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Tragedy at sea involving Navy SEALs highlights danger of VBSS operations

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VBSS operation
U.S. Marines from Charlie Company, 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion, assigned to 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit prepare to board a ship for a visit, board, search, and seizure training mission in the Atlantic Ocean in support of exercise Northern Viking 2022, April 12, 2022. Northern Viking 22 strengthens interoperability and force readiness between the U.S., Iceland and Allied nations, enabling multi-domain command and control of joint and coalition forces in the defense of Iceland and Sea Lines of Communication in the Greenland, Iceland, United Kingdom (GIUK) gap. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Henry Rodriguez)

Two Navy SEALs have been declared dead after having fallen into the sea while attempting to board a dhow in the Gulf of Aden on January 11. The West Coast-based SEALs were part of a Maritime Interdiction Operation (MIO) being conducted by U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). They were conducting a Visit, Board, Search, and Seizure (VBSS) operation of a target vessel sailing in rough waters off Yemen and Oman. According to Naval Special Warfare personnel with knowledge of the incident, a third SEAL was injured as well and recovered after his fall.

The incident highlights the dangers of VBSS operations.

Sandboxx News has previously covered VBSS operations, though that article perhaps did not adequately highlight those dangers, especially if they are occurring in rough waters. High seas are treacherous for small craft even when they are not trying to insert special operations forces onto a larger vessel. Waves can swamp the small vessels, toss them around, and, in the worst case, capsize them.

Things become even more complicated and perilous when those small NSW combat craft have to come alongside a larger vessel in high seas and hold position while SEALs put in place a small ladder to climb aboard the larger vessel. Just keeping the small craft in place can be a challenge and the large waves can make climbing the ladder treacherous.

Related: These are 3 popular misconceptions about the Navy SEALs

The danger of performing a VBSS operation in those kinds of high seas conditions is never taken for granted by the SEAL Teams. They would have known how difficult the operation could prove to be, but tragedy struck nonetheless. Even in calm waters, the climb up the small caving ladder, or fixed pole ladder, can be a difficult and taxing evolution. The ladder has to rest against the hull of the larger vessel, the climb can be as high as 30-40 feet, and there is always the chance someone above you will attempt to knock you from the ladder or strike you with thrown objects. In the worst case, the crew of the target vessel will start firing weapons at you. In the best case, your arms are smoked when you finally make it up and over the side of your target vessel.

This terrible and tragic incident won’t prevent the SEALs from continuing with their VBSS operations. However, they will likely perform a thorough after-action review to find out exactly what went wrong, and how it can be prevented in future missions. In the meantime, the community will mourn two more lost brothers who perished serving their country in some of its most important and dangerous operations.

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Frumentarius

Frumentarius is a former Navy SEAL, former CIA officer, and currently a Captain in a career fire department in the Midwest.

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