Tag Archives: SEALS

Sub-Par: Designing a Better (and Cheaper) SEAL Delivery System

U.S. Navy Special Warfare operators hold a unique role in the Special Operations community: conducting missions covertly, from the sea, and back out again, without notice. And with America’s land wars winding down, Navy SEALs can once again focus on littoral operations in hostile and dangerous locales. To aid in this end, Northrop Grumman’s Electric Boat division is developing a new submersible to insert SEALs quickly and quietly, all while staying dry and ready for the mission ahead.

If this sounds like a familiar concept, that’s because it’s been done before. Recognizing the need for a dry submersible superior to the current SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV), the U.S. Government and Northrop Grumman developed the Advanced SEAL Delivery System (ASDS) in the late 90’s. However, in true government fashion, poor design and massive cost overruns doomed the program, which ended fittingly with a fire onboard the only ASDS in 2008. The new incarnation hopes to avoid previous pitfalls and help to usher in a new era of cheaper, commercially developed craft for future U.S. Navy operations.

The Special Warfare community voiced concern regarding wet-submersible insertion (i.e., SEAL Delivery Vehicle) in the early 1980s. Exposed to extreme sea and air temperatures during SDV or free swim insertion, teams wasted precious time refocusing and recovering once landing ashore. As a result, U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and Northrop Grumman teamed up to develop a dry mini-sub which could be launched from submarines, allowing team members to conserve energy, stay dry, and maintain 100% physical readiness upon hitting the beach to execute tasking. The Navy ordered six ASDSs, with the first becoming operational in 2003.

Too good to be true? You bet. In the same vein as current projects, the ASDS suffered from poor design, ranging from noisy propellers to weak lithium batteries. Repairs and redesign of ASDS-1 ballooned the budget from a total cost of $527 million to almost $2 billion, effectively cancelling the program. ASDS-1 continued in service before catching fire in November 2008, causing SOCOM to permanently jettison the program shortly thereafter.

As involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan winds down, SEALs will find themselves focused once again on the maritime and littoral environments. Electric Boat and SOCOM have joined forces to develop a new dry submersible, known as of now as User Operational Evaluation System (UOES) 3. Still in the planning stages, UOES 3 will be in the testing stages through 2015, most likely entering service shortly after. With the failure of ASDS undoubtedly fresh on the minds of researchers, these shortcomings should play a large role in the design of UOES 3.

The Navy is keen on tightening its belt in these frugal financial times, and finding detours around expensive new projects is a great way to save a buck. Electric Boat is planning just that – even partnering with a civilian firm, using commercial concepts to keep costs low. Along with UOES 3, the Navy’s newest Special Operations transport and Mobile Landing Platform are also joint military-civilian ventures, and it may only be a matter of time until UOES 3 is launched from one of these vessels.

Naval Special Warfare needs a dry submersible to keep operators safe and focused on the mission at hand. ASDS was doomed by poor engineering and skyrocketing repair costs; hopefully the fusion of civilian and military engineers can provide the vessel required by operators at a price required by American taxpayers.

LTJG Brett Davis is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer, runs the blog ClearedHot, and is trying to figure out how Twitter actually works.  He holds an M.A. in International Relations from Northeastern University and these views are entirely his own.

Not Like Yesterday: David Kilcullen’s Out of the Mountains

and into the Littorals

In a 1997 speech to the National Press Club that will be familiar to many Navy and Marine Officers, General Charles Krulak, 31st Commandant of the Marine Corps, told the story of Roman consul Publius Varus. Consul Varus was a once successful general whose legions were decimated by Germanic tribes using what we might refer to as asymmetric tactics that left the Roman’s flummoxed. Varus’ last words were recounted as “Ne Cras, Ne Cras,” or “Not like yesterday.” The story presents a challenge to military leaders in our own generation to refrain from getting complacent in their own capabilities, and to continue to adapt their organizations to meet new and unexpected threats.

General Krulak’s went on to introduce the concept of an urban “three block war,” in which combat forces would simultaneously conduct humanitarian relief, peacekeeping, and high intensity combat operations in the space of three contiguous blocks of a complex urban environment. In many ways General Krulak’s words were more prophetic than he could know, as within six years U.S. forces were engaged against an irregular enemy in complex, densely populated urban terrain in Iraq.

