After decades of counterinsurgency operations, the United States military has begun shifting its gaze back to nation-level adversaries. According to the Department of Defense (DoD), Russia and China pose the greatest nation-level threat to the U.S. As a result, hereafter, military spending will place more importance on projects and capabilities that would be useful in a potential conflict with Moscow or Beijing.
Not wishing to be left behind, America’s Special Operations Forces (SOF) are adapting to the new realities. It would be more accurate to say that they are reverting back to their roots rather than assuming a new role. For a few years now, the Naval Special Warfare Command (NSWC), which commands the SEAL teams and Special Warfare Combatant Crewmen (SWCC) boat teams, has quietly begun working on nation-level exercises and increased its training with the big Navy, that is, the surface fleet.
In a recent interview, Vice Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Bill Moran acknowledged and welcomed this development. “It’s to the point now where we include them in all of our exercises, our war games, our tabletops [training exercises] — because as much as it is their chance to ‘re-blue,’ it’s our chance to reconnect from the blue side,” he said. “We’ve grown used to not having them in a lot of those situations. Now as we’ve done the tabletops, the exercises and the war games, we see: ‘Wow, there is some great capability here that can set the conditions for the kind of operations in every single one of those campaigns.’ And that will continue to grow, I think,” added the Navy’s second-in-command.
The best way to display a unit’s relevancy, and thus accrue more funds, is to define a possible threat and show how the unit could address it. In the case of China, the threat would be the numerous man-made islands that the Chinese have been building in the South China Sea. Although nothing more than a few hundred meters of sand, these islands can carry anti-ship missile batteries that would serve as an outer ring of defense against the Navy’s aircraft carriers.
The NSWC appears to understand the problem and the opportunity it offers. What are SEALs good at doing? Other than being authorities in Direct Action (DA) missions, SEALs are capable of hydrographic and special reconnaissance (SR) and stealthy waterborne insertion. Moreover, SEAL Team 6 is renowned for its High Altitude High Opening (HAHO) and High Altitude Low Opening (HALO) parachute capabilities. Thus, in a potential conflict with China, they could be the eyes and ears of commanders in those man-made islands and either direct strikes against them or unilaterally eliminate them. And evidence suggests that this is what they are being training to do.
The SEALs, for example, have requested an exponential increase in training activities in Hawaii’s islands. As of now, around 100 training exercises take place in Hawaii per year, the majority of which are scuba diving training. However, NSWC has requested 330 exercises for 2019. The majority of the exercises would be parachute insertions followed by over-the-beach operations.
The Navy has yet to approve the increase. But, judging by the words of Admiral Moran, it will.