SINGAPORE - They are the foot soldiers of Singapore's efforts to keep its waters safe, boarding ships in small teams to check that they have not been seized by pirates or terrorists, for example.
In their full gear, the sea marshals of the Navy's 180 Squadron are "armed to the teeth", said the squadron's commanding officer Lieutenant-Colonel Nick Neo. They carry a semi-automatic weapon, a pistol, a baton and a pepper spray, among other items.
"When we are on board ships, we have nowhere to run and we have to defend ourselves before reinforcements arrive," he said, emphasising that all his men are well-trained in close combat, rules of engagement and shooting.
The 180 Squadron came under the spotlight on Thursday (April 19), when they were visited on Pulau Brani by Second Defence Minister Ong Ye Kung along with members of the Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defence.
Last year, the squadron, which has a strength of about 50 people, conducted 585 checks on vessels that entered Singapore's waters.
The Maritime Security Taskforce, which coordinates security operations at sea, would first identify which vessels need to be checked.
This is based on factors such as the vessel's cargo, crew and its last port of call. For example, tankers carrying oil, chemicals and gas may be subject to closer scrutiny.
The task force then notifies the squadron and the vessels about six hours beforehand.
Teams of four to eight men are subsequently sent on board vessels for checks.
Lt-Col Neo said: "Boarding is randomised to prevent pattern predictability and can last between two to six hours."
After boarding the ship - usually using a rope ladder - the sea marshals make their way to the engine room and the forecastle located on the upper deck.
They look out for warning signs of piracy or terrorism.
One challenge that the sea marshals face is the language barrier, said Corporal First Class Li Weng Kin, 22, who has encountered Malay, Korean and Tagalog speakers.
"In these cases, we get by with sign language most of the time and the captain can understand us," he said.
Data from a regional cooperation effort to fight piracy showed that there were 101 armed robbery and piracy incidents last year in the region, including the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea. It is a 16 per cent increase from 2016.
Noting that Singapore relies heavily on maritime trade, Lt-Col Neo said: "Any maritime incident that happens here can undermine shipping confidence... All sensitive vessels entering Singapore are monitored."