Adapting the Force to the Fight: Naval Special Warfare

By Captain John J. Burnham, U.S. Navy

Movement: NSW Legacy

As a small force in a big service, NSW has always used combat necessity and evolving conflicts, along with their important after-effects, to shape the community and its capabilities. This has involved defining the capability required, devising the training and outlining resource requirements, convincing sometimes reluctant theater commanders of the mission feasibility and value of the force, and finding the right operators for the job.

World War II saw the beginning of "the long struggle by the navy's frogmen to define their mission and understand who they are." 1 From the early days there was a broad scope of missions: Scouts and Raiders in China behind enemy lines as advisers, Naval Combat Demolition Units blowing obstacles in support of the Normandy landings, underwater demolition teams in the Pacific supporting amphibious landings after the disaster at Tarawa.

The early focus was on direct action, not so much counterinsurgency or nation-building. 2 That shifted when President John F. Kennedy encouraged all the services to expand special operations. In a 1962 speech at West Point, Kennedy described his vision: "This is another type of war, new in intensity, ancient in origins-wars by guerrillas, subversion, insurgents, assassins; wars by ambush instead of by conventional combat. . . . It requires a whole new kind of strategy, a wholly different kind of force, and therefore a new and wholly different kind of military training." 3

The Navy's Unconventional Activities Committee recommended the formation of a unit on each coast to be the focal point for Navy involvement in guerrilla and counter-guerrilla operations: Sea Air Land (SEAL) teams. 4 This marked the first step away from direct Fleet support. Drawn from the existing UDTs, SEALs hit the radar in Vietnam, where their advisers were from 1962 to 1973, and their platoons operated from 1965 to 1971.

Underwater-demolition and SEAL teams reconnected with Fleet commanders after Vietnam through direct support deployments with battle groups and expanded partner training with other countries' maritime special operations forces. In 1983, all remaining UDTs converted to SEAL teams. The Naval Special Warfare Command (NAVSPECWARCOM), a one-star headquarters, was established as the stateside command. In 1987 the U.S. Special Operations Command was created, carving NSW away from the Fleet and into a dedicated SOF chain of command-which continued to report through the Navy administratively. As a minority in a command dominated by the Army and Air Force, NSW played limited but critical roles.

One of the biggest issues was that NSW continued to deploy in much the same way it had for 30 years: in platoon-size elements, attached directly to ships or Theater Special Operations Commanders. By the late 1990s, it was apparent that the community needed to update its organization. The force was expanding, operational requirements overseas were shifting, and training needed to be streamlined.

NSW 21 Sets the Stage

NSW 21, as NAVSPECWARCOM's overarching plan for these changes was known, was the most comprehensive community reorganization since UDTs had shifted to SEAL Teams. The goal was to increase relevance and effectiveness to reflect the maturity of theater SOF operations while maintaining operational support and focus to the Fleet commanders. As one of many structural and operational changes, SEAL teams would now deploy with operations, intelligence, and logistics enablers into theaters as NSW squadrons, not piecemeal to individual commanders.

The transition was not always smooth, but in the end the new NSW 21 organization provided the Fleet and theater commanders with more responsive capability. It set the stage for NSW to effectively deploy after 9/11 to meet the new mission requirements.

Into the Present

In recent testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, USSOCOM commander Admiral Eric Olson noted that special operations forces (SOF) are employing many of their core capabilities-unconventional warfare, counterterrorism, civil affairs, information operations, and partnering with host nation forces. 5

The benefits of using NSW in many cases revolve around their small footprint, the precision of their operations, and their ability to blend and adapt to environment and mission requirements. This year (and since just after 9/11) about 85 percent of overseas SOF units are deployed to the Central Command theater of operations, and that percentage is about the same for NSW. 6 Tactically, the mission scope covers all operations: urban, desert, and riverine combat in Iraq; long-range small-unit operations in Afghanistan; maritime special operations in the Philippines; and a number of continuing training relationships with the maritime special operations forces of numerous countries in all theaters. Staffs and specialty augments have been involved as well-intelligence, communications, logistics, administrative support-and the entire community has been expeditionary.

Broadly speaking, NSW has changed since 9/11 in three primary ways: the fusion of operations and intelligence (ops/intel), interagency teamwork, and a refocusing on irregular warfare.

The Ops/Intel Cycle

Much has been written about the SOF find-fix-finish-exploit-analyze cycle that describes how operations and intelligence come together before target execution at the tactical and operational levels, with the rapid exploitation and follow-on analysis that leads back into the ops cycle. This is a vastly improved dynamic from pre-9/11 processes. 7

SEALs in Vietnam were known for their ability to gather timely, quality tactical intelligence and act on it quickly. In today's ops/intel machine, that same thread connects strategic intelligence straight to the tactical level, operations that are then augmented by manned and unmanned Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance platforms. These provide a real-time picture of the enemy network and individual targets.

