US Navy Maritime Interception Operations
By Robert Bruce

“The Department of Defense announced the death of two Sailors and one Coast Guardsman on April 24, 2004, after an unidentified dhow exploded while they were participating in Maritime Interception Operations. All three died when the blast violently overturned their Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat. The men were assigned to a Visit, Board, Search and Seizure (VBSS) team deployed from the USS Firebolt.” - DoD News Release

Thousands of merchant ships are underway worldwide at any given moment, carrying every imaginable cargo from bulk coal to computer chips. Criminals of all types know that the odds of escaping detection are greatly in their favor when using the sea lanes for smuggling weapons, explosives, drugs, and humans - too often fanatical Islamic terrorists.

In response, a strong multinational effort is being made to stem the tide of contraband, including weapons of mass destruction, by conducting Maritime Interception Operations (MIO) to identify and search suspicious vessels on the high seas before they enter populated areas.

As the world’s superpower, it is natural that America would play a leading role in this enormous and vital undertaking. The United States Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard are a formidable team in the maritime War on Terror, each bringing unique capabilities to the job as explored in detail in installments to this series.

Because the Navy maintains a constant and large presence in the Persian Gulf and other hotbeds of terrorist activity, it follows that it would have the major responsibility for actually conducting vessel inspections. Many of the combat ships in each task force maintain VBSS teams, ready to go day or night and in all kinds of weather.

Tools of the Trade

Each officer and sailor on these teams has a regular job shipboard but volunteers or is selected for this demanding and dangerous additional duty. Their guns and gear are well suited for the job at hand.

Most pack the US military’s standard 9mm Beretta automatic pistol and a few others are issued 12 gauge pump shotguns. These are highly practical weapons for the close confines and ricochet-rich environment of steel walled ship compartments and dimly-lit passageways. Lethal and non-lethal loads are available to the shot-gunners for use as the situation dictates. Heavy metal backup is instantly available in the form of deck cannon and .50 cal. machine guns aboard the mother ship or a smaller, but just as convincing, 7.62mm machine gun on the bow of the RHIB.

The RHIB itself is a tough little runabout with a good reputation for stability in heavy seas but has absolutely no creature comforts. It can be counted on to get the team there and back but everybody gets soaked in the process and the danger of going overboard is very real. So, the Navy has recently begun issuing London Bridge Trading Company’s well-designed Force Protection Tactical Vest, cleverly combining floatation with lots of gear compartments. Also, MOBI (man overboard indicator) devices are increasingly available, automatically activating when immersed to send out an electronic homing signal.

Boarding and leaving the target vessel has to be done via rope ladder - one long climb up the side of your average freighter - and particularly hairy in bad weather. First up is usually the Sweep One team that conducts an initial run through the ship from top to bottom, moving all crewmen along as they go. Sweep Two concentrates on the engineering areas while the Security Team keeps the crew under armed guard. When the vessel is secure a thorough search can then be made of cargo and compartments.


The increasing number of stops and searches have paid off in many ways. Some spectacular finds have been made including seizure of powerful anti-ship mines hidden aboard an Iraqi fishing vessel and enormous amounts of drugs used to finance terrorist operations. Another benefit is deterrence as the chances of getting caught rise. Thus, those who would smuggle fanatics and their weapons must scramble for other means.

“Coalition naval forces cast a wide net and continue to watch and follow suspect vessels based on tips from citizens throughout the world and by using satellites, aircraft, ships, and submarines. A broad, global Coalition has come together to combat terror and it relies upon a combined effort by all who share the waterways.” Maritime Liaison Office, Bahrain

Qualifying for VBSS Duty

A by-the-book VBSS team consists of a boarding officer and assistant, four security and six sweep men, a boat coxswain, engineer, and bow hook/SAR man. All must be very physically fit and be second class swimmer qualified. Training varies according to duty position but formalized instruction is specified in VBSS/MIO procedures as well as qualification in standard small arms and non-lethal weapons.

Recognizing the danger inherent in such missions, the Navy has recently authorized Hazardous Duty Incentive Pay for those conducting MIO in the Persian Gulf, counterdrug operations in the Caribbean, and homeland Defense patrols off the US coast.

The process begins with enlistment in the US Navy. For more information visit their website at www.navy.mil

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V8N6 (March 2005)
and was posted online on June 7, 2013


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