Special Forces Combat Divers are a rare breed in an already elite community.
Only a small number of Army Green Berets volunteer for and go through the Special Forces Combat Diver Qualification Course (CDQC), arguably the toughest school in the Army, and ultimately qualify to serve in a dive team.
Special Forces Operational Detachment Alphas (ODAs), 12-man teams of Unconventional Warfare experts, specialize in different insertion methods. There are Military Freefall teams, Mountain teams, Mobility teams, and Dive teams. There are five active duty (1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 10th) and two National Guard (19th and 20th) Special Forces Groups. Each Group has four battalions of three companies each. Every company has six Special Forces Operational Detachment Alphas (ODAs). Only one out of these six is a dive team.
But the state of the Special Forces Combat Diver capability is far from healthy. Indeed, SOFREP has learned that chronic neglect, conflicting operational demands, and an institutional lack of understanding by both the Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) and the 1st Special Forces Command (1st SFC) have brought the capability to a perilous state.
We Don’t Have Basic Gear
Numerous dive teams are missing basic gear. To provide just an example, dive teams in the 10th Special Forces Group had to wait six years to get a certain piece of basic gear that is essential for underwater operations. In a lot of cases, the cost of the gear is quite small compared to other pieces of equipment.
The absence of essential gear not only prevents dive teams from training but also from being utilized in a real-world maritime scenario. But here’s the rub: There isn’t any unclassified evidence that suggests that dive teams have ever been used in a conflict. So, some would argue, there is no real need to devote attention and, more importantly, funds to dive teams in order to maintain a capability that goes underutilized.
In that, dive teams are faced with a similar quandary as the Crisis Response Force (CRF) companies. CRFs are an elite cadre of Green Berets who specialize in Direct Action, Counterterrorism, and Hostage Rescue operations. Each Special Forces Group has a CRF company. But there are other units that do almost the same job as the CRFs but better: These are Delta Force and SEAL Team Six. To be sure, Tier 1 units can’t do CT Foreign Internal Defence as good as the CRFs, but that skillset alone can’t justify the necessary cost to maintain the CRFs in their current state. So, SOFREP has learned that USASOC and 1st SFC have decided to put the CRFs through a significant downsize because they cost too much for providing a capability that is almost never employed.
You can trace the lack of support for the combat diver capability in the operational environments that the U.S. military has been operating in for the last 20 years. Desert and mountains offer little opportunity for dive teams to shine. And when you can’t justify your cost, you better be ready to suffer the consequences. And dive teams are suffering indeed.
Aside from a shortage of basic equipment — the situation varies per Group — their own leaders don’t understand, and thus don’t appreciate, the capability.
What Exactly Would You Say You Do Here?
For better or for worse, the Special Forces combat diver community is very individual-driven. That is, if you have a Combat Diver-qualified Green Beret in a leadership position, whether that is on the Group, 1st SFC, or USASOC level, then there are more chances — but not a guarantee — that he will show an interest in maritime ODAs.
Combat Diver Green Beret officers are rare, considering that there is one officer in every ODA, and only one dive ODA in every SF company. And, to make matters worse, sometimes Green Berets, officers and enlisted, who attend but fail CDQC will hold a grudge against dive teams and the capability. No one likes to fail, especially Special Operations troops, but it happens.
So, the best case but unlikely scenario is to have a leader who is a Combat Diver, thereby increasing the chances that he will support and promote the capability. Major General John Brennan, the incumbent commanding officer of 1st SFC and a former Delta Force operator, happens to be a Combat Diver.
Conversely, the standard case and most usual, scenario is to have a leader who isn’t a Combat Diver and thus doesn’t understand or care about the needs and future of the capability.
Another example of how the Combat Diver capability is shunned can be seen in the attention that Army SOF leadership pays to the critical Dive Liaison Officer (LNO) position at USASOC. Currently, the Dive LNO at USASOC is a staff sergeant (E-6). Although SOFREP has learned that he is a great Green Beret, in the end, his power and influence are limited by his rank. In a sea of colonels (O-5 & O-6), master sergeants (E-8), and sergeant majors (E-9), an E-6 can do only so much.
The LNO is responsible for communicating and coordinating with the dive lockers at the different Groups and also with 1st SFC. However, SOFREP understands that there is an alarming lack of communication between USASOC and 1st SFC with regard to Special Forces Maritime Operations (MAROPS) despite the efforts of the LNOs.
This is “just another reflection of [the] lack of understanding, concern, and investment in SF maritime operations,” as a retired Green Beret with decades of experience in maritime operations told SOFREP.
The direct result of this situation is a lack of understanding by the Army SOF leadership about its MAROPS capabilities. It’s like having a Ferrari in your garage. But because you’re not sure how to drive it, you leave it there to rust, never servicing it, because you don’t know how, until it becomes a pile of junk.
The indirect result of this situation is that the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), which has command responsibility for USASOC and 1st SFC, doesn’t have a grasp of what Special Forces dive teams do. Consequently, there is little to none financial support to Special Forces dive teams from SOCOM; for the 2021 fiscal year, SOCOM has requested a budget of $16.6 billion.
“If you maintain a capability, then you have to pay for it,” said to SOFREP another former combat diver Green Beret who maintains close ties to the Special Forces combat diver community.
It is important to clarify that there is no conflict between USASOC’s maritime capabilities and that of Naval Special Warfare’s (NSW), that is, the SEAL Teams and SEAL Delivery Vehicle Teams (SDVs). Special Forces dive teams use their maritime capability as just another means of infiltration. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s a way to the job, rather than the job. You won’t see a dive ODA planting limpet mines on Chinese warships inside their harbors anytime soon.
Army SOF commanders “have the capability to support MAROPS but they don’t. Unlike the SEALs, where everyone is combat diver qualified, and there’s a vested interest in the capability, they [Army SOF commanders] don’t have an interest,” said to SOFREP an operator serving in a combat diver team.
In addition to the above issues, there is a lack of continuity within dive lockers — again, the situation varies by Group. Most dive locker managers are contractors and not federal employees (GS). Although many tend to stay in that position for years, this isn’t guaranteed. And once they depart, their experience and administrative expertise leave with them. This lack of institutional continuity forces dive lockers to reinvent the wheel on many occasions.
In the 3rd Special Forces Group, for example, the contractor responsible for the dive locker was laid off for about a year at some point. If you consider that he was responsible for maintaining all the “heavy” dive equipment that is essential to a dive team, you can understand how serious the leaderships is about the combat diver capability.
Naturally, this lack of support and interest from the leadership is adversely affecting the dive teams. Retention isn’t the best. And although every Special Forces company is supposed to have a dive team, the lack of support combined with the added selection process to become a combat diver has left Special Forces Groups with fewer dive teams than what was the norm.
But if ever there was a time to invest in dive teams it would be now. This is the age of Great Power Competition. As the U.S. is gradually pulling out of the endless wars in the Middle East and the military is once more fixing its gaze to near-peer adversaries, dive teams provide ARSOF commanders with more options.
And yet, unless USASOC and 1st SFC take their combat diver capability seriously, dive teams will continue to exist in the twilight until they dwindle away to nothing.
Any public discussion about a Special Operations capability is a delicate affair. You don’t wish to reveal too much but you have to buttress your arguments with evidence. The purpose of this article, thus, is to attempt to effect change by highlighting an important issue without divulging sensitive information.
As of the time of publication, USASOC hasn’t responded to a request for comment.
This article is dedicated to Staff Sergeant Todd Chittenden, 10th Special Forces Group; killed in training on December 8, 1994.