When the Naval Special Warfare Command (NAVSPECWARCOM) came into being on April 16, 1987, it was as the smallest service component of the new U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). Composed of the existing Cold War-era Sea-Air-Land (SEAL), UDT,
Special Boat and SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV) teams, it was a bare-bones organization with almost no command staff, procurement or acquisitions corps, or logistical/transportation assets. Despite a proud and distinguished heritage, NAVSPECWARCOM was an elite but small command, initially limited in its ability to deliver maritime special operations forces (SOF) units and personnel for deployed operations.
What a difference 25 years and a couple of wars can make.
Today, NAVSPECWARCOM tackles the full range of roles and missions it is chartered to carry out. The command has also delivered its share of top SOF leadership as well as planning expertise to SOCOM and the rest of the Department of Defense (DoD). Perhaps more importantly, NAVSPECWARCOM has shown what maritime-based SOF operations have to offer the United States and its allies.
NAVSPECWARCOM Today: Leaders and Structure
Naval Special Warfare (NSW) today comprises approximately 8,900 total personnel, including more than 2,400 active-duty SEALs, 700 Special Warfare Boat Operators – also known as Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen (SWCC) – 700 Reserve personnel, 4,100 support personnel and more than 1,100 civilians. Located on the Naval Amphibious Base on Coronado Island in San Diego Bay, the command’s headquarters building is within sight of almost all of the West Coast facilities that support it. Every NSW professional is destined to spend some time at the NSW complex, whether attending selection and qualification training as a SEAL, serving as a staff officer at Naval Special Warfare Group Three, or working as an acquisition professional at the headquarters buying the tools of the maritime SOF trade.
NAVSPECWARCOM is flagged as a two-star (rear admiral, upper half) command by the U.S. Navy, and the present commander is Rear Adm. Sean A. Pybus. Pybus took charge on June 30, 2011, and is a graduate of the University of Rochester and the Naval War College. A career SEAL, Pybus also has served with Underwater Demolition, Special Boat, and SDV Teams, and in numerous joint SOF assignments across the globe. Pybus’s deputy is Rear Adm. Garry Bonelli, who enlisted in the Navy in 1968, was a member of the first Underwater Demolition Team (UDT)/Sea, Air, Land (SEAL) recruit company, became a member of the first Naval Special Warfare Reserve unit in 1974, and is the first and only reservist to command an active-duty SEAL Team (SEAL Team five). Among other achievements, Bonelli has been instrumental in growing a robust Reserve echelon. Pybus and Bonelli are backed up by their senior enlisted advisor, Force Master Chief Steven D. Studdard. A UDT/SEAL professional for his entire career, Studdard has been awarded three Bronze Stars for valor and maintains qualifications in virtually all the critical NSW skill sets.
These men oversee the largest maritime SOF force in the world today, with the following units and facilities at their disposal:
Dedicated to the oversight, training, care, and feeding of every NSW unit and professional, this compact organization has been growing over the past few years into a full-service combatant command headquarters. This includes everything from contracting and doctrine development to representing NAVSPECWARCOM and its capabilities within DoD and SOCOM.
Naval Special Warfare Groups
NSW headquarters oversees eight major component commands: NSW Groups 1, 3, 11, and the Naval Special Warfare Center on the West Coast, and NSW Groups 2, 4, 10, and the Development Group on the East Coast. Like the other SOCOM component commands, NAVSPECWARCOM organizes its various units with an eye to the regional Combatant Commands and potential contingencies they might face.
- NSW Group 1 – Based in Coronado, Calif., NSW Group 1 is composed of SEAL Teams ONE, THREE, FIVE, and SEVEN, Logistical Support Unit (LSU) 1, and a pair of forward deployed components: NSW Units 1 (on Guam) and 3 (in Bahrain). Their primary contingency areas are the Pacific and Asia, providing NSW units and personnel for deployment to U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) and U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM).