American combat troops out of Iraq and on the cusp of departing Afghanistan. This makes it the perfect opportunity to examine old ideas about urban warfare with fresh eyes and look for  both the continuities and the differences resulting from a globally connected world and the proliferation of advanced weapons and technologies down to the sub-state level.

Dr. David Kilcullen, an Australian soldier and counterinsurgency specialist who advised U.S. leadership on strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan, has taken a major step in this direction with his new book Out of the Mountains. Kilcullen’s new work analyses the major trends driving the future of conflict around the world. His findings will indeed have far reaching implications for the U.S. military, which has been focused for years on a rural insurgency based in the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan. Conflict will not be as it was yesterday. It will be fought in major coastal urban centers amidst tens of millions of people, and it will span all domains including land, sea, air, and cyber. These conflicts will be complex and will almost never have a purely or even primarily military solution, but their intensity will at the very least require military force to protect and enable other forms of power and influence as they are applied in support of U.S. strategic goals. The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps will need to be adaptable and flexible in order to remain mission-capable in such an environment.

This article will examine the major trends that Kilcullen identifies, and attempt to delve deploy into their military implications. Dr. Kilcullen identifies four “mega-trends” that are shaping the future of humanity, and with it the future of warfare as a human endeavor. These trends include:

  • Increasing Population – The U.N. estimates that the global population will continue to increase, especially in developing nations, before leveling off around 9 billion people sometime in the latter half of the century.
  • Urbanization – For the first time in human history, more than half of the population worldwide lives in cities.
  • Littoralization – Most cities, and certainly the largest ones, are in coastal zones that provide access to seaborne transportation and thus access to the global economy. Kilcullen usefully defines the littorals as the portion of land and air that can be targeted by weapons from the sea, and likewise that portion of sea and air that can be targeted from land.
  • Digital Connectedness – Internet and mobile phone access are beginning to saturate markets worldwide, and in some countries access to communications technology outstrips access to sanitation facilities.

The first three of these trends are not news. Kilcullen notes that sociologists have been writing about population and urbanization for decades, and urban conflict was a major focus of military thinking in the 1990s. However, the acceleration of these trends, combined with the burgeoning level of digital connectedness not widely foreseen in the 1990s, means that urban conflicts will take on a new level of violence and intensity that will be broadcast around the world instantaneously. This will provide our adversaries with powerful commercial tools to enable command and control  (C2) of independent networked cells in a dynamic battlespace.

Operation Iraqi FreedomAt the operational level, planners can expect warfare to range from the multiple-battalion level assault on Fallujah at the high-end to complex “urban seige” attacks such as Mumbai and Nairobi in the mid-range to the persistent urban violence of the drug wars in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas at the low-end. In each instance, the enemy will be a small, networked, and extremely well-armed group. It will reside in a sea of millions of civilians and be able to call upon commercial digital networks from cell phones to Twitter to collect intelligence, post propaganda, and act as ad hoc C2 nodes to coordinate operations. It will also be able to draw on a massive global transportation system to transport people, weapons, and finances around the world in short order.

1127-for-webMUMBAImapfIn order to flesh out the capabilities of modern networked urban terrorist groups, Kilcullen analyzes in detail the 2008 Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) Mumbai assault. LeT’s ground-breaking tactics, which displayed a level of free-flowing swarming ability that is at the very least rare for a sub-state actor, are worth examining. The attack was carried out by multiple cells of just a few individuals each who had conducted a thorough reconnaissance of their targets for nearly a year.  The attackers used maritime ratlines normally employed by smugglers to move from Karachi to the port of Mumbai, making landfall in a slum neighborhood with little police presence.  Once the assault began, their actions were coordinated via cell- and satellite-phone by a LeT command team operating their own combat operations center in Pakistan (likely with some support from Pakistani ISI). The team used broadcasts from CNN and other media networks to inform their battle tracking and develop an open-sourced understanding of the Indian police response. This allowed the LeT cells to remain several steps ahead of Indian security forces for several days, killing civilians at several high-profile public locations around Mumbai before they were finally surrounded and neutralized.