The exploitation cycle has likewise expanded. Intelligence gained from operations is fed directly to the larger intel community, complementing the national collection and starting the cycle again. Operating at the "speed of war" now extends up, down, and across the spectrum. 8

Joint and Interagency Teamwork

Joint special ops increased during the 1990s, but the interagency effort had nowhere near the same level of effort or emphasis. That has now changed. The Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force structure has come a long way since Operation Desert Storm. Today, SEALs work not only with conventional U.S., Coalition, and partner nation forces; they also interact directly with representatives from every agency in our government. Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom have served as living laboratories for NSW in joint/interagency operations.

Whether it is working with Provincial Reconstruction Team representatives from the Departments of State, Commerce, Agriculture, Justice, or the U.S. Agency for International Development; or having almost all the "three letter" agencies live and work with them in their spaces, NSW members are now experiencing levels of interaction leagues beyond pre-9/11 days. Tactical lessons learned can be shared or improved upon, and challenges or obstructions at higher staff levels can be more easily surmounted when people deal face to face and communicate with others who have had similar deployed experiences.

The system is not perfect. Some information stovepipes remain, and the occasional organizational turf battle still occurs. But overall it is a vast improvement, and it's a two-way street. As NSW gains from its contact and work with other agencies and departments, those representatives are exposed to NSW-its people, the tactics, the operations, and the results.

Another factor that will have positive long-term effects is the huge number of Navy augmentees in the ground fight. When an O-5 submariner or aviator has spent a year commanding a Provincial Reconstruction Team and has worked daily with the SEAL and SF units in his province, it's a powerful lesson in understanding NSW. Similarly, Navy intel specialists in an interagency task force work side by side with CIA, NSA, DIA, NGA and other personnel from all the intelligence disciplines, directly supporting operations and interacting with the operators. And Seabees, communicators, and supply personnel live at the forward operating base with the assault forces, building the camp and interacting with locals for contracted services. They are immersed in the overall battle rhythm.

The legion of Sailors and officers who have lived and worked with NSW in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom will be like the bulge in the economic forecast charts: Years from now, when they are O-6s and E-9s, they will have a fundamentally different outlook based on their time working in those environments. This is good for NSW and for the Fleet as a whole.

Irregular Warfare

NSW has a long operational history in the areas that now make up what is termed irregular warfare. In today's counterinsurgency environment, unilateral combat operations must fit into a larger framework of security, development, and governance. The success of this effort will have the long-term effects of denying sanctuary to the enemy and stabilizing the region.

NSW forces have continued to improve the combination of advising and operations as they work with Iraqi and Afghan army and police, Philippine maritime commandos, and other nations' forces during training exchanges. Bringing irregular warfare to a full capability has been a SOCOM priority, and NSW's inherent access to countries with maritime special operations forces has been a key part of this effort. The concept of conducting operations "by, with, and through" partner nation forces is a rule, but so is maintaining the ability to conduct unilateral operations when required.

NSW has benefited from the Navy's increased focus on irregular warfare. This past spring the Office of Naval Intelligence created four subordinate commands, one of which is the John F. Kennedy Irregular Warfare Center. Thus, a five-year ONI project was given formal structure. 9 Initiatives like this will increase the connection with what NSW is already doing around the world.

Funding for NSW has also improved, as have ways in which money can be used. In the 1990s, training and working with foreign SOF was done under the Joint/Combined Exchange Training program. This system maintained relationships but could not be "operationalized." In 2003, Congress appropriated $25 million for geographic combatant commanders to bolster partner nation forces and gain access, through employing indigenous units, to hostile areas where U.S. forces cannot openly operate. Known as "1208 funding" for the relevant section in the legislation, it has been renewed and expanded since its inception, and proven to be a valuable force multiplier for NSW. 10

As in any dynamic environment, we must exploit opportunities, address issues, and improve processes. Enduring situations like post-9/11 operations have long-term effects, of course, and discussing them goes beyond tactical lessons learned.

Combat Leadership

An NSW operator who enlisted or was commissioned in 2000 and finished BUD/S or Special Warfare Combatant Crewman training in 2001 has known only combat deployment cycles for the first half of his career. Reserve NSW groups are staffed with combat veterans who return to support the forward-deployed task forces on their augmentation cycles. This unprecedented level of diverse experience is having a significant impact on the community. The full scope of benefits will be clear as junior operators and technicians assume leadership positions, mentored by combat veterans and with current relevant experience themselves.

This kind of a game-changing factor could be a boon to NSW. The potential downside is that a community with too much of the same type of perspective in its ranks may get stuck in the rut of fighting the last war, or, as Admiral Olson expressed it, concern over "short-term gains in combat experience at the cost of reduced capability in specific skill areas not utilized in OEF and OIF." 11

For this reason it is crucial that we gain perspective on the thematic and organizational changes. We must lift the principles out of tactical white noise and guide the community on the best path forward. For example, instruction in language and cultural knowledge must be prioritized and considered a long-term training investment. There are only so many frogmen and too many countries in which operations are possible. We need vision to determine where the next focus areas should be.

