Surface Warfare Magazine
Sharing stories and news from Sailors across the U.S. Navy’s Surface Forces
“Never Give Up”
A Culture of Preparation and Training in the World of VBSS

The oceans remain the most vital component to global commerce. Conducting maritime interdiction and sanction enforcement is a crucial part of the U.S. Navy's larger Maritime Strategy. A vital asset in executing that mission are the Navy's visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) teams.

These teams are comprised of an all-volunteer force. Those who volunteer undergo specialized training at the Center for Security Forces (CENSECFOR) to best prepare them to execute the mission of VBSS around the world. The mission of VBSS has become a formidable force and a key element to the Navy's Maritime Strategy.

"The mission of VBSS is still being manned, trained, and equipped to the requirements of the Joint Chiefs of Staff," said Mitch Ridenhour who serves as the antiterrorism officer at Naval Surface Force Atlantic. "Each combatant command and numbered Fleet commander has a variety of aspects they focus on [that are] based on the paramount issues they confront in their respective theater environments."

The successful execution of VBSS Fleet operations is the result of continued training and team exercises, building upon the basic and advanced skills these Sailors learn at CENSECFOR.

"A critical aspect to VBSS training and mission success in the Fleet is teamwork. Regardless of how proficient a group of Sailors are in their individual skills and abilities, if they are unable to function as a cohesive unit, they will be a danger to themselves and the mission at hand," said CENSECFOR Executive Director, Larry McFarland.

Tactical team movements, boarding and climbing and rappelling techniques, self-defense tactics, and weapons handling are among the specialized skills taught to Sailors. The Center maintains four schools, two on the east coast, one on the west coast, and one in Hawaii, where qualified Sailors can attend VBSS training.

Sailors undergoing VBSS training also need to build and hone their physical and mental stamina. CENSECFOR VBSS Instructor Mark Rivera explains why this is so crucial to the success of VBSS operations in the Fleet.


"What we try to instill is a 'Never Give Up' attitude primarily because [VBSS teams] are visiting someone else's ship where [that crew] has the upper hand. [Therefore], you are always going to have to come from the stronger position in order to be successful," said Rivera. "Having that 'never give up' or 'I won't be defeated' mentality raises your chances and will to survive.

Rivera also commented on the importance of physical stamina pointing out that if there is a possibility of physical conflict, such as when boarding another vessel, you want to be the one in better physical shape. In other words, you want to be the one who fights longer and harder than the opposition.

In addition to their own body weight, the amount of gear and weapons each VBSS team member carries can total to about 50 pounds or more.

"Your mission starts out with physical exertion by having to climb a Jacob's ladder and board the vessel. Once on board, you have to hike your way to the bridge and the engine room dealing with the heat and noise... If your conditioning is right, that is one less thing to worry about, [but] if you can only think about how tired you are, how heavy your weapon and gear is, you're already at a disadvantage," said Rivera.

Asked what advice or encouragement he would like to offer Fleet VBSS teams Rivera said, "The biggest thing is maintain your training because when it comes down to your personal safety, you want to be prepared at all times. You never know which boarding is going to be the one where you have to rely on all your training. [Therefore], maintain that training at all times, even though it is difficult, even though it is a tertiary job for [many team members], find every moment you can to train and especially when you are in theater."

Technology also plays a unique role in teaching VBSS students how to handle and use weapons safely and effectively. These advanced systems, termed Small Arms Weapon Simulators (SAWS), allow Sailors to learn both basic and advanced handing and operation of small arms and crew serve weapons in a controlled non-live fire environment.

"In addition to huge costs savings for the Navy, these systems also allow trainers to determine whether a student can handle weapons in a combat environment," said Robert Gregory, who serves as the training technology officer at CENSECFOR. "Trainers can identify and correct deficiencies more easily and perform various evolutions until the student becomes proficient and the entire team works as a single unit, setting the stage for the more advanced weapons training with live fire."

In the advanced stages of training, Sailors can also interact with on-screen scenarios that are based on real life or death situations. Students learn to quickly evaluate various situations and to take decisive actions based on real-time information.

"The scenarios can vary based on the trainee's commands and responses and it also allows the controller to initiate malfunctions and/or set the number of rounds available for the firearm," said Ridenhour. "Malfunctions and empty magazines require the trainee to clear the malfunction, conduct a reload, or transition to his or her secondary weapon."

Ridenhour went on to add that these scenarios require trainees to respond in accordance with established guidelines, rules of engagement and the rules for the use of deadly force. Students must perform these actions and maintain self-control while under the stressful conditions of being in a simulated combat situation.

"No matter what position you have, the Navy will always give you the tools to succeed," said Damage Controlman 2nd Class (SW) and VBSS student Michael-Shavor on what he had personally learned during VBSS training.

Electronics Technician 2nd Class (SW) Christopher Conover, also a VBSS student, was asked what he thought was the most challenging aspect to learning proper weapons handling techniques. "I would say overcoming the bad habits you may have learned from other training or before entering the Navy," he replied.

CENSECFOR Detachment Chesapeake Instructor Gunnery Sgt. Daniel Soto, was asked if weapon simulators would ever replace the need for live fire training in the future.

"The simulator is a training tool that allows [students] to get into the habit of shooting, but it does not replace live fire," said Soto. "Nothing replaces the sound of a live round going down range and actually being able to see the impact [and allow students] to apply the fundamentals [they have learned]. Live fire allows students to see how their shots are affected when they fail to use proper weapon handling fundamentals," he added.

The mission of VBSS is seemingly one that is here to stay and one that plays a daily vital role in support of the Navy Maritime Strategy.

The Center for Security Forces provides specialized training to more than 28,000 students each year. It has 14 training locations across the U.S. and around the world - Where Training Breeds Confidence. Surface Warfare Magazine

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