Courtesy of Surface SITREP, published by the Surface Navy Association (www.navysna.org).
Edward H. Lundquist: Tell me about the PCs in general; about the three PCs here in Mayport and their mission; and then anything special about this particular ship.
Lt. Cmdr. Cameron Ingram: The Cyclone class patrol coastal (PC) vessels were originally designed to support Naval Special Warfare Command as high-speed, low draft vessels to covertly insert and extract Navy SEALS. They commissioned in the early 90s, with Zephyr commissioning in 1994, about halfway through the program. They operated for several years on both coasts, and in 2004 the Navy turned several PCs over to the Coast Guard, Zephyr being one of them. The Coast Guard operated this vessel for counter-narcotic work, presence operations, and counter illicit trafficking (CIT) ops, both in the Caribbean and in the Northern Arabian Gulf. The Navy took the PCs back in 2012 – and based them at Little Creek. We have since forward deployed ten of the remaining 13 PCs to Bahrain, and the remaining three came down here to Mayport: USS Zephyr, USS Shamal, and USS Tornado. We operate for Naval Forces Southern Command (Fourth Fleet) in support of U.S. Southern Command. We conduct counter-illicit trafficking patrols and fill the gap that was created when the frigates (FFGs) were decommissioned. The FFGs would do a lot of the counter-narcotic work in the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific, and we have since tried to fill some of that loss of presence in theater. When on patrol we work for the Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF South) in support of Operation Martillo (which translates to Operation “Hammer”), which is a multinational operation including 14 countries, and U.S. federal law enforcement agencies and military all working to deny criminal organizations the ability to move narcotics, precursor chemicals, bulk cash, and weapons along Central American shipping routes. JIATF-South covers a 42 million square mile footprint that includes the Caribbean, South America, and East Pacific, and our mission is counter-illicit trafficking, namely the narcotics region. We will sit in the Caribbean and get vectors using intel support to capture drug runners coming up from South America – mainly Venezuela and Colombia – into either the Caribbean or to the continental U.S. Zephyr has done four full patrols, accumulating a little over 260 days of operations over the last year or so. Her first patrol started in April of 2016, and she is currently on a patrol through the fall. USS Shamal just completed a similar type of deployment. Shamal was the first to do the Fourth Fleet patrols, starting in 2015. Basically the PCs are doing 60 to 75-plus day patrols down in theater. Cumulative-wise, over a two year period we’ll have provided almost 600 days of on-station time. When the frigates were decommissioned, the U.S. Navy didn’t have any surface assets down here except a vessel that happened to be passing through. We now provide a predictable, sustainable platform that shows good presence for the Surface Navy. We’re re-establishing our footprint down there. There’s a lot of “get down there and figure it out,” to find a good place to do logistics and maintenance support and work with the Coast Guard and other nations, and develop those tactics and expand our presence. It’s been a lot of fun.
Do you have a base you operate from?
We have been using the U.S. Coast Guard Sector in San Juan, Puerto Rico, as our maintenance and logistics hub, which has been great. There is a SURFRON 14 (Naval Surface Squadron 14) maintenance readiness team that supports us, and they have access and storage facilities down there. That’s sort of the “hub” which we use.
Have you had any port visits while on patrol?
Shamal just visited Barbados and Trinidad. We’ve been to Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, in and out of Puerto Rico a lot, U.S. Virgin Islands, and we’re headed to Martinique and Curacao. We’re really expanding our port visit presence. We will utilize Naval Station Guantanamo Bay as a kind of as an in-chop and out-chop and final logistics hit, which is nice, pulling into a Naval facility.
Do you have a similar mission to the Coast Guard fast response cutters (FRCs) based in San Juan?
It’s a similar mission, but the employment of the assets is a bit different. The FRCs are more of an on-call asset and they also do the other statutory missions of the Coast Guard, such as fisheries enforcement, search and rescue, etc. We’re strictly counter-illicit. We do embark a Coast Guard law enforcement detachment (LEDET) when we go down range, a team of about nine Coast Guard members with their over-the-horizon RHIB (rigid hull inflatable boat), or OTH, which has an organic radar and an improved communications suite, so they can operate beyond line-of-sight. The OTH has a better-suited high-power engine for “go-fast” (drug smuggling) chases.
