Navy SEALs. Who doesn’t love Navy SEALs? Well, I guess in a show of hands, ComNavOps might be one of the very few who raises his hand as not loving Navy SEALs. Let me be clearer. I don’t love what they’ve become organizationally and functionally.
Recall the SEAL’s lineage. It began in WWII with the Amphibious Scouts and Raiders, Naval Combat Demolition Units, and Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT) and evolved over the years into the SEALs of the
era. The founding missions were hydrographic surveys
of potential assault sites, obstacle demolition, beach reconnaissance,
infiltration, etc. During the Vietnam
war, there were two SEAL teams, one based on each coast of the Vietnam . US
|Underwater Demolition Team|
There are now 8 SEAL Teams, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, and 10 with Teams 7 and 10 having been formed in 2002. There are also two reserve SEAL Teams, 17 & 18.
Naval Special Warfare Command (NSWC or NSW) was established in 1987 in
, and has responsibility for SEAL,
SWCC (Special Boat operators) and SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV) personnel
(1). The SEAL Teams were
designated as such in the mid-1980’s from the previous Underwater Demolition
Teams (UDT). Coronado
It is difficult to get an accurate count of the number of SEAL and NSW personnel. No two sources seem to quite agree. The SOCOM 2018 Fact Book gives the NSW manpower as “approximately 10,000”. (6)
From the Navy’s website,
“The NSW community is organized around eight SEAL teams, one SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV) team, three special boat teams and supporting commands which deploy forces worldwide. The community is comprised of approximately 9,200 total personnel including more than 2,700 active-duty Special Warfare Operators, 700 Special Warfare Boat Operators (SWCC), 700 reserve personnel, 4,000 support personnel and more than 1,100 civilians.” (4)
“NSWC is the parent command to a total of 5,400 active duty and 1,200 reserve NSW personnel. It oversees four subordinate Major Commands known as NSW Groups 1-4, and their lower commands: eight SEAL Teams, two SEAL Delivery Vehicle Teams (SDVT), and three Special Boat Teams (SBT). All even-numbered Groups and Teams are located on the East Coast, and all odd-numbered ones on the West Coast of the
” (1) U.S.
“The total number of personnel in the SEAL teams comes in at 8,195. Subtracting those assigned to SEAL Team Six, we get a figure of 6,895. Looking at the total number of soldiers assigned to the 75th Ranger Regiment, we get 3,473. Can we lay this rumor to rest now? There are way more SEALs than there are Rangers.” (2)
Debates about the exact number of personnel aside, I’d like to examine the SEAL’s organizational growth and mission.
NSWC active duty personnel increased from around 5000 in 2001 to around 8100 in 2014 (3). These are not all SEALs but the numbers provide a feel for the magnitude of the increase. Funding increased from $260M in 2005 to $576M in 2014 (4).
Even very recently, NSW funding continues to grow. From the 2016 budget justification document (5), we see that the specific account line for “Ship/Boat Operations”, which is a part of the NSW budget, rose from $87M in 2014 to an estimated $113M in 2016 – a 28% increase even after adjustment for inflation.
From two SEAL teams (and UDT) during the Vietnam War to the 8+ Teams and other NSW groups of today, it is clear that NSW has experienced explosive growth. Well, there’s nothing wrong with growth if it’s necessary, right? That leads us into the heart of this post.
What does NSW do?
Popular impression is that SEALs conduct missions that originate from the sea and return to the sea. The link to the sea is what distinguishes SEALs from other special forces such as the Green Berets or Rangers. Of course, this is not completely accurate as we’ve seen SEALs deploy to completely land-locked areas and conduct purely ground actions.
Well, then, what is the official mission of the SEALs? From the Navy NSW mission web page, we get this,
“NSW is postured to fight a globally-dispersed enemy, whether ashore or afloat, before they can act. NSW forces can operate in small groups and have a continuous presence overseas with their ability to quickly deploy from Navy ships, submarines and aircraft, overseas bases and forward-based units. The proven ability of NSW forces to operate across the spectrum of conflict and in operations other than war, and provide real-time, first-hand intelligence offer decision makers immediate and multiple options in the face of rapidly changing crises around the world.” (4)
That’s a pretty generic and, therefore, worthless statement although it does offer two tidbits that we’ll come back to.
