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Interview With Rear Adm. Collin P. Green, Commander, Naval Special Warfare Command

Rear Adm. Collin P. Green graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1986 and Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL Class 149 in 1988.  Green holds a master’s degree in International Affairs from Catholic University of America, and is a distinguished graduate of the Naval War College with a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies.

Green participated in special operations in Europe, Africa and Asia. Tours in Naval Special Warfare include assignments at SEAL Teams 2, 3 and 5.  He served as operations officer, Naval Special Warfare Task Group U.S. 6th Fleet; executive officer, Naval Special Warfare Unit 10; and assistant chief of staff for Plans, Policy and Operations, Naval Special Warfare Command.

Other assignments include naval special warfare officer, Navy Operations and Plans Branch in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations; naval special warfare officer, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command/U.S. 5th Fleet; U.S. Central Command branch chief, J3 deputy directorate for U.S. Special Operations, Joint Staff; director of operations, NATO Special Operations Component Command/Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan; and executive officer, Supreme Allied Commander Europe/Commander, U.S. European Command.

His command tours include SEAL Team 3, where he deployed as commander, Naval Special Warfare Task Group – Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom; Naval Special Warfare Unit 3; Naval Special Warfare Group 1, and most recently as U.S. Special Operations Command South.

 

Special Operations Outlook: You’ve referred to Naval Special Warfare (NSW) as “the force our nation expects.” Tell us a little bit about that perspective.

Rear Adm. Collin P. Green: Today, we have more than 1,000 special operators and support personnel afloat deployed to more than 35 countries, addressing security threats, assuring partners, and strengthening alliances while supporting joint and combined campaigns. We are also networked with the U.S. Navy, joint forces, interagency, and our allies and partner nations to achieve national objectives.

Our ability to understand the operational landscape, adapt quickly and evolve capacity, capabilities and concepts based on operational requirements is one of our great strengths, and these characteristics, I think, are what our nation most expects from us.

Rear Adm. Collin P. Green

Rear Adm. Collin P. Green

Dating back to World War II and the Underwater Demolition Teams of the 1940s, we have a long history of transforming and leveraging our capabilities at the time and place of our choosing to provide increased effect. It is who we are. It is what we do.

The events of 9/11 were a watershed moment in our nation’s history, and in typical NSW fashion, the response by our force was decisive, and it has been relentless.

We must act with urgency as we continue the VEO fight while challenging great-power competitors [GPC] and countering rogue regimes like Iran and North Korea. That is what the nation expects from Naval Special Warfare.

Now, after nearly two decades of sustained operations against violent extremist organizations (VEOs), great-power competitors [GPC] – China and Russia – have reemerged as urgent challenges to our national security. While the great power threat may not be as apparent as the attack of 9/11, it is no less ominous. After decades of combat superiority across nearly all operating environments, our military now faces a world in which every domain is aggressively contested.

We must think more creatively, beyond the physical domain, and redefine the “X.” Targets will be multi-domain and include cognitive and virtual objectives. We must act with urgency as we continue the VEO fight while challenging great-power competitors [GPC] and countering rogue regimes like Iran and North Korea. That is what the nation expects from Naval Special Warfare.

Given these rather dramatic shifts, how are you shaping the NSW force now and for the future?

We’ve conducted a comprehensive, enterprise-wide review of how we organize, train, and operate in light of these security challenges. The result – Force Optimization – involves the most impactful organizational changes since NSW 21 in the late ‘90s. Our most significant effort is a three-phase overhaul of our legacy structures, realigning capacity from geographically fixed formations into agile, strategic capability formations. This will enable more efficient command and control by streamlining support for Theater Special Operations Commands and the U.S. Navy’s numbered fleets through tailorable, flexible, and sustainable O-6-led task forces in support of competition, crisis, and contingency operations.

SEALs jump from MC-130J

SEAL Team 7 members jump from an MC-130J Commando II during Emerald Warrior/Trident at Naval Air Station North Island, California, January 19, 2019.

Recently codified in our new NSW Vision 2030, Force Optimization is the iterative engine driving realignment at all NSW echelons and forward-based elements – from headquarters to “edge.” Its implementation will help ensure our ability to effectively counter both new and existing threats.

I know you can’t divulge operational specifics, but can you talk about the focus areas of your vision, and how you plan to achieve those objectives?

Of course. How much space do you have? Let me first acknowledge the tremendous work my predecessor did to “set the table.” He established our Cognitive Health Program, initiated Force Optimization to achieve greater mission effectiveness, and prioritized innovation and effective and efficient resourcing. I have continued that work and I am proud of NSW Vision 2030. Aligned with strategic guidance, NSW Vision 2030 sets NSW on a course to carry out our role in national defense, and will enable us to provide agile, lethal, and sustainable forces positioned to compete, disrupt, deter, and win.

