Perhaps the single most-enduring characteristic of BUD/S training is the high attrition rate. Historically, five good men have to begin the process in order to get one qualified, deployable Navy SEAL. A great deal of time, effort, study, and testing has been devoted to this subject, but little has been done over time to make it more efficient. The physical characteristics of those who make it and those who don’t are strikingly similar. But those who successfully complete BUD/S training seem to stand higher in terms of leadership, self-confidence, self-discipline, self-esteem, and intelligence. They also come from families that have high expectations of their sons. Training is long, rigorous, and painful. Recently, careful attention to recruiting the right men and more sophisticated conditioning methods have resulted in a higher percentage of candidates completing the difficult training. Yet until there is a test for “heart,” or some way to measure who will and will not quit under stress, there will always be a Hell Week and the physical, mental, and emotional crucible that is BUD/S training.
The new SEAL teams focused on commando-style raiding while coming from the sea or through the air. Their training in unconventional and paramilitary warfare involved small-unit tactics for direct-action missions and behind-the-lines reconnaissance. While Vietnam loomed large in their future, that conflict was not the first operational use of SEALs. In the spring of 1962 (a year after the Bay of Pigs disaster in Cuba), a small contingent of SEALs and UDT men locked out of a submarine off the coast of Cuba near Havana. Their mission was to conduct a beach reconnaissance in the event Marines should ever need to land near the Cuban capital. They were later recovered by submarine after successfully completing their mission.
Vietnam—A Defining Moment
While SEALs were created for Cold War–centric contingencies, it was Vietnam that was to define them. The first SEALs arrived in South Vietnam in late 1962 as advisers. SEAL Team One began regular deployments a year later. Early on, the SEALs worked closely with the CIA out of Da Nang, assisting the agency in preparing agents to slip into North Vietnam on covert missions. Specifically, the SEALs trained South Vietnamese commandos in maritime infiltration techniques so they could enter the North from the sea. So the first mission in Vietnam was a true unconventional-warfare activity—training locals to fight the enemy on his own ground. But those efforts were largely unsuccessful. It soon became apparent to the CIA that there was little hope in generating any meaningful local resistance in North Vietnam. Conversely, the North Vietnamese were highly successful in launching an insurgency in the South, which should have told us something. With the landing of the Marines in 1965 and the escalation that followed, the role of American combatants—and the SEALs—became more one of direct-action combat than of unconventional warfare.
With the exception of an ongoing advisory effort, the SEALs began operating in squads and platoons in a direct-action role in Rung Sat Special Zone—a Viet Cong–infested mangrove swamp between Saigon and the South China Sea. Fourteen- to sixteen-man SEAL platoons began combat rotations into the Rung Sat in 1965 and were soon operating from other riverine bases around the lower Mekong Delta. From 1965 through 1972, as platoons from SEAL Teams One and Two conducted direct-action operations against the Viet Cong, the combined strength of the teams grew to close to 400 active SEALs, but there were seldom more than 120 SEALs in Vietnam at any one time.
Most often, SEALs worked for a conventional Army, Navy, or Marine ground-force commander. Early on in the Mekong region, SEALs learned that the key to successful operations was good intelligence. Veteran SEAL petty officers became quite adept at ferreting out information from the local sources. They set up networks and paid informants. For the most part, they had not been trained for that; those intelligence-collection skills were learned on the job to better accomplish the mission. And good intelligence led to good missions. Operationally, SEALs were often assisted by Boat Support Unit One (West Coast) and Two (East Coast), the forerunners of today’s Special Boat Teams. On many a SEAL mission, the boat-support sailors would take SEAL elements close to the objective, whence the SEALs would make the final journey to the target in sampans—moving through the night as the Viet Cong did. These missions were developed and launched as unilateral direct-action operations, but SEALs seldom went on a mission without a local guide or a small contingent of Vietnamese scouts.
SEAL platoons often operated with a half dozen or more scouts called Kit Carsons—former Viet Cong who had defected under a sanctioned amnesty program. The scouts provided local knowledge—and local intelligence. They lived with the SEALs, and when in the field, they often walked on point or very close to the SEAL point man. When patrolling in hostile territory, SEALs were always concerned with booby traps—small IEDs before they were known as such. When a scout refused to walk down a trail and recommended an alternate route to the objective, the SEALs were only too glad to follow his advice.
