The first half-century of SEAL Team operations has been accompanied by a dizzying array of specialized hardware and materiel solutions designed to facilitate operations across the Sea/Air/Land battlespace.
Representative examples of these unique “tools of the trade” can be traced back to the very beginnings of the Teams themselves.
Recalling the Teams’ historical foundation, Chief Jim “Patches” Watson, the curator emeritus of the UDT-SEAL Museum in Fort Pierce, Fla., stated that members of his team, UDT-21, began to be sent to various schools such as jungle warfare and jump school to add to their existing qualifications.
“We were all open circuit [divers], closed circuit [divers], and mixed-gas qualified. At that time there was a mixed-gas rig. And we were all also airborne [qualified]. To be in UDT you did not have to be airborne. That was a voluntary thing. UDT did not have an airborne capability – according to the book.” Those additional qualifications became core skills when the first two SEAL Teams were established in January 1962.
In terms of early weapons, Watson noted, “The AR-15 had just come out. Armalite was making it – not Colt. Eugene Stoner had developed it. Our original weapon would have been the [M3] ‘grease gun,’ since that was the basic weapon in UDT. But [Lt. Cmdr.] Roy [Boehm, first executive officer of SEAL Team TWO] bought the first 66 AR-15s on open purchase [on the open market]. A lot of things he did got him in a little trouble because they weren’t really by the book, but he did what was best for his men. Then we got a warning order of possibly going south in late ’62 or ’63, when everything was happening down there with Fidel [Castro, during the Cuban missile crisis.] So [Boehm] and a master chief by the name of Andrews … were going up and down Virginia Beach Boulevard to places like surplus stores, buying cammies [camouflage uniforms], because there were no cammies in the system at that time. They also bought [Smith & Wesson] Combat Masterpiece .38s as a sidearm with the AR-15.” Revolvers were appreciated as sidearms because they would quickly drain and be ready for firing on exiting the water during a beach insertion. An original plank owner of SEAL Team TWO, Watson served three tours in Vietnam during his 20-year Navy career, spending 11 years as an active-duty SEAL.
“I … went to Vietnam in January of ’67,” he continued. “I was a chief [petty officer]. And the way [we] were doing it then was that after you came back, you went to different places like China Lake, Colt, Smith & Wesson – different weapons companies and everything – and they would pick our brains to see what they could do to give us better equipment.”
“Two things came out in the ’Nam era that I was very much involved with,” he said. “One was a 40 mm ‘pump.’ When I left China Lake they asked me what I thought of the M79 [grenade launcher]. I said that it was great, but one shot at a time don’t get it. And I motioned my arms like I had a shotgun in my hands, asking, ‘Can’t you give us something that will hold four or five rounds?’ Well, they came up with something that had three in the tube and one in the chamber. There were only 16 of them ever made. We’ve got serial number 4 at the [UDT-SEAL] Museum. Serial number 1 is at the Navy Museum in Washington and serial number 2 is at Crane. And guess where serial number 13 is? [At a] museum in Saigon! I went back in ’95 and almost fell over when I walked into that room.”
Watson also addressed his personal involvement in the development of a new combat shotgun modification.
“A guy there knew I was a shotgun lover,” he stated. “I had an Ithaca Model 37 – a standard Ithaca with five rounds. And he developed what they call ‘The Duck Bill’ and put an extension on the loader. It held eight rounds. And it had a choke on it so that if I used #4 buck [shot] it had a 2 foot high by 12 foot wide pattern at 20 meters. In the bush that was the thing to have – and I walked point all three trips.”
Another early SEAL Team weapon acquisition, Watson offered, was the Smith & Wesson MK 22 Mod 0, based on the manufacturer’s Model 39 9mm semi-automatic pistol, more popularly called the “Hushpuppy.” It was developed under the Swimmer (later SEAL) Weapons System (SWS) development program, and designed and delivered by the Naval Ordnance Laboratory, White Oak, Md. “[They] built a suppressor for it and also used a slide lock so that when you fired it you didn’t even hear the function of the weapon. And it was good! All you heard was the hammer drop.” When the powers that be asked why the weapon was needed, Watson said, they were told it was needed for the dogs and the ducks when SEALs went into villages. “They said, ‘Ducks?’ So they turned around and called it the hushpuppy, I guess because they didn’t want to call it the hushducky.”
