US special-operations units have a daring way to board enemy ships, but it's not just for Navy SEALs

  • US special-operations and law-enforcement units have specialized training to board ships at sea.
  • Those skills aren't exclusive to Navy SEALs, and as broader strategic competition grows, especially in the vast Pacific region, more of those units will have to put them to use.
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Boarding enemy vessels has been a staple of naval combat since ancient times. Before the age of gunpowder, the quickest and most efficient way to win a naval battle was to either ram and sink an enemy ship or board it.

Crews, thus, were both seamen and warriors. As technology evolved and allowed ships to engage enemies at longer distances with cannons, mortars, torpedoes, missiles, and aircraft, the ability to board enemy vessels nearly became obsolete.

But as the US Navy came to rule the waves following World War II, the need for a non-catastrophic option to intercept suspicious ships and enemy vessels resurfaced.

Enter Visit, Board, Search, and Seizure (VBSS) operations.

Although historically Navy SEALs have been the logical choice for VBSS because of their maritime special-operations capabilities, they aren't the only ones doing it.

Reconnaissance Marines, Marine Raiders, Army Green Berets, the Coast Guard's Maritime Security Response Teams, and even conventional Navy crews and Marines, have varying levels of proficiency in VBSS.

"VBSS is one of the most complex and dangerous of MAROPS [Maritime Operations] missions. Its conduct requires special equipment and training," Lino Miani, a former Special Forces officer and president of the Combat Diver Foundation, told Insider.

An art and a science

VBSS operations can be divided into two portions: the approach/insertion phase and the CQB phase.

When special-operations units conduct VBSS, it falls on the Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen (SWCC) to get the assault element to the target.

These elite Navy special-operators insert and extract other special-operations units — primarily SEALs — for maritime special reconnaissance, maritime raids, and VBSS.

When it comes to VBSS, they are the experts. It falls on SWCC operators to ferry assault teams to the target and to deal with any outside interference while the assaulters are clearing the vessel.

"The trickiest part [during a VBSS operation] is probably keeping the boat up against the ship when the assaulters are climbing," a former SWCC operator told Insider. "The boat captain constantly needs to be feathering the throttles to maintain the same speed as the ship. He also needs to keep the boat snug to the ship without violently banging against it. The safety of the assaulters is in the boat captain's hand."

Aside from the getting the assaulters safely aboard the vessel, there are numerous other considerations to take into account during a VBSS operation.

"Sea state and illumination certainly play a part. Obviously, less moon the better. Going out on a flat calm night may not be ideal, because it's easier to see the silhouette of boats and their wakes," added the former SWCC operator.

"On the other hand, conducting VBSS in 8-foot waves may not be great either. Another consideration is trying to not be detected during the approach. There are techniques that SWCCs use to minimize the chance of detection prior to boarding," said the former SWCC operator.

Once aboard, assaulters essentially face a close-quarters combat (CQB) scenario. Depending on the size and type of the vessel, it can take hours to clear it.

A growing need for VBSS

The shift to great-power competition and the Pentagon's increased focus on the Pacific encourages more attention to VBSS operations. China can field more than 750 vessels, with the vastness of the Pacific theater complicating the problem.

In a conflict, SEAL Teams would shoulder most of the burden, with the rest of the VBSS-capable special-operations and conventional units taking up the slack.

Despite the size of the threat and the likelihood of an incident, it would take a lot of convincing for the Army to contribute more assets to the VBSS mission.

"Though emerging realities in the Indo-Pacific area of operations will give the [Army Special Forces] Regiment a good reason to place some command emphasis on its existing MAROPS capability, expanding it is unlikely," Miani said.

"Though the capability is in a relatively good state in 1st Special Forces Group — the Regiment's [Indo-Pacific Command]-oriented unit — expanding that capability will require trade-offs that will impact the Group's other missions," Miani told Insider. "That said, relatively small investments could be made in giving more teams in 1st SFG some basic small boat skills. This will offer more options to 1st Group (and by extension Indo-Pacom) for operating with regional partners in littoral environments."

But there is a way for the Special Forces Regiment to contribute more in alignment with one of its core missions — Foreign Internal Defense (FID), or training partner forces.

"FID is probably the more impactful and economical way for Indo-Pacom to address the need for expanded VBSS capability in the area of operations," added Miani, who is also CEO of Navisio Global LLC, a consultancy that provides analysis and advice on topics of international security and business.

"Special Operations Forces play an important role in maritime security, but navies, coast guards, and law enforcement play a larger role, particularly in Southeast Asia," Miani said. "The SF Regiment is uniquely suited to help Indo-Pacom proliferate the VBSS capability among relevant regional partners."

"This is critical, especially in an other-than-war legal environment that makes it far more likely host nation forces will be the ones conducting these operations than US forces," Miani added.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (National Service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

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