By Rear Admiral Brian Losey
Commander, Naval Special Warfare Command
A Global Security Environment That Calls for Special Operations Forces
We live in a rapidly changing world full of uncertain security situations. Adversaries are capitalizing on a flattened global system that enables both state and non-state actors to exert destabilizing power and influence in a variety of non-traditional ways. Amidst these disruptions, governments are finding it harder and harder to maintain legitimacy with disaffected populations and are challenged to adequately address the underlying grievances and root causes that are driving instability. It is in these seams where governments are most vulnerable, and where adversaries are exploiting their asymmetric advantage to gain an unconventional foothold and advance their objectives.
U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) are uniquely suited to deliver significant impact in these very environments, aligned along three principal lines of effort: persistent engagement, enabling partners, and discreet action. SOF is quietly engaged in strategically important locations and integrated with a network of global and regional partners. These relationships form a cornerstone to build shared capability and capacity to meet common security threats. Long term solutions or effective mitigation of security challenges lie in whole of government (or governments) solutions. SOF can play a supporting or supported role to conventional forces in a military operation, and has served as a key partner in coordination of interagency efforts covered by governmental departments and agencies. SOF plays an important, but not always decisive role in producing outcomes. SOF has the ability to conduct both discrete and discreet action against our most immediate threats. While working toward long-term security and stability objectives, SOF continues to be ready to mount effective crisis response and maintains a robust engagement program. These lines of effort are fundamental to meeting the broadening variety of security problems, and remain essential to building lasting stability and security needed to safeguard U.S. interests.
Naval Special Warfare’s role in SOF’s Global Network
Naval Special Warfare (NSW) is the Navy component of U.S. Special Operations Command, and the SOF component of the U.S. Navy. NSW is a full-spectrum special operations force with primacy in the maritime domain.
The mission of Naval Special Warfare Command is to man, train, equip, deploy, and sustain NSW forces for operations and activities worldwide, in support of Theater Special Operations Commands (TSOCs) and the combatant commanders. NSW carries out that mission with a team of highly skilled and experienced professionals, totaling approximately 10,000 personnel — 3,600 active duty SEALs and Special Boat Operators, 4,500 functional specialists sourced from the fleet, 1,200 civilians, and 750 Navy reserve personnel.
Naval Special Warfare’s top priorities are People, Mission, and Resources — each critical to meeting the operational requirements of combatant commanders today and to prepare to meet the evolving and uncertain challenges of tomorrow.
NSW’s Flagship Weapons System
The number one SOF truth is “Humans are more important than Hardware” – in Naval Special Warfare, our People are the capital resource and flagship weapons system. We develop, deploy and sustain human systems that train and operate in highly dynamic, complex and ambiguous environments.
The last fourteen years of war has forged our force, through a cascade of challenging combat deployments and equally demanding training regimens. NSW has been a key SOF component in two landlocked wars and multiple areas of operation mired in conflict and turmoil. NSW has been a part of radically evolving counter insurgency (COIN), combatting terrorism (CT), and countering violent extremist organization (CVEO) approaches. At the same time, NSW has kept its fins in the water and in an equally radical manner, advanced the craft of maritime special operations. Perhaps NSW’s most radical advance is in the recognition and establishment of community-wide programs and practices that provide the essential care and support to ensure that our flagship weapons systems are mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically prepared to carry out critical, sensitive and sometimes high-risk missions for the long term. Further, this support is extended to NSW Families to ensure resiliency on the home front. Every system, especially human systems, requires preventive maintenance and support.
Over time, NSW has evolved personnel assessment and selection processes beyond the requisite physical prowess dimension to place a premium on character, values-based critical thinking, and fast-twitch adaptability to a wide range of operating environments and situations. These traits are necessary for small groups operating in sensitive environments, interacting directly with coalition and regional military partners as well as representatives from many departments and agencies of the US and foreign governments. Additionally, NSW has taken on cutting edge methodologies to implement a Continuum of Leadership Development, and is advancing training and teaching practices to find the highest degree of effectiveness in learning and retention of a broad range of required skills.
