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An Interview with Rear Adm. Tim Szymanski


Rear Adm. Tim Szymanski is a native of Wilmington, Delaware. He attended the U.S. Naval Academy Preparatory School and graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1985. He completed a Master of Joint Campaign Planning and Strategy at Joint Advanced Warfighting School.

Szymanski’s previous Naval Special Warfare and operational assignments include platoon and task unit commander at SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team 2. He served as troop and squadron commander and as operations officer and deputy commanding officer at Naval Special Warfare Development Group. He commanded Special Boat Unit 26, SEAL Team 2, O6-level Joint Task Force in Afghanistan and Naval Special Warfare Group 2. He served as deputy commanding general sustainment to Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan/NATO Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan.

Szymanski served as assistant commanding general to Joint Special Operations Command prior to assuming command of Naval Special Warfare Command.

Szymanski’s previous staff assignments include officer community Manager for NSW and enlisted community manager for SEALs, Navy Divers, EOD Technicians and Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen. He served on the Joint Staff as the J3 deputy directorate for Special Operations as the Global War on Terror branch chief and as chief staff officer of Pakistan-Afghanistan Coordination Cell.

Rear Adm. Tim Szymanski

Rear Adm. Tim Szymanski, commander of Naval Special Warfare Command.

Special Operations Outlook: Can you talk a bit about NSW support to the National Defense Strategy (NDS) and the Navy’s Maritime Strategy? How is NSW support changing in light of a post-9/11 transitioning battlespace?

Rear Adm. Tim Szymanski: The National Defense Strategy adeptly describes the environment and issues impacting national security and security around the globe. In the NDS, Secretary of Defense James Mattis charged DOD [the Department of Defense] with developing a more joint force structure while becoming more agile, lethal, and innovative. The Chief of Naval Operations, in turn, laid out the maritime responsibilities articulated in the NDS, focusing on increasing naval power through balancing capability and capacity with readiness and sustainment. As the maritime component to U.S. Special Operations Command and the special operations force of the U.S. Navy, Naval Special Warfare is aligned with and moving out to support these defense strategies.

With a global presence operating in more than 35 countries on any given day, we provide significant and effective impacts. Networked with U.S. Navy and joint forces, other government agencies, allies, and foreign partners, we execute missions in support of USSOCOM [U.S. Special Operations Command], Navy, and fleet and geographic combatant commanders. We support achieving national objectives across a full range of diplomatic and operational environments.

SEAL free fall operations Rear Adm. Tim Szymanski

U.S. Navy Sea, Air, and Land team members conduct military free fall operations flying aboard a U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command MC-130 Talon II flown by the 19th Special Operations Squadron during Trident 17 on Hurlburt Field, Florida, May 3, 2017. U.S. AIR FORCE PHOTO BY TECH. SGT. GREGORY BROOK

After 16 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, we are focusing on our capabilities as the maritime component to Special Operations, exploring opportunities for increased integration and interoperability, and building capabilities and capacity with fleet, submarine, aviation, and cyber forces. For example, we recently collaborated with the Naval Postgraduate School to conduct a maritime, multi-threat experiment in Southern California. The exercise allowed us to explore realistic future scenarios including SOF (special operations forces) application and integration of unmanned systems in a multi-domain (sea, air, and land) environment. Teaming with the Navy, we learned a great deal collectively and advanced our way of thinking about NSW’s niche application of artificial intelligence (AI) and human-machine teaming in current and future operational environments.

We are also refining our capabilities that enable access to areas that may be denied to conventional forces. Modernizing our maritime mobility platforms is one such investment. In fact, our teaming with maritime industries has never been stronger. We have introduced three high-performance surface combatant craft into our fleet to serve across the spectrum of maritime operations. They include the Combatant Craft Assault, which replaced the NSW 11-meter rigid-hulled inflatable boat, the Combatant Craft Medium, which replaced the Mark V Special Operations Craft, and the new Combatant Craft Heavy.

With a global presence operating in more than 35 countries on any given day, we provide significant and effective impacts.

