A captain once told us, “There are two missions a ship is guaranteed to do on deployment: force protection and visit, board, search, and seizure.” He was right. Among the surface Navy’s most useful—and most used—capabilities are its teams of professionals trained to board ships on the high seas. The fighting tradition of the Navy is steeped in the valor of sailors boarding enemy ships—a mission that dates back to the Age of Sail. But why look to these naval actions today?
Despite every advance in naval gunnery, missile technology, and other combat systems, boarding parties remain the most selective means to combat threats, enforce sanctions and international law, and provide aid to vessels at sea. Torpedoes and missiles can only destroy. Gunfire can be more selective—it can destroy or it can disable, if used judiciously. But in the uncertain realm of the sea, where true identities are often hidden, only human beings armed with training and honed in judgment can ascertain the true nature of suspicious vessels. As with any activity of such a physical nature, boarding operations are inherently dangerous.
That boarding teams face the same asymmetric threats (e.g., improvised exposive devices) as land forces, while also being subject to the often fatal caprice of the oceans, testifies to the quality of sailors in our Navy and to the resourcefulness of their senior-enlisted leaders and officers. Even so, it is time to take that capability to the next level. The Navy should restructure the manning, training, and equipping of boarding teams into a centralized model to reduce competing demands on unit commanders and to provide them with a higher quality of boarding professionals.
Friction in the Current Model
Boarding teams are but a fraction of a ship’s crew, but they bear a heavy mantle: projecting the power of the U.S. Navy to the decks of container ships, small merchants, and dhows the world over. On a moment’s notice, these sailors can react to suspicious behavior, respond to a distress call, or act on intelligence and board ships to maintain the safety of the oceans. They can also assuage fears among legitimate seafarers and engender their trust in, and cooperation with, the United States.
But doing so isn’t easy. Boarding teams must be able to approach uncooperative vessels by boat, grapple aboard, and meet an unknown crew with force, diplomacy, or aid. Boarding operations require physical stamina, strong communication skills, broad technical knowledge, and strong esprit de corps.
Today, U.S. Navy warships assemble boarding teams from the ranks of their crews. Ships select crew members with security or anti-terrorism experience and a degree of athletic ability, then further develop their marksmanship and tactical movements while training them in specialized physical skills such as climbing and rappelling. Boarding teams represent a broad range of ratings—an important advantage—as the variety of technical training and experience of these sailors enables them to advise boarding officers on a variety of factors, including the seaworthiness of the vessel and the operation of the engineering plant and any electronics on board.
However, boarding-team members sharpen their skills and maintain their equipment in addition to all of the normal duties expected of any sailor in their division. Often, a sailor who is a member of the ship’s boarding team will be performing routine maintenance on a radar or fixing a broken engine, when an announcement prompts him to leave that work, don body armor, sign for his weapon, and attend a briefing on a suspicious vessel.
But the current model has unintended consequences: intense competition develops between a sailor’s primary duty and obligations to the boarding team. Officers and senior enlisted leaders are forced to favor a ship-wide inspection or training event over physical conditioning, tactical movement drills, or training in the myriad other skills required of a proficient boarding team. Sometimes, a major equipment failure may demand the skills of a particular technician who is needed equally by his division and by the boarding team. In these situations, it is inevitable that one of the competing stakeholders in the shipboard organization is going to lose. And when required to complete routine duties during high-tempo boarding operations, team members often have less time to train or conduct critical maintenance on lifesaving gear, which can create a potentially unsafe situation on deployment when equipment endures harsh conditions and frequent use with little advance warning.
Boardings are dangerous without any of these challenges. Due the collateral-duty status of boarding teams, they are automatically at a disadvantage in the competition for priority in manpower, time, and funding. When boarding-team leaders overcome this disadvantage and successfully advocate for additional training time or relaxations in the watchbill, boarding-team members often face criticism from their peers and superiors because they are seen to benefit from special treatment. The qualities inherent in this structure of providing boarding teams can be divisive when they need not be, and this need for each ship to individually determine a process for manning and training their team inevitably leads to wide variability in boarding-team proficiency. Some teams are enormously successful while others struggle.
The current model forces tough budgetary choices in addition to competing personnel and training demands. Because ships are required to have a boarding capability, each ship maintains equipment to outfit its boarding team. However, because of the life cycle of a ship, that equipment often lies idle, especially when a ship can spend up to six months in drydock. Changing or upgrading the equipment incurs large costs when applied to the more than 170 surface ships in the Fleet. This draws money out of budgets that could be allocated to other critical repairs and maintenance.
