Established in October 2002, Naval Special Warfare Group-4 (NSWG-4) is tasked to organize, equip, and train Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen at subordinate Special Boat Teams to support Naval Special Warfare (NSW) activities around the world.
NSWG-4 is responsible for the development and testing of combatant craft and associated equipment as well as the development and evaluation of operational doctrine, tactics, and procedures for employment of those assets. The group’s broad global responsibilities are supported by several models of specialized NSW surface craft.
“When we think of our surface craft, we have what we call ‘the iron triangle of range, speed, and payload,’” explained Capt. Todd Veazie, commander of NSWG-4. “And any craft has range, speed, and payload. That describes a boat.”
Veazie then outlined recent activities and the current state of the NSW surface craft fleet, as well as some of the ongoing evolution in professional development programs and possible future changes to support the nation in a dynamic global environment.
11-meter NSW RIB
“Our most ‘utilitarian’ craft is our smallest craft: our 11-Meter NSW RIB – rigid-hull inflatable boat,” Veazie began. “This has been a workhorse for us for the 15 to 18 years that it has been in service with us. It is deployable from an aircraft under parachutes with the guys then jumping in on top of it. That capability extends the operational reach of our operational commanders forward: the warfighters. So it’s been a great craft that we use for a range of missions; including ship-to-shore movement of clandestine forces, as part of an overt insertion of SOF forces, for maritime interdiction operations, and for an entire range of maritime special operations.
“It’s utilitarian in the sense that it’s easy to traffic or transport,” he said. “It fits on a C-130. It’s air dropable. It’s easily trailored. It’s easy to get in and out of water. It’s easily trafficked across improved roads and under bridges. It can also be moved over largely unimproved roads into austere operational environments where the nation asks us to go. And, by and large, it’s still a pretty big craft.
“So it’s been a great craft that we’ve used for lots and lots of missions over the years, most prominently were the sanction violation enforcement operations that we did – for about 12 years between the First Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom – in the northern end of the Persian Gulf against Saddam Hussein,” he offered. “The guys were up there and did hundreds and hundreds of boardings against smuggling of products, principally illicit oil shipments out of Iraq but also dates and all kinds of other commodities that were giving Saddam lifelines of cash.
“But that craft is reaching the end of its service life,” he said. “And we’re looking to replace it. We call the replacement Combatant Craft, Medium [CCM]. We have a request for proposals [RFP] out to industry. They are coming back with their proposals right now and it is in the source selection process.”
Clarifying that he is not part of that source selection process, Veazie observed, “I can, however, tell you what we have asked industry to build for us. We are trying to give them as much ‘trade space’ as we can with this craft.
“Looking back at the NSW RIB, in some of the mission sets that it was asked to go into – non-permissive and even leaning into denied environments – it is now becoming more and more technically obsolete because of the migration or evolution of early warning detection systems that our potential adversaries are now able to obtain,” he explained. “The NSW RIB has no signature reduction or signature management built into it, so it’s pretty easy to find, either visually or with not too sophisticated radars and early warning systems. We believe we need to give our operators a little bit more than that. So, in our next generation of craft, we are looking at some sort of signature management.
“The other thing we have learned is that the boats really beat the heck out of our guys,” he continued. “The maritime environment is incredibly harsh and it doesn’t take much sea state before the guys are really getting banged up in the boats. And, of course, the craft themselves take a lot of beating as well. That can affect the mission. It certainly affects the musculoskeletal system of these operators over a career. This is a closed-loop community where our Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen do this for up to 30 years. So over that career they pull a lot of Gs and absorb tremendous shocks. We are learning a lot about those types of stresses and are going to try to extend that understanding to industry. So as we look at these new craft, we are trying to build, from the keel up, characteristics that will provide shock mitigation and other properties that are going to take better care of our most precious commodity – our people.
“We’ve also had a migration in our C4I [command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence] systems and our ability to communicate and have situational awareness of what is going on around us,” he said.
Veazie noted that trying to put all of those different attributes into a C-130 transportable craft is a significant challenge.