Focused on Insurgents, Ready for Anything
Most SEAL operations in Vietnam, not unlike present-day SEAL operations in Afghanistan, targeted insurgents. Back then, it was the Viet Cong. The most successful operations were a result of locally developed intelligence on a specific target—an arms cache, an enemy base camp, or a senior Viet Cong leader. As with SEAL operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Vietnam-era SEALs operated from relatively secure bases that were under the control of a conventional sector commander. Most operations were conducted at night in enemy-controlled territory, but SEALs then, like now, stood ready for a quick-reaction mission to rescue a downed pilot or a POW.
In the final tally, 48 SEALs lost their lives in Vietnam and more than 200 were wounded. Estimates of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese (NVA) soldiers killed by SEAL operations run as high a 2,000. (The UDTs also deployed to Vietnam but not in the numbers of SEALs. While their combat roles were mainly restricted to reconnaissance and demolition duties, they suffered12 killed and about 40 wounded.) Three SEALs were awarded the Medal of Honor in Vietnam. To date, two SEALs—one in Iraq, one in Afghanistan—have received the same honor, both posthumously.
There were, however, SEAL advisers who conducted business in classic Army Special Forces “by, with, and through” manner. One such enterprise was the Vietnamese SEAL program, the Lien Doc Nguoi Nhia (LDNNs), meaning, literally, “soldiers who fight under the sea.” Those brave South Vietnamese soldiers, when properly trained and led, could be very effective. LDNNs were involved in two of the actions where SEALs were awarded the Medal of Honor, and one LDNN was awarded the Navy Cross, the only non-American to receive our nation’s second-highest decoration in the Vietnam War. Today he lives in the United States and is treated as a respected alumnus of the SEAL community.
Perhaps the most successful SEAL operations in Vietnam were conducted by the SEALs who worked with the Provincial Reconnaissance Units, the PRUs. The PRU program was a CIA-sponsored effort that later became part of the secret Phoenix Program. The PRUs drew their fighters from Vietnamese rural villages and the Nung, tribesmen of Chinese origin who lived in Vietnam. The villagers and tribesmen agreed to fight on the side of the South Vietnamese government so long as they could fight as a unit and their pay was controlled by the CIA. The CIA paid and they fought. Navy SEALs, along with Army Special Forces soldiers and Marines, served as PRU advisers. In the case of the SEALs, there were anywhere from 60 to 120 Nungs for every SEAL adviser or pair of advisers. It was lonely duty for a SEAL, sometimes living day-in-day-out with those rough men in their home villages, with only an interpreter for communication.
PRU advisers were always chosen from among veteran SEALs. The PRUs operated in 14 of the 16 provinces in IV Corps—the southern military region of South Vietnam. After being formed in 1967, PRUs and their American advisers killed more than 20,000 Viet Cong and NVA and took thousands of prisoners. Postwar North Vietnamese records confirm that the PRUs were the deadliest and most effective force fielded in South Vietnam.
During the decade of SEAL deployment rotations to Vietnam, the operational focus and training within the SEAL teams was all about Southeast Asia. Tactics, weapons, and equipment were designed and developed around direct-action operations in a jungle environment. The SEALs’ mission-preparation and predeployment training was exclusively built around combat in Vietnam. Yet, within certain constraints, the SEALs had a free hand in choosing which missions they would undertake. With that latitude comes a great deal of responsibility. Today in Afghanistan, platoon officers, platoon chiefs, and task-unit commanders have that same latitude and responsibility. While it leads to operational success, it also means those combat leaders must make these life-and-death decisions on a daily basis. It means that they have to balance the importance of the mission against the risk to their men—not easy then and no easier now.
