Over the years, the role of the special operations community has become more pronounced throughout the country and throughout the world. One group that often comes to mind are the U.S. Navy SEALs. An elite unit that has participated in every conflict since Vietnam. They have been involved in many secret missions, some are now declassified and others remain shrouded in secrecy.

The Navy SEALs came into official existence in 1962, to meet the need for a unit capable of operating from sea, air, and land, utilizing guerilla and counter-guerilla tactics against the enemy. Although 1962 was when the SEALs became their own entity, they trace their lineage back to WWII, where their legacy for participating in daring, water-borne missions began. Several units are considered contributors to the Navy SEALs we know today.

Top U.S. commanders recognized that many of the operations in WWII were going to involve large-scale beach landings. In order to prepare for and conduct these landings, the U.S. military identified the need for a unit capable of conducting beach reconnaissance and guiding in landing craft. The group identified to fulfill this role were the Scouts and Raiders. The unit was combined of select Army and Navy personnel. They were brought to Amphibious Base training (ATB) Little Creek to undergo Amphibious Scouts and Raiders (joint) Training. Their training was in preparation for Operation Torch, in Northern Africa. They would go on to see combat in Sicily, Anzio, Salerno, and Normandy.

Naval Combat Demolition Units

The Naval Combat Demolition Units (NCDUs) also conducted their training at ATB Little Creek, starting in 1942. They specialized in explosives and commando assault techniques. NCDUs too would participate in Operation Torch. They played a major role in D-Day, clearing the way, to allow soldiers to push over the beachhead. The units suffered about a 50% casualty rate during the historic assault.

The OSS (Office of Strategic Services) Maritime Unit is also a proud part of the Navy SEAL’s lineage. Just like the Special Forces and the CIA, the SEAL community recognizes that the OSS was the beginning of modern-day guerrilla warfare, covert operations, and specialized reconnaissance, behind enemy lines. The OSS Maritime Unit specialized in over the beach operations, utilizing cutting-edge swimming fins, masks, and underwater rebreathing units, allowing for stealth.

UDT
LCDR Edward P. Clayton, (back to camera) Commanding Officer UDT 21, receiving the first sword surrendered to an American force in the Japanese Home islands, from a Japanese Army Coastal Artillery Major (opposite Clayton), at Futtsu-misaki Point, across Tokyo Bay from Yokosuka Naval Base, 28 August 1945. (Wikipedia Commons)

Underwater Demolition Teams

Lastly, the Underwater Demolition Teams (UDTs), may be the most stereotypical original SEAL unit. They came into existence at the end of 1943, in response to a failed landing at Tarawa, due to landing craft getting stuck on an unidentified coral reef, resulting in heavy losses for the Marines. As a result, the UDTs were formed. Their main mission set was to provide reconnaissance of landing areas and destroy any obstructions, in preparation for a beach assault.

US Navy SEALs: History

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These UDT units were comprised of members from the original Scouts and Raiders, the OSS Maritime Unit, and the Seabees. During swimming operations, the UDT operators would wear their swim trunks, which were light tan in color, earning them the nickname “Naked Warriors”. As a tradition, these same stye UDT shorts are worn by students in the SEAL and SWCC pipelines today. As the UDTs progressed through WWII, they’re unofficial uniform consisted of swim trunks, swim fins, a mask, and a Ka-bar. These UDT units participated in every major amphibious landing in the Pacific Theater.

Origins of the Navy SEALs
Vietnam-era Navy SEAL platoon. (Navy SEAL Museum)

SEALs

SEAL stands for Sea, Air, and Land, thus acknowledging a Navy SEAL’s versatile ability to wage war. Navy SEALs are trained to insert and operate in maritime environments. They are qualified in military free fall and static line operations to infiltrate a battlespace by air. They are extensively trained in ground warfare. SEALs are just as comfortable fighting in the mountains of Afghanistan as they are operating a SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV) in the cold waters of the Pacific.

SEALS conduct a fast-rope insertion demonstration from an MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter onto a beach overlooking the Chesapeake Bay during a capabilities exercise at Naval Amphibious Base, Little Creek, Va.

