Photos: The USCG in the Persian Gulf War and the Origins of the PSU

PSc raider, ad dammam
PSU 303 Raider boat patrolling Port of Ad Dammam, Saudi Arabia, with PSC Sandra Mitten manning the aft .50 caliber. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Published Nov 22, 2020 5:22 PM by U.S. Coast Guard News

[By Capt. John R. Olson, United States Coast Guard Reserve (retired)]

Beginning in 1982, the United States Coast Guard assigned responsibility to the Ninth Coast Guard District in Cleveland, Ohio, to train reservists for military mobilization. The intended mission of these “notional,” or prototype units, was to perform harbor defense for offload ports supporting that support combat operations.

Before the early 1980s, the Coast Guard had provided supervisory fuel transfer teams and explosive loading teams during military exercises. In 1983, during Operation “Lifeline,” it became clear that other military services could provide their own fuel transfer and explosive loading supervision. However, it also became clear that port security teams supported by the Coast Guard could provide afloat and ashore security that other services could not.

Under the Ninth Coast Guard District in Cleveland, joint military port security and harbor defense training exercises had been assigned to specific Coast Guard Reserve units. The Ninth District assigned units at Milwaukee, Buffalo, and Cleveland, to initiate military port security training in addition to training in marine safety and search and rescue. Beginning in 1984, this specific port security training was added for individual reservists, small groups and reserve units.

Following the Operation Lifeline exercises, Reserve officer Lt. Daniel Zedan submitted an after-action report to the commandant of the Coast Guard via the Ninth Coast Guard District commander. The mobilization recommendations and Department of Defense port security requirements identified in his report moved the service’s flag-level decision makers to transfer port security training from Chicago to Cleveland. Leadership made this move to avoid placing excessive demands on Western Great Lakes units.

Meanwhile, Ninth District Coast Guard Reserve senior officers and decision makers urged creation of stand-alone port security units, with defined personnel complements, supply inventories and patrol craft. To facilitate this transition, the Coast Guard and other active-duty military forces provided added port security training. In 1986, the first official Port Security Unit (PSU) training with automatic weapons began with a Combat Skills Course at the U.S. Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Virginia.

As of 1988, notional port security teams were listed in seven contingency plans encompassing three combatant commands. In theory, high-speed Coast Guard patrol boats would maintain security zones at anchorages, in the seaway, and alongside ships offloading military cargoes. Landside patrols and security guards would control access to the ports and the piers. The role and training for port security forces had emerged as a priority for the Coast Guard and the Reserves!

Photo of the compound built by PSU 301 of Buffalo, New York, at the port of Al-Jubail, Saudi Arabia. (Courtesy of Capt. John Olson, ret.)

Between 1988 and 1989, the Ohio National Guard provided additional combat training at Camp Perry, Ohio, with its “Flame River” exercises. This was the first time that PSU boat crews had fired .50 caliber and 7.62mm M60 automatic weapons while underway. This was also the first time Coast Guard women trained on, and later, operated weapons in combat roles. The new Reserve PSU teams also trained in shore-side security tactics. At the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff finally recognized the Coast Guard’s suitability for port security duties, so the Department of Defense funded PSU uniforms and equipment.

After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, Coast Guard Headquarters placed three PSUs on alert. Within six weeks, two units would deploy to Persian Gulf ports to support Operation Desert Shield combat efforts in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. On September 18, 1990, PSU 303 from Milwaukee was deployed to King Abdul Aziz Port in Ad Dammam, Saudi Arabia, and commenced operations. On September 21st, PSU 301 from Buffalo was deployed to Al Jubayl, Saudi Arabia. On Thanksgiving Day, November 22nd, PSU 302 from Cleveland arrived in Manama, Bahrain. This proved the first mobilization of the Coast Guard Reserve since World War II. It was also the first use of reservists in the Middle East and first deployment of the Coast Guard’s new PSUs.

During this initial mobilization, port pier and entry-gate patrols were staffed by Coast Guard PSU personnel. PSU harbor and anchorage patrols were conducted in 22-foot Transportable Port Security Boats, or “Raider boats,” armed with .50 caliber and M60 automatic weapons. Meanwhile, command and control was still implemented through a cumbersome joint military organizational structure. In addition, Middle East weather conditions were challenging, logistical support minimal, operational planning uncoordinated, and supplies meager. As a result of these problems, morale among PSU members initially declined.

PSU 301’s Raider Boat patrolling the Port of Al Jubail, Saudi Arabia, with Saudi interpreter on board. (Courtesy of Capt. John Olson, ret.)

Through sheer force of will, ingenuity, and inter-service negotiations, the men and women of the three Coast Guard PSUs pulled things together. For example, PSU 301 acquired portable showers from the Army and bartered with other U.S. military units for protective material for pier-side tents. To protect against Iraqi SCUD missiles, PSU 302 members filled countless sand bags for their berthing spaces and the operations center at Manama.

By January 1991, PSU operations in the three ports had become more efficient and their operational changes recorded for training future PSUs. Despite equipment shortfalls and tight budgets, the men and women deployed to operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm had gained important skills, knowledge and confidence in the PSU mission. Many important lessons were drawn from practices innovated for Desert Shield and Desert Storm by reservists deploying to the Middle East.

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard committed to training second-wave Port Security Units at the Army National Guard’s training facility at Camp Blanding, Florida. Composed of nearly 60 personnel, a Coast Guard-sourced training detachment conducted this comprehensive instruction. Two of the three units trained at Camp Blanding deployed to the Middle East as the first wave of PSU personnel returned home. 

Lt. Steven Day (later Rear Admiral), PSU 302 Operations Officer, on board a Saudi patrol vessel with Saudi Frontier Force personnel. (Courtesy of Capt. John Olson, ret.)

After all PSU personnel had redeployed from Desert Storm, Port Security Units 301, 302, and 303 returned to a “notional” status. The Coast Guard documented lessons learned from Desert Shield and Desert Storm and embarked on a three-year deliberation regarding the future of the Port Security Unit program. During this period, notional units 301, 302, and elements of 303 participated in field exercises such as Flame River and Forward Sentinel. 

PSU 302’s protective dockside bunker at the Port of Manama, Bahrain. (Courtesy of Capt. John Olson, ret.)

As the development of Port Security Unit training expanded, the Coast Guard’s commitment to the program remained uncertain. However, 1994’s Operation Uphold Democracy in the Republic of Haiti added urgency to that commitment. It also provided an ideal opportunity to implement PSU lessons learned from Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

As a result of experimentation during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the role of PSUs was affirmed with their commissioning as official Coast Guard Reserve commands. Because PSUs were considered rapid deployable units, it became necessary to develop a defined course of study and qualification system to ensure readiness. Today, that training is recognized as an official qualification system for the Coast Guard’s port security and harbor defense missions.

This article appears courtesy of Coast Guard Compass and may be found in its original form here.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.