The Virginian-Pilot July 22, 2005
In small numbers, SEALs tackle huge tasks
By Louis Hansen
By most accounts, the first great modern combat by U.S. Navy commandos happened June 6, 1944.
Under withering enemy fire, nearly 200 hastily-trained seamen slung high-explosives on German defenses along Omaha Beach. They blew 10 gaps in the line, clearing the way for Allied forces to rush the beach on D-Day.
Enemy fire killed 31 seamen and wounded another 60 that day – more than half of the special force known as Naval Combat Demolition Unit.
Six decades later, on a summer day in Afghanistan, an emergency call came from four SEALs pinned down in mountains 10,000 feet above sea level while on a reconnaissance mission.
A Chinook rescue helicopter carrying 16 special operations forces, including eight SEALs, was shot down by Taliban and al-Qai da fighters.
Eleven SEALs in the chopper and on the ground – six of them based in Hampton Roads – were killed in the late-June action in the land locked country. It was the largest single-day combat loss of elite Navy forces since the World War II losses on the Normandy coast of France .
The two operations span different generations, battlefields and enemies. But they show a steady purpose of the Navy’s commandos and their critical part in war’s most dangerous missions.
Operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have pushed the SEALs from their traditional role as sea warriors into mountain and urban fighters. They focus on the same core missions, however – reconnaissance, capturing the enemy and fighting in the most unforgiving conditions.
The recent helicopter crash offered a glimpse into the secret operations SEALs are engaging in since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and how far the elite sea service has evolved to meet changing battlefields and threats.
“We’re going after people scattered in 60 different countries – in caves and in major metropolitan areas,” said Charles Pena, a defense analyst for the Cato Institute in Washington . “To the extent that we’re dealing with an enemy that looks like al-Qa ida, then special forces are absolutely essential to the war.”
Through former SEALs and published reports, a picture of highly secretive modern SEAL operations emerges: securing an essential base camp in the early days of Afghanistan, destroying a huge weapons cache in terrorist caves, and securing Iraqi oil rigs in the opening days of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Cmdr. Jeff Bender, spokesman for the special warfare command based in San Diego, declined to comment on past and present operations in the Middle East.
But some things are known.
The Navy acknowledges it has about 2,000 SEALs, the acronym for the Sea, Air, Land force. Roughly half the men – women aren’t allowed to become SEALs – are based at Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base and half at Coronado, near San Diego.
After a ceremony for the fallen SEALs at Little Creek earlier this month, Rear Adm. Joseph Maguire told reporters most SEALs were operating in Afghanistan.
He said missions are frequently performed in tandem with other highly skilled fighters, particularly Army Special Forces, also known as Green Berets.
“Everything we do is joint,” Maguire said. “We are one team, one force.”
Dick Couch, a former SEAL who commanded a unit in Vietnam, said the elite fighters are even better today than in previous generations.
Couch has written books about the special forces, and the Navy allowed him to interview active duty SEALs for “Down Range: Navy SEALs in the War on Terrorism.”
In an interview from his Idaho home, Couch said the frogmen have had to adapt to different geography and enemy tactics. “They’re deploying hard,” Couch said. “At any time we can lose people – or a bunch of people.”
With the Navy’s cooperation, Couch chronicled several major operations led by SEALs in the ongoing wars.
Two months after the Sept. 11 attacks, a platoon of SEALs with a pair of Air Force combat controllers landed in the dead of night on a dry lake bed in southern Afghanistan. Their mission was to secure a nearby airfield and compound, which would be the primary invasion site for U.S. Marines.
SEALs searched and cleared the empty compound and the Marines landed without incident. The compound became internationally known as Camp Rhino.
A few months later, another force led by a SEAL platoon discovered perhaps the largest single cache of Taliban and al-Qa ida weapons, according to Couch and published reports. A force of special operators and Marines seized a cave complex in the Zhawar Kili Valley. They called in U.S. bombers, which spent several days exploding tons of enemy munitions and vehicles.
In Iraq, the Navy commandos have engaged in urban warfare, Couch said. They collect intelligence and snatch insurgents from their homes, usually at night.
The battle in the Kumar province that claimed the 19 special operations forces began as a reconnaissance mission and became a rescue.
Often, SEAL teams are operating nowhere near water, and they are trained to function in all terrain.
Kevin Dockery, author of “Navy SEALs: A Complete History from World War II to the Present,” said the commandos have a history of adapting quickly to new conditions.
Navy commandos got the name SEALs in 1962, when President Kennedy called for a select force trained in unconventional warfare.
Dockery said they make excellent forces against terrorists because of their stealth and ability to work behind the enemy, sometimes in groups as small as two men.
“On the ground, these guys are very hard to kill because they are very hard to catch,” Dockery said.
As the insurgency has grown, gaining intelligence has become more important, according to Couch. Special forces are spending more time with the community, winning trust and gathering information.
“Which door do you kick in?” Couch said. “That’s the $64 billion question.”
John Pike, director of the military think-tank GlobalSecurity.org, said the SEALs are getting into a prolonged fight for the first time since Vietnam more than 30 years ago. They have moved from a supporting force to a more central role in combat, he said.
He expects American forces to rely on SEALs to operate in the region for years. “I don’t think we’re going to be leaving there anytime soon.” Pike said.
“They’re going to get pretty good with Afghanistan.”
Experts believe the war on terrorism will engage more SEALs and other special operations forces.
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld has stated early in the campaign that he wants to bolster special forces.
The Navy says it plans to grow SEAL forces by 300 to 400 men by 2009.
Training will remain rigorous: only three in 10 men graduate the course, known as Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training.
Some others say increasing the SEAL force may be difficult because training is so long and demanding.
“You just can’t make these guys that fast,” Couch said.
© Copyright 2005, The Virginian-Pilot