Despite having been embroiled in controversy from its earliest existence some three decades earlier — and suffering a rocky start when finally put into play at the dawn of the ‘Global War on Terror’ (GWOT) ten years back — SEAL Team Six had long since come into its own by May of 2011.
Six, and JSOC as a whole, made astonishing improvements in the years following 9/11. If they hadn’t, they never would have been called upon to go face-to-face with the al-Qaeda emir.
In late 2010, the CIA was growing confident that the Abbottabad compound housed bin Laden. At the time, the Agency expected that if any raid were to be conducted, the assignment would fall to its shadowy in-house paramilitary unit: the Special Operations Group of the National Clandestine Service’s Special Activities Division.
However, as the boots-on-the-ground option began to look increasingly plausible, CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell reconsidered that assumption. Swallowing more than a small amount of Agency pride, he informed then-CIA Director Leon Panetta that is was “time to call in the pros.”ii
In this case “the pros” meant JSOC, which in turn meant SEAL Team Six.
There are a number of interrelated reasons that help to explain exactly how ST6 ascended to the position of being selected for such a vitally important tasking. Not the least of which is the exceptionally strong run of commanders who rose up through the ranks to claim unprecedented positions for SEALs, lifting the profile of DEVGRU first by their leadership and later by their authority.iii
Among the junior officers that ST6 founder Dick Marcinko had clashed with and ultimately sent packing from the unit in its early years was none other than William McRaven.
McRaven steadfastly refused Marcinko’s orders to perform what were later described to be “questionable activities.” While quietly looked up to by his fellow officers for taking a stand, McRaven was stripped of his squadron command and bounced from SEAL Team Six altogether, a move that seemed certain to derail his career.iv
McRaven was not just ‘by the book,’ he literally wrote the book on special operations (Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice). He later rewrote it — figuratively this time — by heading Task Force 121’s revolutionary counterterrorism campaign in Iraq while serving under Gen. Stanley McChrystal at JSOC.vi
While McRaven’s career inside ST6 was indeed over, he pulled an end ’round. A rapid rebound and subsequent rise saw McRaven eventually giving orders not just to SEAL Team Six, but Delta as well, along with the rest of ‘The Command,’ when he succeeded McChrystal to become the first SEAL to earn the coveted position of JSOC commander in 2008.vii
Even if Marcinko wasn’t exactly effusive in praise of his former subordinate, just about everyone else was. Way back in 2004, a former commander was already referring to him as “the smartest SEAL that ever lived.”viii And a prescient Gen. Wayne Downing predicted at the time, “If anybody is smart and cunning enough to get (bin Laden), McRaven and the Delta and SEAL Team Six guys he now commands will do it.” Yet another colleague compared him to the impossibly perfect superhero Captain America.ix
Ironically, William McRaven has largely replaced “Rogue Warrior” Dick Marcinko as the face of SEAL Team Six in the eyes of the general public.
And it is not without some merit; ST6 as it exists now is closer to his image and vision than that of Marcinko. While retaining its own personality, DEVGRU has matured into a larger, more “Delta-like” command in a number of ways. Backed by a massive expansion in budget and support, and dramatically increased operational experience, expertise, and expectations, today the unit boasts both a more studied approach and increased lethality.x
Likewise, its men have adopted a more low-key attitude when compared with the unit’s formative years. A former ST6 operator relayed a story in which a pilot remarked how markedly different ST6 had become “in comparison with the loud, obnoxious, gun-waving attitude of Marcinko’s SEALs.”xi
Another of the key leaders who spurred DEVGRU’s ascension alongside his own was Adm. Eric Thor Olson. Olson, who commanded SEAL Team Six from 1994-1997, became the first SEAL to head the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) in 2007,xiii a position he held until retiring just months following Operation Neptune Spear. (McRaven would become the second, taking up the reins from his fellow SEAL.xiv)
Olson had previously proven his mettle in combat during the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993. He was sent to Somalia merely to observe a JSOC task force in action in order to prepare him to take command of DEVGRU in the following months. However, when a strike operation went sideways (an incident later widely known as “Black Hawk Down”), Olson borrowed a CAR-15 and body armor and joined Delta operator Lee Van Arsdale in undertaking a risky rescue effort. Olson would earn a Silver Star for his actions that day.xv
With much-admired former ST6 officers holding down the two highest positions in the nation’s special operations hierarchy, there was little chance that SEAL Team Six would get passed over for prestigious assignments in the way they might have previously.