“That’s basically how a lot of the special weapons and special equipment was done,” he added.
Choosing his words carefully, Watson went on to describe some of the ancillary equipment provided to the early SEAL Teams.
“There were very special kinds of things available, and the engineers, especially at China Lake – God bless them – made us goodies that just shook [the enemy’s] cage,” Watson said.
Other SEAL-unique weapons have included the Smith & Wesson M76 submachine gun, the Stoner 63, (a weapon system with interchangeable elements allowing the creation of variants ranging from a short-barreled assault rifle to a belt-fed light machine gun), and various forerunners of the M4 carbine that is widely used today.
Similarly, a number of specialized or adapted vessels were developed for the riverine combat environment in Vietnam. These included the SEAL Team Assault Boat (STAB), the Patrol Boat River (PBR), Heavy SEAL Support Craft (HSSC), Light SEAL Support Craft (LSSC), and others.
The special boats also provide several excellent examples of platform evolution, as the Patrol Boat Riverine (PBR) of the Vietnam era (32 feet long; beam of 11 feet, 8 inches; draft of 2 feet) was subsequently replaced by systems like the River Assault Craft (RAC), in turn replaced by today’s Special Operations Craft-Riverine (SOC-R). One of the success stories of the riverine boats, the SOC-R has seen heavy use since 9/11, and comprises an item of core equipment for the Special Boat Teams. With twin diesels driving waterjets, the SOC-R is quick – with a top speed above 40 knots – and maneuverable, draws only two feet of water, and is very heavily armed.
Patrol boats have also evolved from the PB MK III (65 feet long; beam of 18 feet; draft of 6 feet) and MK IV (a 68-foot-long improvement over the MK III). In 1996, the Naval Special Warfare community began fielding its MK V Special Operations Craft (SOC), designed to support medium-range insertion and extraction of special operations forces in low- to medium-threat environments. The craft measure 82 feet in length; 17 feet, 6 inches in beam; and have a top speed in excess of 50 knots.
It is important to recognize that the men operating the boats have always been special operations forces in their own right, and today Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen (SWCC) are a vital part of NAVSPECWARCOM.
Today the exposure to the special boats begins in the earliest days of Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training, with team building exercises and tactical training activities conducted with the Inflatable Boat Small (IBS).
Another small boat that is a ubiquitous part of operational planning is the combat rubber raiding craft (CRRC). Approximately 15 feet, 5 inches in length, the CRRCs are used for the clandestine short range insertion and extraction of Navy SEALs and other special operations forces.
Other small surface platforms used to support SEAL Team operations over the last few decades have included several sizes of Rigid Inflatable Boats (RIB; the current workhorse is the 11-meter NSW RIB).
At the largest end of the surface ship size spectrum, by early 1993 the Navy took delivery of Cyclone (PC 1), the first of 14 Patrol Coastal class ships that were under the operational and administrative control of the NSW Special Boat Squadrons, and which perform coastal patrol, interdiction, and naval special warfare support missions. Eventually, all the PCs were transferred from the NSW inventory, with the bulk of them going to the Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard in support of homeland defense.
The future of NSW surface mobility will likely be enhanced through a number of emerging programs like the Combatant Craft, Medium (CCM), seen as a replacement for the 11-meter RIB; and Combatant Craft, Heavy (CCH), a possible replacement for the MK V.
It was an environment far different from a riverine delta that mandated another item of equipment to reflect the teams’ expanding geographic reach.
