Politics & Policy

“Burning Up SEALs”

Misuing special-warfare assets.

When a firefight erupted between the Americans (and an accompanying Iraqi force) and a band of guerrillas, one SEAL was wounded, shot in the cheek by an enemy sniper.

In the ensuing hour-long fight, stretching over several city blocks, another SEAL was struck in the shoulder.

Lee, who positioned himself between the two men, provided covering fire as they were evacuated. But he was later killed by a blast of machinegun fire.

Lee was the first SEAL to die in Iraq. His actions during the fight have been reported as “heroic,” and he has been posthumously awarded the Silver Star to go along with his Bronze Star medal (with Combat V), Purple Heart, and a Combat Action Ribbon.

But some members of the Naval Special Warfare community are telling me he did not have to die, with one officer contending, “they’re burning up SEALs.”

The problem lies in the manner in which SEALs and other special operators are being deployed and for what kinds of missions.

“Special Operations warriors are not dispensable assets,” says Reserve SEAL Commander Mark Divine, who has been to Iraq several times and was tasked with evaluating the performance of a new Marine Corps special operations force during its developmental stages in 2004. “It will take two years to replace Lee with another combat-ready SEAL. The SEAL community is undermanned as it is, and it is the Navy’s number-one recruiting priority.”

Divine’s concerns are based on the fact that the U.S. Defense Department is looking to boost its numbers of special operators, currently totaling about 40,000, by 15 percent over the next four years. SEALs, less than 2,500 men, must increase by about 20 percent, and without reducing standards.

The Global War on Terror — with all of its backdoors and shadows and high-tech, asymmetrical, rapidly changing battlespaces — has placed an enormous demand on U.S. special-warfare units. After all, these are the guys tasked with operating in the darkest environs. Consequently, taking a smart, committed young man with an athletic bent (Lee himself was a star soccer player in high school) and transforming him into a Navy SEAL is neither cheap — about $350,000 a copy — nor easy. Most SEAL hopefuls are unable to pass the entry physical fitness test. And most who do pass the PFT simply don’t have what it takes to become a SEAL.

The attrition rate is extremely high for SEALs: A staggering 80 percent fail to complete the hellish six-months of Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training (BUD/S). Those who do survive BUD/S must again prove themselves in an equally demanding post-graduate period with an active SEAL Team before officially becoming SEALs.

Special-operations teams like SEALs — including the super-secret Naval Special Warfare Development Group (formerly SEAL Team Six) — the Army’s special-operations forces (from Rangers to Green Berets to Delta), Air Force special-tactics teams, and the Marine Corps’ Force Recon and the brand-new Marine Corps Special Operations Command (MARSOC) teams, are responsible for conducting special missions, including counterterrorism, hostage rescues, prisoner snatches, foreign military training, special reconnaissance, sabotage, direct action, and the targeting of enemy leaders, among other highly sensitive operations. And many of those operations — though unknown thus never reported — have tremendous strategic relevance.

“In the context of Iraq, SEALs, who comprise a fraction of the Navy’s total force, are trained to handle those kinds of missions,” Divine tells National Review Online. “Every man is a critical asset in the war on terror. So to squander a life in support of a general cordon and search operation is just wrong.”

Divine says he first witnessed such misuse of SEALs back in 2004.

“The conventional commanders would send a formal or informal request to the JSOTF [Joint Special Operations Task Force] for some sniper team support, and if the guys [special operators] were not employed they would usually say, ‘okay,’” Divine says. “The [SEAL] Team guys did not mind because they wanted action.

“But a 24-year-old’s motivation, and then the sound battlefield judgment on the part of the special-operations force leaders are two different things altogether. SEALs will always run toward the sound of the guns. It’s up to the leaders to protect them so that they can perform the high-value missions the taxpayers put them through training for.”

Former SEAL John Chalus, who had one combat tour in Vietnam and whose two sons would later serve in the Navy (one of whom was a SEAL), tells NRO, “SEALs should not be combined with regular units unless the regular unit is used to support the special operation.”

Conventional units often provide security for special operators, setting up a perimeter around the operation and “keeping the bad guys at bay,” says Chalus. And of course, special operators often conduct reconnaissance and gather intelligence for conventional operations.

Richard Marcinko, the founder and first commander of SEAL Team Six, as well as the best-selling author of the Rogue Warrior book series, compares employing SEALs in a conventional capacity to “driving a Ferrari across the desert like a dune-buggy.”

It is a “waste of training,” Marcinko tells NRO. “The conventional force commanders use them for conventional missions for two primary reasons. First, they know they have a mature warrior [in a SEAL]. He’s been to a lot of schools, and he’s not some 19-year-old kid with limited training. Second, using SEALs or other highly trained Spec Ops guys protects whoever is in charge of the conventional operation. It’s kind of a political cover you’re a** thing to say, ‘hey, I sent in the teams that wouldn’t embarrass me.’”

Conventional commanders know SEALs will almost always kill or capture any bad guys encountered. Commanders also have an appreciation for the war-fighting skills special operators like SEALs might impart to conventional soldiers and sailors. And the SEALs themselves are always willing to pitch in on missions outside of their traditional roles.

“Particularly the young kids who have just come out of BUD/S,” says Marcinko. “They’ve never been in combat, and they want to test what they’re made of.”

Some SEALs have told me that actual operations seem not nearly as tough as their training. But unlike a gun battle, almost no one dies in training, even training as high-speed and dangerous as that of the SEALs.

– A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues and has covered conflict in the Balkans and on the West Bank. He is the author of five books, and his articles appear in a variety of publications.

A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues. He has covered war in the Balkans, on the West Bank, in Iraq, and in Lebanon. ...

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