployments to train the newest applicants. This will allow the members to take career courses, receive any personal medical evaluations and treatments, and pursue professional development. This will be the full operating capability.

The group met Vice Admiral Norman’s objective that the MTOG equip, train and deliver the first team by the end of March 2015. The MTOG leadership continues to develop its proficiency in maritime tactical operations concurrently with a dynamic deployment schedule, a process which former Commander Maritime Forces Pacific, Rear-Admiral Bill Truelove, described as “building the plane as we fly it”. 

As the newest unit in the Canadian Armed Forces, the MTOG is developing a new capability and developing a culture that compliments the unit’s structure, operations, procedures, processes and protocols. 

Its four small teams must rapidly integrate into a warship’s crew for each deployment – to use the ship as a base from which to launch missions in relative isolation, emphasizing the importance of mission command and understanding commander’s intent to provide a sound assessment of the risks associated with the mission within their mandate, and provide appropriate mitigation measures to ensure mission success. 

The selection process and training practices are designed to develop individual, intuitive and insightful warriors who thrive in a small-team environment, who take great pride in constantly improving their skills and abilities, and who will seamlessly integrate into their adoptive ship’s company. This latter part is the least challenging according to LCdr Lund, who notes: “as all of our operators are all sailors, they easily integrate into a new ship’s company and become part of the team. It is the integration of the new capability they bring that is truly impressive as it gives ship’s commanding officers a new and very effective tool to employ with great confidence in support of their missions.

“All operators must have full confidence in their senior commander, their team leaders and detachment commanders and know that their voices will be heard,” Lund averred. “In our planning, everyone has a voice, a part to play in how we put a mission together and how it unfolds. But there is the underlying understanding that this is not a democracy – and when the time comes, all of our MTOs are fully committed to the plan, know their job and will do what is necessary to achieve mission success.” 

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Tim Dunne is FrontLine’s Atlantic correspondent