Malta Independent Online
Wednesday, May 02, 2012
Everyone knows who the Navy Seals and the SAS are. But does anyone know who the RDT and VPD are? They are Malta’s own Special Forces who are soon to deploy to Somalia to counter the piracy threat off the Horn of Africa. Michael Carabott speaks to their commanders after watching drills out in rough seas.
The two Rapid Deployment Team Commanders could not be more different. One is tall, well built, precise, exact. The other is shorter, stockier, constantly absorbing his surroundings and with a pleasant smile and bursting with confidence.
The two men are Lieutenant Pasquale Papa and Lieutenant Renee Aquilina. Lt Papa and Lt Aquilina have just led boarding parties onto the Spanish minesweeper M-34 Turia during training exercises with Nato’s Standing Nato Mine Counter Measure Group 2. After transferring to the Armed Forces of Malta P51 vessel in a ship-to-ship exchange, I got a feeling of what these men do. The waves were crashing against the hull of the P51, and just like the RDT teams did, we had to climb up a rope ladder and haul ourselves aboard. It is not easy. Now imagine doing that, knowing that you are searching for a threat – a man holding the trigger to an IED (an improvised explosive device). You have to cope with boarding a high speed rhib, pulling alongside the vessel in question and then hauling yourself up a rope ladder in full kit, while keeping a 360 degree watch, just in case anyone is trying to shoot you or any members of your team.
The AFM had two teams – each made up of six men. In one operation, a team was to assess a bomb threat and take action. In the other, they were looking for a package of drugs. I watched both operations from the bridge of the fleet’s flagship – the Turkish Navy’s Sokullu Mehmetpasa. Sadly, in Malta, many seem to think that the army is a hobby, made up by a body of part-timers. The reality couldn’t be more different. Even the commander of the fleet nodded his approval as the teams quickly boarded the vessel and completed their tasks successfully and in very good time. Once we were back on the P-51, the two lieutenants agreed to be interviewed. I asked them their ages, and was surprised to find that both were relatively young – in their late twenties – their maturity belying their age.
First to speak was Lt Papa, who has already served one tour as commander of the VPD team that saw action with a Dutch Navy vessel in Somalia. I asked how the teams were composed and what their objectives were. “The first team was a Rapid Deployment Team from the Maritime Squadron, they were deployed and told to board the vessel as there was an IED threat – a person was holding a device and once we boarded and searched the vessel, the threat was dealt with,” he said.
The second team – C Company’s VPD – was to board the vessel and search for a package suspected to be illegal drugs. “On a large ship such as the one we boarded, it is not easy to search for such packages. We have to secure the vessel and search for our objective, all the while keeping in radio contact with each other and our command vessel,” said Lt Papa.
I asked both the commanders how it felt to have soldiers and sailors working together. Broad grins creased their faces and in unison, they answered: “It’s always a struggle to make a sailor think like an infantryman and an infantryman to think like a sailor.”
“When we deploy off Somalia, one of the tasks might be ship boarding – so today’s exercises held a lot of relevance. It’s all about boarding, searching and of course, vessel protection.”
While the two commanders gave me more of a breakdown, spirits amongst the non-commissioned officers and enlisted men were high, despite the huge waves that soaked them as we made our way back to Malta from a position 12 miles out.
“Both teams are young, but they did really well. They will learn from each other and learn how to manage various scenarios. The command was there and the execution was there, and as I have said, it was very good experience that will stand our boys in good stead once they go operational,” said Lt Papa.
I asked how it felt for the teams to be working with vessels from other armed forces and to be part of such a large drill, only weeks away from their operational deployment.
Lt Aquilina suddenly turned serious. “You improvise. You adapt and overcome. We take split second decisions to complete our objectives and bring our men home, safe and sound.”
“The army’s standards and our equipment have improved dramatically over the years, we train like we fight, and we fight like we train,” said Lt Papa, quoting more army mantra.
I was then privileged to attend the troops’ debrief – which cannot be reported as it is classified – but it gave me more of an insight into the Special Forces’ operations.
