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U.S. Navy SEALs History

50 Years

Following the end of the Vietnam War and another drawdown of the military, SEALs survived an administrative attempt to budget them out of existence thanks to the fact that their friend Zumwalt had become Chief of Naval Operations.

Operation Eagle Claw, the 1979 failed rescue attempt of American hostages in Tehran, Iran, set the stage for another important event in SEAL history: the creation of SEAL Team Six, founded on Oct. 1, 1980.

The driving force behind the creation of SEAL Team Six was Cmdr. Richard Marcinko, a polarizing figure in the community. Because it was designed to operate as a larger assault unit (30 to 40 men) than typical SEAL teams (platoon-sized or smaller), it greatly expanded SEAL mission capability and became the maritime component to the national mission force that conducts the majority of direct-action raids to kill or capture terrorists, insurgents, and pirates.

The creation of the SEALs did not automatically end the existence of UDTs, and for two decades the two units co-existed. But by the early 1980s, the distinction between the two groups had become so blurred that, in 1983, the parent organization was incorporated into its offspring unit when the four UDT teams were formally integrated into the SEALs.

The integration came just in time, because the SEALs needed the additional manpower. Two teams, SEAL Teams Four and Six, were going to be an important element in Operation Urgent Fury, the lash-up campaign to free American student hostages on the Caribbean island of Grenada.

SEALs During Operation Prime Chance

A crewman stands atop the cabin of a MK III patrol boat tied up to the barge Wimbrown 7 during a pause in operations. The barged is heavily armed, carrying from lower to upper right, an M2 .50-caliber machine gun, a MK 2 81 mm mortar, and a MK 19 40 mm grenade launcher. The patrol boat and barge were among the Navy assets being used to provide security for U.S.-flagged shipping in the Persian Gulf during Operation Prime Chance. U.S. Navy photo by PH1 Dwayne Smith

A joint operation launched at the end of October 1983 under the overall command of the Navy, Operation Urgent Fury went from drawing board to troops on the beach in 10 days.

The SEAL teams were tasked with four missions: pre-assault reconnaissance of the Point Salines airfield; pre-assault beach reconnaissance near Pearls Airport; the capture of the Beauséjour radio station; and the rescue of the British Governor General Sir Paul Scoon and seizure and defense of his residence, Government House. Because insufficient time was available to train for all the missions, the Point Salines reconnaissance was a failure that resulted in the deaths of four members of SEAL Team Six. Fortunately, all the other missions ended successfully, as did the operation itself. Operation Urgent Fury exposed weaknesses in the existing joint command structure with regard to use of special operations units. That deficiency became the basis for the next major chapter in special operations, and thus SEAL, history: Special Operations Command – SOCOM.

In 1987, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Defense Reform Act of 1986, more commonly known as Goldwater-Nichols after sponsors Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona and Congressman William Nichols of Alabama. It was the most significant piece of legislation affecting the military since the National Security Act of 1947. Goldwater-Nichols established the framework for joint commands and their implementation. A year later, the Nunn-Cohen Amendment, named after sponsors Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia and William Cohen of Maine, completed the revision of the military command structure by creating U.S. Special Operations Command, with its own funding and a four-star billet. This placing of SOCOM on the same level as the other branches in effect created a “fifth service” within the Department of Defense. Administratively, the maritime component of SOCOM was now Naval Special Warfare Command (NAVSPECWARCOM).

It turned out to be a prescient move fortuitously timed.

NAVSPECWARCOM’s first combat test in asymmetric warfare, which has since been called “the new normal” in military operations, came in July 1987 with Operations Earnest Will and Prime Chance. By this time the Iran-Iraq War was in its seventh year and military operations in the Persian Gulf by the two belligerents were seriously threatening freedom of navigation, particularly for oil tankers.

SEAL Team FOUR Operation Just Cause

In this undated file photo, members of SEAL Team FOUR pose for a group photo before Operation Just Cause. U.S. Navy photo

Iran was the most important threat, and to counter its asymmetric warfare activities, which included patrol boat attacks and extensive mine laying, two Naval Special Warfare (NSW) Task Units, which included SEALs, explosive ordnance disposal teams, and helicopters from Task Force 160 (later the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment [SOAR] – the Night Stalkers).

Operating from leased oil barges, the teams quickly began turning the tables on the Iranians, capturing and destroying mine-laying boats and the oil platforms that were being used as observation and operations bases. When Operation Prime Chance concluded in June 1989, Iranian threats to navigation had ceased. Six months later, SEALs were back in action again, this time on the other side of the world, in Panama.

When relations between the United States and Panama deteriorated to the point where American strategic interests and the security of the Panama Canal were threatened, President George H.W. Bush authorized Operation Just Cause, launched on Dec. 20, 1989.

Personnel from SEAL Teams Two and Four were organized into Task Force White. TF White was further divided into four task units. Two task units were assigned to secure the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean entrances to the canal. A third task unit was directed to seize or destroy any boat in Balboa Harbor that Panamanian dictator Gen. Manuel Noriega might try to use to escape. And the fourth task unit was given a similar mission at Paitilla Airfield where Noriega kept his private aircraft. As with Urgent Fury, some missions went well and others didn’t. Securing the canal zone entrances went smoothly. Though SEALs encountered some resistance at Balboa Harbor, they were able to rapidly accomplish that mission. At Paitilla Airfield, the SEALs encountered their most serious opposition. Though ultimately victorious, they suffered heavy losses, with four SEALs killed and eight wounded.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...

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    Edward Canavan

    I was involved in the conversion of 2 SSBN to SSGN. Impressively versicle platforms.