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.