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What Is A Force Protection Detachment?

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What Is A Force Protection Detachment?

Edgardo Ortiz

Gloria Merces Virtutis - Glory is the Reward of Valor

-- USS Cole Motto

On October 12, 2000, the U.S. Navy destroyer Cole was attacked by a small boat laden with explosives during a brief refueling stop in the harbor of Aden, Yemen. The suicide terrorist attack killed 17 members of the ship’s crew, wounded 39 others and seriously damaged the ship. The attack has been widely characterized as a boat bomb adaptation of the truck-bomb tactic used to attack the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut in 1983 and the Khobar Towers U.S. military residence in Saudi Arabia in 1996. [1]

According to the U.S. President Bill Clinton on the day of the USS Cole attack “If, as it now appears, this was an act of terrorism, it was a despicable and cowardly act.”  Moreover, the attack represented the first major international terrorist attack on a U.S. facility since the 1998 bombings of the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the deadliest against a U.S. Naval vessel since the USS Stark came under Iraqi attack in 1987. [2]

The attack on the USS Cole prompted Congress to establish the USS Cole Commission [3]; its purpose was to investigate the attack and provide recommendations to prevent future attacks from happening.  The focus of the commission was to find ways to improve U.S. policies and practices for deterring, disrupting and mitigating terrorist attack on in-transit U.S. forces. In general, this attack demonstrated a seam in the fabric of efforts to protect our forces, namely in-transit forces. On January 9, 2001 the report was released, and it provided several findings with recommendations to implement in order to mitigate any future repeat of this tragedy. Four findings in particular would eventually lead to the establishment of Force Protection Detachments:

  • Finding #4: Service manning policies and procedures that establish requirements for full-time Force Protection Officers and staff billets at the service component level will reduce the vulnerability of in-transit forces to terrorist attacks.  
  • Finding #14: Intra-theater transiting units require the same degree of attention as other transiting units to deter, disrupt and mitigate acts of terrorism.
  • Finding #20: Service CI (counter intelligence) programs are integral to force protection and must be adequately manned and funded to meet the dynamic demands of supporting in-transit forces.
  • Finding #21: Clearer Department of Defense standards for threat and vulnerability assessments, must be developed at the joint level and be common across service and commands.

This final report and its recommendations may lead us to think that the establishment of Force Protection Detachments was solely a result of the tragic events of October 2000 – but as writer and philosopher George Santayana wrote "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it". History has shown that deployed DoD forces have always been at risk of terrorist activity. Each and every one of these incidents, successful or not, have prompted changes on how U.S. intelligence agencies share imminent threat intelligence within the community and our partner nations and more significantly how we protect our forward-deployed forces. The establishment of the FPD program is a prime example on how DoD’s lessons learned, after a series of terrorist attacks and more importantly the USS Cole attack, changed their approach to force protection abroad.  

The terrorist attacks listed below took place years before the USS Cole bombing demonstrated similarities on vulnerabilities on our force protection posture. If similar USS Cole commission recommendations had been in place the result of these attacks could have been different:

  • On October 23, 1983, 241 U.S. service personnel -- including 220 Marines and 21 other service personnel -- were killed by a truck bomb at a Marine compound in Beirut, Lebanon. Three hundred U.S. service members were living at the four-story building at the airport in Beirut. In addition, a multi-national force with units from France, Italy and the United Kingdom was also on peacekeeping duty in Lebanon. At the time the Marine barracks was hit, a suicide bomber drove a pickup truck full of explosives and crashed into a building housing French paratroopers; approximately 58 French soldiers were killed in the attack. This was the deadliest attack against U.S. Marines since the battle over Iwo Jima in February 1945. The bombing was traced to Hezbollah, a militant and political group that originated in Lebanon in 1982. Iranian and Syrian involvement was also suspected. The Marines were criticized for having lax security at the barracks. The commander of the barracks, Col. Timothy J. Geraghty, said in congressional hearings investigating the attacks that the compound was hard to defend because it was on flat ground and vehicles drove by it daily to access the airport. [4]
  • Shortly after the barracks bombing, a military fact-finding committee was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to investigate the bombing. The commission's report found senior military officials responsible for security lapses and blamed the military chain of command for the disaster. It suggested that there might have been many fewer deaths if the barracks guards had carried loaded weapons and a barrier more substantial than the barbed wire the bomber drove over easily. [5]
  • On June 25, 1996 - Khobar Towers bombing of 1996, terrorist attack on a U.S. Air Force housing complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. The bombers drove a tanker truck packed with 5,000 pounds (2,268 kg) of explosives near the complex and then jumped into waiting vehicles, escaping just before detonation. The explosion, which was so loud that it was heard some 20 miles (32 km) away, left a crater 85 feet (26 meters) wide and 35 feet (10.6 meters) deep. Nineteen U.S. service members were killed and approximately 500 people were injured. [6]
  • The targeted complex, known as Khobar Towers, housed 2,000 U.S. military personnel assigned to the King Abdul Aziz Air Base in Saudi Arabia.
  • On January 3, 2000, an unsuccessful attempt to bomb a U.S. Navy ship, the USS the Sullivans. In this incident, the boat sank before the explosives could be detonated; however, the boat and the explosives were salvaged. The boat was then refitted and the explosives were tested and reused in the USS Cole attack. [7]
  • Notably, the Marine barracks and the Khobar Towers bombings were conducted against fixed temporary facilities housing DoD personnel; the failed attack on the USS the Sullivans and the USS Cole attack represented a new challenge to DoD force protection efforts for in-transit elements.

Force Protection Detachments were established under the cognizance of Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA) and initially located in 20 locations worldwide, where DoD personnel and units regularly transited but where DoD did not maintain a permanent presence. Each military service serves as an Executive Agent for FPDs and are responsible for sponsoring and administratively supporting the offices assigned to them. The FPD Program is designed to support DoD commands in transit through a foreign country and which fall under the security responsibility of a U.S. Geographical Combatant Commander (CCMD).

The FPD Program’s primary mission is to detect and warn of threats to DoD personnel (military, civilian and dependents) and resources in-transit at overseas locations without a permanent DoD Counterintelligence (CI) presence. The mission further includes serving as a “force protection force multiplier” for the American Embassy Country Team in support of the DoD assets in those locations. This includes encouraging host nation support for threat warning and security of DoD in-transit personnel/resources. Other missions include providing routine DoD CI and CI support to force protection services to the country team, as well as surge capabilities in the event of crisis/contingencies or other DoD requirements. [8]

An FPD is an overt force protection resource vice a traditional military CI activity.  It maintains close coordination with the Chief of Station (COS), Regional Security Officer (RSO), Defense Attaché Officer (DAO) and the United States Senior Defense Official (SDO).  Day-to-day activities are tasked and synchronized with the SDO to ensure CCMD issues/requirements are adequately addressed.  Their primary focus is to provide current and actionable Force Protection information to the commander of ‘in-transit” resources.

FPDs are small entities consisting of one or more agents from the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI), Army Military Intelligence (USAMI) and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS).  They may also have locally employed staff to support the FPD mission. All of the agents are credentialed special agents of their respective service.  All agents are fully language trained and area specialists for the host country assigned.  The principal duties of an agent consist of overt liaison activities with local host nation law enforcement, intelligence, counter intelligence and security services.  Agents will also interface and coordinate with appropriate Country Team and CCMD personnel to fill local force protection intelligence gaps, Service Component Command and CCMD priority intelligence requirements.  AFOSI and NCIS agents may be called upon as necessary to perform law enforcement duties. The program mission objectives are:

  • Overt liaison with HN authorities to collect and report threat information with service support to Identify, deter, disrupt, neutralize, investigate terrorism and other illegal activities directed against U.S. military forces and infrastructure.
  • Advise U.S. military commanders of threats and vulnerabilities affecting missions and personnel and make FP recommendations.
  • Support national objectives by collecting and reporting information needed to plan and protect people, facilities and operations.

