Revitalizing Naval Special Warfare

By Lieutenant Commander Bill Hamblet, U.S. Navy


26 February 2008, 15th anniversary of the World Trade Center bombing: At midday in New York harbor, a container vessel slips quietly past the Statue of Liberty. On board are ten terrorists and 10,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate explosives, set to scatter several hundred pounds of ricin powder, a lethal protein derived from castor beans. The terrorists intend to navigate the ship as close to Manhattan as possible, escape via small boat, and remotely detonate the bomb. The explosion will level a city block and spread the ricin—a hundred times more lethal than cyanide—throughout downtown Manhattan. The powder will kill anyone who inhales it, by inducing pneumonia-like symptoms; there is no antidote.


August 2007, South China Sea, on board the U.S. carrier: The combined joint task force commander, under orders to limit escalation, calls for a special reconnaissance mission by SEALs, operating from a nuclear-powered attack submarine mated with an advanced minisubmarine. Using the battery-powered minisub, the SEALs will infiltrate a small harbor, where the minisub will bottom and lock out six SEALs, who will observe boat activity and any military presence.

Late that night, a trawler enters the harbor and begins offloading crates of small arms and antiship bottom influence mines. Under the pier, four SEALs observe, listen, and take digital photos. The platoon chief, a Chinese linguist, catches bits of conversation using a small, highly sensitive microphone. When the trawler leaves the mooring at 0345, the element leader clicks on a waterproof cellular phone. Using a special encryption algorithm, it securely connects the frogmen directly to the commander of SEAL Team Five on board the carrier. The SEALs pass their intelligence and then return to the minisub to rendezvous with the submarine.

The task force commander, armed with proof of the trawler's activities, orders a frigate to intercept and board the boat the next morning, before it reenters Chinese waters. Within days, as a result of the international outcry over the arms found on board the boat and on the island, the Chinese government agrees to a shared asset relationship for the islands.

26 February 2008, New York Harbor: Unseen by the terrorists, members of SEAL Team Ten—the team currently assigned to counterterrorist alert—are following the container vessel. Just inside the entrance to the harbor a commercial tugboat, hired by the Navy, crosses the bow of the container vessel at a distance of 800 yards. Submerged and out of site, a specially designed net trails in the water across the path of the Liberian ship. As the tug moves away, it leaves the net in the water. Two minutes later, it ensnares the single screw of the containership, bringing it to a halt.

The confusion caused by the unexpected fouling of the vessel provides an opportunity for two civilian-looking cigarette boats to close on the ship and dispatch SEALs. From the air, an HH-60 helicopter approaches and lands a platoon of SEALs via fast rope. All the naval commandos are wearing full nuclear-biological-chemical protective suits and are armed with 9-mm submachine guns. A sniper in a second helicopter shoots the terrorist lookouts on the bow and on the stern of the ship. Another sniper launches CS gas canisters into the bridge.

Within minutes, the containership has been secured. Explosive ordnance disposal technicians come on board and disarm the bomb. Surviving terrorists are turned over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.


The missions and skills in which the Naval Special Warfare (NSW) community will need to be proficient 10 and 20 years from now will be many and varied. At the high-tech/high-skill end, commanders will need warriors capable of fighting in a nuclear, biological, and chemical environment, against enemies equipped with more-lethal weapons, sophisticated sensors, and expanded information sources. At the low end of the threat scale, SEALs and Special Boat Units will continue to perform foreign internal defense, going into friendly, developing nations such as Lithuania to teach skills to their militaries, so they can attain the proficiency level needed to contribute to NATO or other alliances.

With the proper forward-looking focus, Naval Special Warfare can be an increasingly relevant tool for military commanders. Light, mobile, and ready, NSW forces can move stealthily and rapidly to combat terrorism, sabotage key enemy nodes, and prepare the battlefield for follow-on conventional forces.

The skills described in these missions are some of the important capabilities that Naval Special Warfare must be able to offer joint force commanders in the future. Just as important as these tactical skills, however, is the need for smart organization—unfortunately, the current NSW organization falls short.