SOF undersea mobility provides a uniquely capable, clandestine means to access peer/near-peer locations. To that end, we are putting two new multi-mission sub-surface combatant craft into operations. And I am especially excited about the modernization of one of our dry deck shelters. We’re extending its length and remotely controlling its hatches so that we can reduce risk to our divers.

Special Boat Team 22 hot extraction Rear Adm. Tim Szymanski

Lt. Gen. Kenneth Tovo, commanding general of U.S. Army Special Operations Command, participates in a simulated hot extraction by Naval Special Warfare Group 4’s Special Boat Team 22, located at the John C. Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. U.S. NAVY PHOTO BY LEAH TOLBERT

My fundamental challenge is to man, train, and equip the force to be better positioned to support our nation’s defense needs while supporting the theaters’ operational requirements. Our efforts in innovation, force optimization, interoperability with the Navy along with initiatives supporting the long-term health of our people are game-changing priorities that will help drive us to become the force our nation needs in the future.

How does/should NSW prepare for a reemergence of interstate strategic competition?

The challenges facing U.S. forces today are numerous, and made more difficult by adversaries who have continuously been investing in their own militaries’ capabilities and their defense against U.S. capabilities. Additionally, these interstate competitors today have more opportunity to invest in, and exploit, accelerating technologies at a pace matched with global industry that is no longer separated by America’s dominance in the technology sector. We will continue to hunt terrorists, disrupt networks, and face violent extremist organizations, while the battlefield expands and becomes more complex and chaotic. Today, our most pressing security concerns involve the aggressive, coercive, and disruptive actions of near-peer competitors and rogue regimes. This changing character of warfare — exerting power by fighting below the level of armed conflict — favors our adversaries to the point that they are gaining advantages that threaten America’s national security.

My fundamental challenge is to man, train, and equip the force to be better positioned to support our nation’s defense needs while supporting the theaters’ operational requirements.

The NDS addresses these challenges head on, making it clear that we will continue to face the threats of the last decade while developing counter-strategies for new or reemerging adversaries. The national guidance reprioritizing strategic adversaries truly allows us to break our existing paradigms and reinvigorate our innovation efforts well beyond just technology. We are relooking at all our capabilities, our structure, and our processes to achieve the goals set forth in the NDS and to ensure we can maintain our capability overmatch, avoid operational and technological surprise, and provide our nation with unique capabilities to its hardest security problems in new and future operating environments.

NSW personnel train with drones Rear Adm. Tim Szymanski

Naval Special Warfare personnel train with autonomous drones to leverage battlespace superiority and buy down risk for the force. U.S. NAVY PHOTO BY MASS COMMUNICATIONS SPECIALIST 2ND CLASS NATE SERPICO

Additionally, while NSW offers forward commanders a variety of options to employ against near-peer competitors, these options must be part of a comprehensive, whole-of-government approach to the problem. Military actions need to be integrated into a joint, multi-lateral interagency campaign to effectively challenge our adversaries and any illegitimate expansion they may attempt to execute.

In the past, you have mentioned the integration of new technologies into NSW. How do you view the contributions of AI, augmented reality (AR), and virtual reality (VR)? What about unmanned/robotic technologies?

Great question. My first comment is to caution that innovation is not only about technology, but also about the disciplined process clarifying the problem statement, and then, through creative thought, identifying effective solutions or pathways to solutions to those redefined problems. In some cases, it is about the creative use of technologies in adaptive manners and our ability to effectively ideate, explore, experiment, and then rapidly assimilate the technology for our advantage. Additionally, the accelerating pace of global commercial development of technologies not only makes them available to us for our use, but also to our adversaries. At the headquarters, we are focused on our ability to rapidly understand the accelerating technology landscape and ideate on operational concepts for overmatch and vulnerabilities.

NSW has a truly unique culture where excellence is the expected norm and innovation is continuously pursued at all levels. Innovation is in our core values, our ethos and, quite frankly, in our DNA. As such, our highly creative force is constantly feeding the innovation of tactics, techniques, procedures, and utilization of technologies adapted to the battlefield. It is a culture that is the envy of even the most innovative corporations.