“So we have tried to give industry some trade space, offering, ‘What if we made it C-17 transportable?’ That opens up more space to get better range, speed, and payload, a bigger engine, more space for guys and gear, better shock mitigation, and all these other things. So that’s what we’ve done. The new requirement is a C-17 transportable craft that will no longer be required to be air deployable. We’re waiting to see what comes back and I’m really excited about it,” he said.
Mk. V Special Operations Craft
Moving up the surface craft size spectrum, Veazie pointed to the Mk. V Special Operations Craft as “another workhorse that has been in the inventory for about the same length of time as the NSW RIB. And it’s also coming to the end of its service life.”
“Right now we see it deployed in places like the Pacific Theater,” he noted. “A craft with this kind of range, speed, and payload allows the warfighter and the commander out there to move those craft around and move forces around, whether they are our forces or forces from a partner nation, within the rules of engagement.
“But, in comparison to the NSW RIB, this one is tougher to move around,” he acknowledged. “Those transportability features are not as present as with the smaller craft. Also, as with the NSW RIB, the Mk. V lacks integral signature reduction design or technologies, making it increasingly obsolete against some of the technical threat environments it might face.”
The possible replacement for the Mk. V is being called Combatant Craft Heavy (CCH).
“In a resource-constrained environment where we have been fighting two land wars for the last 10 years, the priorities have been elsewhere, not necessarily focused on a maritime environment,” Veazie noted. “So we have taken the guidance that comes from the highest reaches of our government and OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense], looking to partner with our Navy on the concept of a ‘common seaframe.’ This would be a little bit like what we do with the Army special operations on common helicopters and with the Air Force, where we get a slick C-130 suitable for the general purpose Air Force and make modifications that makes it more SOF-peculiar. It would be the same with the common seaframe. It may have different intelligence or communications systems. It may have different signature management. It may have other modifications that allow it to be more suitable to our needs, while the fleet will have more value in their version of the craft.
“We haven’t finished defining the requirement for this yet so there is still work ahead,” he cautioned. “But we are working it with the Navy and it has been discussed at the four-star level between U.S. Special Operations Command and our Navy.”
Afloat Forward Staging Base
“Finally, in the larger sense, we need afloat forward staging. Our Afloat Forward Staging Base allows us to have sort of ‘sovereignty of U.S. soil,’ if you will – a U.S.-leased or -chartered vessel – that allows us to mother or stage a force that includes boats, potentially helicopters, and the SEAL operators and Special Warfare Combatant Crewmen that drive the boats. And it allows us to move that vessel and that operational package to any coastline around the world. Again, that allows us to extend our operational reach,” he said.
“We have a couple of these that we call Maritime Support Vessels [MSV]. And typically what we have been using are craft that we have been leasing to give us that persistence that, frankly, we don’t get from the fleet. Now let me emphasize that’s not because the fleet doesn’t want to. But to remain for months or possibly six or seven years off a particular operational area is very tough for them. They are very agile. They are moving around. They have engagements to do. They have places to go. So they can’t give us that kind of persistence that we have by ‘owning our own craft,’ if you will. This allows for that persistence,” he said.
“The craft that service offshore oil rigs have proven to be a pretty good platform to give us that persistence,” he noted. “And the companies that we lease these from allow us to make some modifications to the hoists and cranes on them. We put our own communications package on them. And there are also intelligence suites that can be plugged and played into these craft to give us that situational awareness that allows us to direct our operations, actions, and activities in that maritime special operations environment.”
In terms of the future, he offered, “We will see what happens with our afloat force staging. We have always looked to our amphibious Navy to provide that force and we have certainly seen that off the Somali basin against the pirates, where we have gotten great support from our fleet. But we need to do better about that. Again, that persistence is a key thing we look for and these MSVs are perhaps the answer to that. There is nothing particularly sophisticated about them but that may be part of the future.
“Right now we have one MSV leased out in the Pacific, where it is providing our persistent presence there. All of our other forces around the world are land based, with the boats deploying around the theater from aircraft or other shipping,” he said.