In its first ten years of existence, the life of a Navy SEAL was one of continuous combat rotations to Vietnam. Officers might get in two or three combat tours, but enlisted SEALs went back time and again. In spite of the broad unconventional-warfare portfolio handed the SEALs, their training and deployments were all about operations in Vietnam. In short, SEALs became very good jungle fighters and little else. They maintained minimum qualifications in diving and parachuting, but seldom practiced those in an operational scenario. During the late 1970s and early ’80s, operating budgets were tight. UDTs and SEAL teams shrank to pre-Vietnam levels in the number of personnel, if not the team structure; there remained four underwater demolition teams and two SEAL teams. A fifth UDT had been commissioned in the summer of 1968 for duty in Vietnam, but it was decommissioned in the summer of 1971. There was even talk of disbanding the SEALs and the UDTs altogether. Today there are more than 2,000 operational SEALs; at the height of the Vietnam War there were just under 450.
1984: Conversion of the UDTs
While the SEALs endured continuous deployment rotations to Vietnam—rotations similar to those experienced by SEALs in Iraq and Afghanistan—the UDTs continued to evolve underwater, focusing much of their time and energy on combat-swimmer operations and the complex business of operating wet mini-submersibles from parent nuclear submarines. Those operations became so specialized and all-encompassing that in 1984, two of the four remaining UDTs were converted to SEAL teams and the other two became SEAL delivery-vehicle teams or SDV Teams. The new SDV teams were manned by fully mission-capable SEALs, but they specialized in underwater and over-the-beach operations. With the conversion of the UDTs and the growth of the SEALs, the current disposition of SEAL/SDV teams is as follows: SEAL Teams One, Three, Five, and Seven are based in Coronado. SEAL Teams Two, Four, Eight, and Ten are located in the Norfolk, Virginia, area. SDV Team One is in Hawaii. There are two reserve SEAL teams, Seventeen and Eighteen.
There currently is no SEAL Team Six. The raid that killed Osama bin Laden was carried out by a SEAL-centric special missions unit of the Joint Special Operations Command. Those in the U.S. Special Operations Command, and the author, avoid discussing the unit and its current designation. Nonetheless, it has been identified in the news media as SEAL Team Six.
Grenada, Panama, and the Gulf War all saw SEALs deployed in direct-action, special-reconnaissance, or search-and-rescue roles. In all of these conflicts, their work was maritime-related and in support of conventional battle plans or expeditionary warfare objectives. And in each of those conflicts, SEALs worked alone or as a diversion to main-force activity. Through the 1990s, there were isolated engagements with the emerging threat we now broadly categorize as terrorism. Perhaps the most engaging and sustained activities of that period were the operations mounted in support of the oil embargo imposed by the United Nations on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and enforced largely by the U.S. Navy. In an effort to deter the smuggling of oil out of Iraq, and the smuggling in of contraband, SEALs regularly boarded ships bound to and from Iraq. That activity came to be known as VBSS—visit, boarding, search, and seizure, a key element in maritime interdiction strategy. Saddam tried to sneak his oil to market in tankers. SEALs, fast-roping from helicopters, would board the tankers in international waters and detain them. It soon became a cat-and-mouse game, with SEALs swinging aboard at night as tankers made their runs for the territorial waters of friendly Arab states. That challenging and largely successful SEAL mission came to an end with 9/11.
Self-Contained Squadrons Evolve
The attacks of 9/11, operations in Afghanistan, and the invasion of Iraq quickly drew the full attention and deployment commitments of our military to include Naval Special Warfare assets. For the SEALs, all deployments became combat deployments, and that’s the way it has been for ten years. There were maritime operations associated with the initial combat operations in Iraq, but for the most part, SEALs have taken their game inland, to the mountains in Afghanistan, then to the cities and villages of Iraq, and now, currently, back to Afghanistan.
Prior to 2000 and the war on terrorism, SEALs routinely deployed with units of the Fleet and to theater commanders such as the Pacific Command, European Command, Central Command (the Middle East), or Southern Command (Central/South America). While on those deployments, they were attached to a parent command—afloat or ashore—under a conventional-force command structure. SEAL platoons deployed with little command presence and limited logistic or operational support. On the West Coast, for example, Naval Special Warfare Group One kept two platoons with Central Command and four platoons with the Pacific Command.