Digital connectedness is also allowing insurgent groups to expand their presence into the global information space that was once the sole purview of states and large corporations. Regular readers of this blog will likely remember that al-Shabaab live-tweeted the recent Navy SEAL raid in Barawe, and after the special operators withdrew, were able to claim victory before Western news outlets even knew the operation had taken place. The militants then followed up by posting pictures of equipment that the SEALs had left behind during their extraction from the firefight.  While seemingly trivial, this allowed al Shabaab to stake its claim to the information available on the attack, and perhaps shatter some of the aura of invincibility surrounding the SEALs since their assault on Osama bin Laden and rescue of Captain Richard Philips from Somali pirates.

It is beyond the scope of a single blog post to analyze all of the future trends that Kilcullen examines in detail. Indeed, the book itself is likely just the first of a great deal of research that still needs to be done on the future of urban conflict against evolved irregular or hybrid adversaries in mega-slums and other dense and highly complex urban environments. Much of that research will, of necessity, have to focus on non-military aspects of conflict prevention and mitigation, due to the unavoidable fact that future urban conflicts will be driven by sociological factors inherent to the urban systems where they are being fought. Under Kilcullen’s formulation, urban design and development will in many ways become as important to American policy as foreign aid, governance and economic development, and security sector reform.

The implications for military doctrine and organization will be significant as well. It will impact Naval doctrine, organization, and ship-building plans even as Navy leadership seeks to focus its efforts and budgetary priorities towards AirSea Battle. The same is true for the Marine Corps’ efforts to reposition itself as the nation’s amphibious crisis response force following a decade of warfare in landlocked environments. In following articles, we will examine these implications in depth, and attempt to achieve a better degree of resolution on the future of urban littoral combat and the steps that the Navy and Marine Corps will need to take to remain mission-capable in that environment.

Dan Dewit is a researcher with the Arleigh Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. From 2009- September, 2013 he served as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Drones of the Navy SEALs

ScanEagle Launched from Mk V SOC
ScanEagle Launched from Mk V SOC

The mystique of Navy SEALs has been heavily celebrated in the media and films due to recent real-world exploits.  Yet Naval Special Warfare (NSW) Sailors have been heavily engaged in combat operations for more than 11 consecutive years.  Warfare is still a decidedly human endeavor, and America’s naval special warriors are quick to embrace the truth that “humans are more important than hardware.”  Nevertheless, today’s SEALs, Special Warfare Combat Crewmen, and other supporting personnel in the NSW community have benefited greatly from technology, which increasingly includes unmanned systems.

Two primary realizations within the NSW community drove the rapid introduction of UAVs for combat operations in Southwest and Central Asia.  The first realization was that even the best shooters in the world are ineffective if they are unable to locate their targets.  Simply, UAVs are a force multiplier for SEALs and enable an exponential increase in their ability to find, fix, and finish targets.  Secondly, as more and more small UAVs were added to the force, NSW began to understand that as valuable as these unmanned systems were, the skills required to operate and maintain them were a distraction for highly trained shooters.  This epiphany led to the creation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Troops at Naval Special Warfare Support Activity (SUPACT) One in Coronado, California, and SUPACT Two at what is now Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, Virginia.  According to Naval Special Warfare Command, each UAS Troop totals 35 personnel among three detachments of UAS operators, a group of instructors, and military and civilian maintenance technicians.

For some additional first-person historical perspective on the evolution of unmanned air systems (UAS) in NSW, former Navy SEAL UAS expert and current lighter-than-air unmanned systems entrepreneur John Surmount discusses the origins of unmanned air systems in Naval Special Warfare in Operation Enduring Freedom in this podcast.  Since those early days, the breadth and depth of unmanned systems used by Naval Special Warfare Operators has expanded tremendously.

The exact tactics, techniques, and procedures for UAS use with NSW are a closely guarded secret (as well they should be), but in general, SEALs use drones to support the four core missions of NSW:

  • Direct Action (DA) – offensive missions to capture/kill enemy targets
  • Special Reconaissance (SR) – surveillance and monitoring of enemy activity and the littoral environment including beaches and ports
  • Counter-terrorism (CT) – conducting DA against terrorist networks
  • Foreign Internal Defense (FID) – assisting foreign military partners in developing their own special operations capacity.

