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The Coast Guard's Largest Overseas Unit

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The cutter Aquidneck prepares for drydocking at an overseas yard during Operation Iraqi Freedom, 2003 (USCG)

By William Thiesen 2018-09-17 15:53:56

Naval operations supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) began with the U.S. Navy in the summer of 2002. The Navy drew on its plans for combat operations in Iraq, and in September 2002, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) requested U.S. Coast Guard support.

Preparations for Coast Guard deployment moved quickly. In October, the service’s Atlantic Area Command (LANTAREA), headquartered in Portsmouth, Virginia, created a deployable detachment to oversee personnel, supply and maintenance needs for patrol boat operations in the Arabian Gulf. It designated this shore detachment Patrol Forces, Southwest Asia (PATFORSWA). LANTAREA assigned Lt. Cmdr. John McKinley as officer-in-charge for PATFORSWA, and based on their maintenance records, selected the four 110-foot “Island”- Class patrol boats (WPB) Adak, Aquidneck, Baranof and Wrangell.

To prepare PATFORSWA members for deployment, LANTAREA built the PATFORSWA staff around a core group of the seventeen-member crew from the 110-foot cutter Sapelo. LANTAREA drew from over 20 subsidiary commands to assemble a PATFORSWA staff numbering more than 50 members. This shore-side support staff would also include engineers from the Mobile Support Unit (MSU), a reserve unit organized to support the patrol boats.

By November, McKinley led an advance team to the Arabian Gulf to determine the support facilities available in the host country. The Navy’s forces were located at the port city of Manama, Bahrain, mainly at Naval Support Activity (NSA) Bahrain, requiring PATFORSWA staff to locate their base of operations in that area. NSA Bahrain held a variety of Navy posts necessary to PATFORSWA operations, including NAVCENT, the U.S. Fifth Fleet, and Destroyer Squadron 50 (DESRON 50), the operational command for Coast Guard cutter forces.

In early 2003, an advance team arrived in Bahrain to set-up PATFORSWA. On January 15, McKinley touched down while executive officer, Lt. Greg Magee and rest of the staff members arrived within a week. McKinley met with the staff of Task Force 55 and DESRON 50 with which the cutters would operate. PATFORSWA’s command staff arranged for housing, transportation, communications, computer connectivity, workspace and all other support functions. They would face plenty of challenges with summertime temperatures averaging well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and periodic sandstorms that deposited brown grit on all exposed surfaces.

By the end of February 2003, most PATFORSWA staff members participating in OIF had arrived in Bahrain. The main body touched down on February 26, including four WPB crews; four Law Enforcement Detachment (LEDET) members assigned to each cutter; and the main contingent of support staff for PATFORSWA’s Bahrain base. The MSU Baltimore members also arrived after shipping their support trailers full of parts, tools and equipment.

As PATFORSWA stood up operations, the detachment’s mission conformed to realities on the ground. The crew from Sapelo, originally intended to serve as a relief for individuals on board deployed cutters, were not needed in that role. McKinley became a fulltime liaison officer to DESRON 50 and  Magee became assistant operations officer for DESRON 50 in addition to their duties as PATFORSWA’s commander and executive officer. The Navy tasked PATFORSWA with supporting two Navy 170-foot Cyclone-Class patrol craft due to their similarity to Coast Guard patrol boats. In addition, PATFORSWA began 24-hour force protection at its compound. U.S. naval forces could only occupy a 400-meter stretch of their pier’s 900-meter length, so vessel shifting also became a regular task for the WPB crews.

After the patrol boats arrived, the work tempo accelerated. The 110s appeared in Bahrain having ridden Motor Vessel Industrial Challenger for about 35 days from Portsmouth, Virginia. On Mar. 5, a heavy-lift crane off-loaded the cutters taking only six hours to set them in the water. The cutter crews conducted sea trials for two days, stowed stores aboard the patrol boats on Mar. 8. On Mar. 9, Adak and Aquidneck deployed to the Northern Arabian Gulf followed by Baranof and Wrangell on Mar. 12. On Mar. 19, OIF combat operations commenced and PATFORSWA’s cutters served as the coalition’s workhorses in boarding, escort and force protection duties. PATFORSWA’s units proved so successful that WPBs Monomoy and Maui joined the flotilla in May 2004, bringing the number of 110s in the Arabian Gulf to six.

PATFORSWA is the Coast Guard’s largest unit outside the United States, comprising six WPB crews, a relief crew for key personnel, and shore-side support units. In 2010, a 12-member Maritime Engagement Team (MET) joined PATFORSWA. It conducts law enforcement training for vessel and shore-side personnel associated with partner nations in the region and coalition-nation vessels. PATFORSWA also supports the advanced interdiction team, a 12-person detachment comprised of Coast Guard Maritime Security Response Team (MSRT) personnel. In addition, PATFORSWA operates a forward base at the Kuwait Naval Base, providing support and assistance when cutters arrive there.

Today, PATFORSWA supports Operation Enduring Freedom and Inherent Resolve, provides maritime humanitarian presence on the seas, supports the Navy’s Fifth Fleet, and forms strong ties with partner nations throughout the Arabian Gulf region.

William Thiesen is the Coast Guard Atlantic Area historian. 

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.