Grapple Takes Theater Security Cooperation Underwater

Military Sealift Command’s rescue and salvage ships are a bit like insurance – operating quietly in the background until they, along with their embarked Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit companies, are needed to be quickly on the scene for a mission, such as towing or debeaching a stranded ship or salvaging a vessel. While these types of missions often make headlines, some of the most influential work by these ships is done during that background time, conducting theater security cooperation engagements with the U.S. Navy’s allied and partner nations throughout the world.

Currently on deployment to the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) area of responsibility, USNS Grapple (T-ARS 53) has already worked with two different countries, and is scheduled for a third, hosting bilateral diving exchanges, preparing for any future combined missions.

“A bilateral diving exchange allows us to work hand in hand with our host nations, such as Spain, Algeria, and Morocco on this deployment,” said civil service mariner Capt. Curtis Smith, master of Grapple. “In the grand scheme of things, if an amphibious or subsurface event occurs that would require the use of multi-national support, we will have an understanding of each nation’s techniques, assets, and limitations with regard to a specific means of diving.”

The Grapple crew and MDSU Company 2-4 recently conducted diving exchanges in Spain and Algeria, with Morocco scheduled for early in the new year. During these bilateral exchanges, the MDSU Two dive team work hand in hand with the host nation’s divers on various types of diving, such as ship, surface supplied, SCUBA, and re-breather diving. The Grapple civil service mariner crew are on hand to provide support to the training by operating the shipboard crane that lowers the dive stage, assisting in developing and providing materials for mock training scenarios, such as developing a 4-bolt flange that can be either something to fix or something to find. The bilateral diving exchanges always begin with an initial assessment of each country’s diving and salvage capability to provide a productive starting point.

In Cartagena, Spain, from Nov. 24 to 30, and in Jijel, Algeria, from Dec. 10 to 14, the U.S. Navy divers hosted classroom training onboard Grapple covering operational and emergency procedures for surface supplied diving using the Kirby Morgan 37 diving helmet, bright yellow and looking like a cross between an old-fashioned dive helmet and something worn by intergalactic explorers. They also discussed several SCUBA-related procedures including anti-terrorism force protection (ATFP) diving techniques and low visibility searching techniques.

In Spain, after the classroom training, both countries’ divers conducted familiarization dive training off Grapple using the surface supplied dive helmet and the divers stage, lowering divers to a 35-foot depth. Successfully completing the familiarization dives, the Grapple civil service mariner crew moored the ship in 160 feet of water where the 18 U.S. Navy dive team members and eight Spanish divers performed deep diving operations using surface supplied surface decompression dives. One final SCUBA diving operation saw the divers team up to inspect a new wreck site 75 feet under water that the Spanish navy diver school intends to use for future training purposes.

Similarly, in Algeria where a total of 20 Algerian military divers participated, one group of U.S. Navy divers conducted 35-foot depth surface supplied dives off Grapple with some of their Algerian diver counterparts while at the same time, pierside, another combined group performed search and ATFP dives using SCUBA equipment. This was the first bilateral diving operation from an American vessel in Algeria in 12 years.

Success in these exchanges is measured by a slightly more intangible yardstick than traditional rescue or salvage operations.

“Success of a bilateral diving exchange is directly determined by what each military can take away from their interaction with each other,” said Smith. “The exchange of diving knowledge between militaries ideally ends with each country taking away new or better ideas for better ways to perform safe diving operations, to include salvage operations, search operations, and ATFP security operations. Additionally, each engagement between the Spanish, Algerian, and American military forces during the AFRICOM deployment has provided a positive effect on foreign relations between each of the governments involved.”
Theater Security Working Group