Mark Fraram of Navy Times Reports: Iraq’s New Sailors Sharpen Skills At Louisiana Training Center

For immediate release: Dec 13, 2010
(NAVY TIMES 13 DEC 10) … Mark D. Faram

Morgan City, La. – Quietly, with little fanfare, the new Iraqi navy is growing in Louisiana. About an hour southwest of New Orleans in the town of Morgan City, the Swiftships shipyard isn’t only building as many as 15 new 35-meter patrol boats for the fledgling navy; it’s also training Iraqi sailors to operate them.

Since April, when the training started, 86 Iraqi officers and enlisted personnel have completed the training, and there are plans for at least two more classes.

The 35-meter boat program is part of a larger effort to beef up the Iraqi navy to allow it to defend its ports and offshore oil plat-forms, something that has required international assistance ever since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Iraq’s navy was decimated during 1991 Persian Gulf War and didn’t play much of a part in 2003.

But a defensive naval capability was seen as critical to the stability of the country – especially sharing a border with rival Iran.

Iraq has also purchased boats from the French and Italians. To date, it’s been those countries, as well as the U.S. Coast Guard, that have conducted most of the individual training for this new generation of Iraqi sailors.

But it will be this U.S. contribution – these 15 35-meter patrol boats and another U.S.-based pro-gram to build two 60-meter off-shore vessels to act as mother-ships to the patrol boats – that will provide the largest increase in Iraqi naval capability.

“This 35-meter patrol boat was built to operate in the unique river and coastal waterways, oil platforms and close-in support and security requirements the Iraqi forces have to defend,” said Capt. Ed “Junior” Turner, commanding officer of Naval Education and Training Security Assistance Field Activity, the command charged with managing foreign navy training inside the U.S. “It’s the perfect size to support the river security, but when necessary it’s also large enough to go out and protect their oil platforms and terminals in the Persian Gulf.”

The Training Plan

Because the Iraqi navy is really starting from scratch, officials say ensuring sailors are fully capable of operating these new vessels through an aggressive training program will make the difference in increasing the Navy’s operating capability as quickly as possible.

“It’s pretty unique as far as shipyards go,” Turner said. “As Swiftships builds the boats right here, we built a temporary training facility on the same grounds to support training these students.”

But it’s not the shipyard doing the training. For that, the Virginia Beach, Va.-based company VSD was contracted to put together a team and curriculum to prepare these Iraqi sailors to operate their new boats inside their own waters. On land that was a marsh just a year ago, VSD has built class-rooms and an extensive simulator that enables training for bridge teams, engineering and weapons.

“The whole purpose behind this training is for the Iraqi navy to take over all the capabilities the U.S. is currently assisting them [with] in maritime security, such as security around the oil rigs and platforms and the ability to monitor their ports,” said Chuck Walch, a retired chief damage controlman and senior instructor on the project.

At the request of Turner’s command, VSD developed a 90-day blended training program, which consists of instructor-led classroom training, integrated scenario-based simulator training and familiarization aboard the 35-meter patrol boats.

Also assisting in this curriculum development were the Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division in Orlando, Fla., Naval Sea Systems Command and Swiftships Shipbuilding.

One big challenge in the training was the language barrier, which VSD dealt with by hiring translators who work hand in hand with the instructors.

As with the U.S. Navy’s training program, the classroom instruction concentrates on providing the basics, including individual skills in ship handling, navigation, engineering and weapons, as well as firefighting and damage control.

“We have a subject-matter expert for each area, all retired U.S. Navy chief petty officers,” Watch said. “We teach them the basics of everything and get a little more in depth in engineering and damage control perspective so they can maintain and protect their ship.”

What really pushes this training to a high level is a robust set of simulators, developed just for these boats.

The bridge simulator has a 180-degree forward-facing visual display. “It’s a full mockup of the actual bridge, and the graphics are so incredible that we’ve had some sailors get seasick during simulations,” Walch said. “It’s set up so we can do our bridge simulations in their own ports, waters and even around the oil rigs.”

The whole simulator complex is built inside shipping containers; once U.S.-based training wraps up in mid-2011, the plan is to take it all to Iraq and set it up for the crews to use for proficiency training, Walch said.

The training culminates in 32 hours of hands-on, underway training where U.S. instructors stand back and let the Iraqi crews run the boat, stepping in only if there’s a danger to the crew or boat.

“It really puts it all together for them,” Walch said. “It builds on what they learned in the class-room and simulators and is focused on the ship’s operations, damage control and rigid hull inflatable boat operations.”

The first Swiftship’s boat is already in Iraq and was unveiled to the public on a special Navy Day celebration. As more boats are completed, they’ll be loaded onto heavy-lift ships and transported to Iraq. But as the patrol boat program winds down next year, the offshore vessel program will be starting. Those ships are scheduled to be built in Louisiana as well, and Walch and his crew will be charged with training those sailors.

“The training portion should begin in September, and the idea right now is for the training to culminate in the Iraqis driving those boats back to Iraq themselves,” Walch said.