Recruitment and Training

Navy SEAL training is arguably one of the most challenging special operations pipelines in the country and probably the world. With an attrition rate of around 75%, SEAL training is not for the faint of heart. The cold water, sandy beach runs, excruciating pool exercises, and general torment can break even the physically toughest humans. After getting through the more “torturous” portions of training, SEAL candidates still must pass technically challenging training regimens, such as dive, military free fall, land warfare, and weapons competency.

To become a Navy SEAL, an individual can either enlist at a Navy recruiting office and earn a Special Operator (SO) contract, or a sailor already in the Navy can submit a package requesting an SO contract. In order to qualify for an SO contract, an individual must prove their physical ability by passing multiple Physical Screening Tests (PST) and achieve a required minimum score on the ASVAB.

Minimum PST scores to earn an SO contract:

  • Swim 500 yards – Breast Stroke or Side Stroke: 12:30
  • Push-ups: 50
  • Curl-ups: 50
  • Pull-ups: 10
  • 1.5 Mile Run: 10:30

Minimum ASVAB score to earn an SO contract:

  • GS+MC+EI=170
  • VE+MK+MC+CS=220
  • VE+AR=110 MC=50

In addition, candidates must be 28 years old or younger, successfully pass a medical dive physical examination, be a U.S. citizen, have the ability to obtain a Secret clearance, and meet the minimum eyesight requirements.

Minimum eyesight requirements:

  • 20/40 best eye
  • 20/70 worst eye
  • Correctable to 20/25 with no color blindness

The first step to becoming a SEAL is first by becoming a U.S. sailor, by attending Navy Boot Camp. Boot Camp is seven to eight weeks long, depending on scheduling. Navy Boot Camp resides at the Recruit Training Command (RTC) in Great Lakes, Illinois, which is in close proximity to Chicago. In Boot Camp, civilian recruits are transformed into Navy sailors. During their time at RTC, recruits are subjected to physical training and military discipline. They are trained in subjects such as seamanship, small-arms familiarization, swimming qualification, firefighting, and ship damage control. Navy history, traditions, and core values are an integral part of the Boot Camp regimen, and recruits are constantly taught and questioned on these subjects. After graduating from Boot Camp, sailors are sent to their A schools, where they will be trained in the specific job they will be doing once they arrive at the fleet.

After graduation from Boot Camp, candidates will literally move across the street to attend NSW Prep. Following NSW Prep, students are flown to San Diego, CA, to attend BUD/S at Naval Amphibious Base, Coronado, CA.

The entire Navy SEAL training pipeline is 58 weeks long. SEAL training is broken up into six training segments:

  • Naval Special Warfare Preparatory School (NSW Prep) – Eight weeks
  • Naval Special Warfare Basic Orientation (NSWO) – Three weeks
  • First Phase – Seven weeks
  • Second Phase – Seven weeks
  • Third Phase – Seven weeks
  • SEAL Qualification Training (SQT) – 26 weeks
BUD/S training
U.S. Navy SEAL candidates participate in Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Abe McNatt)

Hell Week

Hell Week is a culmination of First Phase and a true gut check for those that desire to be Navy SEALs. The event goes on for five and a half days, involving extreme sleep deprivation, exposure to hypothermic waters, and of course, a lot of sand. Candidates are allowed only about four hours of sleep total throughout the week. The rest of the time is dedicated to physical activities and team building exercises. One thing candidates are not deprived of is food. Each candidate will burn thousands of calories, so a constant intake of high calorie food is a must. 

Hell week is hard on the body. Candidates can suffer from rhabdomyolysis – a medical event when muscle starts breaking down. Students can also suffer from Swimming Induced Pulmonary Edema (SIPE). SIPE is when blood from vessels in the lungs seep into the airspace, causing individuals to spit up blood and experience extreme coughing fits. Each student swallows a special pill so that medical staff can scan and determine inner body temperature, in an effort to monitor the health of each individual.

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Needless to say, the attrition rate is exponentially higher during Hell Week. For those that make it through Hell Week, the training has just begun. Students are still subjected to demanding physical training and tougher test gates. Now, not only do they have to physically perform, they must pass diving, shooting, and land warfare modules.

SEAL training
U.S. Navy SEALs train with Special Boat Team 12 on the proper techniques of how to board gas and oil platforms during the SEALs gas and oil platform training cycle. SEALs conduct these evolutions to hone their various maritime operations skills.

