Japan’s Special Boarding Unit

SBU members during an exercise

The Special Boarding Unit, or the 特別警備隊 (Tokubetsukeibitai), was established on March 27, 2001, under the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces. It is mandated to conduct maritime special forces operations, including visit, board, search, and seizure (VBSS) missions in Japanese and overseas waters. This also includes counter-terrorism duties.

The SBU is known to have 90 operators trained to handle maritime operations [source]. Their faces are known to be always covered when operating in the public eye [source].

While the SBU’s mandate overlaps with the Special Security Team, the counter-terrorism unit of the Japan Coast Guard (JCG), the latter has the right to arrest anyone who is captured during an SST operation.

The unit is based in Etajima, Hiroshima [source].

History

The idea of creating a maritime special forces unit in the JMSDF started in 1999. Two North Korean spy ships were spotted intruding into territorial waters near the Noto Peninsula [source]. The JCG spotted said ships and failed to stop them from illegally entering and leaving. The JMSDF initially requested the United States Navy SEALs to provide personnel to serve as instructors [source].

Due to the lack of available Navy SEAL operators who can serve as instructors, the JMSDF then turned to the British Special Boat Service for assistance in training its candidates to serve as the first members of the Special Boarding Unit [source]. This arrangement led to British influence in setting up the unit.

Missions

The details of the missions the Special Boarding Unit participated in is considered classified. The JMSDF is not known to be forthcoming with any information that can jeopardize the SBU’s operations. Most of the known missions are based on public sources.

The SBU was first called in to be on standby for potential intervention in Amami Ōshima after the JCG engaged with a suspected North Korean spy ship illegally in Japanese territorial waters [source]. The ship sank before such orders arrived from the then Japanese Defense Agency. Among the weapons seized included several North Korean-made AK assault rifles and an RPG rocket launcher. An attached ZPU-2 anti-aircraft machine gun was seized.

The Shukan Bunshun magazine reported in 2006 that the SBU was secretly sent to Iraq to potentially work with the American special forces. An SBU team would be based in Baghdad to conduct covert hostage rescue missions before Japanese nationals could be harmed. The deployment was never carried out. Most of the Japanese nationals held captive by Iraqi guerrilla groups were rescued through hostage negotiations instead.

The unit was deployed overseas in 2009 for their first overseas operation in Somalia as a part of a multinational effort to protect ships passing through the Indian Ocean on board the JS Samidare and the JS Sazanami from Somali-based pirates [source]. They were assisted by JCG officers with powers of arrest since the JMSDF was not delegated with the right to arrest suspected and known pirates [source]. This mission was made under Article 82 of the Self-Defense Forces Law [source].

In 2016, they were on standby alongside the Special Forces Group, the Special Assault Team and Anti-Firearms Squads in providing security for the 42nd G7 Summit at Shima, Mie Prefecture in case Japanese law enforcement units need assistance in potential terrorist attacks [source].

In 2017, the SBU was deployed in the Gulf of Aden from the JS Teruzaki, where they responded to a boat that drifted in the Gulf of Aden [source].

Formation

As of December 2021, the Special Boarding Unit has a headquarters and six platoons under its command [source].

Weapons

The SBU is reported to be armed with the following:

  • Assault rifles
  • Submachine guns
    • SIG-Sauer MPX (Regular [source] and Training Versions [source])
  • Sniper rifles
    • Heckler & Koch MSG-90 [source]
  • Pistols

Training

Potential Special Boarding Unit candidates are placed at the Naval Academy Etajima’s 1st Service School [source]. Both basic and specialized education are done under the supervision of the SBU prior to a candidate’s acceptance.

This also supposedly includes a training exercise that consists of 15 levels of unarmed combat against experienced SBU operators [source]. The exercise was controversial when a prospective SBU candidate died while doing the exercises in 2008 [source].

Cooperation with foreign special forces

SBU blue patch

The unit trained with allied naval special forces units to hone and improve their maritime skillset. For instance, they have trained with the French Commandos Marine in maritime exercises in 2019 [source] and with the US and other Asia-Pacific countries in RIMPAC.

They have also participated in the 2021 Malabar exercises with commandos from the Naval Special Warfare Command and the Marine Commandos [source].

Future

With the rising threat to Japanese maritime interests and grey zone activities targeting Japanese territorial waters, the SBU will continue to be deployed for maritime-based special forces operations in Japanese and foreign waters.

The unit will continue to be committed for hostage rescue and other special forces operations. But the opposition of sending them to harm’s way will have to be resolved.

Mark Christian Soo
Mark Christian Soo
Mark is a undergraduate in Political Science from Simon Fraser University. His research interests focus on Japanese, East and Southeast Asian defense/foreign affairs policy.

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