USNS ARCTIC --
In September 2010, Marines from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit boarded the cargo vessel Magellan Star to reclaim it from pirates in the Gulf of Aden – the mission was a success.
In order to handle similar threats, Marines with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit spent Dec. 4-7 training to capture vessels from enemy forces during three simulated Expanded Visit, Board, Search and Seizure, missions on the USNS Arctic.
Called VBSS for short, the mission is focused on gaining control of vessels while underway at sea that may be under control of pirates or suspected of smuggling weapons. The ‘expanded’ version of VBSS combines the ability to board a vessel simultaneously by using helicopter and boat.
Marines and Sailors of the 24th MEU’s Force Reconnaissance Platoon and Security Element, Headquarters and Service Company, Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, have been taking part in an extensive training package to prepare and certify them to conduct VBSS missions. This exercise was the first chance the Marines were able to execute a full-scale mission onto another vessel while at sea.
The unique ability added by fast roping – basically sliding down a rope from a hovering helicopter onto the ship’s deck – gives the Marines flexibility and confuses the uncooperative personnel on the target vessel.
“Expanded VBSS masses forces and creates a dilemma to the person on board that’s trying to defend against us,” said Capt. Patrick Madden, the Force Reconnaissance platoon commander. “We come aboard, maintain an initial foothold on the vessel, seize the bridge, seize the engine room … at the end of the day our goal is to board the noncompliant vessel and make it compliant.”
In each EVBSS mission, Marines traveled from the USS Iwo Jima via helicopter and USS New York using Rigid-Hulled Inflatable Boats (RHIBs) to board the USNS Arctic, which was labeled as a weapon’s smuggling ship for an insurgent faction in a fictional country. Once aboard the Marines stalked room to room with those from the helicopter clearing top to bottom, while those boarding via boats cleared bottom to top, all while under the evaluation of instructors, according to Madden.
During the missions, Marines faced a variety of scenarios including finding suspected weapons caches and hostile pirates. Role players also acted as friendly civilian crew and hostile enemy forces, the latter often hiding in the ship’s dark crevasses.
“The intent for using role players is to provide an extra training aid. They provide the Marines the human aspect of the training. Some of the guys will have guns, some of the guys will be hostile, some of the guys will be clean, they don’t know,” said Sgt. Christopher Whited, a VBSS instructor with Special Operations Training Group, the Marine Corps’ training cadre responsible for preparing a MEU for specific missions like VBSS before they deploy.
Some of the hostile role players had something extra in store for the Marines as they boarded – live paintball rounds that sting on impact and burst showing that a Marine has been shot. Such close quarters tactics were perfected prior to embarking on ship.
“They did a five week shooting package that taught them to become super proficient with their weapons,” Carpenter said. “When you’re on ship, all these lines and all these gas hoses mean something. So when you shoot, you want to hit the target.”
The VBSS force was also tested in its abilities to care for, and evacuate, casualties that were assessed in the lower decks of the ship, properly handle detainees and effectively search the ship for evidence.
As the 24th MEU prepares for its deployment next year, they are taking to heart the lessons learned from the 15th MEU and from their extensive training because the piracy threat continues throughout regions of the world they will deploy to.
“Piracy is a real-world threat,” said Capt. Robert Carpenter, the senior instructor for VBSS with the Special Operations Training Group, II Marine Expeditionary Force. “Piracy is happening more than the average American knows about.”
The VBSS training is a smaller part of Composite Training Unit Exercise, scheduled to take place Nov. 28 to Dec. 21. COMPTUEX is meant to test the 24th MEU and Amphibious Squadron 8 (PHIBRON 8) in conducting various missions they could face while deployed. The exercise is focused on building cohesion between the 24th MEU and PHIBRON 8 in conducting amphibious operations, crisis response, and limited contingency operations while operating from the sea.