The expansion of the surface Navy’s boarding capability in the early 21st century was meant to decrease pressure on special-operations forces that were being used for relatively low-threat boarding missions. Boarding teams were envisioned to be composed of part-time tacticians, much like volunteer firefighters. But in the past decade, the demand on Navy warships to use their boarding capabilities has risen without a commensurate increase in resources. A better model would allow ships to benefit from every sailor on the roster while deploying boarding teams honed to the sharpest possible edge in an era of ubiquitous use. Such a new model would also acknowledge the importance of boarding operations in the maritime environment of today and tomorrow.
The Way Ahead
We propose a departure from the current model: Instead of creating boarding teams from the crews of our ships, the Navy should establish “Tactical Boarding Groups” on each coast, which would provide boarding detachments directly to combatant commanders for deployment to ships in their theater. These commands would simultaneously alleviate the competition for resources between divisions and boarding teams and increase the proficiency of sailors routinely asked to perform a physically taxing, dangerous mission.
Creating those groups would reduce pressure on ships to pick and choose how they distribute limited time, money, and manpower. Ships would continue to be manned at the level they are today, while detachments from these new commands would provide ships with a boarding capability. Because ships would be fully manned prior to the arrival of a boarding detachment, they would be able to maintain shipboard systems without detracting from the boarding team’s ability to maintain physical conditioning, tactical skills, or weapons and equipment. Conversely, supporting the boarding team would no longer mean telling a chief petty officer he or she can’t use one of their sailors when the division is stressed by maintenance casualties or other manpower-intensive requirements.
By creating commands exclusively focused on the boarding mission, sailors not only would have the opportunity to focus on the craft of boarding another ship tactically and safely, but an institutionalization of knowledge and boarding expertise that will lead to innovation in boarding tactics and a faster response to changing threats. Sailors would become experts in boarding operations. Tactical Boarding Groups could provide more realistic training by providing an array of vessel and oil-platform simulation facilities. They could also increase the Navy’s capabilities by training all teams for helicopter insertion, which permits boardings on taller ships and in higher sea states. Beyond simply creating a cadre of professional boarding teams, the ability to focus on unit cohesion, tactical prowess, and physical readiness will raise the overall proficiency of boarding teams.
Teams naturally will compete with one another through their training phase, encouraging higher levels of performance. Through concentrated training and competition, the proficiency of boarding teams at these commands could rise to the level where the best of each group are certified to conduct opposed boardings—the highest-risk missions that are typically reserved for special operators. This elite team could be stationed on a carrier or a large amphibious ship and deploy by air to especially challenging boarding missions. Given the persistence of piracy and maritime terrorism, the Navy would be forward-thinking to expand its capability to conduct opposed boardings in this way.
Tactical Boarding Groups would be manned by sailors from the surface force, as they are the technical experts on shipboard operations and equipment. Enlisted sailors would notionally be able to compete for orders to a Tactical Boarding Group after their initial sea tour, where they already will have obtained warfare qualification, gained in-rating experience, and focused on the foundations of their naval careers. Officers would follow a similar path: Upon completion of one division-officer tour and achieving their warfare qualification and other career milestones, they would pick orders to a Tactical Boarding Group in lieu of their second division-officer tour. Senior staff positions, such as the operations or material officers, would be filled by second-tour department heads. There is a precedent for this kind of officer-sequencing: Naval-gunfire liaison companies, riverine squadrons, and inshore boat units all currently use this model. Like many of these other specialized units, Tactical Boarding Groups ultimately would fall under the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command.
The Financial Factor
Critics may argue that creating two new commands and the associated increase in manpower costs is impractical in the current budget environment. Our position is that essential missions should always be fully funded, even in times of fiscal austerity. An evaluation of roles and missions shows that boarding operations are now, and will be in the future, a primary requirement for the surface Navy. Demand for the daily boarding operations the Navy conducts around the globe will remain through the foreseeable future, given the persistent threat of piracy and the trafficking of drugs, weapons, and people by sea. And if the U.S. Navy were called to conduct sanctions enforcement, as it did along with the Coast Guard against Saddam Hussein during Operation Desert Shield, the frequency of boarding operations would increase significantly. The boarding mission should be funded at a level commensurate with its importance and ubiquity in modern naval operations.
