Operation Love Boat? Military seeks cruise ship for secret mission

October 30, 1991|By Knight-Ridder

MIAMI -- Since late August, the federal government has been shopping for a cruise 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 official 81-page "Request for Proposals" sent out to bidding cruise lines.

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."

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