Changing Roles and Missions
Asked about the realities of changing roles and missions over the last few years, Veazie offered, “Our principal reason to have these craft is to move special operators or special equipment into designated missions. But I think the real change to me over the years, and this is for all of special operations, is that when I was growing up in this community, we would be tasked to do kind of discrete missions that were SOF missions but may not have fit into a larger campaign or a more holistic framework. The new thinking, which has been acute since 9/11 but was actually happening before that, has had us thinking about ‘SOF campaigns.’ This was one of the great things to come with the Nunn-Cohen Act that created USSOCOM [U.S. Special Operations Command], where we really started thinking about those SOF campaigns and how we could take operations, actions, and activities to create some change in the environment, some effect on the ground desired by the national leadership of the JTF [Joint Task Force] commander/warfighter on the ground. How do we do that in time and space in an operational design/framework? So, as you look to something like the anti-piracy mission, it all begins with national policy towards one, piracy, and two, Somalia in this particular instance. That becomes the initial guide.”
Based on that initial guide and subsequent refinement from national leadership, a resulting SOF campaign plan would allow the community “to use its own skills and capabilities to help achieve a network overmatch.
“As you look at piracy or terrorism, we don’t look at the straight individuals,” he said. “We look at networks. And we try to achieve network overmatch to defeat these networks or at least disrupt them to the greatest extent possible, to where they are no longer operationally relevant.”
He continued, “But the other piece of that involves population-based operations. So one part is man-hunting as part of network defeat/overmatch. But the population piece is also integral and critical. And our activities going after the network can disrupt that if we are too aggressive.”
SWCC Community Future
“Within the SWCC community, we have traditionally had this linkage between the crews and the platforms that they operate,” Veazie observed. “But the fact is that we will have less operational craft going into the future. So we have developed the Master Mariner Program, where we basically train our guys to operate civilian craft of up to 100 tons. They get some deck seamen/merchant marine-type licenses and longshoreman-type union cards. They learn how to sail craft. They learn how to operate dhows – a ubiquitous craft along the coast of Africa and up into the Gulf region. They learn how to operate a variety of craft.
“The program provides us an ability to be ‘in the environment’ while training our operators to become master mariners in every sense of what that means as masters of the maritime environment,” he said. “And, where it may be suitable, those may be the craft that they use to execute special operations missions as directed. It also allows them to think critically and to think in a different way than just being under way aboard a very modern and well-developed combatant craft. Now they have to sort out how to solve problems on a range of boats like fishing trawlers, sailing vessels, or other craft.”
“It’s been under way about four to five years now,” he added. “It took us a little time to get funding. We had to put the framework of instructions and governing documents into place. And we also had to find out what qualifications were desirable and what exactly we wanted to see from these guys in this program. So it’s still emerging and continuing to be defined. But that’s how it should be: Driven by what warfighters in various theaters around the world are looking for. We always try to stay connected to that demand signal and train and resource the force back here to be employable and provide value to that warfighter.”
Asked about the broad future vision for the NSW surface community, Veazie acknowledged, “There is a little bit of thinking on whether or not we should extend ourselves past the maritime environment with guys who are very good at certain skill sets. For example, they are very good at operating vehicles; boats right now but what’s to say they couldn’t operate other platforms? They know heavy weapons, because they mount them on their special operations craft. So in places where the density of SEALs, Special Forces, or even Rangers may be stretched thinly across a broadly distributed battle area, we could see the potential for our SWCC operators providing some kind of heavy weapons support or to actually operating the vehicles. We’re looking at that. We’ve done a bit of that already. And it employs the natural skill sets possessed by these operators.
“But we never want to forget our maritime roots,” he said. “At the end of the day, we are Naval Special Warfare. We are the nation’s maritime special operations force. We don’t want to get too far away from those natural roots where we are the very best in the world at mastering that environment.
“Some might see it as rhetorical to say that our people are our No. 1 asset,” he concluded. “But I really believe that. We can have the best machines in the world but these guys are special operators in every sense of the word. This is all they do from the time they go through assessment and selection training out in Coronado [Calif.] until the time they are master chiefs or warrant officers. They are the best in the business in our Navy and our special operations forces. We take great pride in that as we continue to develop these guys in every way. So, as we go forward, we will see the joint environment, the interagency environment, and developing this terrific human capital that can operate effectively in these environments around the world.”
This article first appeared in The Year in Special Operations: 2011-2012 Edition.