As the waves got higher and the boat lurched even more, we all hung on outside on the deck as the two commanders went through their men’s performance. The operations were dissected and looked at from every conceivable angle. Lt Papa told the men where they could improve, where they did well and what they did not do as well. The one thing that he brought home from Somalia and tries to pass on to other soldiers is ‘360-vision’. He told them that they must be vigilant at all times – out in the real world things can change in the bat of an eye and that threats can appear from nowhere. But when he told them that both operations were successful and that the teams had received the praise of the Nato fleet – a collective shout went up, immediately followed by a Special Forces’ chant. 12 men will be going to Somalia. All are volunteers – 10 NCOs and enlisted men and two officers in command.
Photographs of the VPD and the RDT team members’ faces are not being
published to protect their identity
Maritime Squadron RDT
The Maritime Squadron is based at Haywharf in Pietà. Approximately 200 men make up the Squadron and are tasked with Search and Rescue and patrol of territorial waters.
The RDT team was created in 1997 as a force to support the AFM in operations related to counter terrorism, drug smuggling, human trafficking, ship boarding and searches. In 1999, the unit was elevated to the status of Special Forces, with the emphasis being on quick response to maritime threats and crisis situations.
The RDT is trained by Maltese and Italian staff from the 9th Assault Regiment. Aspiring raiders are trained in recovery of vessels, oil platforms, underwater and coastal operations
Admission test: Go 3000 metres within the maximum time of 15 minutes. Five pull-ups at the and 20 push-ups, climbing rope (10 metres), swimming 200 metres in combat vest.
Close quarter battle: The ‘in CQB training’ consists of physical training, shooting pistol and submachine gun; use of personal equipment in closed environments (ships and houses).
Fast rope: Fast rope deployment and practice in the techniques of insertion.
Boat team: Practice in boarding of vessels by rhib (Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat).
Practical tests: Consist of tactical training on vessels and coordination of operations.
Final practice: Recruits must make an operational demonstration in order to demonstrate their abilities, without the assistance of instructors. With the crews of Air Wing’s Helicopter Squadron, the Maritime Squadron and the commander of operations, will plan and execute an intervention of Maritime Law Enforcement (MLE), assaulting a suspect vessel supplied by local shipping companies.
The Armed Forces of Malta
The AFM was formed upon Malta becoming a republic in 1974, when 1 Regiment Royal Malta Artillery was renamed as 1 Regiment, AFM. This initially continued the artillery role, with 2 Regiment formed as an engineers’ unit. In 1980, 1 Regiment became a mixed unit, with infantry, aircraft and maritime responsibilities, the artillery element being transferred to 2 Regiment. In 1992, there was a major re-organisation, which led to the formation of 3 Regiment and the current structure.
The AFM wears a single cap badge, based on that of the Royal Malta Artillery, which consists of a gun, similar to that worn by the Royal Artillery but without the crown, on top of a Maltese Cross, with the motto Tutela Bellicæ Virtutis (Custodians of Military Prowess) underneath.
Read about Nato’s Standing Nato Mine Counter Measure Group 2 brief in the Mediterranean, how it is relevant to Malta and what exercises it conducted with the AFM in this week’s edition of the Malta Independent on Sunday.
Photographs: Justin Gatt AFM and Fabio Giangolini
C (Special Duties) Company
C (Special Duties) Company’s RDT unit was created in March 2003 at an EU summit meeting where Malta agreed to contribute to the European Union’s Rapid Reaction Force. C Company was selected for the job. It is now known as C (Special Duties) Company and has undergone many changes and has since evolved into the AFM’s elite unit. C (Special Duties) Company was officially founded on 1 August, 2003. It has five platoons: 1st Company Command (Special Forces) Platoon; 2nd and 3rd (Special Duties) Platoon; 4th (Special Duties) Training and 5th Platoon (Special Duties). The setting up of 1ST Platoon saw the AFM have its first Special Forces Unit.
C Company draws its members from all units of the AFM, selecting candidates that are usually a cut above the rest. Any soldier can be chosen for the Special Forces and usually, those who are chosen show proficiency in counter terrorism, climbing, endurance, swimming skills, tactical insertion, communications, sapping, marksmanship and other vital soldiering skills. Once they finish their deployment, they are returned to their original units. The Special Ops Company organises ad-hoc training at every opportunity and regularly trains with armed forces and special ops teams around the world, including Seals, the British Army, the Italian Special Forces and many others. Put simply, to be part of this team, you have to be the best of the best.