Over the past 15 years, the size of the Naval Special Warfare force has grown threefold, and the size of the force deployed to any given theater has seen a similar increase. 2 Yet there has not been a similar increase in forward-deployed senior leadership, especially commanders and captains, nor has the force been reorganized to maximize its training, deploying, or fighting effectiveness.

Today's SEAL Teams are not deploying to fight as a unit. Instead, the teams are acting as training commands that prepare platoons for deployments to other theaters. When the platoons deploy, they are commanded by another leader. This arrangement leads to problems in leadership, continuity, and discipline. Elite tactical units are being trained and readied by someone other than the officers who will command them in combat or contingency operations.

The overseas counterpart of the SEAL Team is the Naval Special Warfare Unit (NSWU), which is the forward operational commander. Currently, there are units in Guam (NSWU-1), Stuttgart (NSWU-2), Bahrain (NSWU3), and Panama (NSWU-8). In addition, there are two training units, one in Rota, Spain (NSWU-10), and the other in Puerto Rico (NSWU-4). When a SEAL platoon deploys to an NSWU, it comes under the operational control of the unit commander, usually a SEAL commander (0-5). The unit is under the operational control of the theater Special Operations Command (SOC). SEAL Team Two platoons, for example, deploy to Stuttgart, Germany, to work for NSWU-2 under the command of Special Operations Command, Europe (SOCEur).

On the maritime side, SEAL Team Eight platoons are on every East Coast aircraft carrier and two-thirds of the amphibious ready groups (SEAL Team Two covers the other third of the amphibious ready group deployments). On the carriers and amphibious ships, the platoons form the meat of a Naval Special Warfare Task Unit—usually headed by a SEAL lieutenant commander (O-4)—which comes under the operational control of the carrier battle group commander or amphibious squadron commander.

Organizing for the Future

There is an initiative under development within the East Coast NSW community to reorganize SEAL Teams and Special Boat Units. The new plan calls for splitting current SEAL Teams into smaller, deployable units. A current team has six to eight deployable platoons and a large headquarters element back in garrison. The new teams would have four combat platoons, a small "battle staff," and a SEAL delivery vehicle (SDV) and Special Boat element assigned as the mobility assets.

Under this plan, a SEAL Team commander would lead his team through a year-long workup and then deploy for six months. Once deployed, he would be able to package his assets as needed to meet the special warfare requirements of the theater.

The Special Warfare Group would remain superior in the administrative chain of command and would be the "force provider," training and certifying SEAL Teams for deployment. Under Naval Special Warfare Group Two in Little Creek, there also would be a larger training SEAL Team, analogous to an aviation fleet replacement squadron. The training team would train all new Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL course graduates and any SEALs who have been away from tactical operations for an extended time. In addition, the group would have consolidated departments—such as supply, maintenance, and communications—that would assist and oversee the departments, training, and operations of the deploying SEAL Teams while they are in the United States.

On the receiving end, in the theater to which the team deploys, there would be a Naval Special Warfare Task Group—essentially a SEAL captain (O-6) and his staff—that would function both as the naval component commander to the theater Special Operations Command and as the special warfare commander to the numbered fleet. The task group, as a permanent overseas staff, would provide theater NSW command, continuity, and expertise.

An experiment has been under way in Europe since early 1996, in which a Naval Special Warfare Task Group has been working directly for Commander, Sixth Fleet. Establishing the task group was one of the first steps in the reorganization plan, and part of its plan of action was to demonstrate the capability to conduct coordinated special operations. During several U.S. and NATO exercises, the task group was given tactical control of multiple task units, including foreign special forces. 3 And when the USS Chinook (PC-9) and USS Firebolt (PC-10) deployed to U.S. European Command in the summer of 1996, operational control was assigned to the task group. In addition, the group was assigned the role of liaison between Sixth Fleet and Commander, SOCEur.

The task group concept is now in the walk phase of a crawl-walk-run development. If the go-ahead is given, full implementation would include gaining operational control of all the NSW assets in theater and a shift in status from being under the operational control of Sixth Fleet to being under both Sixth Fleet and SOCEur.