Are you fully interoperable with the OTH comm package and sensors?
They bring all of the integrated equipment on board and allow us to communicate with them well beyond the horizon.
You also have the Puma unmanned aircraft system. Can you use PUMA with the OTH to conduct the CIT mission?
Absolutely. Puma really increases our surveillance window. We employ it at different altitudes for wake detection, tracking and identification of a Go-Fast. If we see a fishing vessel over the horizon, we can send Puma over to establish a flag of nationality, and then make the decision on whether or not we want to pursue it; to conduct a Right of Approach visit (ROA).
Do you also work with Coast Guard aircraft?
We do. JIATF-South runs the maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) assets down there. We get direct intel feeds from them when they’re operating in our vicinity; and, if we’re lucky enough to have a surface asset which has an embarked helo, then they will also push information to us. The aircraft are not just Coast Guard, JIATF-South utilizes the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA); Customs and Border Protection (CBP); Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); and even Navy assets.
Rear Adm. Buck, commander, U.S. Fourth Fleet, told me there are U.S. Navy P-3s down in El Salvador.
They’re a great asset, and probably our best long-range targeting sensor. When we get intel that there may be a target of interest (TOI) in a certain vicinity, they can sweep the area. They’re a huge advantage for us in finding targets and vectoring us in for the bust.
Do you find that working with the Coast Guard LEDET is pretty seamless?
It is. I am highly impressed with their qualification process to become a LEDET boarding officer. It’s extremely robust and consists of multiple oral boards and interviews, a written practicum test, a plethora of required memorizations of the standing laws and bilateral agreements, and then the execution of a set amount of actual boardings. They come onboard with the tactics piece, but also a high degree of knowledge of what the law authorizes in order to build and solidify case packages for prosecution. They’re really great advisors in that way. It has been impressed upon us that we need to build a solid case package against drug smugglers that will make it all the way through the legal system, so we can then work on potential network penetration. That’s more important than confiscating contraband. So that’s really the focus, and you can tell the Coast Guard really understands that.
Zephyr got some good press recently about a pretty big drug bust. But that was actually the result of lot of coordination and cooperation.
It was probably the most organized and best executed live operation I’ve ever participated in. The suspect vessel was detected by DEA MPA aircraft, and covertly tracked for probably about 50 or 60 miles out from our location. The Dutch frigate HNLMS Van Amstel (F 831), with a USCG LEDET embarked, launched her helicopter and conducted a covert MPA hand-off of the TOI as we continued to close; we were on a better vector line to intercept. As we started to make our approach and come over the horizon, the helicopter already had permission for airborne use of force (AUF) to, if necessary, shoot out the engines.
Who gives that authority?
That comes from the Coast guard district commander. As soon as a TOI is discovered, we Tactical Control (TACON) shift to either USCG District 7 out of Miami, or USCG Sector San Juan, out of Puerto Rico, and then they run the tactical employment.
When you have a LEDET executing its authority, do you become a Coast Guard ship at that point?
We become a “law enforcement asset.” We raise the Coast Guard ensign, make a deck log entry, and officially become a law enforcement asset. With that comes a different set of ORM (operational risk management) and safety considerations.
For example, there are situations where the sea state may limit pursuit of a drug smuggler, but if that pursuit was against a terrorist threat or some other threat, we might push those boundaries a little bit more. As we came over the horizon, we put our OTH boat in the water, the Dutch helicopter went overt and came right down on top of the target. The target knew at that point it couldn’t run, and just stopped its engines. We could see it on the horizon and we directed the OTH to drive right up to where the helicopter was.
Were they trying to dump cargo at that point?
They were not. Sometimes they might try to jettison some of their stuff. But it’s challenging to jettison a thousand kilos of cocaine that’s been tightly packed into the hull. It’s hard to get it out in that short amount of time. What has been positive for us is a lot of compliance with our detainees. Once the LEDET gets on board the suspect vessel we have not had any incident where there has been any significant resistance. Once we are on board, they become compliant. The result was a multi-nation, multi-agency, USCG and U.S. Navy collaborated bust of 750 kilos of cocaine valued at $22.5 million, and the detention of five suspected drug smugglers.
