An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

NEWS | March 13, 2023

A Clash of Doctrine: VBSS in the Western Indian Ocean

By Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Cameron C. Edy

Within the Bandari Maritime Academy of Mombasa, Kenya, participants in exercise Cutlass Express 2023, hailing from Djibouti, Georgia, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Seychelles, United Kingdom, and the United States, gathered to address a common challenge – Visit, Board, Search and Seizure.

The game is in the name – operators visit suspect vessels; board them, sometimes with crews brandishing guns; search them, looking for smuggled goods or people; and seize them, returning suspects to police forces for further evidence collection.

Often, when militaries look at how to train VBSS capabilities, they focus on the VB – ‘how do we best arm and train our people to board non-compliant vessels.’ It’s a lot of gun, boat, hand-to-hand, and room clearing training, and aligns with the foundations of their military training. What’s more difficult is the criminal investigation piece, or the SS in VBSS. Militaries, and navy’s especially, aren’t great at civilian-style law enforcement – they’re not trained for it, they’re not practiced in it, and it’s not a part of the mission set. Except when it is.

“It’s a clash of doctrine,” said Felipe Ramos, an International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) criminal intelligence officer. “In the navy, you clear the scene, so you go everywhere, you search the whole vessel. In crime scene preservation, we say ‘touch the minimum you can.’ Our job as instructors, and their job as military first responders, is to reach a balance between what is doable and be realistic about what you can do. But it can be hard to find that balance, because the training many navies receive is military training. It’s about stopping the threat and taking control of the situation. For law enforcement, it’s more about minimizing the threat, and minimizing the damage to the scene.”

Ramos is a former captain of Rio de Janeiro’s state police department, and currently works as part of INTERPOL’s Project Compass – an International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs funded, collaborative project that links regional governments and international organizations in combating illicit maritime activity. In his role, he’s seen what happens when the balance shifts away from law enforcement.

“[For some crimes] like trafficking in human beings, or international drug trafficking, the national navies are often the first responders. They are the police officers, especially when the country doesn’t have a coast guard,” Ramos said. “But without the necessary skills to handle evidence and interview witnesses, a lot of evidence can be lost. Then, if it becomes an investigation afterwards, and eventually a case to be tried, it’s hard to convict if the evidence wasn’t meticulously handled from the start. So the idea here is to keep that law-enforcement perspective when they are intervening.”

That’s the challenge most navies face – the balance between military and law enforcement perspectives in an intervention. What’s interesting about this year’s VBSS training is how the law enforcement perspective is baked into every engagement.

The VBSS portion of Cutlass Express 2023 comprises multiple scenarios, executed with nuance. The Georgian, and the U.K. Royal Navy gave academic training on the techniques, tools, and trade skills they use to board a vessel while the U.S. Coast Guard briefed participants on how to operate a Maritime Operations Center. One moment, the Royal Navy instructor would be giving a detailed explanation on how to respectfully search a female suspect, and in the next, go over how to search a bandaged suspect by offering them clean wrappings applied by a medical professional. More often-than-not, the academic floor is yielded to the participants, where service members from Comoros, Djibouti, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, and Mozambique discuss the real world situations they’ve experienced, and how they’ve responded.

Then the classroom is vacated, and the teams split into different groups to tackle challenge areas. Some go to what’s colloquially called the Ship in a Box, a simulated vessel, where Tunisian marine commandos teach room clearing techniques and climbing procedures for boarding a non-compliant vessel. Some will go to the pool, where U.S. Marines take them through an intensive survival swim course, culminating in a grappling-hook ladder climb and swiftly followed by a 15-foot jump back into the pool – in full uniform. Others will go to INTERPOL’s course, where Ramos, along with the Project Compass team and an instructor from the U.S. Navy’s Naval Criminal Investigative Service, provide hands-on training of first response, technical crime-scene management, and investigation mentorship. They also introduce training on INTERPOL’s resources, methodologies, and intelligence analysis, to expand the operation from actors at-sea to organizers and financiers on land.

“This first group should come out of this training with the necessary skills to respond with the consideration that they’re responding to a crime scene,” Ramos emphasized. “They won’t be crime scene experts, but they’ll have the skills to process a crime scene and preserve as much as possible as first responders.”

That’s the first week of INTERPOL’s training. The second pulls select candidates from each course, and gives them a break-neck, in-depth instruction on crime-scene management, witness interviewing, and utilizing modern and international investigative standards to preserve and document a crime scene. Essentially, these service members will be the first line of defense, and the test case, for the validity of crime scene management in the region’s military services.