For example, a SEAL Team would forward deploy to the U.S. European Command with its four platoons, SDV and Special Boat detachments, and headquarters staff. The task group would look at the requirements levied by SOCEur and Sixth Fleet. If, for example, SOCEur had a joint combined exercise for training scheduled with Norway, then the SEAL Team's best platoon for cold weather operations could fill that requirement. If the amphibious ready group was not doing any specific exercises, but the carrier was participating in a major operation in the Adriatic, then two platoons could go on board the carrier to cover combat search and rescue; helicopter visit, board, search, and seizure; and strike warfare requirements. To sustain his force, the commander could send his additional platoon to NSWU-10 for sustainment training.

There are some who may oppose this plan, including the amphibious squadron and carrier battle group commanders, who now "own" their NSW assets for the full deployment. Under the current organization, an amphibious squadron commander does have a dedicated NSW Task Unit, which he controls completely, but there is no mechanism for that commander to get more SEALs when needed. Nor is there a mechanism for NSW assets assigned to a theater SOC to shift easily to the numbered fleet. Under the proposed system, there would be roughly the same number of NSW assets (platoons, SDVs, and special boats) in theater; however, under the aegis of a single command, they could be moved and combined in ways that allow them to be brought to bear on any problem, to assist the amphibious ready group, the SOC, or the carrier battle group.

Thus, the new command organization would allow Naval Special Warfare to adhere better to three important principles of war:

  • The Unity of Command provided by a task group and a deploying SEAL Team would mean that NSW experts would be in charge of all NSW forces and operations in theater.
  • The streamlined organization would provide better Economy of Force , as NSW assets could be parceled out to meet specific customer requirements, rather than each customer having a SEAL platoon for a six-month period.
  • The task group/SEAL Team would provide the ability to Mass appropriate and overwhelming firepower against an enemy or target. 4

For the Special Boat Squadrons and Units, the reorganization plan will not bring radical structural change. Like SEAL Teams, Special Boat Units currently do not deploy as an entire command; they send detachments forward to be commanded by the NSW units and task units. 5 Every task unit that deploys with an amphibious ready group has a Special Boat detachment of two rigid-hull inflatable boats. And the units in Stuttgart and Rota have Special Boat detachments assigned to them on a rotating basis.

Under the new plan, the Special Boat detachments would be assigned directly to the SEAL Team commander as his mobility and brown-water firepower assets. The patrol coastal ships from the Special Boat squadrons would forward deploy separately from the SEAL Teams, but overseas they would report to the NSW task group, as tested in U.S. European Command last year. The patrol coastal ships would provide another insertion, extraction, support, and mobility platform for the SEAL Teams.

How to Retain a Snake Eater

In addition to effective organization, a critical part of maintaining a top-notch Naval Special Warfare force is operator retention. In October 1996, Rear Admiral Thomas Richards, Commander, Naval Special Warfare Command, sent a message to all NSW commanders asking why a record number of SEAL lieutenants were lining up to leave the Navy. The answer for many (both officer and enlisted) was that they signed up to "operate"—to jump out of planes, combat terrorism, etc.—not to teach marksmanship to Colombian Marines on a foreign internal defense mission.

The admiral's message and the ensuing discussions reveal an important facet of the retention problem. Young men are drawn to Naval Special Warfare by the excitement and challenges of commando operations, yet much of their peacetime employment comes in the form of foreign internal defense, including joint combined exercises for training, Partnership for Peace missions, and other military-to-military evolutions. This situation is common to most warfighting communities, but other war fighters do not have similar "combat" opportunities outside the military. SEALs have the draw of police work, especially SWAT teams, if they decide they're not seeing enough action in the military.

During the 1996 presidential campaign, much was made of the idea of increasing the role of the military in the drug war. SEALs and Special Boat Units now train host-nation military and police forces to fight the drug war, but they don't actually get to battle the narco-traffickers as envisioned in Tom Clancy's Clear and Present Danger . 6 Many members of the NSW community welcomed the possibility that they could be given more liberal rules of engagement.

