The Internet has no shortage of basement-dwelling commandos beating at their keyboards like chimpanzees as they forcefully insist upon one incorrect factoid or another regarding Special Operations units. All SEALs are considered Tier One, right? No. Rangers pull security for Delta, correct? Time to throw away that scratched-up “Black Hawk Down” DVD, hero. Since the Internet stupidity goes on and on, two of the SOFREP staff decided to team up and write a definitive article about the differences between SEALs and Rangers. This article was co-written by Brandon Webb, who served in SEAL Team Three, and Jack Murphy, who served in 3rd Ranger Battalion.


SEAir Land. It always amazes me how many people that acronym is lost on. They think water, Navy and marine mammal.


The history of the modern day SEAL team dates back to the 1940s and WWII. They began as the Navy construction and demolition units (NCDUs) and then saw a transformation with Draper Kauffman (great story here) and the Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT). JFK would officially welcome the first SEAL teams: SEAL team one and two in the 1960s. The U.S. military desperately needed a maritime Special Operations fighting force; the SEALs were the answer. Come from the water and fight on land or sea.

From The Cockpit: Thunderbird Solo

For the UDTs, the operational pace in the combat zone frequently found two of their platoons–approximately 30-men forward deployed to a particular Amphibious Personnel Destroyer (APD) for periods of six to eight weeks. Embarked UDT platoons usually ran between 10 and 20 demolition or beach reconnaissance missions while aboard the APDs; depending on weather and enemy activity. Moreover, individual UDT personnel were often away on temporary duty with other military or CIA units; usually for advisory and training duties. This included the forward-basing of small teams on islands close to the North Korean coastline, where they stood alert duty with UN Escape and Evasion organizations assisting in the recovery of downed airmen. (Source: Navy SEAL Museum)

Historic UDT Weapons and Demolitions

Individual weaponry taken by UDT men behind enemy lines was usually limited to the submachine guns, pistols, and knives found most useful for the close-quarters combat that characterized most raiding missions. Though presumably available, sound suppressors for the weapons are not known to have been used. The men used a variety of demolitions in their work, but the standard Mark-135 Demolition Pack, which contained twenty pounds of C-3 plastic explosive was foremost. (Source: Navy SEAL Museum)

The Modern-day SEAL Mission

Navy SEALs and the Naval Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen form the operational arms of the Naval Special Warfare (NSW) community, headed by the Naval Special Warfare Command. NSW acts as both the Navy’s Special Operations force as well as the Navy component of the U.S. Special Operations Command. Their roles include:

  • Surveillance and reconnaissance operations to report on enemy activity or to provide a better understanding of the operational situation. These missions can include swimming ashore at night, tracking enemy units, monitoring military and civilian activity, and gathering information about beach and water conditions prior to a beach landing.
  • Direct action—offensive strikes against an enemy target using tactics such as raids, ambushes, and assaults.
  • Foreign Internal Defense (FID)—Training and assisting foreign counterparts to increase their capacity to respond to threats.
  • VBSS (Visit, Board, Search, and Seize)—Maritime hostile ship boardings in the middle of the night on the high seas.
A modern SEAL sniper in position on an H60 helicopter, courtesy U.S. Navy.
  • Combat swimmer—Exactly what it sounds like. General Noriega’s boat didn’t blow itself up in Panama during the invasion of 1989, it was combat swimmers from SEAL Team Two. There’s some other special stuff the SDV teams do, but you’ll have to join to find out.
  • Tier-one counterterrorism—This is DEVGRU’s (AKA SEAL Team 6) turf. Granted, the edge goes to the Army’s Delta Force for remaining much quieter about their jobs. Culturally, Delta does a much better job of cloaking their mission in secrecy. Several former command members in DEVGRU have apparently violated their disclosure agreements, and this has created a lot of internal strife in the community.

Modern Navy SEAL Culture

Unit culture is incredibly different from other branches of Special Operations such as the Army, USMC, and USAF. Only recently have SEAL candidates become immersed in small-unit tactics immediately following boot camp, and this is a good thing.