NSW Vision 2030 is a call to action along three paths: to strengthen, compete and reform our force.

Strengthen: NSW’s competitive advantage has always been, and will continue to be, our people. Strengthening our force involves prioritizing and investing in the training, development, and wellness of the entire NSW team – operators, support personnel, civilians, and our families.

We are committed to developing a portfolio of programs to support all of our personnel from the time they enter service, throughout their careers, and as they transition to and from NSW service.

Professional education and career progression are key components in sustaining the success of NSW’s sailor, civilian, and Reserve force. We are intent on establishing a professionalized career path to build a cadre of highly-trained SEALs and operationally experienced leaders who understand the resourcing and acquisition processes to successfully build the capabilities, capacity, and concepts that will posture us for success in future operating environments. We are also creating a program for developing civilian leaders who provide the experience, specialized skills, and continuity that are so critical to the success of our long-term efforts. For our Reserve force, we intend to advance, further recruit, and leverage the unique education, training, experience, and technological expertise of our reservists in areas such as analytics, data science, and commercial technology applications.

Sailors aboard the amphibious dock landing ship USS Carter Hall (LSD 50) throw line to Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen (SWCC) with Special Boat Team (SBT) 20 during a training exercise in the ship’s well deck. The team practiced mooring and maneuvering their craft inside the ship’s well deck

Sailors aboard the amphibious dock landing ship USS Carter Hall (LSD 50) throw line to Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen (SWCC) with Special Boat Team (SBT) 20 during a training exercise in the ship’s well deck. The team practiced mooring and maneuvering their craft inside the ship’s well deck.

The skilled Combat Support and Combat Service Support manning Naval Special Warfare receives from our larger Navy has never been better. These sailors are invaluable to NSW mission accomplishment and come from a wide variety of ratings, such as intelligence and information warriors, logisticians, chaplain corps, and medical support. We are developing standardized combat support and combat service support training en route to assignments with NSW. This training will facilitate a more efficient and effective transition into the NSW community and maximizes support to our gaining commands. Ultimately, these efforts will mutually benefit our larger Navy as our support teammates return to the fleet and incorporate tactics, techniques, and procedures applicable to great-power competition.

We are committed to developing a portfolio of programs to support all of our personnel from the time they enter service, throughout their careers, and as they transition to and from NSW service. Our objective is to create career-planning programs and provide the mentoring and educational opportunities (formal schooling, on-the-job-training and self-guided learning) that are crucial to developing high-performing and fast-learning teams.

On another front, our Preservation of the Force and Family Program is stronger than ever, due in large part to the continued and valued support we receive from throughout the Navy, U.S. Special Operations Command, Congress, and a variety of foundations. We are fortunate to have increased our staff of psychologists, case managers, and life counselors. This support has allowed us to mature and institutionalize our efforts, resulting in improvements in the resilience and long-term health and well-being of our active-duty members and their families. We have seen a significant decline in stigmatization with our force seeking help when it is needed from the embedded care providers.  

Another area I want to talk about is our Human Performance Program, which focuses on the operational physical and mental readiness of the individual operator and has brought about increased injury prevention and reduced injury recovery rates.  

Our Neurocognitive Surveillance Program was established in November 2017 in response to the early recognition of neurocognitive injuries during training and operational deployment. We now have an enterprise-wide policy in place. We have completed baseline brain health testing for nearly all of NSW SEAL/SWCC Operators and Combat Support personnel and have completed our first cycle of operational surveillance of a SEAL Team using blast gauges during unit-level training. The baseline brain health testing now occurs for all candidates through our training pipeline, and we are poised to retest all personnel every two years. Comparison to one’s own performance, versus reliance on population norms, is the gold standard for cognitive rehabilitation, optimization efforts, and ultimately “driving the science” toward a better understanding of training exposures.

Beyond the realignment of our force structure to increase both capacity and capabilities, we are employing an aggressive approach to leveraging technology and data-driven means that will enable us to maintain or regain our operational overmatch, stay ahead of our adversaries, avoid or mitigate surprise, and provide unique solutions to our nation’s security needs.

We also have formalized a program we’re calling Readiness for SOF Transition (R4ST). This is a holistic initiative aimed at tracking and assisting with our personnel’s physical, spiritual, mental, and family needs across their selection, development, and operational career to ensure they are prepared for post-military life prior to their release from active duty. R4ST complements the Navy’s Transition Assistance Program and the SOCOM Warrior Care Program for wounded, ill, and injured service members.

Finally, we are very proud of the positive impact our dynamic Gold Star and Surviving Family Program provides with its support to our spouses, children, parents, and siblings of the 165 NSW active-duty personnel who have died on active duty since 9/11. The support provided for NSW Gold Star spouses, children, parents, and siblings comes in the way of connecting them to DOD [Department of Defense] and benevolent resources, facilitating information sessions, invitations to retreats, workshops, children’s camps, and other command-sponsored events. The shared loss of their loved one is heartfelt, and for their sacrifice, we will always be here for them.