Since 2000, SEALs have deployed with their own integral command, control, and support organizations—the SEAL squadron. A SEAL squadron has three to four standalone SEAL task units, each with two SEAL platoons and an integrated combat-support package. The task units, with their internal intelligence and targeting capability, have dramatically enhanced SEAL and Naval Special Warfare capabilities in the operational theaters. The deployment of SEALs with this expanded staffing and combat-support capability in self-contained squadrons was put in place just in time for the heavy combat rotations that followed 9/11.
Currently, a deployed SEAL squadron commander reports to his regional special-operations task-force commander. In that role, he becomes a task-group commander and directs the activities of his SEAL task units. And when his task-force commander also directs the activities of allied or coalition special-operations forces, he becomes a joint special-operations task-force commander. In addition to the deployed SEAL squadrons, there are deployed special-missions units that are a part of the Joint Special Operations Command. The activity of our special-missions units, who they are, and what they do, is classified. They include Army, Navy, and Air Force tier-one special operations force assets, and they are known to range all across Iraq and Afghanistan. It was an element of these “special” special operators who killed Osama bin Laden.
A final word on that special-operations task-force, task-group, task-unit breakdown: Those are lines of command, communication, and support, but at none of those levels do the commanders or commanding officers own battlespace; they control no territory. SEALs and other special operators live and work in an area or sector of a conventional area commander. That means they do their work and fight on turf that belongs to an Army or Marine Corps owner. Because they do not fall within that commander’s direct chain of command, they must work closely with the conventional-force command in the conduct of their special operations. On first pass, this might seem limiting or restrictive in the conduct of special operations or on the freedom of special-operations units. In some sectors that may have been true, and it is an ongoing concern for the conventional battlespace commanders. But for the most part, the SEALs assigned to those task groups and task units in Iraq and Afghanistan thrive in that environment. In fact, they have nothing but praise for their conventional Army or Marine battlespace landlords. And they reserve their highest praise for the soldiers and Marines with whom they share the battlespace.
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*As a writer and former “team guy,” it has been my honor and privilege to be associated with the Navy Underwater Demolition and SEAL Teams for most of these past 50 years. As a young man growing up in Indiana in the 1950s, I eagerly read The Silent World by Jacques Cousteau, and of those intrepid frogmen who went ashore ahead of the Marines in World War II. I wanted to be one of them. After graduating from the Naval Academy in 1967, and a tour on board a destroyer, I found myself in BUD/S training, suffering alongside enlisted sailors who wanted to be frogmen as badly as I did. There were 79 of us in that BUD/S class; 13 of us graduated. I’m proud to have served in the UDTs as well as the SEAL teams. All of us who were in the teams in Vietnam are proud of our heritage. We are immensely proud of the current generation of Navy SEALs. We stand in the shadow of their accomplishments and professionalism. And we are very proud to have played a part in the development of what is now modern Naval Special Warfare. We have a saying in the teams: “The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday.” It may not have been easy, but it certainly was rewarding.
The Forerunners: World War II Frogmen
By Dick Couch
Six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese naval power was crippled at the Battle of Midway, and Japan’s advance in the Pacific was finally checked in land and sea actions around Guadalcanal. Then U.S. forces began the long drive across the Pacific to the Japanese home islands. This was to be an island-hopping campaign, and the first of those islands was Tarawa Atoll’s Betio.
With insufficient hydrological data, the Marines went ashore in the early-morning hours of 20 November 1943. Many drowned under the weight of their gear as their landing craft beached on underwater reefs well offshore; many more were gunned down as they waded the shallow stretches between reefs and beach. More than 1,000 Marines died on Tarawa and more than 2,000 others were wounded.
Amphibious operations are by their very nature risky and costly, but hydrographic intelligence could reduce risk and save lives. Men were needed to go in ahead of invasion forces to survey landing beaches. There was a war on; those men had to be found and quickly trained for that important task. The Navy turned to a maverick naval officer named Draper Kauffman. He proved to be the perfect man for the job. The story of the Navy frogman, and by extension, the Navy SEAL, can be distilled from the life of the charismatic Kauffman.