The Desert Patrol Vehicle (DPV)/Light Strike Vehicle was a modified Chenoweth off-road 2 x 4 racing vehicle with 2,000 cc gasoline engine. The 161-inch-long vehicles had a payload weight of 1,500 pounds, a top speed in excess of 60 mph, and a range in excess of 200 miles. The addition of a third seat for a gunner and additional mounts for weapon systems enhanced system survivability. Originally designated Fast Attack Vehicles (FAV), they were purpose-built for airfield assaults, but they proved very useful in other roles as well. As one of the main modes of land travel by SEAL Teams during Operation Desert Storm, the DPVs were used to help liberate the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait City and provide security for the U.S. ambassador upon his return.
And another representative land mobility equipment example emerged a decade later, when the challenges of a different operational setting would be met by the Ground Mobility Vehicle – Navy (GMV-N) a SEAL-modified “Humvee” that employs a multitude of weapons and is fitted with a modular armor kit and remote weapons system.
SEAL Delivery Vehicles
Along with unique categories of land systems, over the years the SEAL Teams have also received specialized equipment to support their underwater operations.
For individuals, the original heritage of open circuit compressed air (SCUBA) and closed-circuit 100 percent oxygen systems evolved from its UDT ancestry [see sidebar] and would eventually be joined by closed-circuit mixed-gas rebreathers.
By the early ’90s, for example, the closed-circuit oxygen and closed-circuit mixed-gas combination included the MK 25, known as the Draeger, and the MK 16 Underwater Breathing Apparatus (UBA).
Along the way, the SEALs were also equipped with several generations of SEAL Delivery Vehicles (SDVs) designed to carry combat swimmers and their cargo in fully-flooded compartments on missions like underwater mapping and terrain exploration, location and recovery of lost or downed objects, and reconnaissance.
“My very first SDV ride was in 1969,” recalled Pat Broderick. “It was a MK 7 Mod 0.”
Prior to the MK 7, Broderick noted that there had been an earlier MK 6 platform, which he described as being “like a prototype.” It was patterned after the French PR-77 submersible.
“The MK 7 was developed around 1966 and went into service around ’67 or ’68,” Broderick explained. “It was made by General Dynamics Convair Division. It was about 50 inches tall, the beam was around 36 inches, and the length was a little over 15 feet. It held four guys – including the pilot.” The MK 7 was originally called the “Modified TRASS” after the Italian TRASS 4-man submersible from which it took many of its features.
“They operated off submarines – USS Perch [APSS/LPSS-313] and USS Tunny [APSS-282] and later off the USS Grayback [LPSS-574],” he said. The Perch and the Tunny had to come to the surface to rig the thing out on the deck. And the Grayback had a floodable hangar that you could use to launch the thing right from the submarine.”
“The MK 7 went up to a Mod 6,” he added. “Each submersible improvement introduced more capability, but it was basically the same boat, which had something like a 1.75-horsepower motor. The Mod 6 incorporated a Doppler navigation system and a forward-looking sonar. And those components actually went into the MK 8 and MK 9 boats as well – the very same stuff.”
According to Broderick, the MK 7, Mod 6 went out of service in the 1980-81 time frame, overlapping the introduction of the MK 8, Mod 0 that had begun to enter service in about 1976.
The SDV MK 8 was propelled by an all-electric propulsion system powered by rechargeable silver-zinc batteries. Buoyancy and pitch attitude were controlled by a ballast and pitch system, with control in both horizontal and vertical planes provided through a manual control stick to the rudder, elevator, and bow planes.
“The ‘Nine Boat’ [MK 9] was introduced about the same time,” Broderick said. “It was a two-person craft that was supposed to be used as an ‘attack craft’ – for ship attacks, so to speak. It only carried two passengers: a pilot and a navigator. And there was a compartment for a payload. It was a flat boat – like 36 inches tall and about 6 feet wide. So the guys would lay down in it side by side. It also had a surface propulsion gas motor and we used propane to run it. But that didn’t work out too well so after a few years we removed that from the boat.”
“They were built by a group of retired frogmen who worked up in China Lake,” he explained. “And in ’76 that program moved from China Lake to Panama City, so they were really built by the Navy. There was another version of the MK 8 that a contractor built, but it didn’t meet the requirements, so they kind of scrapped that and built the MK 8 on their own.”
