A career Naval Special Warfare (NSW) SEAL officer with multiple Joint Special Operations duty assignments, Rear Adm. Sean A. Pybus assumed command of U.S. Naval Special Warfare Command (NAVSPECWARCOM) on June 30, 2011. Pybus recently sat down with The Year in Special Operations to share his thoughts on the evolution of the command as well as current organizational priorities and potential challenges on the horizon.
Pybus started by clarifying the differences in responsibilities between his command and operational/combatant commands.
“Manning, training, and equipping is the mission of Naval Special Warfare Command,” he explained. “That’s the mission of the headquarters and my mission as the commander. Then there is also an implied role to sustain the force as well. But really it is my obligation as the commander to provide capable, well prepared and trained forces out to the geographic combatant commanders – typically to the SOF commanders working underneath those combatant commanders. I provide those commanders with Naval Special Warfare forces and they ‘fight’ those forces. But it’s on me to do the man, train, and equip part.
“I try to be very clear with my other commanders about this. I don’t ‘own’ the war in Afghanistan, for example. I provide the best force I can so that it is successful and so that everyone who goes out has the best opportunity to come back,” he said.
“It’s clear in my mind what my role is,” he added. “I know that many out there may view the commander of the headquarters as ‘the guy in charge of the SEALs.’ But I take my man/train/equip role very seriously and do the best I can at that. And, having come from a theater special operations command, as a guy who has employed not only Navy but other SOF component forces, I also take the role of those theater commanders pretty seriously. They have the best view of what they need the forces to do. I just need to give them capable forces so that they can ‘fight’ them.”
Asked where he sees the challenges over the next several years, Pybus immediately pointed to “sustaining this force that’s been very busy for the last decade.”
“And the signals from around the world – not only Central Asia where we are currently fighting, but the rest of the world as well – look like demand will continue to exceed supply,” he said. “We’re not doing any unimportant work. Everything we do is part of somebody’s strategy and somebody’s plan. That is what we try to provide forces for.”
He continued, “The challenge is in sustaining not only the quantity but also the quality of the force that we currently have – a force that has now been pressured for 11 years.”
“We continue to be well-trained and well-equipped,” he added. “It’s now a matter of fatigue. The force has seen a lot, particularly on the combat battlefields. And that wears on a force. So, my priority is to get help to those who need it but may not be asking for it. And that help extends not only to the men in the force but also their families.”
Elaborating on the importance of families, Pybus offered, “There is very clear agreement on this among my fellow special operations component commanders: We view the family as part of the force. Because again, after 11 years of combat and loss, the elements of force and family are very tightly connected, and that is reflected in things like obligations and capabilities. So we’re providing both sides – force and family – with a lot of support.
“As a Navy guy, I would offer that the United States Navy provides baseline support for not only our sailors but their families too,” he noted. “We lean heavily on the U.S. Navy to provide psychological counselors at different levels and then a whole array of other support services, ranging from financial to child care. Then Special Operations Command [USSOCOM] provides some niche support that is unique to special operations and Naval Special Warfare.
“And we’re taking a very hard look at this for the future, as I expect the requirement to provide that sort of holistic support to both service members and their families to grow larger. As we continue to work hard with the same operational tempo, we’re going to need to provide more support,” he said.
Characterizing the current combat experience environment as “unprecedented for the United States,” he recalled, “When I came into the force I was trained by those who had gone to Vietnam. And the guys who you had a great deal of admiration for had two, three, or maybe even four deployments. If you had four deployments to Vietnam, you were doing things well and you were very highly regarded.”
“But today you have men who have done ‘double digit’ deployments into combat that has been relentless,” he said. “That’s a whole different situation, and we are plowing new ground here in areas like how much a man can take or how much a mind can take and how you might be able to apply new tools in areas like resiliency, rehabilitation, or prevention. We are looking at a variety of different things and trying to understand what works best.”
He added, “Fortunately, there are a lot of people who are innovative; they are driven; and they are relentless. So there are some pretty good programs out there to provide support.”