For two decades the Special Missions Unit (SMU) of the Hellenic Coast Guard has quietly operated without much public attention. However, their counter-terrorist security preparations and presence during the Athens 2004 Olympics, along with the increasing frequency of gun battles with organized crime along Greek borders has raised their public profile. In the 1980s the emergence of terrorism, especially the cruise ship Achille Lauro hijacking, and better-armed organized crime led the Hellenic Coast Guard leadership to recognize the need for special units who would be trained and equipped to meet the new challenges and in 1987 it was decided to form a unit initially known as the Anti-Terrorist Squad.
A subordinate element of the Greek Ministry of Merchant Marine, this special unit recruits young career Coast Guard personnel who have already served in the military with Greek SOF (special forces, paratrooper, amphibious or mountain raiders, or marines). They select the best of these personnel during a two-month rigorous training program that simulates the difficult conditions of their service. Afterwards, a unit member can count on advanced SOF schooling throughout their career from a wide variety of both military and police schools, foreign and domestic.
They will normally be assigned to one of 20 Special Operational Detachments (SOD), which are scattered around Greece’s many entrance points. These detachments have been so successful that another five SODs were activated in May 2005 and are bring brought up to strength and will be operational soon. Within an SOD members may serve on a regular Special Operations Team (SOT), or may be assigned eventually to one of the specialist teams such as niper, EOD and chemical biological radiological nuclear), VIP protection, and serious crimes team.
Physical conditioning and expert use of weapons, both at sea and in close-quarters battle is constantly trained and stressed in the unit. Since these personnel are expected to operate in situations where the average law enforcement agent would be out-gunned, sharp reflexes and quick critical thinking make up an important part of both selection and training. When they are called upon, they know it is probably a dangerous case that ordinary Coast Guard or Greek Police are neither trained nor equipped to handle, yet may have legal implications that place it outside the competence and jurisdiction of the military.
Standard team equipment includes MP-5 or sonic suppressed MP-5SD 9 mm submachine guns, M16 and M203 5.56mm rifles with 40 mm grenade launchers, Glock 18 and USP Compact 9 mm pistols, Benelli short stock rifles, and Belgian 5.56 mm light and 7.62 mm medium machine guns. Special Operations Team RHIB (rigid hulled inflatable boat) boats are fast, well-equipped with bright white and infrared lights, surface radar, a variety of communications gear and bristling with machine guns up to .50 caliber Brownings. For fighting against high-speed infiltrations (50 knots), the teams use their Swedish-built Combat Boat 90H which can carry up to 21 armed personnel and up to 4.5 tons of cargo while cruising at 40+ knots. Lighter loads allow sprint speeds that make these boats quite competitive with would-be infiltrators.
Teams in the northwest in the Corfu Channel principally combat narcotics and arms trafficking against a highly organized opponent. All team members who have worked this area consider it a constant combat zone with high-volume firepower exchanges possible at any time. The SMU’s only acknowledged loss, 25 year-old Marinos Zambatis, was killed in action during one of these battles.
Patrolling their western borders further south brings them into contact with the classic contraband smugglers (mostly cigarettes and small arms) and of course, illegal aliens of all types. These crime networks often use clever concealment devices to hide people, weapons and drugs, but they will back down more quickly when shown the overwhelming firepower of an SOT.
A typical operation occurs at night as heavily armed smugglers with nothing to lose attempt to cross in Greek waters from the straights between Albania and Greece with a load of drugs, or a rickety boat overloaded with illegal immigrants is moved close to a rocky coastline, the crew knowing that ordinary Coast Guard would have their hands too full to worry about them should they begin to scuttle the ship or ram it onto the rocks. But an SOT also may be called during a maritime crisis, such as when a ferry struck the rocks outside Paros harbor during rough weather and hundreds of people were in danger. That’s when their airmobile, ship boarding and search and rescue skills all come together on no-notice, high-risk rescue missions.
Greece has a history tied to the sea. Even today, nearly 60 percent of international maritime trade has some connection to Greece (flagging/registration, ship ownership, operation or crews). Its numerous islands and long stretches of rugged coastline have long encouraged small boat trade and commerce. Today, Greece itself is a crossroad that criminals and terrorists would like to freely cross. That brave men are also there, sharply trained and ready to face danger and hardships is something for which all of us should be thankful. O
Article by the Hellenic Coast Guard (HCG), with advice from Rear Admiral Ilias Sionides, deputy commandant of the HCG.