One possible solution to the retention problem—and a way to cultivate the kind of unconventional thinking and tactics required of a world-class special operations force—would be to restart the Navy Security Coordination Team, better known as Red Cell.

The 1983 Beirut terrorist attack that took the lives of 241 Marines demonstrated a need for increased security at military facilities and ships. In response, Red Cell was created to simulate terrorist groups and enemy sabotage operations in security drills against ships and installations around the world. Unfortunately, the command was disestablished a few years later because of what has been described as unprofessional behavior. Veteran SEALs freely admit that Red Cell members sealed the fate of the command with their cavalier behavior, but many stress its positive contributions as well. Red Cell operations demonstrated significant, often blatant, security risks to the commands they tested. And for the operators in the team, the drills offered a magnificent opportunity to hone special warfare skills and think creatively.

In a recent speech, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Shalikashvili stated that the disaster at the Khobar towers military apartment complex in Saudi Arabia was a wakeup call for the need for protection against terrorism. 7 A newly reconstituted Red Cell could provide a remarkable unconventional team—not only as an antiterrorist force but also as a "terrorist cell" that shows us where we are most exposed. It could be set up as a joint command, under the U.S. Special Operations Command, comprised of Navy SEALs and Special Boats, Army Green Berets, and Army and Air Force aviation assets.

Weapons and Tactics

An important part of the modernization of any military force is its procurement programs. These are not intended as all-inclusive, but the following are some of the items that need to be planned for today to support a strong Naval Special Warfare contribution in the coming decades, and to meet the mission requirements for the scenarios described earlier:

  • Nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) protection gear that NSW forces can wear in tactical operations. The rising challenges of terrorism, especially as NBC becomes an increasingly cost-effective weapon for terror forces, dictate that counterterrorism and antiterrorism forces be protected. At the moment, SEAL and Special Boat Units do not possess NBC equipment, nor do they train to the threat.
  • Minisubmersibles. Today's SEAL Delivery Vehicle Teams provide a stealthy strike and reconnaissance asset, but the SDVs must be improved or replaced. Future minisubmarines need to be able to mate with every submarine in the U.S. inventory—and perhaps allied submarines, as well. They must be quiet and reliable, and they must offer protection from the elements. Preferably, a future minisub will be a dry sub that can carry SEALs a long distance before locking them out to conduct their mission.
  • Man-portable weapon systems. Future SEALs should have lighter, quieter, more reliable, and more lethal weapons—and possibly nonlethal weapons. Several companies are developing cartridgeless ammunition—and automatic weapons to fire it—that will eliminate the tell-tale evidence of spent ammunition casings and also lighten the load of hundreds of rounds.
  • C4I. NSW needs waterproof, global access, encrypted cellular phones to take the place of the heavy satcom and high-frequency radios now in use. Battlefield information systems, allowing two-way transmission of intelligence, video, maps, and charts between a unit in the field and its controlling authority also will be needed.
  • Language capability. To meet the needs of foreign internal defense and certain combat operations, NSW must put additional emphasis on language training. Full-time instructors are needed to raise the level of foreign language competence across the force.

1 and kuvera/castor-bean.html

2 Orr Kelly, Brave Men, Dark Waters (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1992), pp. 21516

3 Currently there are NSW Task Units working for CTF-60 (CVBG) and CTF-61 (MARG), and an SDV Task Unit under CTF-69.

4 U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Doctrine for Joint Operations: Appendix A: "The Principles of War," April 1989, pp. Al-A8.

5 Except in the case of SBU-26, which is a forward deployed command stationed at Rodman Naval Station in Panama. SBU-26 is opcon to NSWU-8.

6 LCdr. Tom Rancich and LCdr. William Hamblet, USN, "Teaching Excellence," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, April 1996, pp. 36-39.

7 Bill Hertz, The Washington Times, 20 November 1996, p. 6.

Lieutenant Commander Hamblet is the Air Wing Intelligence Officer for Carrier Air Wing 7 at NAS Oceana. He recently completed a tour as the intelligence officer with SEAL Team Four at NAB Little Creek, during which time he spent ten months temporary duty with the first Naval Special Warfare Task Group under Commander, Sixth Fleet.



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