The Navy SEAL Teams were founded at the direction of President John F. Kennedy in 1962, with the main objective of establishing a unit within the US Navy that could conduct guerrilla warfare in maritime and riverine environments.
Long before the first SEAL Teams were established in the 1960s, the SEAL community had a rich history reaching back to the OSS swimmers of World War II, and the UDTs (Under Water Demolition Teams) that supported SOG (Special Operations Group) with their amphibious landing at Inchon Korea in the 1950s.
After 1962, SEAL Teams One and Two did their part to establish a strong foundation of accomplishment in the riverine environments of Vietnam. In 1989, the US invaded Panama and SEAL Team Two’s combat swimmers set charges that left Noriega’s boat at the bottom of the canal. And the SEAL Teams of the 90s regularly conducted non-compliant ship takedowns to enforce UN sanctions against Iraq’s former leader, Saddam Hussein.
Now, in 2014, the community is faced with the harsh truth that today’s modern SEAL Teams (excluding the SDV community), after over a decade of war in the desert, are losing their edge in the maritime environment.
Admiral (SEAL) McRaven, USSOCOM’s Commander, has recognized this, and appropriately called for the Teams to refocus their efforts on getting their maritime expertise back. Our sources tell us that the SEAL Training Commands (TRADET-Training Detachment) on both coasts have taken this to task, aggressively re-vamping the maritime training pipeline however, one critical piece is still missing. Modern equipment.
Training is now where it should be, but the Teams are still plagued by a slow-moving bureaucratic acquisition process that has left them using equipment dating back to the 1950s. The current acquisition professionals are mostly entrenched civilians at USSOCOM, most with no military experience. It’s true that equipment doesn’t make the operator, but arguably there are basic technologies that need to be leveraged to maintain a competitive advantage in the underwater battle space. A pass by any Team’s dive locker these days would look more diving museum than modern SEAL Team.
“Some of our partners have equipment that, quite frankly, is better than ours because we spent a decade fighting ashore,” Pybus said. “It’s time to catch up.” said Rear Adm. Sean Pybus, commander of Navy Special Warfare in 2013.
The current situation is one that resonates with me personally, and something I tried to move forward as an instructor after my tour in Afghanistan with SEAL Team 3.
While at the West Coast Training Command’s Sniper Cell in 2002, I submitted a white paper advocating the replacement of antiquated Zodiac inflatables with Yamaha WaveRunners, as they met most of the mission requirements for which the Zodiacs were being used. The WaveRunner has proven itself a versatile machine that can withstand the largest of surf conditions – just look at any big wave surfing contest, and you’ll see them everywhere. What you won’t see is a Zodiac charging into the lineup, and for good reason. The WaveRunner can also be jumped out of most aircraft and fits inside a CH-47 helicopter. Add a sled to the back, and you have an excellent OTB (Over The Beach) extraction vehicle that runs circles around a slow moving inflatable boat. I also advocated better diving equipment because, even back then, the rebreathers and open circuit rigs were substantially behind industry standards.
I had initial support, but the white paper ultimately fell on deaf ears, understandably so at the time as the Teams were being pulled away to over a decade of land-based warfare in Iraq, Afghanistan, and northern Africa.
The result is that the community has fallen embarrassingly behind when it comes to leveraging even the most basic of maritime technologies, the majority of which is readily available on the open market. 1980s-era underwater navigation boards, two-stroke outboard motors, Zodiac inflatables and the Draeger rebreather top the list of items needing to be replaced or updated.
The Navy SEALs and their UDT forefathers have always prided themselves on leading the way in the maritime environment. It’s time to take a hard look in the mirror and update the equipment to match the level of training.
“We’re still using thirty year-old rebreather technology and open circuit dive rigs that belong in the Smithsonian,” one active duty SEAL told SOFREP in February of 2014.
CAPT Kevin Aandahl, USN HQ USSOCOM told SOFREP the following via email:
“USSOCOM employs rapid and tailored acquisition strategies to modify Service-common equipment, enhance commercial items, or – when required – develop, procure and field equipment and services to respond to global, SOF-peculiar, user requirements.
SOCOM’s acquisition process is truly an integrated team approach and one that is operator-centric to ensure current and emergent technologies that are beneficial to our warriors needs are met. Recognizing the realities of the fiscal environment, a key component of the USSOCOM acquisition process is continuous analysis of our methods to improve our capabilities to support SOF. Specifically, USSOCOM continues to streamline our acquisition processes to maximize delivered capability, at the lowest acquisition cost.”
We hope that this last sentence proves true because, from our perspective and from what we hear at the Operator level, the acquisition system has become slow-moving and conventional in nature. Gear acquired at the Team/Unit level is routinely outpaced by existing COTS (Commercial Off-The-Shelf) technology, and the current acquisition process makes it very challenging for front-line trainers to purchase and test equipment.
SOCOM should hold true to their commitment to streamline the acquisition process, and this should start with re-connecting with the Operators at the unit level. This will not only fix the communication disconnect, it will also ensure that Operator input is heard, which will go a long way towards improving the overall process. This is needed because the current acquisition process is hindered by civilians in Tampa who wield significant acquisition power but are more focused on program life and career survivability then what’s important for the end user.
(Main image: Students from Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/s) Class 287 participate in 2nd Phase dive training, seen using the US Divers Aqualung double hose regulator, invented in the 1940s)