Because innovation is in our DNA, we do not only focus on incremental or sustaining innovation, we have a team and processes to focus on our pursuit of “Big I” Innovation. That is the categorization of our innovation efforts focused on NSW’s strategy to develop future capabilities to disrupt the future battlefield across the spectrum of conflict, to ensure we are not disrupted by the adversary, and to provide unique and niche solutions to our nation’s hardest security problems. Our “Big I” efforts also include in-depth pursuit of applications of accelerating technology sectors to our existing capabilities to provide immediate exponential improvements of 10 times or greater to increase our mission effectiveness, reduce operational risk, increase readiness, and increase business efficiency.

SEAL training Rear Adm. Tim Szymanski

U.S. Navy Sea, Air, and Land (SEAL) personnel emerge from the sea at twilight during a training exercise. U.S. NAVY PHOTO

By harnessing and capitalizing on commercial investment in specific technology sectors, we are able to see those trends in development and application and then apply them to our operational imperatives and mission objectives to develop pathways for partnered development of dual-use technologies.

Our efforts in artificial intelligence/machine learning (ML) and autonomy, augmented and virtual reality, and the application of Internet of Things are focused on hyper-enabling NSW-Joint SOF operations. This comes in many applications, one of which is autonomy of robots, drones, and undersea vehicles to conduct mission critical tasks both today and in more challenging operational environments of the future. Our operational imperatives of increasing precision with certainty, reducing risk, and moving from a constrained footprint or scarcity model to an abundance model, drive some of our early investments in these sectors. In the backdrop, our SOF operator as the leader, mature decision-maker, and tactical expert requires an interface to effectively utilize the technology growing in complexity and autonomy. The hyper-enabled NSW team will be a human-machine team in many ways that we previously teamed with other capabilities such as the Combat K-9, but will be more complex. It will be saturated with data and intelligence and will require a greater understanding of how to increase the speed of decision making while decreasing the cognitive load on a leader under combat conditions.

NSW has a truly unique culture where excellence is the expected norm and innovation is continuously pursued at all levels. Innovation is in our core values, our ethos and, quite frankly, in our DNA.

We see AI/ML as a significant path to autonomy of a suite of networked systems to enable battlespace awareness, increase capacity of a small SOF team, automate traditional operator/enabler functions, enable operations at a distance, and reduce the risk to our force. Our work in AR/VR has multiple fronts. First, we are focusing on our training, mission planning, and rehearsal simulation environment. Being able to replicate a training environment as many times as desired without overtaxing our high-demand, low-density assets has a significant rate of return. This is driving our way ahead for AR/VR in training for tasks involving Joint Terminal Attack Controller, Static Line Jump Master, etc. As our operator adoption of this technology in the training environment increases, it then increases the openness to adoption in the operational environment.

We can see a future where the concept of telemedicine on the battlefield is enabled by the combat medic using augmented reality and reaching back to a combat surgeon for support and advice to conduct lifesaving actions. This future reality is also enabled through our pursuit of the NSW operator being a part of the Internet of Things with smart sensors, computing on the edge, and distributed and secure communications across the team. This future operational concept not only increases survivability of the team in extremis, but also provides a senior military leader with a more palatable risk matrix for conducting certain missions in future operating environments.

SEAL boarding Rear Adm. Tim Szymanski

U.S. Navy SEAL team members conduct a maritime interdiction operation boarding a vessel to conduct search and seizure during Exercise Trident 17 on Hurlburt Field, Florida, May 10, 2017. U.S. AIR FORCE PHOTO BY TECH SGT. GREGORY BROOK

NSW – and SOF writ large – plays a critical role in countering the approach of our adversaries who are opting to maneuver in the gray zone. Our laser focus on “Big I” is instrumental in support of USSOCOM and the Navy’s efforts to effectively project the future environment and develop advantage through deep creative thought, exploration, and experimentation. I am confident that if we can continue to lead in these kinds of innovations and stay ahead of our adversaries, we can compete and win short of conflict.

Do you feel that NSW is “right-sized” to meet current operational needs? Can you talk about any potential changes you are considering to better position NSW for the third decade of this century?

