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The FAMAS bullpup carbine used by the Commandos Marine.

One thing I admire about the French is their willingness to take action to protect their citizens without worrying too much about what the rest of the world thinks. This has been particularly apparent over the last few months as French citizens have been taken hostage by Somali pirates three times, and in each case, France has sent in special operators from the Commandos Marine who successfully rescued the hostages. During the three operations, 36 hostages have been rescued with one hostage killed, three pirates killed, and 15 pirates captured and sent to France for trial. Unlike many of the world’s softer countries, the French do not practice “catch and release” with pirates.

The three rescue operations merit study, as the French Commandos used different tactics in each successful rescue. The rescues were carried out primarily by the Commando Hubert, which is the French equivalent of the U.S. Navy SEALs, backed up by other French Commando units. Those selected for frogman training with Commando Hubert must have already completed the French Commando course and be qualified as a basic diver. Only 9 to12 new candidates are accepted per year. They then undergo 27 weeks of training, broken into three phases:

Phase One: Advanced diving with oxygen and rebreathers, underwater demolition, waterborne insertions and small-boat operations.

Phase Two: Sabotage on ships, Klepper two-man canoe handling, boat handling, water navigation, harbor penetrations and coastal raids.

Phase Three: Advanced demolitions, obstacle clearance, parachute operations—especially “wet jumps” into the sea—and underwater engineering.

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Members of the Commandos Marine clear the deck of a ship, armed with HK USP pistols and HK MP5 SMGs. (Marine Nationale)

Currently, Commando Hubert has a strength of 80 men divided into two companies. The first company is comprised of 50 men broken into four sections. Section A is a command and support section and also is in charge of the unit’s Hurricane RIBs (rigid hull inflatable boats). Section B is in charge of MAT (maritime anti-terrorism) and specializes in underwater approaches to terrorist targets, combat boarding and ship assaults. Section B works closely with the divers from GIGN (Groupe d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale), France’s national anti-terrorist unit. Section C is in charge of the unit’s SDV (swimmer delivery vehicles). Section D includes Commando Hubert’s snipers and heavier weapons experts. These operators also specialize in beach assaults and fire support during combat boardings. The second company with a strength of 30 men handles various support functions.

Other Commando Marine units have taken part in anti-piracy operations as well. Each of the five Commandos specializes in a particular type of operations. Commando Hubert has already been discussed. Strength of the other Commando units is around 80 personnel each. Commando Jaubert specializes in combat boarding and other seaborne assaults, as well as exfiltration of downed pilots and other French personnel by sea and evacuation of French civilians from conflict zones. Commando Trepel has missions similar to Jaubert’s.

Commando de Penfentenyo carries out combat reconnaissance and intelligence operations. Commando de Penfentenyo has its own recon swimmers and has been involved in some of the rescue missions against Somali pirates. Commando de Montfort specializes in forward air controlling and naval gunfire direction, as well as use of heavier weapons, including mortars and anti-materiel sniping rifles. Those are the French operators. Now it’s time to take a look at the operations.

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A member of Commando Hubert approaches the shore while remaining mostly underwater. (Marine Nationale)

Le Ponant
The Le Ponant, with 30 crew members aboard, was seized by Somali pirates on April 4, 2008 and taken to the coast of northeast Somalia. French Navy ships monitored the situation to keep track of the yacht and hostages. On April 7, members of the French Commandos Marine were staged at the French base at Djibouti in preparation for a rescue. Eighteen Commandos from Hubert and Penfentenyo made a jump into the sea to link up with the French ships. Once the Commandos were aboard, they developed a “go plan” in case the hostages appeared in imminent danger. Members of the GIGN anti-terrorist unit were also sent to join the rescuers, because under French law, pirates must be arrested by members of the Gendarmerie Nationale.

But, it was decided to let the yacht owner pay the $2 million ransom on April 11. Once the ransom had been paid, six pirates drove away from the yacht. With the hostages safe, French helicopters bearing Commandos pursued the vehicle. A helicopter-borne Commando Marine sniper disabled the vehicle’s engine. Three Commandos were then dropped near the vehicle and captured the pirates without having to fire on them. At least some of the ransom was recovered. The six pirates were taken to France to face trial.

The Carre d’As
Somali pirates took the French yacht Carre d’As and a French couple was held hostage for two weeks. During the two weeks, DGSE (Direction Generale de la Securite Exterierure), the French equivalent of the CIA, carried out surveillance of the captured yacht and made contact with the pirates. During negotiations, DGSE operatives attempted to persuade the pirates against taking the yacht to Eyl on the Somali mainland, where a rescue would have been very difficult. The pirates asked for a ransom of 1 million euros and release of six pirates captured by France in April. A 30-man team from Commando Hubert had flown to Djibouti in preparation for a rescue, but bad weather made an operation difficult for three days. However, once it became apparent the pirates were heading for Eyl, the rescue was on.

Combat swimmers from Commando Hubert launched the night assault. After Midnight on September 16, 2008, helicopters from the French frigate le Courbet ferried the Hubert operators within swimming distance of the yacht, and they parachuted into the sea. Using night vision goggles and closed-circuit scuba systems so they were not given away by gas bubbles, the Hubert team boarded the Carre d’As using grappling hooks. The operators surprised the seven sleeping pirates, killing one when he reached for his weapon. The other six were taken prisoner and sent to France to stand trial with those captured previously.