The Risks of Training

Since the Global War on Terrorism began after September 11, 2001, 17 Navy SEALs have lost their lives in training accidents. SEAL training is inherently dangerous and requires operators to push it to the edge in order to prepare for combat deployments.

Transitioning from the Marines

Many have asked if a Marine can become a SEAL. The short answer is no, an active-duty Marine cannot become a Navy SEAL. In order to go through Navy SEAL training, an individual must be a member of the Navy. An active-duty Marine who wants to transfer to the Navy, in order to attend SEAL training, can submit a Request for Conditional Release, but the chances of that being approved are slim to none. If a Marine wants to become a SEAL, they will most likely have to finish their contract and then go visit a Navy recruiter to re-enlist and receive a SEAL contract.

Navy SEAL Pay

On average, an unmarried East Coast E-5 SEAL, with four years of service, makes $68,857.20 a year. A SEAL on the West Coast makes more due to receiving a higher housing allowance to compensate for an increased cost of living. Here’s the breakdown of an E-5 Navy SEAL’s pay for 2020:

Base Pay: $2,891.40

Special Duty Assignment Pay: $450

Jump Pay: $225

Dive Pay: $215

Demolition Pay: $150

Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) (Virginia Beach/San Diego): $1,434/$2,271

Basic Allowance or Subsistence (BAS): $372.70

Re-enlistment bonuses ranging from $30,000 to $160,000 are granted to SEALs. In addition, depending on where SEALs deploy, they may be eligible for Hazardous Duty Incentive Pay, Hostile Fire Pay/Imminent Danger Pay, and exemption from income tax.

Navy SEAL equipment and weapons
Navy SEALs demonstrate winter warfare capabilities.

Navy SEALs Equipment

The SEAL Teams use a variety of weapons and equipment. The list is ever-evolving and dependent upon real-world operations. Due to the nature of SEAL’s work, weapons and equipment must be capable of standing up to and surviving the toughest conditions. The maritime environment is unparalleled when it comes to destroying equipment. The corrosive nature of saltwater can be detrimental. Additionally, the desert-like environments that the SEAL teams have come to know so well, can also be tough on operating equipment, especially weapons.

Rifles

Some weapons are tried and true and serve as the backbone of the Navy SEAL arsenal. The M4A1 has been used for years by the SEALs, and the U.S. military as a whole. What makes the SEAL’s rifles unique is the modifications they are able to put on their weapons, including suppressors, red-dot scopes, and custom-made rifle uppers.

The SEALs have added a new team rifle to their arsenal, the SCAR. The SCAR comes in a 5.56 mm and a 7.62 mm option. The rifle is very accurate, and although it’s not classified as a sniper rifle, it’s certainly an outstanding marksmanship rifle, which is a good weapon to have in long-range engagements.

Pistols

For years, Navy SEALs have carried the Sig Sauer P226. During the last couple of years, Naval Special Warfare (NSW) has been transitioning to the Glock 19. This has been a hotly debated issue, with staunch supporters on both sides. The Glock 19 shoots a 9 mm rounds and has a magazine capacity of 15 rounds. The Glock is slightly smaller and lighter than the P226. It is easy to break down and clean and has a reputation for operating flawlessly in the worst conditions.

SEALs have used the Sig Sauer P226 for years due to its chrome-lined barrel and chamber, stainless steel slide, and Nitron coating, which made it an ideal weapon for use in harsh saltwater environments. The reliability, accuracy, and ability to easily breakdown and clean, made the P226 an ideal weapon for the Navy SEALs.

High Caliber Weapons

SEAL teams are outfitted with machine guns and an assortment of sniper rifles. With respect to the heavy weapons category, the M249 Light Machine Gun is a powerful and functional tool. It shoots a 5.56 mm round and can be belt fed or magazine fed. It’s larger counterpart, the M240, shoots a 7.62 mm round and is an extremely lethal weapon. The drawback is it’s size and weight. The Navy SEALs’ sniper rifle inventory is impressive. A few to note is the infamous MK 15 and M82, which shoot a .50 caliber round and are classified as “anti-material” weapons. Another tried and true rifle is the MK 11, a member of the SR-25 family. This weapon was used in many operations in Afghanistan, notably when seeking out high valued targets.