Compete: Remaining ahead of our adversaries in the ever-shifting global battlespace we face today involves innovating sustainable capabilities, capacity, and concepts for competitive advantage.

Naval Special Warfare

U.S. Navy Sea, Air, and Land Team Members conduct military field operations during exercise TRIDENT 18-4 at Hurlburt Field, Florida, July 2018.

Beyond the realignment of our force structure to increase both capacity and capabilities, we are employing an aggressive approach to leveraging technology and data-driven means that will enable us to maintain or regain our operational overmatch, stay ahead of our adversaries, avoid or mitigate surprise, and provide unique solutions to our nation’s security needs.

We are approaching this using two primary avenues: operational competitiveness and business, force generation, and readiness improvement. We are focused on innovations that provide transformational and exponential disruptive opportunities, are organically employed to reduce risk to mission and force, and enable precision, speed, and lethality while also reducing costs. In essence, we endeavor to create capability without incurring additional manpower and other costs.

Our approach recognizes both threats and opportunities of globally accelerating technology trends, and focuses on the speed of adaptation and adoption of these technologies for our asymmetric advantage.

As most people already know, and as I have talked about before, Naval Special Warfare’s enduring value proposition remains maritime access and placement. We plan to merge our surface and undersea capabilities to form a robust maritime operations group which will further maximize the effectiveness of our maritime operations as well as the development, acquisition, and sustainment of future undersea and surface mobility platforms. We continue to invest in, operationally employ, and leverage our unique NSW maritime access, placement, and technology across the full spectrum of competition and conflict to create enhanced options for joint and fleet warfighting.

The transition from legacy to more complex and capable combatant craft has provided Geographic Combatant Commanders with platforms that have increased lethality and unique operational attributes. We strive to meet the demands of Theater Special Operations Commands, joint force commanders, and others through incremental improvements, innovation, and craft evolution. This iterative process leverages the latest technologies from across industry to maximize craft lethality while ensuring compatibility and interoperability with our fleet partners through programs, training, exercises, and operational employment.

Our approach recognizes both threats and opportunities of globally accelerating technology trends, and focuses on the speed of adaptation and adoption of these technologies for our asymmetric advantage. Some of these trends include the rapid advancement in areas such as advanced communications and artificial intelligence for human-machine teaming to increase speed, accuracy, and hyper-enable the joint warfighting team. Other areas such as virtual and augmented reality and the digital transformation of training and planning processes will enable our force to become more capable faster while reducing time, costs, risk, and error. We are confident that exploring and exploiting these emerging technologies will enable our NSW force to operate successfully in increasingly contested or denied environments.

A file photo taken in February 2002 of Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator (SEAL) Britt K. Slabinski at Bagram Airfield. President Donald J. Trump awarded the Medal of Honor to Slabinski during a White House ceremony May 24, 2018, for his heroic actions during the Battle of Takur Ghar in March 2002 while serving in Afghanistan.

A file photo taken in February 2002 of Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator (SEAL) Britt K. Slabinski at Bagram Airfield. President Donald J. Trump awarded the Medal of Honor to Slabinski during a White House ceremony May 24, 2018, for his heroic actions during the Battle of Takur Ghar in March 2002 while serving in Afghanistan.

Finally, we have increased the pace and volume of fleet, joint, and combined war-gaming, operational exchange meetings, and experimentation to rapidly develop concepts and capabilities to provide complementary and real options and solutions.

Reform: We are driving to reform our culture and processes to achieve greater accountability, relevancy, speed, and affordability. Efforts to reform our resourcing, requirements, and acquisition processes and procedures are ongoing and are already paying dividends in the form of faster on-ramps and scaling. For example, collaborative efforts with industry, acquisition professionals, and our SEAL operators now include the initial government acceptance and future operational testing of the first Dry Combat Submersible.

The single most important military construction effort impacting current and future operational readiness of the NSW force is the build-out of the 10-year, $1 billion, congressionally supported Silver Strand Training Complex-South.

Along these lines, we have established a recurring divestiture board to evaluate programs and capabilities for relevancy and efficiency. One example is the August 2018 divestiture of the Combatant Craft Assault (CCA) air drop capability. Cost-benefit analysis determined the ability to reposition the CCA via airlift and parachute insertion was not readily executed by operational commanders due to the high-risk nature of at-sea parachute operations. We are looking at lower-risk alternatives to prepositioning the craft and SOF passengers, along with the mission’s command, control, and logistics sustainment forces.

We are also prioritizing all current and future military construction, range infrastructure investments, and modernization projects to achieve primacy, privacy, and proximity. In addition, we are anticipating material requirements needed to conduct efficient and effective great-power competition operations.