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Members of the Commandos Marine place a scaling ladder prior to practicing a combat-boarding operation. (Marine Nationale)

The Tanit
Somali pirates boarded the French yacht carrying five passengers and crew on April 4, 2009. The pirates headed for the Somali coast but were overtaken by a French frigate two days later. The pirates were offered money in exchange for the hostages, but refused and discussed blowing up the yacht. A large force of French Commandos was assembled, reportedly totaling 70 operators. The Commandos carried out a water jump and were taken aboard three French warships shadowing the pirates. The pirates, expecting better terms if they reached the Somali Coast, continued to sail in that direction. As a result, French Commando snipers shot down the sails and the mast on the Tanit.

At this point, the pirates threatened to execute the hostages and a rescue was prepared. Eight operators from Commando Hubert approached the yacht simultaneously from two directions in RIBs (rigid hull inflatable boats). When the pirates opened fire, Commando Hubert operators killed two of the pirates while a third jumped into the sea. One hostage was killed during the assault. The operators boarded the Tanit, where they freed the other four hostages and captured three pirates. French policy is not to negotiate with pirates and not to allow French citizens to be taken ashore held as hostages. By immobilizing the Tanit, the hostages were prevented from being taken ashore and time was gained to launch a rescue.

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Members of the Commandos Marine transfer a captured Somali pirate to a French warship. (Marine Nationale)

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Members of the Commandos Marine practice fast-roping to the deck of a ship and immediately setting up 360-degree security. Note the FAMAS G2 rifles. (Marine Nationale)

Lessons Learned
Some other countries take the wimpy attitude that attempting a rescue might make the pirates angry and incite violence. They just pay the ransom and hope the pirates release the hostages. Hello! These are pirates—they live by violence! France, on the other hand, has been willing to take action to defend its citizens and has sent the clear message that attacking French ships carries a price. Reportedly, the Somali pirates have been much less willing to attack yachts as a result of the French action. They find commercial ships more inviting and less dangerous targets.

Quite a bit can be learned from the three French rescue operations. First, to be in a position to carry out a rescue, a country must have a highly trained and capable Maritime Anti-Terrorist Unit. Second, the country’s leadership must have the backbone to commit the unit. French President Sarkozy has shown that backbone. Having warships nearby to track the pirates is very useful as well, to keep them from reaching the Somali shore and as a deterrent to killing the hostages. France also has the advantage that Djibouti is its largest overseas military base, which allows staging of operations into the Gulf of Aden where the Somali pirates operate. The U.S. also uses the base at Djibouti and has had Special Operations personnel stationed there in support of anti-al-Qaida operations in Yemen.

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A diver from Commando Hubert approaches shore with his SIG 550 rifle ready for immediate engagement. (Marine Nationale)

The French Special Operators who carried out the rescue showed initiative in planning and carrying out the rescues. To keep the pirates off balance, each rescue was carried out using different tactics. The availability of Commandos capable of carrying out jumps into the sea allowed COFUSCO (Commdement des Fusiliers Marins Commandos) to get operators onto the ships, shadowing the pirates quickly and clandestinely. The full array of skills of the French Commandos was displayed in the three operations. This included an underwater approach and combat assault, a combat assault from small boats, precision sniping from a helicopter and a ship’s deck, a helicopter insertion on top of fleeing pirates and CQC (close-quarters combat) skills in clearing pirate vessels. The tough and diverse training of the Commandos Marine, especially Commando Hubert, definitely paid off.

France should be proud of their Commandos Marine and proud of their President for having the guts to commit them.

CHECK OUT PAGE FOUR: Weapons of the Commandos Marine

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A Commandos Marine boarding party practicing clearing a ship. Weapons are HK USP and HK MP5. (Marine Nationale)

Weapons of the Commandos Marine
The standard weapon of the Commandos Marine is the FAMAS (Fusil d’Assaut de la Manufacture d’Armes de Saint-Etienne) bullpup assault rifle. The 5.56 NATO FAMAS has now been in service with French troops for more than 30 years. The latest G2 versions will take standard M16/M4 magazines and a rail for optical sights. Among French troops, the FAMAS is nicknamed “La Clairon”—the bugle.

I have done quite a bit of shooting with the FAMAS and like the carbine, but have found two problems with it. On the original G1 versions, I had a great deal of trouble picking up the sights in bright sunlight, and due to the location of the cocking handle atop the receiver and beneath the carry handle, it is quite hard to clear a case stuck in the chamber.

Members of the Commandos Marine also have the SIG 550 series of rifles. The shortest version, the 552 Commando, which has an 8.9-inch barrel, or the SIG 551, which has a 14.3-inch barrel, would seem to be a likely choice for combat swimmers, but reportedly Commando Hubert prefers the SIG 550 with 21-inch barrel. The SIG 550 series are some of the best 5.56 NATO caliber assault rifles in the world. They are superbly accurate and with the ACOG scopes that are fitted on the Commando Hubert rifles, they should be especially effective.

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Sniping rifles used by the Commandos Marine include the PGM UR Commando II in 7.62×51 caliber. For heavier use, the Commandos Marine have the McMillan M87R in 12.7x99mm (.50 Browning) and the Hungarian M3 Gepard in 14.5x114mm. It is quite likely that one of these “Anti-Materiel” rifles was used to take down the mast on the Tanit.

Among other weapons used by the Commandos Marine are the Remington 870 combat shotgun, the HK MP5SD6F and HK USP 9mm pistol.

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