It was Captain Perry F. “Pete” Van Hooser, III, who actually informed the operators of ST6’s Red Squadron that Operation Neptune Spear had been approved.xvi DEVGRU’s commander at the time of the bin Laden raid (he also retired after its completion), Van Hooser was a hugely respected Marine in Vietnam who laterally transferred to the Navy to become a SEAL.xvii
He went on to become the commanding officer at SEAL Team Four and Naval Special Warfare Group TWO before taking command of SEAL Team Six.
In another fine example of the type of leadership that has boosted ST6 in recent years, Van Hooser continued to train at full speed alongside his men despite having his leg amputated as a result of a parachuting accident.xviii
In a revealing piece by Sean Naylor in Navy Times, Lt. Gen William ‘Jerry’ Boykin (Ret.) — a former commander of Delta Force — spoke of the marked improvements that had taken place inside DEVGRU: “The success of (Operation Neptune Spear) is really a testament to some extraordinary efforts on the part of the SEAL community to enhance the professionalism and capabilities of the SEALs… the fact that they have targeted vast improvements in the leadership, that’s probably made as much difference as anything.”xix
Another Delta alumnus, Wade Ishimoto, backed up Boykin’s assessment in that same article, stating, “…they’re not the SEAL Team Six that Dick Marcinko put together.” He added that particular advancements had been made by the unit in the areas of “planning, command and control, and working in a joint environment.”xx
Use the Force
With Operation Neptune Spear came a rush of unwanted attention that continues to this day. However, despite near-daily coverage in the press and unprecedented mainstream curiosity, DEVGRU remains a secretive and widely misunderstood command.
A fair amount of what is known about the unit’s composition, training, and selection is based on information from the ’80s and ’90s that is very possibly outdated. While it’s safe to assume that much has remained the same since that time, it’s also important to recognize that other aspects have no doubt been overhauled with 9/11 serving as a game changer for those in the counterterrorism business.
Rapid evolution to the point of revolution has to be expected in response to a constantly changing world; an overwhelming influx of operational experience, radically ramped-up responsibilities and OPTEMPO, groundbreaking new technologies, explosive budgetary growth, and expanded support infrastructures highlight the massive shifts that have taken place over the last decade.
There has been an admission to this effect by at least one post-9/11 ST6 operator, who notes that there is no longer the same type of time for extensive training workups with the unit so frequently deployed and heavily engaged: “We really are a different team now. We don’t place the same emphasis on diving or jumping like we used to. Now we get on a plane, fly across the pond, and we kill a lot of bad people.”xxii
If outwardly it seems as though that there are scant few secrets remaining for what’s supposed to be a black organization that doesn’t officially exist, consider that we don’t even know the unit’s current name.
It’s been reported that the designation ‘Naval Special Warfare Development Group’ (DEVGRU) has, like ‘SEAL Team Six’ before it, been rendered obsolete in an official capacity if not common use, hinting that the Navy’s CT unit still has a few secrets up its sleeve despite the best efforts by many to lay them bare to the world.xxiii
With that disclaimer out of the way, what follows is an assemblage of what we think we know:
SEAL Team Six primarily recruits its shooters from the so-called ‘vanilla’ SEAL teams (vanilla = white = acknowledged), along with a smaller number from the Navy’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal teams.xxiv The unit exists as something of an all-star collection of the most talented and experienced operators the community has to offer.
Simply earning a place on a standard SEAL team is almost universally regarded as a momentous achievement. Notorious for its brutally punishing selection pipeline, only 30% successfully make it through BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) training and into the teams (just 10% when you include the greater pre and post-BUD/S pipeline).xxvi
If you do the math, that means for all the aspiring wannabe SEALs willing to roll the dice and sign an enlistment contract, just one in 150 will ever join the exclusive ranks of DEVGRU as an operator.
While far removed from the rushed method by which Marcinko chose the unit’s plankowners, ST6 retains an unorthodox selection process rooted in its unusual beginnings.
