Visit, Board, Search and Seize (VBSS) teams are units trained and equipped to perform exactly what their name says on vessels out at sea. Two very different phenomenon, the increase in piracy and the continued popularity of international embargoes as an (relatively) easily implemented tool for international diplomacy, have contributed to the rise of these highly specialized units in a number of western countries. The VBSS-term encompass a large span of different units, which include coast guard crews receiving little to no specialized gear/training and special forces practicing opposed boarding’s from air or sea, both categories which perform VBSS duties as secondary missions, as well as dedicated VBSS units trained and equipped with the mission as their main task.The latter is regularly causing quite a stir on social media. Both the Swedish Bordningsstyrkan and the Finnish Alustarkastusosasto are high-profile units, and especially the Swedish unit is actively promoting itself, most notably via an active Instagram-account. Is there really a need for a dedicated VBSS unit in the relatively small Finnish and Swedish defence forces? E.g. the mighty US Navy has decided that the task can be handled by regular sailors exhibiting the necessary level of fitness, receiving some additional training (which isn’t even controlled by any kind of centrally approved curriculum) and gear. Another question is regarding the status of these units, are they ‘true’ special forces? These questions have spawned a number of Twitter-threads, and deserves a closer look.
One of the main issues when discussing the VBSS mission is that it is very loosely defined. Intercepting and boarding a suspected pirate dhow off the Somalian coast is a completely different mission from inspecting regular merchant traffic for contraband. This is something that has to be remembered when discussing VBSS.
Another thing to remember is that any operation taking place at sea contains an inherent amount of danger, which is the reason why many nation has identified a need for dedicated marine infantry to solve what can be described as infantry tasks in a marine environment. To be able to safely operate onboard a vessel at sea requires at the very minimum insight into basic safety procedures and joint operations with own naval units and their crews. A regular infantry unit could theoretically be called upon to perform VBSS missions, but it would require additional training to be able to perform the mission safely. Another issue is that unlike checkpoints on land where most soldiers are aware of the basic layout of a car and can rather easily figure out where it is possible to transport and store contraband, a boat or ship is unfamiliar territory to most infantry soldiers, and being able to identify possible areas of interest is far harder given the larger size of the vessel and the “strange” nature of the systems found inside the hull.
If there is a risk that the boarding will be opposed by force, a so-called non-compliant boarding, this, as is the case with vehicle checkpoints on land, has to be accounted for through the tactics and equipment employed, both of which require additional training. Due to the risks present when approaching potentially hostile vessels, navies normally prefer not to board directly from the mothership. This means that the VBSS unit either will have to make the boarding from a ship’s boat, RHIB’s being a popular choice, or from the air. Descending from a hovering helicopter onto a rolling deck is a hazardous task, especially as a vessel usually have protruding masts and antennas, and leave both the helicopter and the inserted soldiers vulnerable during the insertion. However, it offers the benefit of faster turnaround times, and makes it possible to cover a far wider area from a single mothership compared to the use of boats.
The use of boats is no less dangerous, as the, usually open, boat offers little to no protection for its passengers during the transit. When arriving at the vessel, the VBSS unit then has to climb onboard, often by scaling a ladder to get up the ship’s side. This is in itself a dangerous maneuver, especially if the weather is rough, and to this is then added the fact that it is to be done in full combat gear, and that by the nature of things the first man coming over the railing will do so without any support or even visual contact with his team. Nor will he be able to have his own weapon ready, as he will need both hands for the climbing.
Given the complex nature of these operations, the obvious answer might seem to be the use of special forces for the mission. However, VBSS operations are also often long-term in their nature, with units being on station for months at a time, and performing numerous visitations where there is little to no threat of the boarding being opposed by force. While there certainly is a time and place for special forces doing VBSS, such as in hostage situations, their use in e.g. Operation Atalanta would have to be considered a waste of resources.
It is obviously possible to train personnel with other main tasks to perform VBSS as their secondary task, however, this naturally leads to a lower level of proficiency compared to full-time VBSS units, and as described above, this in turn leads to greater risks. Whenever a country sends its soldiers out on a potentially risky mission, someone has to make the judgement what kind of a risk is acceptable and what isn’t, and in this case both Finland and Sweden has decided to err on the side of caution. Also to note is that it is far easier to source a dozen suitable people from the 361 crew members on a LPD in the US Navy, than it is amongst the 60 of a Finnish minelayer.
In the grand scheme of things, having a platoon or company sized unit training for the VBSS mission is not to place undue focus on the mission in my opinion. The capability is currently in high-demand in international missions, and gives smaller countries a far cheaper option to make their presence felt compared to dispatching a naval vessel. And while most of the discussion above have focused on international operations of an expeditionary nature, it is easy to envision that the capability could come in handy in the Baltic Sea as well if tension in the area would be heightened further.