The single most important military construction effort impacting current and future operational readiness of the NSW force is the build-out of the 10-year, $1 billion, congressionally supported Silver Strand Training Complex-South. Since August 2017, the first of 29 projects – our indoor-training range facility and three other facilities that provide critical operational support to our forces forward – have been opened and are fully operational. At this time, 18 projects valued at $728 million have been awarded, including MFP-2 Navy-funded projects for demolition, utilities infrastructure, and a new entry control point. With operational units and advanced training located in a single, state-of-the-art campus, this new facility gives our force more time at home with their families, ultimately creating a more resilient and ready NSW team.

Members assigned to Naval Special Warfare Group 2 conduct military dive operations in the Gulf of Mexico, Oct. 11, 2018. U.S. Navy SEALs engage in a continuous training cycle to improve and further specialize skills needed during deployments across the globe

Members assigned to Naval Special Warfare Group 2 conduct military dive operations in the Gulf of Mexico, Oct. 11, 2018. U.S. Navy SEALs engage in a continuous training cycle to improve and further specialize skills needed during deployments across the globe.

We continue to collaborate and integrate with DOD, interagency, and our multinational allies and partners to maximize the use of command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence technologies. These efforts are aimed at enabling a fully integrated operator to exceed mission objectives in all environments and against any adversary.

Our ability to move rapidly and innovate faster than our competition is hampered by traditional processes and fiscal unpredictability. Policy updates such as other transaction authority, commercial solutions opening, and middle-tier acquisitions are significant steps forward to enabling agility and partnership with industry, and the authors of those policy updates are to be commended. Continued efforts to adapt contracting and resourcing authorities are needed if we are to leverage and implement emerging technologies and improve processes while ensuring an environment of affordability and accountability.

Going back to the topic of people, when you spoke at West 2019 in February, you mentioned commissioning a study to look at the culture of NSW. What were the results or findings from that review?

I believe leadership is at the foundation of all we do in Naval Special Warfare, so it is incumbent upon us to continue to develop competent leaders with character who care for their teammates, and who will do everything in their power to protect the integrity of our Navy and our nation.

In March, we concluded that comprehensive 90-day review on how we prepare our operators and support personnel to confront tough ethical dilemmas.

Ultimately, we remain committed to developing a force whose moral foundation and ethical adherence is as important as our tactical proficiency on target.

Our findings confirm that we do, in fact, have a credible process in place to deliberately focus on character development and the construct of a sound ethical foundation in our SEAL and SWCC training pipelines. NSW’s courses further build on that foundation by weaving ethical decision-making scenarios into every NSW leadership training opportunity. This is an important and ongoing effort to ensure we are properly balancing a culture of operational excellence with a culture of sound ethical compliance.

The review identified additional opportunities to reinforce our core ethos during the first six years of individual and team development. We are reinvigorating our focus on small unit-level leadership and mentorship while simultaneously employing human factors councils, which look at individuals holistically to identify problems early and execute timely corrective measures. We will incorporate ethical scenarios into our tactical training to further prepare our operators to navigate the inevitable ethical decisions they will face in ambiguous environments. Many of our leadership teams have excellent programs that we are institutionalizing with force-wide guidance. These programs will ensure our culture and values – from the tactical unit to headquarters – are aligned with the standards of behavior that enable us to act according to the highest potential of our character.

Cmdr. Gary Ryals, outgoing commander of Special Boat Team 22, John C. Stennis Space Center, Mississippi, departs his change-of-command ceremony via a simulated hot extraction utilizing a Special Operations Craft-Riverine boat

Cmdr. Gary Ryals, outgoing commander of Special Boat Team 22, John C. Stennis Space Center, Mississippi, departs his change-of-command ceremony via a simulated hot extraction utilizing a Special Operations Craft-Riverine boat.

Ultimately, we remain committed to developing a force whose moral foundation and ethical adherence is as important as our tactical proficiency on target.

Are there any closing comments you’d like to leave with our readers?

Thank you for that question. We are adapting to the evolving strategic environment in order to remain the NSW force the nation expects – flexible, agile, networked, sustainable, and lethal. I am proud to lead this incredible force of highly skilled and creative problem solvers. Our strength lies in the diversity of thought, background, race, gender, and experience found throughout our force. Our families serve as our bedrock and their health and well-being are essential to our success.

We are entrusted with some of the most precious of our national assets: the men and women of Naval Special Warfare. We seek out those “with an uncommon desire to succeed.” The sailors, civilians, and reservists serving their country in Naval Special Warfare embody that sentiment, and strive to earn the trust of the American people every day. They reflect the heart of our nation in their utmost dedication to preserving our freedoms, defending our homeland and protecting our national interests.


This interview originally appears in Special Operations Outlook 2019.

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