These operations turned out to be the special operations force (SOF) undercard event for Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm, the 1990-1991 campaign to liberate Kuwait – a campaign in which, had it not been for Goldwater-Nichols, SOF would have been denied participation.
CENTCOM Commander Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr., had a dislike of SOF dating back to the Vietnam War, the result of some negative experiences with special warfare “Snakeaters.” During the planning stages of Desert Shield he tried to block SOF participation, but was prevented from doing so by Goldwater-Nichols.
Then-Capt. Ray Smith of Naval Special Warfare Task Group-Central (NSWTG-C) had an uphill battle selling Schwarzkopf on his unit’s capability and usefulness. As it turned out, NSWTG-C was the first significant unit deployed in Saudi Arabia. It was tasked with foreign internal defense training to help Saudi and free Kuwaiti forces learn how to coordinate tactical air war operations and worked with the growing influx of coalition military personnel starting to arrive.
Though Schwarzkopf never entirely overcame his antipathy toward SOF, he was smart enough to recognize jobs done well, and once NSWTG-C proved itself, Smith’s men were rewarded with expanded roles. These included the clearing of ports and shipping lanes of Iraqi sea mines, coordinating harbor security, and a successful combat search and rescue mission of a downed coalition airman. The SEAL role in Operation Desert Stormincluded a series of beach reconnaissance and maritime deception missions, including the capture of a small Iraqi island and its garrison of Iraqi troops.
Simultaneously, events at the Horn of Africa were unfolding, whose consequences continue today. In late 1990, the fragile government in Somalia collapsed. Rival militias and local warlords began battling for power and position, with the diplomatic corps caught in the crossfire. When January 1991 rescue attempts by the Soviet Union and Italy failed, Bush authorized Operation Eastern Exit. Over a period of nine days, elements of the 4th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, Air Force Special Operations Command, and a nine-man SEAL team safely evacuated onto U.S. Navy warships a total of 281 diplomatic personnel and their dependents from 30 nations.
A year later Somalia’s transformation into a failed nation-state wracked by internecine conflict was complete. Two major efforts involving SEALs and other NSW personnel as well as other SOF units and conventional forces, Operation Restore Hope (1992) and the Black Hawk Down Battle of Mogadishu (1993), failed to improve the situation. Finally, in 1994, SEALs and NSW personnel were part of a multinational force that participated in Operation United Shield, the evacuation of all U.N. peacekeeping troops from Somalia.
Given that it didn’t look like conditions in Somalia would improve soon and the country’s strategic location near one of the busiest sea lanes in the world, it would only be a matter of time before SEALs returned.
The al Qaeda Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on U.S. soil initiated a new phase in special operations. President George W. Bush’s declaration of global war on terrorism as official national security policy laid the foundation for a watershed SOF offensive: Operation Enduring Freedom-Afghanistan.
Operation Enduring Freedom-Afghanistan was a campaign in which special operations assumed the leading role rather than a supporting one. NAVSPECWARCOM, through Task Force Sword/K-Bar, initially conducted interdiction missions against al Qaeda/Taliban forces and their leadership in southern Afghanistan and the Pakistan coast. SEAL commitment in direct action and special reconnaissance missions soon expanded to include the full range of SOF missions during the campaign.
Such missions did not come without cost. In early March 2002, during Operation Anaconda, SEAL Petty Officer 1st Class Neil Roberts was killed after being thrown from a heavily damaged 160th SOAR MH-47 Chinook attempting to land a reconnaissance team on the summit of Takur Ghar. The Battle of Roberts Ridge, as the ensuing action was called, ended with seven additional SOF personnel killed and two SEALs wounded.
In 2005, the SEAL and SOF community suffered an even worse loss. During Operation Red Wings (named after the NHL team), a four-man SEAL special reconnaissance team operating in Kunar province was attacked by a superior Taliban force. Petty Officer Marcus Luttrell was the only survivor. Luttrell and two of the dead SEALs received Navy Crosses. The team’s commander, Lt. Michael Murphy, received a posthumous Medal of Honor for his gallant attempt to save the team. The MH-47 Chinook containing a Quick Reaction Force to rescue them was shot down by an enemy RPG, killing all 16 aboard, making it what was then the greatest loss of life in a single incident in SOF history.
In 2003, at the invitation of the Philippine military, SOCOM initiated Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines, the campaign against Abu Sayyaf, an Islamic terrorist group allied with al Qaeda. SEALs and other NSW personnel conducted a wide variety of counterinsurgency training missions with their Philippine counterparts. OEF-P has since become the model for implementing and achieving counterinsurgency intervention.
SOF success in Operation Enduring Freedom-Afghanistan opened the doors to expanded SOF use in Operation Iraqi Freedom(OIF). SEAL missions ran the gamut: clearing port facilities, seizing and holding the strategic Rumaila oil field and Mukarayin Dam, direct action, special reconnaissance, POW rescue missions (most notably assisting in the rescue of Pvt. Jessica Lynch), and more. Following the capture of Baghdad and the toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime, SEAL activities included assistance in the “Anbar Awakening” alliance between sheiks and tribes to defeat al Qaeda in Anbar province.
Somalia returned to the headlines when Somali pirates began their raids on shipping transiting the Horn of Africa. In April 2009, pirates attempted to hijack the container ship M/V Maersk Alabama. U.S. Navy ships were deployed. The pirates, with the ship’s captain, Richard Philips, as hostage, attempted to escape in one of the container ship’s powered lifeboats. When it appeared that the pirates were going to kill Philips, three SEAL snipers positioned on the fantail of the destroyer USS Bainbridge – in a demonstration of superb marksmanship – shot and killed the pirates. Philips was rescued unhurt.
The year 2011 bookended the SEAL experience with its greatest achievement and its greatest loss. On May 1, 2011, a Joint Special Operations Command Special Mission Unit of SEALs and other SOF personnel launched. Flying in specially modified helicopters, the teams entered Osama bin Laden’s secret compound in Pakistan, killed him and several followers, and avenged 9/11 and subsequent al Qaeda attacks.
The glow of that triumph was dimmed when, on Aug. 6, a Taliban rocket-propelled grenade exploded in an Army National Guard Chinook, killing all aboard. Included in the group were 17 SEALs and five NSW personnel, worse even than the 2005 shootdown of the Chinook speeding to the aid of Murphy’s team.
Today, SEALs are arguably the most famous of all the special operations units. They are the subjects of articles, newspaper and television news stories, documentaries, books, movies, and computer games. It is fame they more endure than accept, for, as they say in their SEAL code, “I humbly serve as a guardian to my fellow Americans, always ready to defend those who are unable to defend themselves. I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions. I voluntarily accept the inherent hazards of my profession, placing the welfare and security of others before my own.”
This article was first published in The Year in Special Operations: 2012-2013 Edition.