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Interview: Rear Adm. Sean A. Pybus, NAVSPECWARCOM Commander

Rear Adm. Sean A. Pybus assumed command of Naval Special Warfare Command (NAVSPECWARCOM) on June 30, 2011.

He is a career Naval Special Warfare (NSW) SEAL officer with multiple joint special operations duty assignments. He graduated from the University of Rochester in 1979 with a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and received a regular Navy commission through Navy ROTC.

Pybus has served in SEAL, Underwater Demolition, Special Boat, and SEAL Delivery Vehicle tours within NSW, and has held operations positions at Joint Special Operations Command and United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). Command tours include units in Panama, Germany, and Bahrain, as well as duty as commodore, Naval Special Warfare Group 1, San Diego, Calif. As a flag officer, he has served as J-3, Center for Special Operations, USSOCOM, 2007-2009. He reported to Naval Special Warfare Command from his previous assignment as commander, Special Operations Command Pacific.

He has participated in special operations in Latin America, Europe, Africa and Asia.

Decorations include two Defense Superior Service Medals, two awards of the Legion of Merit, three Meritorious Service Medals, and various other awards. He is also a 1998 Distinguished Graduate of the Naval War College with a Master’s Degree in Strategic Studies.

Navy SEALs 50: Please explain the Navy’s requirement for special operations forces which led to the SEALs being commissioned in 1962.

Rising tensions in the Cold War and Nikita Khrushchev’s stated desires to support “wars of liberation and popular uprisings” were reasons enough for the U.S., its defense department and other agencies to explore countermeasures to the Soviet’s aggressive expansion of military power and influence. During the Korean conflict the Navy’s UDTs expanded their repertoire of skills from missions of maritime reconnaissance, mine and obstacle clearance, and infiltration to land-based operations, working with the CIA and going inland to conduct intelligence gathering, raids, and direct actions against North Korean infrastructure. While these special operations-type missions were first conducted under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, both he and President John F. Kennedy called for, and America’s military responded with options for further developing and expanding U.S. counter-guerrilla forces and units to wage unconventional warfare. Under President Kennedy’s watch, these concepts and plans were pushed forward, resulting in the development of full-fledged counterinsurgency capabilities.

What roles and missions were being contemplated for SEALs in the middle of an age of battlefield nuclear weapons and ICBMs?

The nuclear weapons of the Cold War and the delivery systems for them, including various missiles, submarines, and naval aircraft, posed significant maritime threats to U.S. interests.  I will leave you to speculate on the types of clandestine missions that our maritime special operations units might have been involved in at that time and how they have evolved to present-day SOF special reconnaissance, strike, counter-proliferation, and combating terrorism capabilities.

What would a 1960s SEAL recognize in a SEAL of today, and what would be new to him?

In some ways, the ways that matter, that man is the same man, meaning it’s about the mindset, the character of the SEAL and the SEAL Ethos. Mentally and physically disciplined, then and now, that SEAL is ready to take on the most dangerous missions in defense of his country. He is an innovative, out-of-the-box thinker, a problem-solver determined to accomplish the mission. And, he knows mission success depends on teamwork.

As for what’s new, the tools of the trade have certainly changed. The SEALs of the ‘60s were technically skilled and tactically proficient, as we are today. If a SEAL of the 1960s got jocked up for a mission and you stood him next to a SEAL of today, they’d definitely look different. They’d have different weapons, equipment, and platforms. We have evolved dramatically in our employment of modern technology to increase our capabilities.

How have the roles and missions of SEALs changed over the past 50 years?

What’s that adage, ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same?’ That certainly applies to the roles and missions envisioned for the first SEAL Teams, in regard to foreign internal defense, counterinsurgency operations. I don’t know that SEAL roles and missions in their infancy to present day have changed all that much; rather, they have evolved. They have been further refined and developed out of the defense needs of our country, advances in science and technology, the changing battlefields of conflict and the kinds of enemies we have faced and will face. We have gone from the era of the Cold War and Vietnam, from large conventional forces fighting conventional wars with SOF and SEALs serving in a support role, to SOF being the supported force in campaigns against a very different enemy and very real asymmetric threats. We’ve evolved from maritime warriors armed with KA-BARs, fins, and explosive charges to SEALs using sophisticated technology to confirm the identity of enemy combatants or employing unmanned aerial vehicles in the middle of a landlocked country to locate and target terrorist elements.

Can you talk a bit about the organization and curriculum of early classes of Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S), and how that course has evolved over the past five decades?

When I graduated from BUD/S in 1979, almost all of our instructors were Vietnam veterans. The lessons and instruction they imparted to us many years ago still apply and inform how we operate today. I’m thankful for that. Doing military special operations in, under, or from the sea is our forte, so most of our selection and training is water-oriented. A BUD/S student spends much of his time wet, sandy, and cold. It’s safe to say that part of training hasn’t changed either. In fact, the basic training regime today is remarkably similar to years past. BUD/S has been proven to produce SEALs with remarkable toughness, unconventional thought, and a never-quit attitude. We’re very careful making adjustments to this program. With regard to advanced training that prepares SEAL and combatant-craft elements for the specific work we do around the world today, it’s exponentially better resourced than years past. As the maritime component of U.S. Special Operations Command, we draw a high level of training, equipment and range resources from it to maintain a high level of capability and preparedness. We also dedicate time working with our sister special operations forces in the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps. The real strength of U.S. special operations is our ability to work as a team, jointly. Most of the successes our nation has within special operations result from a team effort across the services. So individual training has not changed in its basic essence. But our tactical elements today have much better resources and realistic training opportunities available that provide them the best advantages to be successful in their operations.