He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1933, but because of poor vision was unable to pass the commissioning physical. So he entered the ambulance service in France just in time to see its army overrun by the Germans in 1940. After a brief stint as a POW he went to England where he promptly joined the Royal Navy. Midway through his training to become a British naval officer he volunteered for ordnance-disposal work. Soon Sub-Lieutenant Kauffman was crawling through the rubble of London, defusing unexploded bombs. At the time, he was the only American serving in the Royal Navy, and few in Britain served in a more dangerous calling.
A month before America entered the war, Kauffman was repatriated and commissioned in the U.S. Navy. In the summer of 1943, in anticipation of the Pacific amphibious campaign, the Navy tasked Kauffman with solving the problem of removing obstacles from landing beaches. “Get together some men and train them to get rid of those (beach) obstacles,” he was told. “Your orders will allow you to go anywhere you think best to set up a training base. You can have anyone you ask for, in or out of the naval service. This is an emergency and we don’t have much time.” Kauffman chose Fort Pierce, Florida, as his base.
Fort Pierce in the summer of 1943 was a mosquito-infested mangrove swamp. The new all-volunteer group was called the Naval Combat Demolition Unit (NCDU). The training headquarters was set up in an abandoned casino. Another unit based at Fort Pierce was a veteran naval amphibious outfit simply called the Scouts and Raiders. Their training called for an intensive eight-week physical training regimen. Kauffman asked the Scouts and Raiders if they could compress the highlights of their program into a single week. It quickly became known as Hell Week. Kauffman and the assigned officers went through the first Hell Week with their enlisted trainees. That established a precedent that continues to this day; officers and enlisted men suffer and train side by side during the arduous week. Those who survived Hell Week were then trained in demolitions, beach reconnaissance, and hydrographic survey work. Then, as now, they trained in boat crews of six to eight men with an officer in charge. The crews of frogmen worked as teams during training and in combat, just as SEALs do today.
Kauffman also set the tone for a special bond between officers and enlisted men. Beginning with the first class, he brought the volunteers into a room, officers on one side and the enlisted men on the other. To the enlisted he said, “I will do everything in my power to see that no officer graduates from this school under whom I would not be happy to go into combat.” To the officers, he said, “I will do everything in my power to see that no enlisted man graduates from this school whom I would not want to lead in combat.” The officers and enlisted men then shared and shared alike in the miseries of Fort Pierce and NCDU training.
The NCDUs evolved into the underwater demolition teams, or UDTs, but the mission of clearing landing beaches remained essentially the same. NCDUs suffered a 52-percent casualty rate on Omaha Beach. The three-dozen odd men who graduated from Kauffman’s initial training grew exponentially: Two years later, on the eve of the Japanese surrender, the Navy counted more than 5,000 men in the UDTs—3,000 of them poised for the invasion of the Japanese home islands.
At the end of the war, U.S. forces were dramatically drawn down. By 1948 there were four teams numbering just over 200 officers and men. These four teams were the available UDT personnel going into the Korean War. Korea was a confined, regional engagement with none of the massive amphibious operations of World War II. At the Inchon landing in 1950 there were no beach obstacles, as the North Koreans believed the 30-foot tides there would make a landing impossible, but the UDTs served in a reconnaissance role and as wave guides to help steer landing craft to the beach.
A new requirement imposed on the UDTs in Korea that had not been part of their World War II tasks was the onshore raid. UDT elements would paddle ashore in rubber boats loaded with explosives and conduct raids on North Korean rail lines, bridges, and tunnels. Those missions were the first over-the-beach operations, a staple of today’s SEAL mission requirements. Many of the procedures developed by those amphibious frogmen laid the groundwork for future littoral-centric SEAL operations.
Special Ops Forces, SEALS, and the bin Laden Takedown
By Dick Couch
Like most Americans, I rejoiced on learning of the death of Osama bin Laden. On any number of levels, it’s a good thing that he is dead, and dead “by our hand.” As details of the operation that took his life were revealed, usually by unnamed sources, we learned that this action took place in Pakistan, that his body was brought out, that the operation was conducted by a special operations team, and finally, that the special operators were a team of Navy SEALs. Amid the rush of misinformation about Osama being armed, then unarmed, hiding behind a wife, not hiding, etc., etc., one persistent detail remained—the SEALs got him.