- NSW Group 2 – Based at the Naval Amphibious Base (NAB), Little Creek, Va., NSW Group 2 is made up of SEAL Teams TWO, FOUR, EIGHT, and TEN, LSU 2, and NSW Units 2 and 10 (in Stuttgart, Germany), and the Unit 2 Det. South also in Little Creek. NSW Group 2 provides maritime SOF units and support to U.S. European Command (EUCOM) and U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM).
- NSW Group 3 – NSW Group 3 is also based at Coronado, and is responsible for NSW’s undersea assets and capabilities. SDV Team 1 and LSU 3 are located in Pearl City, Hawaii, and SDV Det. 1 at Little Creek.
- NSW Group 4 – Located at Little Creek, NSW Group 4 is responsibile for NSW’s surface capabilities and platforms. This includes SBTs 12/20/22, and the Naval Small Craft Instructional and Technical Training School (NAVSCIATTS) at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. SBT 12 is located in Coronado, Calif., SBT 20 is co-located with Group 4, and SBT-22 with NAVSCIATTS in Mississippi.
- NSW Group 10 – Primarily supporting NAVSPECWARCOM’s warfighting groups is NSW Group 10, based at Little Creek, Va. Group 10 is made up of Support Activity 1 (Coronado, Calif.) and 2 (Little Creek, Va.), along with a Mission Support Center (in Coronado, Calif.).
- NSW Group 11 – NSW Group 11 in Coronado, Calif., comprises the Naval Reserve SEAL component, Teams SEVENTEEN (in Coronado, Calif.) and EIGHTEEN (Little Creek, Va.).
- NSW Development Group – This command in Dam Neck, Va., is responsible for the test, evaluation, and development of technology and maritime, ground, and airborne tactics applicable to NSW forces, with possible applicability DoD-wide.
Naval Special Warfare Center
The Naval Special Warfare Center (NSWC), named after Phil Bucklew, one of the founding fathers of NSW, is the home to NSW’s basic and advanced training commands. The Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training is conducted on the beaches there, in the chilly Pacific waters of the nearby Silver Strand and at San Clemente Island off the Southern California coast. SWCC courses are also conducted here to train and qualify personnel for boat operations downrange. NSWC also oversees other training sites: Naval Air Station Key West, Fla.; Hawaii; Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz.; Hurlburt Field, Fla.; Kodiak, Alaska; Naval Support Activity Panama City, Fla.; Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek, Va.; and the La Posta Mountain Warfare Training Facility in San Diego, Calif.
The U.S. Navy SEALs
Each of SOCOM’s major component commands has specialties that define its roles and missions. For NAVSPECWARCOM, that specialty is combat swimming, which expertise today resides in the U.S. Navy SEAL Teams. Combat swimming was something the U.S. Navy came to late in comparison with European navies. As early as 1918, combat swimmers of the Italian Regia Marina sank the Austro-Hungarian battleship SMS Viribus Unitis and freighter Wien using limpet mines in the harbor at Pola. Similar successes by the Italians and British in World War II made the United States take notice of the combat potential of such swimmers. In addition to their capabilities against enemy shipping in harbor, the United States saw combat swimmers as an answer to their needs for beach and inshore reconnaissance and combat demolitions before amphibious operations.
Today SEALs comprise the largest force of combat swimmers in the world. The SEALs are legendary for their toughness, endurance, and combat skills. These qualities are part of every SEAL’s persona, and a big part of why they are selected and qualified in the first place. The legendary BUD/S course is arguably the toughest selection and qualification school in the whole of SOCOM, with a dropout rate between 70 and 80 percent. Lasting 26 weeks, much of it is spent in the chilly Pacific waters of the Silver Strand, where, even if their bodies can endure the physical demands, often even the toughest sailors cannot help but quit. BUD/S instructors often shout, “the only easy day was yesterday,” to their charges.
BUD/S is followed by another 26-week course called SEAL Qualification Training (SQT). SQT takes the BUD/S graduates though much of their special warfare training, including Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) School, weapons and tactics, parachute/air operations, and combat medicine. SQT is also where they learn their combat swimming skills, including use of SCUBA gear and Dräger rebreathers. Only after successfully passing SQT are the newly minted SEALs ready for assignment to one of the teams.