As part of our Human Capital Enterprise, we carefully manage professional education, career progression, and assignment. 30 percent of NSW enlisted operators (SEALs and Special Warfare Combatant Craft Crewmen, or SWCCs) are coming into the force with 4-year degrees. This demographic shift offers NSW a tremendous opportunity to build the most capable warriors with cultural and language expertise, as well as the intellectual savvy to effectively shape operating environments to reinforce security and stability. At the same time, the force trains for the worst case, and retains the lethality necessary for transition to crisis response, contingency response, and theater combat operations.
Hand in hand with NSW’s emphasis on People, is the recognition that in SOF business, the quantum leaps in advancing tactics, techniques, procedures and hardware that ensure mission success in complex and dynamic operating environments, spring from the innovation and empowerment of our relatively junior members doing the Mission. NSW’s training, trust and empowerment of our tactical operators and enabling support personnel has proven to be well founded in consistently producing desired mission effects.
Total Commitment to Mission Effectiveness
On any given day, NSW is deployed to more than 35 countries around the world in a wide variety of operational environments and situations. Through persistent (vice episodic) engagement, forward deployed NSW builds trusted relationships and interoperability with partner nations. These efforts are closely coordinated with other government agencies, and are designed to support the Geographic Combatant Commander, Theater Special Operations Commander and the Ambassador’s requirements and objectives, tailoring solutions to theater problem sets and accomplishing mutual regional security objectives.
The NSW operational approach focuses on gaining access, placement and influence in key operational environments in order to generate trust, confidence and long term working relationships. These partnerships, while broadly centered on building and enabling partner security capacity through a variety of programs and mechanisms regulated by the Department of Defense and the State Department, also integrate humanitarian efforts that win trust and confidence with the local civil populations that are exposed to the influences of violent extremism – a critical center of gravity. These partnership engagements are conditional and almost always operate in parallel with other governmental initiatives to advance democracy, free and fair elections, human rights, good governance, and education. This is a complex environment to operate in – more complex than the recognized SOF kinetic roles centered around direct action missions. Success in this environment hinges on our ability to engage with Ambassadors and their country teams, with host nation and regional military counterparts and with local civil populations. NSW needs and has the top quality people necessary to be effective in this endeavor.
Naval Special Warfare Groups are Echelon 3 major command organizations. NSW Groups man, train, equip and certify for deployment, all deployable NSW organizations, to include SEAL Teams, Special Boat Detachments, SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV – combatant submersible) Task Units, Cross Functional Teams, and other task organized elements. NSW Group Commanders and their staffs routinely interact with theater special operations commanders to define mission requirements and objectives, with the aim of providing more than just forces, but tailored solutions to theater problem sets. In addition to serving as the nucleus from which deployable battle staffs like Combined Joint Special Operations Task Forces, or Naval Special Warfare Task Groups are formed, NSW Groups reinforce the theater based Naval Special Warfare Units that serve as the Navy component to Theater Special Operations Commands, and serve as the NSW center of gravity for theater command, control, and coherent component planning and execution. This evolution of NSW staff and battle staff functions allows NSW to achieve the critical mass required to support the many planning and execution tasks to support Theater Special Operations Commands within current manning and resourcing constraints.
NSW actively works to advance maritime interoperability and integration with the Navy in ways that best support of our revised Maritime Strategy, “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower: Forward, Engaged, Ready”, as well as key operating concepts like the “Air and Sea Battle Concept”. As a part of the Navy, NSW has an innate orientation to leverage advanced technology, and finds incredible support and enablement from fleet-sourced Sailors with critical technical ratings. These Sailors comprise 56% of the NSW force and give as much back to the Fleet as they bring to NSW after their Special Operations tours.
