Operation Love Boat? Military seeks cruise ship for secret mission

October 30, 1991|By Knight-Ridder

MIAMI VDB — MIAMI -- A group of 150 mostly military personnel will board a cruise ship in Miami on Dec. 7 and spend the following week at sea staging a mock takeover of the vessel by terrorists.

Or . . .

The group will board a cruise ship and spend the following week at sea training for the emergency evacuation of American citizens in hot water in Haiti.

Or . . .

The group will board a cruise ship and, after brainstorming contingency plans for the collapse of the Cuban regime, throw toga parties each night at taxpayers' expense.

Take your pick.

Since late August, the federal government has been shopping for a ship to charter for a seven-day, hush-hush military training mission. The Pentagon's special operations command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa is playing it close to the flak jacket:

"We are planning a training exercise aboard a cruise ship in the near future," says command spokesman George Grimes. "Our basic policy is that we don't discuss the objectives of our exercises."

Grimes says only that "elements" of the command will participate. But since the 40,000-member command features a chorus line of crack commandos from Army Green Berets to Navy SEALs, that doesn't narrow it down much.

Says Grimes, "We practice in peace what we might be called on to do in a hostile or real-world situation. A cruise ship provides a realistic training environment. But the specifics of who, what, where, why and when, I can't go into."

The guessing game started Aug. 30, when the feds put out the word: We want to charter a cruise ship to sail from Miami on Pearl Harbor Day, keep it a week, but we're not going to say why.

Since then, enough details have leaked to make the operation the talk of the international maritime industry. But the talk is mostly rumor: The feds aren't even letting cruise line big-shots in on the secret, prompting one executive to tell a British trade journal: "It's pretty scary, to provide a ship without knowing what it's going to do."

Scary indeed, since renting your run-of-the-mill cruise ship costs up to $2 million a week.

Not to worry. Marge Holtz, speaking for the U.S. Military Sealift Command, the Navy's chartering agency that is acting as a go-between in the search, says the government will provide war-risk insurance for the chosen ship and the cream of its crew's crop.

Holtz downplays the cloak-and-daggerish nature of the mission and refers the inquisitive to the government's official "Request for Proposals" sent out to bidding cruise lines.

Shaken out of that 81-page blanket of legalese are the following:

* The ship must be at least 500 feet long, contain four or more passenger decks and be able to chug along at 16 knots.

* Cruise-line muckety-mucks, as well as the ship's master, chief mate and radio operator, must be cleared "to receive information up to and including SECRET."

* Cuba, Iran, Libya, Syria and South Yemen can't have ownership interest in the cruise line chosen.

* The feds are free to "install any equipment or defensive armament" on the ship and, if they so desire, paint the thing -- as long as they repaint it the original color when they bring it back.

* All 150 passengers will be berthed on one deck, but will have use of the other decks, and will be fed four meals a day.

According to the RFP's mission statement, the ship will sail somewhere in "the U.S. South Atlantic/Caribbean/Gulf of Mexico waters," and "operations shall generally consist of movement around a designated at-sea area with an estimated single port call during the charter period."

Sounds suspiciously like SeaEscape, especially when one considers that 150 other people will join the 150 passengers for an on-board dinner the first night. Holtz swears this will not be a "pleasure cruise."

One local cruise expert reports a rumor that the Mystery Cruise "has to do with some meeting for people from Cuba." Given the recent turmoil in the Soviet Union and widespread warnings that Fidel Castro's days may be numbered, it's not surprising that other industry sources subscribe to the Cuban angle.

The sexiest theory is that the cruise will be used for anti-terrorist training. Grimes' remark about a cruise ship providing a "realistic training environment" seems to support that scenario.

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