Special Boat Teams
The NSW Special Boat community is built around a small cadre of SWCC (pronounced “Swick”), who crew and maintain the command’s specialized surface watercraft. The direct descendants of the World War II PT boat and Vietnam-era riverine forces, including the “Swift” patrol boats, today’s Special Boat Teams (SBTs) conduct special operations missions and support SEALs and other SOCOM units using a mix of watercraft, including the well-known SOC-R, 11-meter rigid-hull inflatable boats and MK V special operations craft.
In their early days, NAVSPECWARCOM had to man their boats with “borrowed” U.S. Navy personnel, usually drawn from fleet ships and yards. This meant a heavy turnover rate, which limited their effectiveness and often led to the boat teams being undermanned. Now, however, SWCC personnel are recognized as SOF warriors in their own right, with a standardized training pipeline, their own warfare pin authorized in 2001, and the creation of the Special Warfare Boat Operator (SB) rating in 2006. Focusing on infiltration and exfiltration of SEALS and other special operations forces, SWCC also use their state-of-the-art small craft to conduct coastal patrol and interdiction missions. SWCC are experts in providing rapid mobility in the shallow waters of the littorals and areas further inshore such as river deltas.
NAVSPECWARCOM’s force of special boats had modest beginnings in 1987, being built around old Vietnam-era MK II/III patrol boats and modified civilian craft like Boston Whalers and speedboats. Today, the force is built around specialized, purpose-built craft that include the aforementioned riverine SOC-R, 11-meter RHIB, the Combat Rubber Raiding Craft (CRRC), and the MK V Special Operations Craft, which has evolved into one of the finest such systems in the world. The MK V can do more than 50 knots with a range of more than 500 nautical miles. Heavily armed, the MK V can carry a mix of cargo, personnel, and rubber raider craft, and personnel can even operate small unmanned aerial vehicles from them. Stealthy and quiet when they want to be, the MK Vs are perhaps the fastest craft in the Navy today.
SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team
Submersible watercraft have been a core capability for combat swimmers dating back to World War II “human torpedoes,” including the Italian Maiale (“Pigs”) British “Chariots,” and OSS (American) “Water Babies.” NAVSPECWARCOM maintains a small force of MK VIII SDVs, operated by dedicated SEAL platoons, for stealthy approaches on maritime targets. The current model is the MK VIII Mod 1 SDV, based on a design that dates back to the 1970s. SDVs are “wet” submersibles, which require their crew and passengers to breathe using either a centralized breathing system or their own rebreather/SCUBA systems. Normally SDVs are operated from Dry Deck Shelters aboard cruise missile or attack submarines, though they can also be based aboard ships and airdropped from C-130s.
Logistical Support Units
LSUs are supply/logistical units assigned to the larger NAVSPECWARCOM facilities, and provide a wide variety of supplies, services, and maintenance for the rest of the command. Nearly half of NAVSPECWARCOM’s personnel are support personnel devoted to training, supply, maintenance, medical assistance, ordnance, targeting, and other tasks. The logistical and maintenance requirements for such a unique and complex table of equipment alone mean that NSW support personnel are themselves an elite group, the best of the best armorers, communications experts, quartermasters, and maintainers in the Navy. In addition to the support personnel in CONUS, Naval Special Warfare Combat Service Support Detachments (CSSD) deploy with NSW squadrons, providing the full spectrum of support, including crisis-action and logistics planning and coordination; in-theater contracting, small purchase and leasing actions, and comprehensive forward operating base support.
With a proud heritage and a bright future, NAVSPECWARCOM today is the most powerful and structurally balanced NSW unit in history. From its humble origins in the small, elite units of beach jumpers, combat swimmers, PT boat squadrons, and Underwater Demolition Teams of World War II, through the activation of the first SEAL Teams in 1962, to their vital and ongoing fight today against terrorist organizations, NSW professionals have been at the tip of the spear for our nation. The rewards for such skill and boldness can be very high, but so can the price, and while we commemorate the achievements of these quiet professionals, we also remember and honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.
This article first appeared in Navy Seals 50: Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Establishment of the U.S. Navy SEALs.