In the fall of 2006, representatives at the Naval Sea Systems Command, Naval Surface Warfare Center –Panama City (NSWC PC) announced completion of the Mod 1 modernization program for the fleet of MK 8 SDVs, named the Gator class in honor of Jim “Gator” Parks.
As described in the announcement, the modernization program was conducted under the direction and leadership of Program Executive Office, Littoral and Mine Warfare’s Naval Special Warfare Program Office (PMS NSW) and included upgrading approximately 40 percent of the vehicle’s systems, mainly covering areas of life support, command and control, navigation, and communication.
SDV system upgrades included: increased diver air capacity, installation of an onboard Windows-based computer, improved diver communications, addition of satellite communication capability, reduction of GPS signal acquisition time, and improved electronics performance and reliability.
In parallel with the “wet boat” SDV designs, the mid-1990s also saw the emergence of a new concept for a battery-powered “dry interior” submersible that would provide increased range, payload, on-station loiter time, endurance, and communication/sensor capacity over existing SDV designs. Designated as the Advanced SEAL Delivery System (ASDS), the new design was approximately 65 feet long and 8 feet in diameter (displacement 60 tons), operated in a “shirt-sleeve” environment by a two-person crew (a submarine-qualified officer pilot and a SEAL-qualified co-pilot). The Navy accepted delivery of the first ASDS on June 26, 2003: In November 2008, the ASDS suffered irreparable damage from a fire which broke out during battery recharging as part of its routine maintenance. Currently, NSW is looking to take advantage of existing technologies and acquire a family of lower-cost submersibles and host shelter modifications to meet its validated undersea requirements.
Another possible glimpse into the future came in a spring 2009 U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) request for information “for a host-launched, Shallow Water Combat Submersible (SWCS) vehicle that will provide Special Operation Forces (SOF) shallow water undersea operations similar to those currently performed on the MK 8 Mod 1 SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV).”
Offering a possible operational scenario, the announcement added, “The new SWCS will transport SOF personnel and equipment in a wet environment into littoral waters and harbors. […] Operating in a free-flooding ‘wet’ vehicle, the SWCS passengers and crew transit for extended durations (i.e. up to 12 hours) in a wet, variant temperature environment while breathing from SCUBA gear.”
Asked about the most significant capability that the SDVs introduced to the SEAL Teams, Broderick offered, “The fact that nobody knows you’re there is probably the most significant part. When I was in SDV Team One I had a guy who was kind of an older Vietnam-era SEAL guy and he said, ‘The first time anybody knows you’re there is when your head comes out of the water on the beach.’”
Dry Deck Shelters
Broderick pointed to another related system that came into use shortly after the “Eight Boats” and “Nine Boats.” Designed to give a submarine host ship the capability of launching and recovering SDVs while submerged, the Dry Deck Shelter (DDS) consists of three pressure modules constructed as a single integral unit: a hangar in which the SDV and other system equipment is stowed; a transfer truck to allow passage between modules and the host ship; and a hyperbaric chamber for decompression and recompression treatment of divers.
“I think it was about ’81-’82 that we did the eval[uation] on them,” Broderick said. “There have been some additional piping and electrical connectors put into them over the years, but it is basically the same system that it’s always been.”
Most recently, the Navy has announced plans to modify several DDS under an “extension” program initially called DDSX. According to preliminary government announcements, the DDSX program will include things like a 50-inch extension to be welded to the aft end of the existing hangar, improvements to the DDS hangar outer door to allow remote operation (unlock, open/close, lock), and the development of improvements to assist personnel in the deployment and retrieval of the track and cradle system from the extended shelter.
As noted earlier, the systems mentioned here serve only as representative examples of the myriad items of unique equipment that have supported Naval Special Warfare over the past five decades. But the examples all point to a common thread. To paraphrase Watson’s observations on the membership of the original and subsequent SEAL Teams: Special operations equipment is a different breed of gear.
This article first appeared in Navy Seals 50: Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Establishment of the U.S. Navy SEALs.