Where do you keep detainees or suspects, depending on how many there are?
We keep them topside under a watch. We’ll have our own crew members and a Coast Guard member down there on deck with them and also have an armed overwatch which we keep on the Stinger deck, which is elevated above the main deck. Coast Guard LEDET run through a whole sanitation and medical surveillance process, take all their information down, collect their belongings, which stay with them as they get handed off to different assets.
You mentioned the “Stinger deck.” Do you still have the Stinger missile?
They were removed some years ago.
What do you have for weapons?
We have our complement of crew-served weapons, which consists of 50 cal. machine guns and M240 machine guns. We have also recently been outfitted with the Mk 38 Mod 3 25mm Gun Weapon System with a 7.62 co-axial gun – the first in the fleet. It’s a dual-barrel gun, optically guided and geo-stabilized, and it’s the newest in the fleet.
So you can put a different amount of hurt on somebody but be safely inside the ship.
Yes, sir. And very accurately, as well. The ones that we had before were the manually-operated Mod 1s – so this is a significant upgrade to our capabilities.
How big is the crew?
Right now we’re at 24 people. We’re billeted for 28. When we go on patrol, our ISIC (immediate superior in command) – SURFRON 14 – will temporarily assign personnel to fill the billets we need on patrol.
And you have room on board for your LEDET, as well?
Ingram: We have 39 racks total, nine racks back in what still call “SEAL berthing.” The LEDET takes that berthing area.
What different rates do you have on board?
We have an assortment of ratings, but we’re not deep, in some cases just one in each rate. In engineering we have enginemen (ENs); machinist’s mates (MMs); electricians mates (EMs), interior communications specialists (ICs) and damage controlmen (DCs). We only have one DC-man, and he is our DCA (damage control assistant). We have a “top snipe” who’s an ENC and also my senior enlisted advisor, as a collateral duty. For weapons department, deck division is actually in weapons department, we have three boatswain’s mates (BMs); two gunner’s mates who are crew-served weapons-instructor-qualified and 25mm qualified, the independent duty hospital corpsman and a culinary specialist (CS). In operations department we are billeted for two operations specialists (OSs), one electronics technician (ET), two information technician (ITs), and three quartermasters (QMs).
Speaking of quartermasters, do you use electronic navigation?
Correct. As of very recently, Zephyr became the first PC to certify for Electronic Chart Navigation – Navy (ECDIS N).
What is your engineering plant?
We have four Paxman 16-cylinder diesel engines – two in the forward engine room and two in the aft engine room – with direct drive to four shafts. We also have two 6-cylinder inline diesel engines for ship’s power.
Are they reliable?
They are reliable and we do have good redundancy in the propulsion system. Where we have issues is our equipment with very little redundancy. According to the “red line” instruction, which lists the minimal equipment which must be operational to get underway, over 45 percent of the equipment on our red line instruction is one-of-one systems, where we don’t have a redundancy or a backup.
Have you had high availability in terms of when you’re supposed to get underway, you get underway?
We have. We’ve had our fair share of challenges of trying to getting through our maintenance periods and stay on schedule, but we still meet our operational commitments. It requires a steady strain of effort from the beginning, in order to close out maintenance availabilities and repairs on time.
Who does most of your maintenance?
The crew is in charge of all PMS (preventive maintenance system) and whatever corrective maintenance we can accomplish, and SURFRON 14 PC Maintenance Readiness Team (PC-MRT) is our first line of support and advocates in accomplishing that maintenance. Additionally, we work with the Southeast Regional Maintenance Center – SERMC – and we have a dedicated port engineer for hull, mechanical and electrical systems and one for combat systems; for larger maintenance availabilities we have a dedicated project manager.
What kind of sensors do you have?
We have the SPS-73 surface search radar and a Furuno navigation radar.
We have a standard communications suite, from VHF, UHF, HF, and SATCOM. We have internet capability but it’s very low bandwidth.
If there’s one thing you could have that you don’t have, what would it be?
If there was an upgrade I could get, I would love a new FLIR high definition electro-optical/infrared camera. We have a legacy system which is grainy and doesn’t target-lock very well. Modern cameras have superseded it. The great thing is, the new Mod 3 25mms have high definition FLIR cameras, which is nice. But I would like a replacement up on the top of the mast as well.
