- US special operators are adjusting to new roles as the military shifts to great-power competition.
- For Naval Special Warfare Command, that means updating its tactics, techniques, and procedures.
- Some combat-ready SEALs are now working to solve “key operational problems,” the top SEAL officer wrote recently.
The US Navy SEALs are developing new ways to remain relevant and prepare for near-peer warfare against China or Russia.
After two decades of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations in the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia, US Naval Special Warfare Command is going back to the drawing board to come up with new or updated tactics, techniques, and procedures to take on the most difficult targets.
Naval Special Warfare Command in is the naval component of US Special Operations Command and is composed of Navy SEALs and Navy Special Warfare Combatant-Craft crews.
The SEAL component of Naval Special Warfare is composed of 10 “regular” SEAL Teams — eight active duty and two reserve — two SEAL Delivery Vehicle Teams, which operate stealthy mini-submarines, and two Special Reconnaissance Teams.
The Naval Special Warfare Development Group — formerly known as SEAL Team 6 — operationally falls under the secretive Joint Special Operations Command.
The SWCC component is composed of three Special Boat Teams that specialize in maritime direct action, maritime special reconnaissance, inserting and extracting other special-operations forces, and Visit, Board, Search, and Seizure operations.
Rear Adm. Hugh W. Howard III, commanding officer of Naval Special Warfare Command, described how his Navy SEAL Teams and Special Boat Teams carrying out this shift in a recent article for the US Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine.
Developing new concepts
Typically, all available Naval Special Warfare combat-ready units are deployed overseas.
However, the head of Special Operations Command, Army Gen. Richard Clarke, recently decided to hold about one-third of combat-ready Navy SEAL platoons and SWCC boat detachments in reserve for “experimentation, concept development, and high-return deploy-for-purpose (DfP) missions,” Howard wrote.
The reserve elements in deploy-for-purpose status “increase our agility to respond to crises around the globe and — perhaps most critical — provide combat-ready forces to experiment and generate new concepts at lower training risk after they have mastered core mission-essential tasks,” the top SEAL officer wrote.
“Allowing combat-ready forces to experiment with new tactics, techniques, and procedures for the most stressing hard targets and environmental conditions is helping answer the Navy’s and joint force’s key operational problems,” Howard added.
Like the rest of SOCOM, Naval Special Warfare Command has continued some missions related to counterterrorism and countering violent extremist groups, but it is shifting more attention and resources great-power competition and to countering the critical systems and capabilities of China and Russia, such as their command-and-control systems and their ability to find and track rival forces.
Reflecting that shift, Navy SEALs and SWCC operators have worked more with the conventional forces of “Big Navy,” especially with aircraft carriers, training to help those forces survive and be more effective in combat.
“We are learning how to integrate our capabilities to complement the F-35 Lightning II, littoral combat ships, Zumwalt-class destroyers, Military Sealift Command assets, and Navy unmanned vehicles,” Howard wrote.
Naval Special Warfare and “Big Navy” are also working together to test new concepts, technologies, and tactics to enhance the Navy’s manned and unmanned capabilities. In a recent testimony to Congress, Howard emphasized Naval Special Warfare’s commitment to a closer relationship with its parent branch.
Naval Special Warfare’s closer integration with “Big Navy” promotes technological and conceptual advancements, including in “maritime reconnaissance and scouting; strike, mine, undersea, and seabed warfare; strategic sabotage against critical infrastructure; and deception,” Howard wrote.
In addition, Naval Special Warfare is cooperating with the Navy’s submarine force to hone its underwater special-operations capabilities. Howard highlighted a training event between Navy SEALs and a Virginia-class nuclear fast-attack submarine in the eastern Mediterranean last year.
Howard wrote that Naval Special Warfare has enjoyed “a special relationship with the submarine force” for decades and that the command’s clandestine capabilities coupled with advanced stealthy submarines “create an unrivaled asymmetric advantage.”
The US military’s first sub-launched commando raid was carried out during World War II, and in the decades since the SEALs were formed in 1962, SEAL Vehicle Delivery teams and their unique mini-subs have often been paired with US submarines to get SEALs closer to targets and carry out underwater operations.
That first sub-launched raid was carried out by Marine Raiders, the Marine Corps’ special-operations force. Now, Howard wrote, SEAL and Special Boat teams are “partnering with the Marine Corps on complementary concepts, expeditionary sustainment, and staging for inside force operations in contested battlespace.”
The changes and initiatives underway reflect the US military’s growing concern about a new environment of competition and potentially conflict with capable adversaries that are able to challenge it at every level — something the US hasn’t faced for much of the past 30 years.
Leaders are responsible for understanding their organizations’ strengths and weaknesses and the changes in the landscape around them “and then boldly, fearlessly lead their organizations to adapt,” Howard wrote.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.