Navy Special Forces units: How many are needed?

Walter Pincus
Reporter August 15, 2012

Is the Navy’s increased interest in irregular warfare and counterterrorism “partly motivated” by concerns about remaining relevant, or by a desire to secure some of the growing funding for Special Forces units, or both?

That’s a question posed by a Congressional Research Service (CRS) study on Navy irregular warfare and counterterrorism operations released Friday.

The Pentagon’s new strategic plan, put together by the Defense Department last fall, calls for an increase in spending on Special Forces units, despite the need to reduce planned funding increases over the next 10 years that could go beyond the $487 billion already agreed to. “We will continue to build and sustain tailored capabilities appropriate for counterterrorism and irregular warfare,” reads the strategy put forward by Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta.

The Naval Special Warfare Command, with some 9,000 military personnel, is smaller than the Army and Air Force elements that make up the operational forces under the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). The relatively new Marine Special Forces Command is far behind with 2,500, according to a June 26 CRS report.

However, the Navy has by far the most famous of the individual Special Operations units, SEAL Team Six, the group that carried out the 2011 nighttime raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

Illustrious as it may be, SEAL Team Six is just one of 10 SEAL teams headquartered in California and Virginia, along with smaller elements based abroad in Bahrain, Guam and Stuttgart, Germany. Active-duty SEALs represent roughly 3,000 of the overall force, while another 800 are reservists. There are some 900 boat operators making up SEAL delivery teams and special boat teams.

The remainder of the command deals with support, logistics, and training including the Naval Special Warfare Center at Naval Base Coronado in California.

SOCOM argues that “because SEALs are considered experts in special reconnaissance and direct action missions — primary counterterrorism skills,” they and their support units are “viewed as well postured to fight a globally dispersed enemy ashore or afloat.”

But as the CRS report indicates, questions remain about how much money the Naval Special Warfare Command is spending on irregular warfare and counterterrorism forces that are different from activities better performed by other services.

SEALS today are engaged in Afghanistan in combat operations, aiding in counterpiracy operations, serving aboard Navy ships providing security assistance to foreign navies and aiding with disaster relief when needed.

The Navy has other groups prepared to take part in irregular warfare. One is the Coastal Riverine Force, whose roots go back to the Vietnam War. In June, it merged with the Maritime Expeditionary Force to create units that perform “core maritime expeditionary security missions in green and brown waters . . . providing port and harbor security security,” according to the Navy News Service. The combined riverine force will have 2,500 active-duty sailors and 2,000 Navy Reserve sailors, with a forward-deployed detachment in Bahrain.

In the shipbuilding area, the Navy is proposing to build a fourth Mobile Landing Platform, a ship that serves as a base for amphibious operations and which, if needed, can handle transfers from large warships to small landing craft. Three have been ordered in a program that costs about $1.3 billion. The first is not expected until 2015.

One, however, is to be configured to handle a bigger role as an Afloat Forward Staging Base. According to one report, it would be reconfigured to include a hangar and flight deck that would allow heavy helicopters to be flown in a mine-countermeasures role.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus told the House Armed Services Committee in February that this new version “will fulfill an urgent combatant commander request for sea-based support for mine warfare [and] Special Operations Forces . . . and other operations.”

The CRS study asks, “What are estimated costs of the Navy’s proposed Afloat Forward Staging Bases? How will the AFSBs be used?”

House and Senate committees have also raised questions about the Undersea Mobility Program and procurement of “dry combat submersibles.” These are mini-submarines that would allow Navy SEALS to glide underwater close to targets, leave through an airlock and swim the final distance. The current SEAL delivery system is called “wet” because it exposes personnel to the water from the start.

SOCOM, which has procurement authority for such equipment, reduced research funding for the dry submersible. But the House Armed Services Committee reversed that decision, citing the “present anti-access and area-denial challenges,” particularly in the Asia-Pacific area. It added $35 million to the SOCOM request for fiscal 2013, putting the total at $61.4 million.

At the same time, the Senate Armed Services Committee raised questions about the Shallow Water Combat Submersible research program, in which the contractor failed to meet engineering requirements, delaying the program for several months. Equipped with a silent electric motor, the submersible is expected to be able to covertly deliver six SEALs with supplies. The current vehicle is also an electrically propelled, torpedo-like craft that carries four SEALs and two crew members wearing breathing apparatuses.

Both the House Armed Services and Appropriations committees voiced their concern that the “highly perishable and technical operational expertise for wet and dry combat submersibles resident within the Naval Special Warfare community have not been fully exercised and utilized in recent years.”

The real questions are these: How are all these Special Forces capabilities in all the services being integrated? How many overlap? How many are needed, and how many can this country afford?

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage

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