The U.S. Navy’s visit, board, search, and seizure (VBSS) teams do not get adequate time for training needed to effectively accomplish their high-risk mission. The Navy should create designated VBSS teams and attach the units to deploying ships as needed.
VBSS team members are selected from a small group of candidates on board a destroyer or cruiser. Only candidates who can meet the physical requirements are considered for the training pipeline, which includes advanced courses in weapons, swimming, and tactical operations. Team members serve primarily on board ships in a specific rating that accomplishes a given mission for that unit. Team members must attend to their everyday duties while attempting to complete all VBSS-related training, evaluation, and proficiency upkeep.1 The team members’ extensive training for their primary duty becomes the main focus for the chain of command, and rightfully so.
VBSS proficiency training becomes a distant memory. Command support and outside tasking will greatly determine the volume of VBSS training—and are out of the VBSS lead boarding officer’s control. To ensure that the team can safely and effectively complete any mission during an unpredictable deployment, the boarding officer must rely on the quality of the team’s training. The expectation is that the training will be minimal and can be completed whenever it can be scheduled so as to not hinder any other critical missions.
Training Positives and Negatives
Several positive aspects of VBSS training can be expanded on to increase its effectiveness. The equipment provided for the VBSS mission addresses the needs of the teams and the attached personnel. The associated equipment list is robust and is an excellent tool for tracking the required gear. In addition, instructors for the initial phases of VBSS training are highly experienced and knowledgeable. They have excellent insights into best practices and the functional application of tactics.2
The negative factors, however, should be considered for removal and restructuring. VBSS team members must be given the necessary time and resources to maintain proficiency in their skill set. Boarding teams possess perishable skills, and team chemistry is essential to ensure successful and safe operations. Teams often have low confidence in their ability to execute the mission. This mindset can lead to indecisiveness, accidents, and mission failure.
A 2010 survey reported that roughly 20 percent of VBSS team members trained more than once a week while their ship was under way. When these ships were in port, the percentage decreased to 5 percent. Only 5 percent reported that the underway watchbills they were attached to for their primary duty allowed them to participate in the bulk of the VBSS training opportunities.3 It is unacceptable to expect long-term success and mission effectiveness under these conditions. Many Navy SEALs claim that an open-water mission in broad daylight against an unknown vessel is one of the most dangerous missions to undertake. Doing so with anything less than full-time boarding teams with continual training and support is irresponsible.
The Way Forward
The U.S. Navy must build on the solid initial training pipeline for VBSS. The main resource available for maintaining proficiency and improving team cohesion is time. The only way that the proper attention and time can be allocated to the VBSS mission is through the creation of “stand-alone” teams composed of sailors who serve in this capacity as a primary duty. This is similar to the Coast Guard’s approach to the VBSS mission and is widely considered to be highly successful.4 The formation of VBSS command units would remove the need for ships to source locally, maintain the large equipment list, and maintain the proficiency of their team in one of the Navy’s highest-risk missions. The safety and effectiveness of the mission depend on it.
2. Darryl Orrell, “VBSS: Success Begins With Training,” U.S. Navy press release, 18 February 2014, www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=79179.
3. Kevin M. Ray, “Identifying Capability Gaps in Shipboard Visit, Board, Search, Seizure (VBSS) Teams,” Naval Postgraduate School, December 2010, www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a536605.pdf.
4. H. Bevis, “U.S. Coast Guard Provides Counter-Narcotics and VBSS Workups for Combined Maritime Forces,” CombinedMaritimeForces.com, 15 June 2015, combinedmaritimeforces.com/2015/06/15/u-s-coast-guard-provides-counter-narcotics-and-vbss-workups-for-combined-maritime-forces/.