Please explain the evolution of the SEALs and the Naval Special Warfare community with respect to the effect of Cohen-Nunn in the 1980s.

The historical context for that “evolution” is this – the establishment and build up of the SEAL Teams and other special operations forces in the 1960s that enabled counterinsurgency missions in Cuba, the Dominican Republic and later in Vietnam was followed by a period of reduced operations and military cutbacks. In 1987, the Cohen-Nunn Amendment to the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 ensured the health and endurance of that capability by establishing USSOCOM, a unified command for special operations, providing it authority to program and resource SOF, and establishing an Assistant Secretary of Defense [ASD(SO/LIC)] to provide oversight at the Secretary of Defense level to ensure its success. Accordingly, the creation of a command structure to oversee all SOF is probably one of the most influential changes in the military’s recent history.

U.S. Special Operations Command, along with its component commands, including Naval Special Warfare Command, were activated April 16, 1987. Cohen-Nunn thus paved the way for a much different, much improved U.S. special operations force. Having an advocate for SOF at the highest levels of DoD, and USSOCOM’s ability to control its own resources, have resulted in improved readiness and capabilities, greater command and control, increased interoperability, and the ability, as we’ve seen, to prepare for future threats.

When the last of the QDR-mandated force structure changes are implemented, what will the TO&E of NAVSPECWARCOM look like?

In part as a result of the QDR, NSW received over 1,000 billets and $317 million-plus in sustainment across five years [FY11-15] in order to improve the organic enabler support base for previously realized operational force growth. This was a much-needed adjunct to that operator growth. While I am expecting that while the conventional forces are drawing down in Iraq and Afghanistan, the demand for SOF, and NAVSOF will continue to increase, the Department of Defense has had to take some significant budget cuts and is bracing for more. This reduced resourcing environment will obviously make further growth challenging. What I know is, we’re operating in an incredibly constrained fiscal environment, and DoD/SOCOM are reassessing our portfolios, articulating our requirements and prioritizing our needs. There will be tough decisions ahead with regard to what does and does not get funded. At the end of the day, NAVSOF is committed to contributing to the national, joint and coalition fight and finding innovative ways to enhance our capabilities, and with the help of USSOCOM and Navy, I am confident we’ll get there.

What do you see as the biggest challenges facing NAVSPECWARCOM in the future?

Operationally, our toughest challenge is working and winning in Afghanistan.

Organizationally, there’s some work that needs to be done to clearly define and lay out our way ahead and then consistently communicate it across the force. Despite having a history that spans a half-century, we are a young organization and, in my opinion, we have not fully developed into a true enterprise. I also think there’s a lot of room for process improvement by implementing knowledge management strategies and practices.

Admirals Olson and McRaven have talked about the “pressures on the force.” The pressure is real and it’s manifesting itself in different ways. We’re seeing discipline, performance, health, and family issues negatively affecting our force, so we’re exploring ways to respond to, prevent, or mitigate these pressures.

As Iraq and Afghanistan wind down and strategies shift, we’ll be looking for opportunities to realign available resources to emerging requirements in a cost-effective manner. There are two areas we need to look at; first, human capital management, and second, our maritime mobility capabilities. A high priority for me is to have an NSW-wide vision for how we take care of and develop our people. We also need to make sure we’re putting the right people into the right jobs. Regarding our boat programs, they need serious investment in modernization. For the past decade, NSW has devoted much of its resources to supporting land warfare capabilities in the CENTCOM AOR at the expense of our surface and undersea platforms. Some of the boats we have are tired, and only through the hard work of their crews do they still perform their missions. Our SDV team does strong work with the Navy, so we need to make a commitment to and invest in particular undersea platforms. Ultimately, I envision a family of craft for NSW, much like the family of special operations vehicles used for SOF ground mobility.

NAVSPECWARCOM has, through most of its existence, operated in the shadows. Has it been disconcerting to have so much media attention fixed on the command in the wake of the Maersk Alabama rescue and Operation Neptune Spear?

Yes, disconcerting is a good way to describe it. First, let me say for the record that the missions you cite were models of seamless collaboration between the U.S. intelligence and special operations communities. They also involved other military organizations and federal agencies working together to achieve mission success. Now, I understand the importance of maintaining a well informed public, that’s the reason we have military public affairs officers who work with the media and conduct community relations activities. I support those kinds of efforts. There are also operational security policies and practices in place to ensure our missions and the personnel who carry them out are protected. In my opinion, the kind of information and level of details disclosed in the examples you refer to potentially put U.S. servicemen and women and our current and future operations at risk. I think there is a way to do both, ensure a well-informed public and protect our people and our missions. And, I think the American public would want us and expect us to do just that.

What, if anything, would you change about the command, its personnel, and training to better prepare for the future?

Our organizational climate is a positive one because our people are highly motivated and singularly focused on success – they are among the best professionally trained and highly skilled you will find. Our personnel and our families are strong, capable, intensely patriotic, and willing to sacrifice much in the defense of our great nation. If anything, I would improve support to help them stay the course. Resiliency is an important aspect of our overall well-being as a Team, so we’re focusing on finding ways to build resiliency in our SEALs, SWCC, our Enablers and their families.

This article first appeared in Navy Seals 50: Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Establishment of the U.S. Navy SEALs.