A judicious implementation of these commands could significantly mitigate their costs. A centralized model would require far fewer sailors than those allocated to the boarding mission today. Instead of 170 or more ships with an equal number of boarding teams embarked, a centralized model would require the creation and maintenance of far fewer teams.
Assuming notional force levels of one carrier strike group and one amphibious ready group deployed to both Pacific Command and Central Command, and assuming a small group of independently deploying units to Southern Command and European Command, the sustained demand for boarding teams would be approximately 30 detachments. A centralized model would allow detachments to deploy directly to theater, as opposed to a ship-sourced team that typically spends two-thirds of its deployed time in an operational theater and the remainder of a deployment transiting to or from that theater.
As a result, the total number of teams required to support 30 deployed detachments would be low, perhaps 60 to 80 total detachments, allowing for training, certification, and leave. Implementation of this program would therefore avoid a one-to-one replacement for the boarding teams we maintain today: Assuming 170 surface ships, the new model would require between 30 and 40 percent of the manpower the Navy currently assigns to boarding teams as collateral duty.
Because of the reduction in active boarding teams, there would be a commensurate reduction in equipment and training costs. Instead of maintaining 170-plus sets of boarding equipment, which include expensive electronics for biometric identification as well as other specialized tools, the Navy only would have to maintain equipment for the 60 to 80 detachments. That equipment arguably would be better maintained, since its maintenance would be a primary responsibility rather than a collateral duty, resulting in increased service life. Similarly, fewer total boarding teams would reduce training expenditures, as fewer personnel would attend the boarding-team member-training curriculum. Enlisted personnel assigned to a typical four- or five-year tour at a Tactical Boarding Group only would have to be trained once and then maintain their training over that entire period, whereas boarding-team members under the current model typically do not join the team until later in their tour and are available for a relatively short time, requiring more school quotas—and higher costs—to cover frequent team turnover.
Improving a Critical Capability
The Coast Guard already operates its teams under this model. It maintains centralized commands on each coast: Pacific Tactical Law Enforcement Team in San Diego and Tactical Law Enforcement Team South in Miami, where Law Enforcement Detachments (LEDETs, the Coast Guard equivalent of a Navy boarding team) are trained, certified, and equipped for deployment. These LEDETs routinely deploy on Navy ships, where they are able to exclusively focus on the boarding mission, without any negative impact to the routine operation of the ship. This model allows them the flexibility to deploy to any unit (including Navy ships) requiring a boarding capability, demonstrating the benefits of a centralized command structure.
Congressional testimony from the former Commandant of the Coast Guard, Admiral Thad Allen, describes the LEDETs as “national assets.” Particularly with regard to maritime-sanctions enforcement, which typically are short in duration but are very high-level foreign-policy objectives, the Navy needs to maintain a force in readiness to provide this capability. Tactical Boarding Groups will ensure that the Navy’s corporate knowledge in boarding tactics and procedures is safeguarded should the country require that capability. An independent command structure brings legitimacy to the mission. A collateral duty will never be a national asset.
Critics of an expanded boarding capability in the Navy might argue that the Coast Guard should be the organization providing boarding capabilities to Navy ships, as the Guard already has dedicated manpower to professional boarding units. But the Coast Guard, with approximately 42,000 active-duty personnel, is a small service with a big mission. It maintains 17 LEDETs, and each team is only two-thirds the size of a Navy boarding team. It is both logistically impossible and strategically unwise for the Navy to rely on LEDETs for boarding capability. The Coast Guard’s limited resources are best used to address threats closer to our shores, such as the illicit cocaine trade, where the service’s expertise and special legal authority to conduct law-enforcement activities are in demand. Both the Navy and the Coast Guard need to maintain strong, but individual, boarding capabilities to address distinct and legally separate threats.
It is time for the Navy to acknowledge the importance of boarding operations by creating and funding the command structure to man, train, and equip highly proficient boarding teams without straining taxed warships. The Tactical Boarding Group model would allow sailors to concentrate on a mission that is critical to the safety of the seas today and will endure into the future. The need for sailors to do this physical, dangerous job will never wane as long as ships sail the oceans. The creation of Tactical Boarding Groups will improve the quality of these important professionals, decrease competition for money and manpower on our ships, and aid the United States in preserving our vital strategic interests on the seas.
Chief Petty Officer Carriker has extensive experience as a boarding officer and security-team leader in support of the war on terrorism and counter-piracy operations.