Cutlass Express tackles Indian Ocean maritime security risks

VBSS Seychelles
Multinational personnel prepare for a visit, board, search, and seizure (VBSS) serial at sea during Exercise ‘Cutlass Express 2024’ in the Indian Ocean. Pictured in the background is the Seychelles Coast Guard Rodman 101-class patrol boat La Fleche.

The recent international maritime exercise ‘Cutlass Express 2024’, which took place in the Western Indian Ocean off East Africa, focused on building readiness and maritime domain awareness (MDA) to counter high-profile maritime security risks like piracy, illicit trafficking, oil bunkering, and illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

Led by US Naval Forces Africa (USNAVAF) and involving 14 countries and multiple regional and international organisations, ‘Cutlass Express’ – which ran for two weeks, from late February to early March – brought a collaborative approach to tackling these issues, with emphasis on building information-sharing structures and processes.

The exercise featured sea- and shore-based phases. The at-sea phase focused on maritime interdiction operations, including detecting illicit activity, the deployment of boarding teams and visit, board, search, and seizure (VBSS) training, and evidence collection procedures.

Ashore – and underlining growing naval focus on distributed, integrated command to build effective regional MDA coverage – ‘Cutlass Express’ brought together core components of the region’s maritime security architecture, including the Indian Ocean Commission’s Seychelles-based Regional Co-ordination Operations Centre (RCOC) and the Madagascar-based Regional Maritime Information Fusion Center (RMIFC). This helped ensure the exercise was shaped in a manner that reflected regional maritime forces’ structures, organisation, procedures, and collaboration in addressing their maritime security challenges.

‘Cutlass Express’ also included training focus on maritime law, for example seeking to develop consistency and standards when conducting actions at sea like boarding operations. The importance of this particular element was underlined by the fact that the exercise took place across multiple national territorial waters as well as the high seas, and by the fact that many maritime crimes are transnational in nature. Military and civilian lawyers and legal advisers from several countries – including Djibouti, Madagascar, Mozambique, Somalia, Tanzania, and the United States – were present to discuss issues like the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the Djibouti Code of Conduct, information sharing, legal and procedural issues relating to the conduct of boarding operations, and the effective use of evidence and other information in delivering successful legal prosecutions.

by Dr. Lee Willett