USSOCOM shares resource sponsorship of NSW with the U.S. Navy. While NSW represents a comparatively small portion of the Navy budget, we fit well in “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower: Forward, Engaged, Ready”. NSW operates forward as a core tenet, well-positioned in both the maritime and human domains to generate and preserve global maritime access. NSW stays deeply engaged with foreign Navy and SOF counterparts as a cornerstone of our operational approach, networking with partners to generate and maintain a level of readiness to respond to a range of crises quickly and effectively. Ensuring both SOF unique and service unique requirements are aligned and complementary to operational requirements is the coin of the realm in NSW resourcing.
Surface platforms, subsurface platforms, sea basing and host platforms are required for NSW to operate in the full range of physical and political environments in the maritime domain. The development and fielding of these advanced platforms as well as adaption of host platforms must account for a range of mobility and access requirements, with signatures and capabilities suitable to anticipated operating environments. NSW’s SEAL/SDV operators and Combatant Craft Crewmen receive in depth training and certification to operate these platforms worldwide. The Navy has steadily advanced Fleet Interoperability Training to ensure NSW forces can embark in and operate from Navy ships and submarines with maximum effectiveness in support of ongoing operations and where crises and contingencies emerge. By advancing interoperability with the fleet, the force benefits from enhanced operational flexibility and responsiveness while reinforcing the Secretary of Defense’s emphasis on efficiency.
Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities are vital to enhancing awareness and understanding of operational environments, and to synergizing partner capacity and capability development. NSW airborne ISR is utilizes comparatively inexpensive tactical systems with operational level capabilities. These small footprint and low signature platforms feature sensor suites which leverage miniaturization and form factors that are adaptable to airborne, land based, and maritime environments and platforms. The relative ease of maintenance and low system cost make these platforms available to many partners. The evolution of Naval Small Craft Instruction and Technical Training School (NAVSCATTS) into a Navy/NSW/SOF security force assistance center of excellence is an initiative that radically advances our ability to build partnerships and partner capacity. NAVSCIATTS has already begun pilot courses on unmanned aerial system operations, intelligence fusion and operations integration to generate capabilities critical to today’s security challenges.
Over recent years, NSW has sought training areas closer to our basing areas to generate and sustain our force while meeting personnel and operational tempo (time away from home) constraints. Key initiatives have centered on Fort Story, VA and La Posta, CA and have been effective in augmenting force generation requirements. Still, the NSW enterprise on the west coast meets only 42% of Basic Facilities Requirements (BFR), a third of which is from the WWII era. NSW’s Coastal Campus project in San Diego, resourced both by the Navy and USSOCOM, and positively supported by the local community, is the single most important effort impacting the current and future operational readiness of the NSW force. This project will replace aging, outdated facilities with the infrastructure necessary to meet the requirements and size of today’s force. By continuing to draw training facilities closer to home, NSW is preserving PERSTEMPO for operations, and mitigating the inefficiencies of deploying to train.
Addressing dynamic global security issues and protecting America’s interests remains a challenge. Ironically, as we seek greater levels of security and stability in the world, the one constant that we can count on is that of constant change. The root drivers of insecurity and instability that precipitated 9/11 have not been resolved or sufficiently mitigated. USSOCOM’s SOF pillars and the Navy’s Maritime Strategy recognize that they are likely to remain unresolved for some time.
The uncertain environment in which we operate presents opportunities. Many nations are willing to engage and partner with us, and this highlights the core of our operational approach: to engage with our interagency counterparts and country teams to be part of an integrated effort; to win the trust and confidence and build the capacities and interoperability with our coalition, regional, and host nation military counterparts; to engage with and coordinate humanitarian support for local civil populations that are vulnerable to the influences of violent extremism; and to maintain the readiness posture to respond to crises, contingencies, and in the worst case, major theater war. NSW assesses and selects the very best personnel suited to meeting these diverse requirements. Rapidly adapting to change and cultivating the tremendous talent that exists across the Naval Special Warfare enterprise for the long term gives USSOCOM, the U.S. Navy, the Combatant Commanders and the nation the edge needed to meet current and emerging security challenges.