In light of the recent Comprehensive Review by the Chief of Naval Operations and the Strategic Review by the Secretary of the Navy, we are examining the NSW force structure. Acknowledging that manpower requirements have outpaced authorized and actual growth, we’ve spent the last year taking a hard look at how we can best use the resources we have to optimize the impacts we’re making on the battlefield. We’ve looked at how to redirect resources and merge assets to build depth and agility, meet transregional threats, and provide increased combat lethality to the Theater Special Operation Commands. Optimizing our force, similar to the realignment we underwent in the late ’90s, is paramount to meeting current operational demands and providing greater agility to meet future requirements.

Our primary weapons system remains the operator. Therefore, we will continue to invest heavily in our personnel, whether it’s to train, retain, or sustain them. Development of the Silver Strand Training Complex-South over the next decade is the single most important military construction effort impacting the current and future operational readiness of the NSW force. Once complete, the complex will consolidate the training requirements of today’s force, creating efficiencies and synergy of improved operational planning and readiness, but also allow our operators to spend more time with their families and communities.

Optimizing our force, similar to the realignment we underwent in the late ’90s, is paramount to meeting current operational demands and providing greater agility to meet future requirements.

Preservation of the Force and Families [POTFF], our Human Performance Program, and our most important initiatives involving cognitive health are about keeping our warriors in the fight, extending their service life, and giving them a high-quality life post-service.

SEAL reconnaissance drone Rear Adm. Tim Szymanski

U.S. Navy SEAL team members conduct proof-of-concept development testing with an in-water reconnaissance drone during Exercise Trident 17 on Hurlburt Field, Florida, May 2, 2017. U.S. AIR FORCE PHOTO BY TECH SGT. GREGORY BROOK

For example, we are learning that long-term physical and psychological impacts may result in changes to one’s memory, attention, processing speed, problem-solving ability, visuospatial function, and impulse control, which can affect operational performance and mission accomplishment. Given that we are in the longest continuous stretch of armed conflict in our history, learning about the cognitive health of our force is a critical endeavor. We have initiated a Cognitive Surveillance Program that will be a more preemptive approach to intervention where cognitive impacts are indicated. More broadly, this initiative will seek to identify injuries earlier, track individual trends, and assist in developing comprehensive treatment plans to aid in the recovery of our service members. The end-state is to get NSW operators back into the fight while contributing to their long-term wellness.

NSW continues to seek and offer best practices as we develop our cognitive health emphases. We rely on education, informed research efforts, and leadership support across the continuum of care to help mitigate the range of brain injuries and increase recovery rates for our members.

Our primary weapons system remains the operator. Therefore, we will continue to invest heavily in our personnel, whether it’s to train, retain, or sustain them.

Integrated with the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine [and Surgery] and the USSOCOM Care Coalition, our Preservation of the Force and Families Program supports our NSW team as a whole — our service members and the families that serve alongside them. The programs that live under that umbrella – from human and mental performance to our family support services – aren’t simply words on paper. Those POTFF resources help me to take care of everyone on this team. I have a moral obligation to take care of our Gold Star and Surviving Families, too. Through our Gold Star and Surviving Family Program, we are fulfilling the promise to those parents, children, and siblings of “NSW for Life.” While benevolent organizations and programs help Gold Star families in a variety of ways, their support does not relieve NSW of its responsibility to ensure these families are cared for and their unique needs are addressed. Through regular communication, coordinating events, and providing support and resourcing assistance, NSW is ensuring our Gold Star families will always be taken care of and connected to us.

Are there any other thoughts with which you’d like to leave our readers?

Naval Special Warfare will continue to place priority on strengthening, equipping, and protecting our people and outpacing our enemies by employing new technologies and accelerating trends. We will refine and adapt to ensure Naval Special Warfare remains relevant and lethal, and when necessary, stands ready, willing, and able to engage in combat to fight and win decisively for many years to come.

This article was originally published in the 2018-2019 edition of Special Operations Outlook.


Scott Gourley is a former U.S. Army officer and the author of more than 1,500...

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