Surface Forces: The Ronin Sailors



January 19, 2009: The U.S. Navy has created seven, 24 man, specialized boarding teams. These units, trained to board large ships that don't want to be boarded, come aboard via helicopters, and carry out the inspection. These teams have no work. It wasn't supposed to work out that way.

Five years ago, the U.S. Navy realized it had a problem with boarding parties. Traditionally, the Coast Guard handled boarding of ships at sea for inspection. If the navy had to do it, SEALs were usually called in. But with the war on terror, the navy was having more of its warships boarding merchant vessels to seek out weapons or terrorists. It was becoming a big job.

If necessary, any navy ship can assemble a boarding party on short notice. It was usually headed by a master-at-arms, a senior chief petty officer, or a junior officer with some "police" training. But the rest of the party were just a dozen or so sailors that could be spared from other jobs. This works if the boarded ship is what is known as compliant. That means the boarded ship, which is often a rather large one, is willing to be boarded. That means letting ladders or stairs down so the sailors can easily get aboard, and being ready to show the boarding party whatever they want. But increasingly, navy ships were running into non-compliant boardings. This means that the ships halts when ordered to, but otherwise offers little, or no, help in getting the boarding crew aboard, or helping them with their search. The boarded ship may have a crew that is angry at being stopped, and not in any mood to cooperate. Or the crew may have something to hide. In these cases, the untrained boarding party is at a big disadvantage.

Whenever it's believed there will be resistance to a boarding, the navy will call in the SEALs, but there may be cases where they cannot afford to wait. So the navy added training for boarding parties, something they had not done for over a century. This meant training sailors to deal with hostile crews. Otherwise, you either back off from hotheaded crewmen, or shoot them. Moreover, if the boarding party is on a ship carrying dangerous materials (gasoline, explosives, chemicals, or perhaps biological weapons), you don't want to use your guns too much. And if you do use guns, you want more accurate weapons, and sailors who know how to use them.

To deal with these problems, and to ease up demand for SEALs (who were needed on land to pursue terrorists), the navy formed the seven "Level III" (non-compliant ships) boarding teams in 2007. But it turned out that the demand was much less than anticipated. Few merchant vessels wanted a showdown with a U.S. warship, and were rarely hostile to boarding parties. In the meantime, many ships trained their own boarding parties to a higher standard.

Meanwhile, the Level III teams were specialized, and were not trained to perform any other tasks on a ship. So captains didn't want to carry the teams, because these guys would rarely have work, and would take up space, and potentially disrupt ship activities by their need to constantly train. Moreover, the teams belong to NECC (Navy Expeditionary Combat Command), the new naval command of riverine and amphibious sailors. So it's not easy to disband them. But it's proving impossible for the get the ships of the navy to carry and use them. These sailors have become like the masterless Samuai warriors of medieval Japan, condemned to wander forever, looking for work, and a master.

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