Very quickly the national discourse turned to SEALs, which SEALs, and the details of just who these SEALs were and what was their chain of command. Throughout all of this, official DOD, military, Special Operations, and Navy sources were silent. So the media moved into this vacuum and began to characterize the SEALs as the best of the best, the elite of the elite, and that they were from a secret team that reported to a secret command. There were related stories of stealth helicopters and plans for the SEAL assault element to fight their way out of Pakistan if things had not gone as planned. All the while, official military and Special Operations sources remained silent.
Addressing current Navy SEAL operations in the active theaters and around the world is difficult business since much of what they do is classified or at least is restricted information. The tactics, techniques, and procedures that attended the bin Laden operation are being closely held and rightly so. While the details may never be known, there were two key elements that were a part of the operation that are common to all special operations: the element of surprise and the violence of action. With that in mind, here’s a quick overview of Special Operations Forces (SOF), then the Navy SEALs, and finally, to the SEALs who were able to find and kill bin Laden.
Our nation has a remarkable and robust Special Operations Force—a force seasoned by more than ten years of continuous combat. Our ground-combat SOF components are the SEALs, the Army Special Forces (Green Berets), the 75th Ranger Regiment, and the Marine Special Operations Command (MARSOC). They are brilliantly supported by SOF aviators—the Army 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and the Air Force 1st Special Operations Wing. On the ground, the missions can be roughly categorized as direct action, unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense (helping other nations counter terror), and special reconnaissance. All our SOF ground components conduct those missions, but each has its area of expertise—its own specialty or specialties. The SOF Marines have two battalions that specialize in foreign internal defense and one battalion that concentrates on direct action. The Green Berets, with their cross-cultural skills, focus on foreign internal defense and unconventional warfare. Our men of the 75th Ranger Regiment are pure raiders. They are a direct action force, but they can also perform as light infantry. Unique among our SOF ground forces, the 75th Rangers can operate as a company, a battalion, and even as a regimental-sized force.
Today’s SEALs are generalists. Talented and versatile, they conduct a wide range of special operations in a maritime environment. While most SEAL assets are currently committed to operations in Afghanistan, they are deployed in Iraq, the Philippines, and North Africa to name just a few places. Their mission sets include “unconventional warfare, direct action, combating terrorism, special reconnaissance, foreign internal defense, information warfare, security assistance, counter-drug operations, personnel recovery, and hydrographic reconnaissance.” (For an excellent overview, visit http://www.navsoc.navy.mil/  ) At any given time, anywhere in the world, Navy SEALs can be tasked with those missions. As the need and mission requirements dictate, SEALs may be asked to specialize and refine their skills around one or more of those capabilities. They therefore may become highly proficient at special reconnaissance or personnel recovery. I suspect (as there still has been no official word—and probably never will be) that the SEALs who conducted the operation to get bin Laden were a very proficient direct-action team. So rather than resort to terms like elite and special and secret, I think the term “focused” better describes those who were tasked with that very special operation. There are certainly other SOF components that could have conducted the operation and certainly would have liked to have done so. But because of their direct-action focus, and perhaps other considerations—availability, area orientation, and language skills—these SEALs were selected. And by all accounts, they indeed comported themselves admirably.
Stepping back from the personnel issues and the tactical excellence of the assault element, keep in mind that a great many people had a hand in getting bin Laden. Credit the unsung intelligence professionals who ran bin Laden to ground. Credit the combat-support teams who contributed to getting that assault element briefed, trained, rehearsed, and on target with bin Laden in residence. Credit the SOF aviators who flew the mission. I would assume there were also non-SEAL special operators with the assault element to deal with certain contingencies and exploit intelligence. So while it was “the SEALs” who are credited with getting bin Laden, their daring and professionalism are but emblematic of our Special Operations community at large. In April 1980, the United States was humiliated with the failure of Desert One/Operation Eagle Claw, the botched attempt to rescue our Embassy legation taken hostage in Iran. From the ashes of that debacle, the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOC) was born. Since then it has both thrived and matured. The success of the bin Laden operation, conducted by a team of Navy SEALs, is but one example of USSOC’s tireless efforts to keep this nation safe and to keep our enemies on notice. And they are most certainly on notice—anytime, anywhere.