“The end goal is the incorporation of these techniques in basic curriculum,” Ramos emphasized. “Use this as a pilot to bring the same training to, and integrate it within, the standing military curriculum. Everyone getting training in these navies should have a basic module in crime scene preservation. Otherwise, it’s just someone coming in telling them to do something. But there’s a difference between that, and inviting a crime scene investigation unit in their own police force to deliver a training. We’ve had great success when we see that.”

But the knowledge wasn’t a one-way street - a Mauritius Coast Guardsmen, specializing in boarding and noncompliant suspect evolutions, beamed when talking about the different ways he could prove drugs are in a barrel of gasoline – his favorite is rolling it and listening for clanks or sloshes. A Georgian Coast Guardsman and a Mozambique Navy sailor discussed the differences in boarding techniques on different styles of boats through a translator – speaking English and Portuguese respectively, and both their second languages. Across the room, a U.S. Coast Guard Maritime Operations Center instructor listened to a translator, as a French-speaking Madagascar Navy sailor broke down the practicalities of operating in East African waters – the Coast Guardsmen empathized, and gave equally practical advice on how he’d tackled those issues in his own branch. A U.S. Navy corpsman and Georgian medic debated the tactics of retrieving a wounded service member during a firefight, both agreeing it depended on the situation.

That corpsman was attached to U.S. Marines from Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team, Central Command (FASTCENT). The lead for that team, Capt. Tyler Carpenter, was an integral piece to the success of this year’s VBSS training. His Marines offered insight, but didn’t dominate the field – when it came to amphibious warfare, they’re experts, and taught accordingly. But they deferred to Tunisia special forces on room clearing, to INTERPOL on crime scene management, and to the Royal Navy on modern practices in searching and apprehending suspects for detainment. Equally important, when one of the participants spoke about the real-world engagements they experienced, they listened and learned.

“It’s really a forum to discuss VBSS, and to learn from another,” Carpenter said. “This is an incredibly unique opportunity on the table. All of the organizations and national militaries in that room (gesturing to the conference center, where the bulk of discussion was taking place) – it’s incredibly rare that we get to be in the same place at the same time. It’s a unique opportunity to exchange real-world experience on a very expansive level, across government, non-government, regional and international organizations.”

The lessons were practical, but the trust was built behind-the-scenes. On the first day, while a Tunisian marine commando strapped a harness across a Djiboutian Navy sailor, another Djiboutian started arguing with a Kenyan Army ranger. It was friendly – the French-speaking Djiboutian was challenging the English-speaking Kenyan to a push up contest. His friends egging him on, the Djiboutian dropped. So did the Kenyan, toothpick still in his mouth, first onto his knuckles, and then flat-palmed. Their pace was frantic, and soon a crowd of Djiboutian, Tunisian, and Kenyan service members, alongside a smattering of U.S. Marines, stopped, watched and cheered at the two. The Kenyan beat him – the battered Djiboutian needled his friend into it, and after another loss, they started gesturing at the U.S. Marine. With a laughing shake of his head, he shut it down.

Hours earlier and only a few 100 feet away, Mauritius Coast Guard Police Constable Elise Pascal, a boarding party member for noncompliant and opposed boarding, looked around, reflecting on the spectacle of it all.

“For me, it’s meeting everyone that has enhanced this experience,” Pascal said. “All the knowledge sharing, and learning about the difficulties others face, what we can upgrade in our own search and interventions, from both a safety and legal aspect – it’s a unique experience.”

The end-goal is to create a standard in the region – whether you’re a Mauritius Coast Guardsman, or a Djiboutian Navy Sailor, you board with the same expert precision, preserve the crime scene meticulously, and turn over the evidence and suspects successfully for further prosecution. But there’s also an ulterior motive – two actually. This exercise, and the VBSS portion isn’t about small scale education. It’s about bringing people together, and training the trainers.

“I have nearly 30 years of service – but at very different stations, mostly ships, or the land and beach police force. VBSS, at the level that he does it, is rare for me,” said Mauritius Navy Corp. Ramdhun Dharamraj, gesturing across the table to Pascal. “At the post level, it’s rare, but what I’m gaining here, I will share with my friends back home, with the people I work with. I am enhancing my experience – after this, I’m going to all the younger ones and we’ll do the same as I learned here. Apply the same lessons, and learn from it to be better overall.”

Ramos, sleep soundly. The exercise – or at least the VBSS portion – was a success.