Stuttgart, Germany — U.S. 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 (MDSU) 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 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 area of responsibility, the USNS Grapple has already worked with two countries, and is scheduled for a third, hosting bilateral diving exchanges and 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 Captain Curtis Smith, master of the Grapple. "In the grand scheme of things, if an amphibious or subsurface event occurs that would require the use of multinational 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 dive team works 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 is on hand to provide support to the training by operating the shipboard crane that lowers the dive stage, and by assisting in developing materials for training scenarios, such as developing a four-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 November 24 to 30, and in Jijel, Algeria, from December 10 to 14, the U.S. Navy divers hosted classroom training onboard the Grapple, covering operational and emergency procedures for surface-supplied diving using the Kirby Morgan 37 diving helmet, which is bright yellow and looks 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 the Grapple using the surface-supplied dive helmet and the dive stage, which lowered divers to a 35-foot (10-meter) depth. Successfully completing the familiarization dives, the Grapple crew moored the ship in 160 feet (50 meters) 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 (23 meters) under water that the Spanish navy diver school intends to use in future training.
Similarly, in Algeria where 20 Algerian military divers participated, one group of U.S. Navy divers conducted 10-meter surface-supplied dives off the 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," Captain Smith said. "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."