- The Washington Times - Monday, February 25, 2002

ABOARD THE USS SHAMAL Twelve miles off the Virginia coast, the haze-gray Navy gunboat slices a sleek, deadly profile through the Atlantic's light swells, where it is poised for action if Coast Guardsmen are attacked while inspecting a merchant ship.
Looming nearby is the Coast Guard cutter Harriet Lane, its captain intent on the operation, its big deck cannon an ominous reality for the Philippine ship run afoul of new rules in the war on terrorism.
The Coast Guard and Navy, operating jointly for the first time to protect the nation's coasts, ports and waterways from terrorist attacks, mix law enforcement and military muscle to create an intimidating presence.
The fast, highly maneuverable and heavily armed Navy gunboats have been used since December to beef up Coast Guard patrols. They have the speed and firepower to intercept and destroy suspicious ships that may try to attack an American port.
"If necessary, I could eliminate that ship," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. John Zuhowski, captain of the gunboat USS Shamal. He eyed the merchant vessel Century Seymour as it swayed under a bright sun 800 yards away, where the Shamal's team of six Coast Guard petty officers checked the vessel for terrorists or the tools of their trade.
The 426-foot Century Seymour, bound for Baltimore, got into trouble when it failed to give port authorities notice of its arrival 96 hours in advance. The 24-hour port entry notice was changed to 96 hours after the September 11 terrorist attacks to give the Coast Guard, Navy and port officials more time to check out a ship.
If there's trouble, Cmdr. Zuhowski's first priority is to get the Coast Guard boarding team to safety. He can open fire if a ship "indicates hostile intent. You do not have to take the first hit."
There was some criticism early in the Afghanistan war that the military bureaucracy was too slow in approving targets and executing attack orders.
Asked who would issue the order to open fire if a boarding mission turned violent or a ship tried to attack, Cmdr. Zuhowski widened his eyes in disbelief.
"Me," he said.
But Cmdr. Zuhowski, a 34-year-old Naval Academy graduate from Annapolis, isn't spoiling for a fight. "I'm glad to bring all the bullets I took out home with me."
The 180-foot Shamal packs dual .50-caliber machine guns on each side of the ship, two 25-mm heavy machine guns fore and aft and a semiautomatic grenade launcher on the stern that can fire up to 375 40-mm grenades per minute. With a top speed of about 40 mph, the Shamal also carries Stinger anti-aircraft missiles that can be used against ships.
"It's small, it's fast, it's maneuverable," Cmdr. Zuhowski said of the Shamal. "I can get close to ships; I can get in and out of harbors.
"This is a Corvette with machine guns."
The Harriet Lane named after bachelor President James Buchanan's niece, who acted as White House hostess for her uncle is a 270-foot cutter with a crew of 98. Its 76-mm deck gun is radar-aimed.
Like the Shamal, the Harriet Lane can sink a merchant vessel if necessary, said its captain, Cmdr. Kevin Quigley. However, its top speed is only about half that of the Shamal and it is much less maneuverable.
The six Coast Guard crewmen assigned to the Shamal are the law enforcement side of the operation. They board and inspect ships chosen at random or tracked by intelligence.
America's military is largely prohibited from acting as a domestic police force. The Coast Guard, part of the Transportation Department, is the lead law enforcement agency for maritime homeland security.
The Shamal is one of 14 Cyclone-class coastal patrol gunboats built by Bollinger Shipyards of Lockport, La. A "shamal" is a strong, hot, Arabian wind. All the gunboats are named for weather phenomena.
The original ship, USS Cyclone, was turned over to the Coast Guard in 2000, but the Coast Guard does not have the funds to operate it.
The Shamal and three other Cyclone-class ships based at Little Creek Amphibious Base in Virginia Beach are patrolling the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico with the Coast Guard. Two other Cyclone-class gunboats have been assigned to work with the Coast Guard in the Pacific.
The gunboats were built during the 1990s to support long-range, special operations missions of Navy SEAL teams. The Navy was going to decommission them, but that plan has been put on hold because of the terrorist threat to the nation.
The Shamal and Harriet Lane challenged the Century Seymour 12 miles off the shoreline, the Virginia Beach resort strip visible in the distance.
Petty Officer Joshua Surrat, 24, of Newport, R.I., led the Coast Guard team up a boarding ladder and onto the vacant deck of the Century Seymour.
"I always volunteer to go first," he said. His job is to check for immediate threats before the rest of the team comes up.
This day the team was armed with 9-mm handguns. Sometimes they carry M-16 rifles and 12-gauge shotguns. The inflatable boat that ferries them to a target ship mounts an M-60 machine gun on its bow.
Petty Officer Jason Haines, 21, of Allentown, Pa., likes launching from the Shamal, a vessel bristling with weaponry. "It delivers a message," he said. Crews of boarded ships are "going to think twice before doing anything stupid."
The team checked every room for weapons, hazardous materials, explosives, observation equipment such as cameras with long lenses and anything else that might be suspicious. They also checked the 21 crew members and their passports against the manifest. Sometimes they carry devices that detect radioactivity that could be produced by a nuclear device, said Cmdr. Quigley, commander of the joint operation.
The boarding crew found nothing suspicious and returned to the Shamal after 75 minutes. The merchant ship was carrying aluminum nitrate, a chemical used as a catalyst in petroleum refining and for tanning leather.
Cmdr. Zuhowski said the Shamal's crew of 32 works well with the Coast Guard detachment on board.
Cmdr. Quigley, Cmdr. Zuhowski and members of the boarding teams said they have not found any terrorists or suspicious material in hundreds of boardings.


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