KEY WEST -- A new, shiny light gray, $160 million patrol ship was docked last week at the U.S. Navy’s Outer Mole Pier in Key West.
While there is an American flag aboard, the ship clearly does not belong to the United States, not with the signage in Dutch, framed pictures of Queen Beatrix and beer taps — featuring Heineken.
The ship, named the HNLMS Holland, is the new pride and joy of the Royal Netherlands Navy. It boasts a large communications satellite, infrared cameras, friend-or-foe identification system and long-range surveillance radars all contained within an innovatively designed mast that does not rotate.
When its first tour of duty begins early next year, the 355-foot Holland likely will be patrolling territorial waters of the Kingdom of the Netherlands’ six Caribbean islands: Curaçao, Aruba, Bonaire, Dutch St. Martin, Saba and St. Eustatius, with a combined population of about 335,000.
And while it serves the Caribbean, the Holland also will be a major asset for the U.S.-led Joint Interagency Task Force South, based in Key West. Since its inception in 1994, the task force’s main mission has been drug interdiction by air and sea.
The Netherlands — where drug tourism legally thrives at “coffee houses” in its capital of Amsterdam — might seem an unlikely partner in the United States’ long war on drugs. But the Dutch, along with the French, have been the premier allies in going after traffickers in the Caribbean.
“Since the post Cold War, there has been so much drug money laundered into the official business of government and companies and tax havens,” said Brigadier General Dick Swijgman, who commands the Netherlands Forces in the Caribbean from his base in Curaçao. “Drug money inflicts so much damage on the democracy of small islands.”
The Dutch-protected islands are in prime locations for drug traffickers to transfer their loads. Aruba, Curaçao and Bonaire, located off the coast of Venezuela, serve as northbound transfer points for cocaine and heroin from Colombia and Venezuela that is destined for the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe. Dutch St. Martin, in the Eastern Caribbean, is a transshipment hub for drugs headed for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to the International Narcotics Control Strategy Report.
In March, the crew of the Norfolk-based U.S. Navy frigate Elrod intercepted a speedboat carrying an estimated 1,000 pounds of cocaine in the Caribbean.
“A good deal of credit for this interdiction goes to the Dutch Navy,” Cmdr. John Callaway, Elrod’s commanding officer, said in a news release.
A Dutch surveillance plane spotted the suspected traffickers and alerted the Elrod, which sent a helicopter to block the speedboat’s escape. Four people were arrested.
The bust was part of an ongoing 12-country mission called Operation Martillo, Spanish for “hammer.” The operation began earlier this year to go after illicit trafficking in coastal waters off Central and South America.
The Netherlands has a proud maritime history, with its Navy the most powerful in the world in the mid 17th century. Now the Dutch want traffickers to know about their dedicated drug interdiction efforts. “We’re small islands, but don’t mess with us,” Swijgman said. “They are part of our Kingdom.”
About 80 percent of cocaine entering the United States is transported by sea. Last year, 19,000 kilos of the drug, with a street value of about $2.3 billion on the American market, was intercepted during operations similar to Operation Martillo, according to the Netherlands Government Information Service.
In another big bust two years ago, the crew of the Royal Netherlands Navy frigate Van Speijk, with an embedded U.S. Coast Guard law enforcement detachment, caught an 87-foot, Panamanian-flagged fishing vessel called Two Brothers about 34 miles from Aruba. The crew confiscated 3,262 pounds of cocaine with a wholesale value of $46 million. Five Honduran men were arrested.
“People ask why are we fighting drugs. It’s a healthcare issue,” said Vice Admiral Matthieu J.M. Borsboom, commander of the Royal Netherlands Navy. “But we know it’s serious business. Drugs can really disrupt and corrupt institutions, even a nation like Curaçao.”
And even with all the efforts by so many countries, drug trafficking remains active and lucrative. “It is a cat and mouse game,” said Lt. Cmdr. Hugo Sinke, of the Royal Netherlands Navy who serves as a Liaison Officer with JIATF-South. “Drug traffickers have a lot of resources and money and can adapt very quickly. We have to try to creep into their minds and think: What is their next step? And their next move? And we try to beat them to that next step.
“That’s why we try to build ships like these to try to provide a better answer,” Sinke said.
This month the Holland and its crew traveled 10 days from the Netherlands to Key West for warm-water testing. The port call also was an opportunity for Borsboom to host a four-hour sail, during which the captain and crew demonstrated some of the new capabilities and systems to about 40 high-level military guests from friendly countries, including Chile, Sweden, New Zealand, Brazil, France, Indonesia, Australia and Japan. Representatives from the U.S. Southern Command, JIATF-South and the U.S. Coast Guard also were on board.
“Absolutely, we want to show off our ship,” said Lt. Bart Breitenstein, watch officer on the Holland.
It is the first of four new patrol ships being built to replace frigates that are faster and feature more weaponry and missiles, but are aging and not as efficient for most of the tasks required while patrolling the North Sea and what was once called the Netherlands Antilles in the Caribbean.
“While we always prepare for high conflict, we often did more preparing and not much was put into mission,” Borsboom said.
Since the end of the Cold War, major sea battles have become less likely. “What we saw coming up was more and more maritime tasks in the low intention dimension: drug trafficking, counter piracy, fighting illegal trafficking of humans and weapons,” Borsboom said.
To keep costs down, the Holland was designed specifically for these type of missions, as well as for general protection duties of the island nations and humanitarian missions for such events as hurricanes and earthquakes.
The Holland features a helicopter and two go-fast interceptor boats that can travel up to 45 knots with boarding teams of eight each. One of the boats can be deployed in a minute or two from a stern slipway. Both boats put on a show for the dignitaries, roaring through the rough seas.
The Holland’s new surveillance technology can detect an object the size of a soccer ball about 150 nautical miles away in rough seas, said Jan van Hogerwou, Damen Shipyards’ sales manager for the Americas. The technology also is able to track semi-submersible drug submarines now being used by drug cartels.
While the ship can go only a maximum speed of 22 knots, it was painted a light gray to blend in with the Caribbean sky. It also was designed to float at speeds of 0 to 5 knots. “It can just drift in the ocean and whenever they see something on the radar, they can launch one of the fast boats that can go 45 knots,” van Hogerwou said. “They are there within minutes to grab the bad guys, trying to keep the world clean.”