UAVs are especially critical for finding and fixing the exact location of an enemy in DA and CT.  They also support, and in some cases replace, the eyes of operators in SR missions.  On a micro-scale, a demonstration the utility of UAVs can be seen in the film “Act of Valor” where a Raven UAV – launched by actual operators from Special Boat Team 22 – provides ISR over-watch of SEAL operators on a mission.  A more-capable, marinized UAV, the Puma AE, is also part of NSW’s inventory.

The beauty of these rucksack-portable systems is that they can provide organic support to a platoon or smaller-size group of SEALs.  The primary drawback is limited endurance.  Enter the Small Tactical UAS (STUAS).   NSW has embraced the ScanEagle for missions where long endurance ISR is a requirement.  NSW ScanEagles can be sea-launched from vessels as small as a MK V Special Operations Craft or based ashore at expeditionary sites.  Another example of the value of UAVs in the over-watch role was demonstrated in April 2009, when a ScanEagle provided a real time feed to assist SEALs in rescuing the Maersk Alabama’s Captain Richard Phillips from his pirate captors.   

More recently, NSW has benefited from the Navy’s introduction of the shipboard vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) Fire Scout.  Requirements for the next-generation VTOL UAS, the Fire-X MQ-8C, are also driven by special operations forces.  Future developments in Navy UAS integration for NSW will undoubtedly include armed tactical UAVs providing fire support to operators on the ground and sea.

The same concept of ISR support and armed over-watch applies to more complex operations with larger UAVs.  Land-based Air Force Predator and Reapers support NSW missions in Afghanistan and other areas.  A low-signature RQ-170 drone reportedly assisted the SEALs who conducted the raid to kill Usama bin Laden in May 2011.  NSW is also slowly progressing in the implementation of unmanned undersea vehicles (UUV).  These systems are used for missions such as hydrographic reconnaissance reducing the risk to operators and letting them focus on other core missions.  Much as the Navy’s Explosive Ordnance community has embraced autonomous underwater vehicles to help them hunt and neutralize mines, SEALs will eventually find themselves reliant on robots to survey beach landing sites.

Along with other underwater assets such as swimmer delivery vehicles, UUVs fall under the auspices of Naval Special Warfare Group Three (NSWG-3).  In 2010, Naval Special Warfare Command ordered some Iver2 autonomous undersea vehicles for experimentation.  NSW has also purchased 18 Semi-autonomous Hydrographic Reconnaissance Vehicles (SAHRV) outfitted with side-scan sonar and an Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler.  SAHRV is an adaptation of the REMUS 100.  On the USV side, earlier this year, Naval Sea Systems Command’s Naval Special Warfare Program Office sponsored a test of a Protector USV armed with Spike missiles.  The application of such a capability in support of NSW missions is unclear.

The combination of the world’s most proficient naval special operators enhanced by modern technology will continue to produce powerful strategic effects through tactical actions.


This article was re-posted by permission from, and appeared in its original form at NavalDrones.com.

Future Naval Drone Power Pt II

Unmanned naval systems are rapidly reaching the limitations of physics with regard to their endurance.  Current internal combustion and electrically powered systems have several drawbacks.  In addition to range/weight issues, liquid fuel engines make for noisy UAVs which can compromise missions in some circumstances, such as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.  Electrically-powered UAVs are quiet, but batteries do not approach the energy contained within a similar weight of fossil fuel.  This article clearly explains the physical limitations of current battery technologies.  Modern lithium-ion batteries are problematic due to their propensity to catch fire and explode.  SOCOM’s billion dollar Advanced SEAL Delivery System (ASDS) fire illustrated why navies are not keen on carrying lithium-ion batteries at sea, especially undersea.  Clearly, alternative power technologies are in high demand.

Previously, we highlighted the use of ship-based lasers to power future UAS.  The video below discusses these tests, along with a propane-powered variant.  Planned upcoming flight tests will demonstrate the ability to keep a Stalker Small Tactical UAS aloft using a laser for two to three days.

For long-endurance surface and underwater vehicles where speed is not a mission requirement, wave power and buoyancy-driven gliders are viable alternatives.  Another possibility for powering future autonomous sea-floor crawlers or UUVs is the benthic microbial fuel cell.  Naval drones will require continued innovations in power to allow performance necessary to meet future operational requirements.

    Harnessing the power of the murky deep.


This article was re-posted by permission from NavalDrones.com.