U.S. Navy Destroyer Seizes Illicit Weapons off Somalia


Published on 02/16/2021 – Last Updated on 02/16/2021 by OTC

U.S. Navy’s Arleigh Burke Class Guided-missile destroyer USS Winston S. Churchill (DDG 81) seized illicit shipments of weapons & weapons components from two stateless dhows during a maritime security operation in international waters off the coast of Somalia, Feb. 11-12.

The cache of weapons consisted of thousands of AK-47 assault rifles, light machine guns, heavy sniper rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers & crew served weapons. Other weapon components included barrels, stocks, optical scopes & weapon systems.

Ship’s Visit, Board, Search, and Seizure (VBSS) team and embarked joint service Advanced Interdiction Team (AIT) discovered the illicit cargo during a flag verification boarding conducted in accordance with international law and in international waters.

What is Flag Verification at High Seas?

The flag state of a merchant vessel is the jurisdiction under whose laws the vessel is registered or licensed, and is deemed the nationality of the vessel. A merchant vessel must be registered and can only be registered in one jurisdiction, but may change the register in which it is registered. The flag state has the authority and responsibility to enforce regulations over vessels registered under its flag, including those relating to inspection, certification, and issuance of safety and pollution prevention documents.

Under international law, a ship must fly the flag of a state in order to avoid being a stateless vessel.

According to United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea article 110; a warship that encounters on the high seas a foreign ship is not justified in boarding it unless there is reasonable ground for suspecting that:

  1. (a) the ship is engaged in piracy;
    (b) the ship is engaged in the slave trade;
    (c) the ship is engaged in unauthorized broadcasting and the flag
    State of the warship has jurisdiction under article 109;
    (d) the ship is without nationality; or
    (e) though flying a foreign flag or refusing to show its flag, the ship
    is, in reality, of the same nationality as the warship.
  2. In the cases provided for in paragraph 1, the warship may proceed
    to verify the ship’s right to fly its flag. To this end, it may send a boat under
    the command of an officer to the suspected ship. If suspicion remains after
    the documents have been checked, it may proceed to a further examination on board the ship, which must be carried out with all possible consideration.

The dhow crews were provided food and water before being released.

Why Criminals were released?

Basically, this method is used since there are no agreements regarding the transfer and trial of criminals in the region where the operation is carried out. Besides, detaining and transferring the criminals to a proper country would be a waste of resources.

USS Winston S. Churchill Dhow - Naval Post
The guided-missile destroyer USS Winston S. Churchill (DDG 81), in accordance with international law, boarded a stateless dhow off the coast of Somalia and interdicted an illicit shipment of weapons and weapon components, Feb. 12. Image: U.S. Navy

The original source of the weapons has not yet been identified by Bahrain-based 5th Fleet . Churchill located the dhows and provided more than 40 hours of over watch and security for the ship and its boarding teams throughout the two-day operation.

“We are proud of the combined efforts of the AIT and Churchill crew members for executing dynamic and demanding boardings,” said Lt. Travis Dopp, Assistant AIT Leader aboard Churchill. “We are proud to have a positive impact on the safety and security of coalition forces by interdicting shipments of lethal aid.”

The seizure of the illicit weapons by Churchill was conducted as part of the U.S. Navy’s regular maritime security operations in the region. These routine patrols are performed to ensure the free flow of commerce for legitimate traffic and to disrupt the transport of illicit cargo that often funds terrorism and unlawful activity.

Winston S. Churchill departed Norfolk, Virginia, Aug. 10 for a regularly-scheduled deployment to maintain maritime security and ensure the freedom of navigation in critical waterways.

U.S. 5th Fleet, headquartered in Manama, Bahrain, conducts joint and naval operations in order to support regional allies and partners and U.S. national security interests in the Middle East.

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