Setting aside the generic and largely non-specific mission statement, we all understand what SEALs do. They do small unit, high degree of difficulty, high risk actions. They attack high value targets, provide surveillance and intel, and the like. This is admirable. This is also redundant and counterproductive.
We already have several special operations forces dedicated to land operations. Why are we using SEALs? That’s redundant and wasteful.
What should SEALs be doing? They should return to their roots which is actions on the sea and from the sea and leave the pure land actions to the other groups.
Now, here’s the counterproductive part. Because of the focus on land operations, SEALs are largely ignoring many vital missions. Let’s consider some possibilities.
- Destruction/sabotage of the illegal Chinese artificial islands. Those islands, especially while they were under construction were ideal targets for sabotage and destruction.
- Destruction/sabotage of Iranian
swarm boats and base facilities.
is long overdue for some serious punishment for its repeated pattern of reckless and illegal behavior toward the U.S. Navy. Iran
- Seizure of vessels supplying
arms and supplies to NKorea and
- Sea-launched anti-terrorist
surveillance, intel, and stike actions in
- Capture and/or destruction of
drug trafficking vessels in
South Americaand . Clearly those countries are incapable of effectively conducting their own operations. Mexico
- Seizure of Chinese unmanned vehicles operation on, under, or over the ocean.
- Destruction of NKorean naval vessels such as the SSBN that is being built.
- Destruction/sabotage of the
Crimean shipyards seized from
and the Russian corvette vessels reportedly under construction there. Such clandestine efforts would be an appropriate response to Ukraine ’s illegal, militaristic, expansionist activities and send a clear message about our resolve. Russia
And the list goes on. To be fair, some of these activities may be occurring without public knowledge. In fact, one hopes they are! However, nothing I’ve seen even hints at this. The SEALS appear to be firmly wedded to the land and make no particular effort to hide that fact which makes it unlikely that they are conducting the kind of hidden missions I’ve outlined.
There’s one more aspect to the SEALs that needs to be addressed. SEALs, along with other military assets, have traditionally been used to take actions that support our national security but which may, on the face of it, appear illegal according to international laws and regulations. For example, it’s widely believed that during the Cold War we sent submarines inside
Soviet Union territorial waters to conduct
clandestine operations. Similarly, it’s
assumed that we send SEALs on missions that may violate territorial boundaries.
The justification for this is that the countries in question have, by their own illegal and irresponsible actions, presented a threat to our national security and forfeited their rights to the protections provided by international law. This is not the point of the post so I’m not going to discuss it further.
Note that in the SEAL mission description quoted earlier, we see this snippet regarding SEAL missions, “enemy … before they can act”. This is formally recognizing the pre-emptive nature of special forces missions. The SEALs exist to take action before an enemy can take action against us. Thus, the suggested missions list I presented earlier and which some of you are undoubtedly furiously pounding out replies about the illegality of, now become clear for what they are: pre-emptive and preventative actions.
The SEALs need to return to the sea and leave the purely land operations to the other groups. Why do we have Delta Force, Rangers, Green Berets, etc. if we’re going to intrude into their responsibilities with SEALs? Would we think it makes sense to have Green Berets conduct sea based operations? Of course not and the Navy would pitch a fit if they did, so why do we think the reverse makes sense?
Here’s another tidbit from the mission statement,
“… provide real-time, first-hand intelligence …”
The original purpose of the UDT/SEAL force was to provide intel. Over the years, that has morphed into active and intentional combat. The SEAL community has lost its focus or, more likely, intentionally changed the focus in pursuit of a larger budget slice. We need to return the SEALs to clandestine intel collection and isolated destruction/sabotage rather than wholesale land combat.
The SEALs were never intended for sustained land combat and yet that is what they have become. They’ve become a naval army.
Let’s cut way back on the size of the SEAL force, return those billets to the fleet, and refocus the SEAL mission responsibility to the sea-based arena that it is supposed to function in.
I love SEALs but I don’t love what they’ve become.
(2)Sofrep website, “Navy SEALs or Army Rangers: Who Has the Higher Numbers?”, Jack Murphy,
(3)Government Accounting Office (GAO), “Special Operations Forces”, July 2015, GAO-15-571, p.46
(4)Navy website, Naval Special Warfare Command,
Special Operations Command
Operation and Maintenance, Defense-Wide Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 Budget Estimates,
SOCOM-847, United States