No longer are “dirtbags” with marginal BUD/S performance records (“guys who try harder” who can “slide in the backdoor”)xxix given priority over those who excelled. But neither does DEVGRU have a traditional selection course like the ones found at comparable units such as Delta Force, the British SAS and SBS, and the Australian SAS-R.xxx
Reputation remains critical, although rather than a single commander’s unconventional criteria, each potential selectee is thoroughly vetted as dozens of current and former peers and leaders are asked to provide an assessment of worthiness.xxxi Those who receive sufficiently glowing recommendations are invited to endure a three-day screening test.xxxii And those who are accepted following screening are given their orders to attend the “demanding selection and training program at Naval Special Warfare Development Group.”xxxiii
Once admitted to SEAL Team Six’s Green Team, the candidates enter a carefully guarded world where they are issued an unimaginable assortment of gear and weaponry (with almost anything not included in the initial allotment made available on request). However, they are also quickly reminded that they haven’t made it just yet, remaining strictly separated from the operators on the “second deck”xxxiv pending graduation.xxxv
The schooling is advanced, dangerous, and taught at breakneck speed. Surgical combat shooting, HAHO/HALO, defensive and offensive driving, free climbing, advanced diving techniques, unarmed combat, and just about every other conceivable skill a 21st-century ninja may require are included in the extensive curriculum.xxxvii In all, the entire course takes nine months to complete.xxxviii
Green Team is every bit the gut check for seasoned operators that BUD/S is to fresh recruits, although the two present very different experiences.
According to one DEVGRU operator, “At BUD/S it’s a question of survival…But Green Team isn’t just a matter of obeying orders and hanging on. You’re competing against the best SEALs in the business. Green Team is a race, and the prize is a slot on the operational team.”xxxix
As another expounded: “The point is you cannot tough it out, you can’t grunt through like BUD/S. These are SEALs. We already know they’re tough; now we are finding out who’s exceptional. We’re only interested in the very best.”xl
Each candidate’s performance is carefully tracked and measured by the training cadre, along with visiting ‘scouts’ from the assault squadrons. Those who can’t keep up are promptly RTU’d (sent back to their previous unit).
A peek behind the curtain provides further evidence of the ways in which DEVGRU has evolved to embrace a more ‘Delta-like’ approach in its training methodology, at least compared to the old days. For example, whereas it was once considered a point of pride that ST6’s informal jump training was instructed by a beer-swilling vet who simply expected his men to sink or swim (or rather splat or soar),xliii the command now utilizes a systematic and comprehensive Military Free Fall program, complete with video aided instruction — the sort of thing old-school JSOC SEALs once scoffed at.xliv
Green Team places particular focus on perfecting the dark art of close quarters battle (CQB). Those skills are the basis on which CT units perform a variety of precision direct action missions, from hostage rescue ops to HVT raids. Once operational with the unit, that mastery will be put to the test while under fire with regularity.
CQB prowess is also a source of pride among competitive outfits like DEVGRU and Delta. While one former Delta officer described his unit’s method and skill in the area as “unmatched by any other force in existence,”xlv a former ST6 officer unsurprisingly gave his men the edge.
Commenting on the ability of ST6 operators to flow through targets as a cohesive unit (similar to the scenario that presented itself in the bin Laden takedown), he opined, “We weren’t just good at multiple-room CQB; there is no one else in the world that comes close.”xlvi
At last confirmation, DEVGRU maintained four assault squadrons. They are officially classified as numbered ‘Naval Special Warfare Tactical Development and Evaluation Squadrons,’ although they are commonly known by color — Gold, Blue, Red, and the recently added Silver.xlviii (For example, Gold Squadron is technically Naval Special Warfare Tactical Development and Evaluation Squadron 3.)