In recent years, FPDs in the U.S. Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM) have supported over 240,000 in-transit personnel and have executed some high-profile missions, varying from Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Operations, Support to Senior Defense Official Travel, Support to Congressional Delegations, Support to POTUS and VPOTUS Travel and day-to-day DoD activities in the AoR.  Some of these activities include the following: In 2013, FPD Colombia secured Colombian military air support to fly into the jungle to recover the remains of US and Panamanian personnel who perished in an aircraft incident in a remote jungle location.  FPD personnel were tasked by the US Ambassador and the Senior Defense Official to assist in that recovery mission.  FPD personnel received high accolades by the US Ambassador for their responsiveness to this critical mission and later recognized by Commander, USSOUTHCOM.  In 2010, FPD Dominican Republic provided critical coordination and operational support services to Army South and USSOUTHCOM during an earthquake that devastated neighboring Haiti.  In 2013, FPD Paraguay took the lead, in conjunction with a 470th Security team to provide security training to the Paraguayan military.  The government of Paraguay recognized that they did not have the expertise to deal with daily criminal and insurgent threats and thus requested FPD assistance which they needed and appreciated.  In Brazil, the FPD provided continuous coverage for numerous US dignitaries to include senior White House, Cabinet, and Joint Chiefs personnel and they coordinate the support to FP to DoD personnel when Brazil hosted the 2014 World Cup, the 2016 Olympics and Paralympic Summer Games.  Additionally, in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala the FPDs counsel, advise, and assist U.S. forces who operate in extremely high-crime nations where violence is considered among the worst in the world.

The 470th MI Brigade has learned many valuable lessons and has worked closely with USSOUTHCOM and U.S. Army South to ensure FPDs are resourced appropriately to continue their support to DoD:  

  • Ambassadors are extremely pleased with FPDs response to imminent threats against DoD deployed personnel in-country
  • SDOs label FPDs as a tremendous FP asset to all DoD elements
  • Defense Attaches, Military Group Commanders, Regional Security Officers and other U.S. Embassy based agencies do not have enough assets to support DoD missions
  • Force Multiplier / Economy of Force in support of USSOUTHCOM / USARSOUTH exercises
  • Highly experienced seasoned professionals 
  • Increased access to Host Nation officials
  • Longevity and trust with Host Nation officials

Today, the program consists of 30 offices worldwide supporting DoD in-transit personnel and resources. The 470th Military Intelligence Brigade serves as the executive agent for eight out of 13 FPD in the USSOUTHCOM Area of Responsibility. Army led FPDs are located in Brazil, Colombia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Paraguay. 

End Notes

[1] https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/t/terrorist-attack-on-uss-cole-background-and-issues-for-congress.html (14 FEB2018)

[2] https://www.911memorial.org/uss-cole-bombing  12 FEB 2018

[3] http://www.defenselink.mil/pubs/cole20010109.html, DoD USS Cole Commission Report, 12 FEB 2018

[4] https://www.cnn.com/2013/06/13/world/meast/beirut-marine-barracks-bombing-fast-facts/index.html  14 FEB 18

[5] https://www.britannica.com/event/Khobar-Towers-bombing-of-1996  14 Feb 2018

[6] U. S Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigations Publication #0308, Terrorism 2000/20001

[7] Department of Defense Force Protection Detachment Joint Standard Operating Procedures, SEP 2011

About the Author(s)

Mr. Edgardo Ortiz is a retired Military Intelligence Officer currently a Military Intelligence Career Excepted Civilian Program serving as the 470th MIB(T) FPD Coordinator. He has spent most of his career in Latin America and has served multiple tours in the Middle East.