US SEALs Must “Go Back to the Future” to Help Warships Survive Future Fight with Russia and China



A SEAL delivery vehicle team conducts a fast rope exercise from an MH-60S Seahawk helicopter on the Los Angeles-class fast attack submarine USS Toledo, January 17, 2005.

US Navy / Journalist 3rd Class Davis J. Anderson

  • As the US military focuses on competition from the great powers, special operators are rethinking their role.
  • Navy SEALs in particular are seriously considering how they can support regular forces in the Navy.
  • “It’s a race for relevance,” Admiral Hugh Howard, chief of Naval Special Warfare Command, said in June.
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Earlier this year, operators of the Navy SEALs and Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen worked with conventional Navy forces as part of the USS Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group final certification exercise prior to its deployment.

During the exercise, Navy Special Operators were the eyes and ears of the Carrier Strike Group, assisting in horizon targeting, strategic reconnaissance and close air support.

As great power competition with China and Russia intensifies, Naval Special Warfare looks for ways to remain relevant after two decades of counterterrorism operations.

“It’s a race for relevance and presentation that makes the fleet more survivable and deadlier,” said Admiral Hugh Howard, Commanding Officer of Naval Special Warfare Command, at the WEST 2021 conference in late June.

Howard provided an overview of how the SEALs and Special Boat Teams seek to be an asset in both “gray area” competition and potential conflict.

“We are the naval commandos of the Navy. That’s who we are, and we understand our roots” and are able “to develop new concepts on how we can contribute,” Howard said.

Back to the future

A US Navy SEAL passes an HH-60H Sea Hawk helicopter over an oil and gas rig July 28, 2011.

US Navy / M 3 Adam Henderson

Prior to the Global War on Terrorism, SEAL platoons regularly deployed aboard “Big Navy” ships, typically aircraft carriers, for six-month deployments. If a crisis erupted anywhere in the world, the aircraft carrier and its SEAL contingent would deploy there.

Although tough on morale, these deployments have made naval special warfare relevant to the navy in day-to-day operations.

As the fight against terrorism slows down, Naval Special Warfare once again seeks to be of service to the Big Navy by excelling in missions that set it apart from the rest of the United States special operations community – namely, maritime special operations. underwater and on the surface, Howard says.

“It’s about making it harder to target our adversaries, undermining their confidence, creating the conditions early in the no-go zones… to attack the enemy,” Howard said. “It really is a return to the future.”

As far as the underwater sector is concerned, SEAL teams have a major advantage in the form of the SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV) capacity.

These mini-submarines are difficult to detect, allowing SEAL operators to clandestinely approach enemy ports and coasts to attack enemy ships or insert and extract a small team to conduct reconnaissance or conduct ambushes or raids. SDVs can be launched from regular submarines, surface ships, and even helicopters.

A SEAL delivery vehicle team prepares to launch a SEAL delivery vehicle from the Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Philadelphia.

US Navy Photo by Chief Photographer Andrew McKaskle

Naval Special Warfare is also capable in the lateral domain. Special Boat Teams operate a fleet of small special operations surface craft that can stealthily maneuver near enemy shores, inserting or extracting special operations teams, conducting strategic reconnaissance or direct action raids, and ambushes.

Naval special warfare must “establish the conditions to undermine the confidence of the adversary” and provide civilian leaders with diplomatic leverage and flexible response options in times of crisis or conflict, Howard said last month. “We need to be inside our opponents in a way that makes it difficult to target them and extends the range of long-range joint fire.”

China has 18 of the 25 largest megalopolises (over 10 million inhabitants) in the world, many of which are located near coastal areas or rivers.

These megalopolises are home to critical telecommunications nodes that could be targets for special Navy operators. The Russian coasts would also be ideal environments for special naval operations.

Naval Special Warfare capabilities can also increase fleet survivability by disrupting or tracking enemy targeting capabilities, such as anti-ship missiles and radar.

“If we plan to be successful in tackling the anti-access / anti-denial capabilities of nation states, we must rely on [special-operations forces] and advanced technologies to understand where they are, what they do and how to best develop near and remote kill-chain techniques, ”Herm Hasken, Partner and Senior Operations Consultant at MarkPoint Technologies with extensive experience special operations and intelligence community, mentioned.

New technologies for new challenges

The Navy SEALs, one with an AN / PAQ-1 laser target designator, right, the other with an M14 rifle, take up a defensive position during an amphibious demonstration in 1988.

National Museum of the United States Navy

Naval Special Warfare is also investing in new technology and equipment, including unmanned air and sea systems, artificial intelligence and electronic warfare. These investments aim to increase the survivability of commandos and platforms, but also to increase their lethality.

The SEALs and Special Boat Teams are not the only ones pursuing such technologies.

The US National Defense Authorization Act of 2021 allowed the US Special Operations Command (SOCOM), of which Naval Special Warfare is a part, to authorize electronic warfare and cyber warfare activities to support missions.

So now US special operations units are looking to better take advantage of these new capabilities and authorities and include them in their missions.

One such effort is the Hyper-Enabled Operator initiative, which aims to give commandos better access to battlefield data analytics and improve their situational awareness to enable them to make better and better decisions. faster.

The HEO initiative also seeks to increase the ability of commandos to understand what is happening around them without harming their cognitive load or their electronic profile.

A member of Naval Special Warfare Group 2 is conducting military diving operations in the Gulf of Mexico, Oct. 11, 2018.

US Navy / Senior Chief Mass Communication Specialist Jayme Pastoric

Passive reconnaissance systems would also give commandos the ability to better operate in contested and crowded environments while maintaining tactical situational awareness and collecting data without announcing their presence.

“If I was a commander tasked with setting up a SEAL team to conduct covert operations in maritime areas, I would send demands to SOCOM for a combination of passive reconnaissance and situational awareness capabilities that do not result in adverse reactions. scrutiny from the team, ”said Hasken, who spent time at the National Security Agency as SOCOM’s chief cryptologist.

Most of the main adversaries are “prolific” surveillance states that use commercial vessels, buoys or even man-made islands to watch in and near their territory, Hasken added.

“At one point or another, SOF teams will encounter the personnel and internal security capabilities of an adversary country, even in open water areas,” Hasken said.

In a conflict with Russia or China, the US military will not necessarily benefit from the military superiority it has had against terrorists and insurgents.

As the US military prepares for such a conflict, SEALs and Special Boat Teams are looking for ways to remain assets for the Navy in the face of new threats. Their capacities for strategic reconnaissance and direct action mean that they will always be very useful.

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