Finding the New Operators

At the other end of the leadership chain, recruiting continues to be strong. There was a concern that the operational tempo and demands would push people away. However, the new operators understand the deployment cycles and requirements of the career-and they accept them. What would have been categorized as a crushing op tempo in the 1990s is now considered normal. 12

Motivated operators and high morale are critical factors for a long fight. But high as the warriors' enthusiasm may be, that of their families may not last. We must continue with our attention and concern for the well-being of spouses, children, and other family members, while continuing to ensure operators get the proper amount of time between deployments to stay on top of the wave.

Maintaining the Fleet Connection

In a number of categories-personnel augmentation for deployments, increased budgeting, and high recruiting priorities-the Navy's support to NSW has improved dramatically in the past ten years. And despite the operational demands of the current fight, we remain connected to the Fleet in training and other professional exchanges, along with officer and senior enlisted placement on key naval and joint staffs.

This close relationship results in service support for current and emerging joint NSW requirements, support that pays real dividends. What still remains, though, is for the rapport to be strengthened between non-Fleet expeditionary ops elements of the Navy. This means NSW, the Naval Expeditionary Combat Command (formed January 2006), and the Marine Special Operations Command (directed by the Secretary of Defense in fall 2005). Given the relatively recent creation of each, it's about the right time to engage at deeper levels and shore up linkages.

NSW Expanding Leadership Roles

The past ten years have seen a significant increase in SEAL leadership in the Navy and joint arenas. In 1999 NAVSPECWARCOM was a one-star headquarters, and the highest leadership outside NSW lifelines was at the O-6 and E-9 levels in the Theater Special Operations Commands.

Ten years later, NAVSPECWARCOM is a two-star command with a Force Master Chief. SEAL flag officers work at SOCOM HQ, at the National Counterterrorism Center, and on the National Security Council staff. SEALs have been commanders of Special Operations Command Central and Special Operations Command Europe, a SEAL two-star is the Fourth Fleet commander, a SEAL three-star commands the Joint Special Operations Command, and a SEAL four-star commands USSOCOM.

Today's senior flag officers and senior enlisted entered NSW in the mid-1970s, when the Navy was considering shifting the two SEAL teams to the reserves; their career arcs have seen a considerable shift in the community's relationship with the Navy.

Looking Ahead

We need to look beyond today's fight and think about what the world will be like ten years from now. NSW will be in the war zones for some time to come, but when the joint task forces wind down and the bureaucratic amber resin again hardens around the various organizations, it will be essential for our tactical relationships to have matured. It's easy when everyone is deployed together, but when the temporary overseas structures dissipate, as military and civilian counterparts climb their respective organizational ladders, a permanent, institutionalized solution must already be in place.

As he goes through his small-unit drills, every young frogman learns that the goal of a SEAL element when faced with an enemy force is to create a momentary impression of overwhelming fire superiority. You need to make the unknown enemy think your element is a lot larger while you figure out exactly what to do next.

Organizationally, NSW has been doing that for most of its existence. Since 9/11, its contributions have been increasingly recognized, resourced, and supported. But with greater gifts come greater responsibilities.

The upcoming decade will require the community to ruthlessly scrutinize and assess its core missions. For example, significant acquisition decisions about maritime platforms are coming in the next few years. SEALs and other NSW team members, even as they continue to perform numerous critical operations in support of the global fight, must always remember that only one force inside SOCOM-NSW-is charged with and capable of the unique maritime special operations missions. And, as Maersk Alabama Captain Phillips knows, keeping that edge sharp is a no-fail requirement.


1. Orr Kelly, Brave Men, Dark Waters (Novato, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1992), 101. Two of the best references on the origins and history of NSW are this and The Naked Warriors, the 1956 classic by legendary frogman Francis Fane (available as a Naval Institute Press reprint).

2. Susan Marquis, Unconventional Warfare: Rebuilding U.S. Special Operations Forces (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institute Press, 1997), 65.

3. Speech given at West Point, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, John F. Kennedy (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1962), 453.

4. Kelly, Brave Men, Dark Waters, 76.

5. Testimony of Admiral Eric Olson, USSOCOM Commander, FY2010 National Defense Authorization Budget Request for USSOCOM, 4 June 2009. U.S. House Committee on Armed Services, Subcommittee on Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities. Available through Federal News Service, .

6. Testimony of Admiral Eric Olson, 4 June 2009.

7. Michael T. Flynn, Rich Juergens, Thomas Cantrell, "Employing ISR: SOF Best Practices," Joint Forces Quarterly, 3rd quarter 2008.

8. Ibid.

9. Robert K. Ackerman, "Naval Intelligence Ramps Up Activities," Signal, February 2009.

10. P.L. 108-375, Section 1208, 28 October 2004. Available at

11. U.S. Senate, Committee on Armed Services, Advance Policy Questions for Vice Admiral Eric T. Olson, USN, Nominee for Commander, U.S. Special Operations Command, 12 June 2007. Available at .

12. Testimony of Admiral Eric Olson, 4 June 2009.

Captain Burnham, a SEAL with combat experience in Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, is Deputy Commander, Naval Special Warfare Development Group in Dam Neck, Virginia.


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