Inside Six, it seems that the squadrons are more often referred to by their logos and nicknames: Blue, with the skull and crossbones, goes by ‘the Pirates’ or ‘the Bones Men.’ Red’s logo is a black Native American warrior head on a red backgroundxlix and is known as ‘Apache’, ‘Arapahoe’, or ‘Red Men.’ And Gold is called ‘Knights’ or ‘Crusaders’ and sports the logo of a regal lion with a trident-tipped tail.l
Each squadron is led by a commander and further divided into three troops, led by lieutenant commanders.li Each troop is further subdivided into teams of approximately six operators led by senior enlisted SEALs.lii
While newcomers to the unit, novice DEVGRU assaulters are already proven and experienced operators; the average Green Team candidate is in his late-twenties to early-thirties with two or more deployments under his belt.liii
The greater ST6 talent pool averages in their mid-thirties; the bin Laden raid was executed by a handpicked selection of Red Squadron’s most experienced operatorsliv who had an average age of 38, a number of whom were in their forties.lv
Today’s SEAL Team Six operators rank among the most highly-trained and battletested warriors the world has ever known. Since 9/11 — and more specifically since 2005 in Iraq and 2008 in Afghanistan — the operators of SEAL Team Six and their JSOC brethren at Delta Force have waged campaigns of nightly battles on an unprecedented scale. Raids are performed at a nearly unthinkable pace, and as a result, their already prodigious skills have been elevated to the upper limits of human capability.
As one Gold Squadron officer explained it, “…they have an op almost every night, sometimes more in a single night than guys did in their whole careers, pre-9/11. They never stop training, sure, but nothing compares to on-the-job training.”lvi
Constantly on call and required to be prepared to travel to any hotspot on the globe in a matter of hours, over the past ten years ST6 has conducted sensitive operations of the highest order in a litany of nations and lawless lands, stretching far beyond the acknowledged war zones.
Their mental acuity is every bit as critical as the muscle memory that is built up over thousands of hours of training; each operator is required to make sound judgments and conjure creative solutions on the fly with little oversight. A decision made by a DEVGRU operator in the field during the course of an operation may prove to have greater political implications than years of labor by his Congressman.
Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs at the time of Operation Neptune Spear, met with the SEALs who executed the raid. Afterward, he expressed some degree of awe, admitting, “I was taken back by the seniority of this group — by the experience of this group.”lvii
Coming in Part 3: Into the Fire & Get Connected
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iv John Barry, “The Hunt Heats Up,” Newsweek (March 14, 2004), http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2004/03/14/the-hunt-heats-up.html.
v Barton Gellman, “TIME Person of the Year, Runner-Up: William McRaven: The Admiral,” TIME (December 14, 2011), http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2101745_2102133_2102330-2,00.html.
vii Sean D. Naylor, “Wide Support for SEAL tapped to lead JSOC,” Navy Times (March 4, 2008), http://www.navytimes.com/news/2008/03/navy_jsoc_mcraven_030408w/.
xiii Mike Bottoms and Master Sgt. Laura LeBeau, “USSOCOM holds history change of commands,” Hurlburt Field (July 22, 2007), http://www2.hurlburt.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123061677.
xiv Tech. Sgt. Heather Kelly, “USSOCOM welcomes new commander,” USSOCOM (August 8, 2011), http://www.socom.mil/News/Pages/SOCOMwelcomesnewcommander.aspx.
xv Richard Lardner, “Socom Nominee is ‘Quiet Warrior,” The Tampa Tribune (May 13, 2007), http://news.tbo.com/news/metro/MGB56AYSM1F.html.
xxiii Marc Ambinder, “Delta Force Gets a Name Change,” The Atlantic (October 12, 2010), http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2010/10/delta-force-gets-a-name-change/64310/.
xxv Iassen Donov, “The Difference Between DELTA And SEAL TEAM SIX,” SOFREP, http://cms.sofrep.com/5447/differences-delta-and-seal-team-6/.
xxvi Gidget Fuentes “Navy steps up search for new SEALs,” Navy Times (April 8, 2007), http://www.navytimes.com/news/2007/04/navy_sealrecruiting_training_070408w/.
xxxiii “U.S. Navy SEALs killed in combat in Afghanistan,” NSW Command Public Affairs Office (September, 15, 2008), http://www.navyseals.com/navy-seals-killed-combat-afghanistan.
xlvii “DEVGRU operator speaking at SOC Nathan Hardy’s funeral,” YouTube (March 15, 2011), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E0RjK5LzGRE.
li Sean D. Naylor, “Chinook crash highlights rise in spec ops raids,” Army Times (August 21, 2011), http://www.armytimes.com/news/2011/08/army-chinook-crash-highlights-rise-in-spec-ops-raids-082111w/.
lv Marc Ambinder, “Then Came “Geronimo,'” National Journal (May 7, 2011), http://www.nationaljournal.com/magazine/practicing-with-the-pirates-these-navy-seals-were-ready-for-bin-laden-mission-20110505.