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New kit for Royal Navy search teams

27 February 2020
‘Snake’ cameras and DIY tools are being used by Royal Navy sailors to help the fight against drug smuggling.

New boarding kits are being introduced to teams in the front line of the struggle against trafficking and terrorism.

The large black boxes – known as intensive search kits – are packed with a mix of tools such as knives, pliers, hammers and screwdrivers, and dedicated search equipment such as angled mirrors, miniature video cameras/endoscopes.

The kit has already been used successfully by the crew of HMS Montrose in the Middle East; the endoscope camera located a secret compartment containing £1m illegal narcotics when it otherwise looked as though a lengthy search of a suspicious vessel might draw a blank.

“The search lasted ten hours before we found anything, although the crew’s behaviour suggested there was something untoward on board,” said Sub Lieutenant Will de la Mer, HMS Montrose’s boarding officer.

“More and more dhows are using hidden compartments for their smuggling. This one did and the endoscope was able to look inside.”

The search kit’s introduction was prompted by increasing efforts by smugglers to beat the ‘bobbies on the beat’ and prevent their illegal cargoes being confiscated such as false bulkheads, secret compartments and even one occasion when £65m of cocaine was hidden beneath three tonnes of ice in a freezer.

“Some smugglers make no attempt to hide their cargo – nails, or screws sticking out are a dead giveaway,” explained Captain Anthony Swan, the Royal Marine in charge of 47 Commando’s Board and Search School.

“But there are times when a search can run for hours. You know there’s something suspicious from the way the crew are acting, but you can’t find what you’re looking for.”

The result is the intensive search kit – a long black box which is half a DIY enthusiast’s delight (), half spy school (etc). It’s all off the shelf equipment and rugged enough to endure the bashing it’s going to get during a mid-ocean boarding.

The kits have been acquired with the help of the Army’s search teams; they’ve shared their experience of searching homes and compounds in Afghanistan for improvised explosive devices, hidden arms caches, drugs hauls and the like.

“We’d become very, very good at the boarding side of board and search – the Royal Marines are world leaders – but the search side hadn’t progressed much: check the paper work, talk to the crew. If something looks untoward, get permission from the master for a thorough search,” Capt Swan added.

“Our search kit wasn’t as good as our boarding kit – and we were determined to put that right. What we’ve acquired is pretty basic, but it’s durable, it works and it gets results.”

Seven kits – two at the training school in HMS Raleigh – have been acquired for use by sailors and Juliet Company, 40 Commando, the Royal Marines’ dedicated board-and-search specialists.

The ‘snake camera’ – basically a flexible cable with a camera and light on the end – connected to a handheld display/controller can be fed through drillholes to see what lies beyond them; the images it picks up can be recorded for evidence.

Also included is a stud detector – just as you’d use at home to find nails, cables or metal behind a wall or plaster if you were carrying out home improvements; here it’s used to locate tell-tall signs of secret compartments.

“And if we don’t find anything, then we have to put the boat back in the condition we found it, so the new kit causes far less damage to be put right,” Capt Swan adds.

Also filtering through to the front line is the biometrical enrolment device which can scan a suspect’s iris and take their fingerprints and check them against a database.

“It will ‘red flag’ suspicious people in a matter of seconds,” Capt Swan explains.

“The Americans use it all them, we’re starting to introduce the devices and we’ll begin training personnel shortly.”

We’d become very, very good at the boarding side of board and search – the Royal Marines are world leaders

Captain Anthony Swan, Royal Marine in charge of 47 Commando’s Board and Search School

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