Do you have to point your gun to aim the gun camera?
The camera is not lock-train. It can scan on its own without actually moving the barrel.
Do your gunner’s mates have to have special training for that?
There’s an NEC-driven school which they have attend to get qualified to operate and maintain the guns.
Is there anything else besides an upgrade your imagery ISR?
We’re on track to get an upgrade to our AC systems. We have one air conditioning for the forward part of the ship and one AC system that covers the aft part of my ship. They’re just as old as the ship is – 23 years old – and components on them are starting to degrade. We have had more casualties on that system than anything else, and that drives us into port to conduct repairs; which takes away from operational time.
How many officers do you have normally?
We have four. We’re billeted for two second-tour SWO division officers who fill roles as department heads – the operations officer and the weapons officer. And then I have a warrant officer (or LDO) who is the chief engineer. And then the commanding officer is a lieutenant or lieutenant commander.
Do you have an XO?
That’s a collateral duty for one of the department heads, so it rotates around. Currently, my operations officer is the executive officer. He will transfer here in the next couple of months and that collateral duty will get passed on to the weapons officer.
You also have an exchange officer.
DESRON 40, has set up an exchange program where we bring on a Peruvian officer. He’s on board now and will make the next patrol with us. He’s essentially a department head equivalent in the Peruvian Navy, with bridge watchstanding skills. We’re integrating him with our watch team and he’ll be helping us out over the patrol.
It’s good to have an extra watchstander.
It’s always good to have an extra watchstander! We request Merchant Marine Academy cadets from Kings Point to get underway with us. They’re required to get up to 360 days underway time – it’s a Coast Guard requirement – before they can sit for their license during their senior year. We try to help out with that requirement. The reason they’re great to have on board is they come with a baseline knowledge of maritime engineering or navigation, and seamanship. It’s great to have an extra body in the watch rotation as well. The Kings Point cadets have a massive “Sea Project” which they must complete, and one of the great side effects is they’re asking my crew members, “How do I take a celestial fix?” or “How does this pump work?” It forces my crew members to become the trainers which means they’re both diving into the pubs, and they’re both increasing their level of knowledge, win-win.
What else do you want me to know about your ship or your crew?
The most gratifying – and really surprising – aspect is how versatile, motivated, and tough this crew of 24 Sailors is. I’ve only been on destroyers and cruisers prior to this – I was the OPS on the USS Monterey and I had a department of 109 people to include 16 khakis, my one department was almost four times the size of the entire crew here.
Cross-rate training gets executed on board here because it has to. My engineers and quartermasters are handling lines. My culinary specialist is my safety observer on the boat deck when I launch the RHIB. Right now, we’re getting ready to fly our Puma UAV, and that’s my HM and an EN who operate it. I have OOD-qualified gunner’s mates and boatswain’s mates. I have E5s qualified as EOOWs. On this ship, if you want to qualify, you can.
Do you have any non-rated Sailors, or anyone who is not an A-school graduate?
Everyone’s at least rated on board here. We usually do not have Sailors come here for their first tour, but there are exceptions. Our most junior guy is an OSSN right out of A school, but he’s motivated and already working on his ESWS qualification.
How many of your crew are qualified?
We’re certified to fly the ESWS pennant, which means everyone who is eligible is qualified. It just shows the pride that the crew has. We had a BMSN from USS Iwo Jima come aboard for TAD support, he was motivated and engaged, and earned his ESWS qualification. So the Iwo Jima helped us out with a body, and we were able to send him back with that ESWS pin on his chest, which really helped them out.
I notice that you have the Zephyr logo on your ball caps from the famous passenger trains.
Zephyr was the Greek god of the western wind. The logo depicts an aerodynamic right-facing (westerly), flying god striking through the clouds. It’s a really cool emblem.
(Note: Captain Lundquist was a guest aboard USS Zephyr underway off Florida in August 2017. Lt. Cmdr. Ingram completed his assignment as commanding officer and Lt. Cmdr. Grant Greenwell assumed command on Aug. 24, 2017. Ingram has been assigned to the OPNAV Staff.)