Lastly, Navy SEALs are outfitted with some very expensive night vision equipment, kits, and ballistic gear. Depending on the team and the mission, SEALs will use either 2 tube style or 4 tube style night vision goggles. Regardless, the night vision equipment today is cutting-edge, allowing for a clearer view, and maintaining functionality even in very low-light conditions.

Navy SEAL Operations
An MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter from the Nightdippers of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 5 takes off with Navy SEALs. Navy SEALs engage in a continuous training cycle to improve and further specialize skills needed to conduct missions from sea, air and land. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist First Class Scott Fenaroli/Released)

The SEAL Teams and High Profile Missions

There are eight conventional SEAL Teams. In addition, there are two SEAL Delivery Vehicle Teams (SDV), two reserve SEAL Teams, and the Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU), informally known as SEAL Team 6.

SEAL Teams 1, 3, 5, 7, and reserve Team 17 are located in Coronado, CA. SEAL Teams 2,4,8,10, reserve Team 18, and DEVGRU are in Virginia Beach, VA. SDV 1 is in Pearl Harbor, HI, and SDV 2 is in Virginia Beach, VA.

Over the years, SEALs have been involved in many high profile operations. The SEAL Teams were born during Vietnam. They deployed to South Vietnam and early on were involved in the Phoenix Program, a CIA led operation. The goal of the Phoenix Program was to capture and/or eliminate North Vietnamese Army personnel and members of the Viet Cong. SEALs also conducted operations into North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, many of which were highly classified. By war’s end, SEAL Team members were awarded 3 Medal of Honors, 5 Navy Crosses, 42 Silver Stars, 402 Bronze Stars, two Legions of Merit, 352 Commendation Medals, and 51 Navy Achievement Medals. 48 SEALs were killed during the war.

Panama

In Panama, in 1990, during Operation Just Cause, members of SEAL Teams 2 and 4 were tasked with destroying Panamanian Defense Force naval assets and Manuel Noriega’s plane. Four Navy SEALs swam into Balboa Harbor, using Draeger rebreathers. They placed C4 explosives onto Noriega’s personal gun boat, blowing it up completely. This marked the first swimming operation since WWII. 48 SEALs jumped into the airstrip where Noriega’s plane was stored. The SEALs had expressed concern about the mission.

Unfortunately their fears were founded. The SEALs landed in a barrage of gunfire from Panamanian Defense Forces. The plane was successfully destroyed and airstrip secured, but there was a price to pay – 4 SEALs were killed and 13 were wounded.

SEALs on mission
U.S. Navy SEALs rush toward a CH-47 Chinook after assaulting an objective. (DoD)

Somalia

SEALs were on scene of the infamous special operations mission, gone bad, “Black Hawk Down”. A four-man sniper team from Naval Special Warfare Development Group had been assigned to the ground unit which assaulted the Olympic Hotel during the Battle of Mogadishu. The four SEALs were all awarded Silver Stars and one SEAL earned the Purple Heart after being wounded three times, staying in the fight the entire time.

Afghanistan

Among the many successful missions that SEALs conducted in Afghanistan, tragedy was sometimes an unfortunate bi-product. In 2005, 4 Navy SEALs were sent on a high-level reconnaissance mission, known as Operation Red Wings. The SEALs’ location became compromised and an intense firefight ensued. Three of the SEALs were eventually killed. A Quick Reaction Force, in a Chinook helicopter, containing 8 SEALs and 8 members of the 160th SOAR were shot down by an RPG, all on board were killed. Lt. Michael Murphy, the leader of the 4 man team, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

Maybe the most infamous operation to date was the killing of Osama bin Laden, officially known as Operation Neptune Spear. On May 2, 2011, a DEVGRU element of 25 Navy SEALs and members of the 160th, flew modified Black Hawk helicopters into Abbottabad, Pakistan. The CIA had been gathering intelligence on bin Laden’s compound for quite some time and for all intents and purposes led the mission. The entire operation took 38 minutes. One of the Black Hawks experienced a mechanical failure, while inserting the SEALs, resulting in a crash landing.

No one was seriously injured. Four people were killed during the firefight, including Osama bin Laden and his son.