SEALs Emerge, Blinkingly and Broken-Heartedly, From the Darkness

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Navy SEALs and Afghan commandos prepare to clear a village of Taliban during a nighttime mission in Kandahar Province in June / Army photo by Daniel P. Shook

The war in Afghanistan is pushing the Navy’s SEALs — long hidden in the pitch-black world of special operations — into the shadows. While we can now discern some of what the Pentagon likes to call their TTPs — tactics, techniques and procedures — there’s still much we can’t see. But it’s plain that the recent double-barreled news — the killing of Osama bin Laden by Afghan-based SEALs on May 2, and the weekend helicopter crash that killed 17 SEa Air and Land team members (and five support personnel) just west of Kabul — has cast a spotlight on the elite and secretive force.

One reason for the increased transparency is that special operations forces of all kinds are playing an ever-bigger role in the kind of wars the U.S. is waging. No longer do U.S. Army divisions engage in tank-centric battles against massed enemy armies. In the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. has found itself fighting small bands of irregular insurgents, which places a premium on the skills possessed by special operators.

At least that’s how the new chief of the U.S. Special Operations Command — who led the mission that got bin Laden — views it. “The world’s strategic environment has evolved toward one that is characterized more by Irregular Warfare activity rather than major nation state warfare,” Navy Vice Admiral William McRaven said in his written responses to questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee before his confirmation hearing June 28. “We must confront this `new normal’ and posture our forces to be successful in it.”

Something else is making it tougher for the secret commandos to stay secret. The bin Laden and helicopter-crash episodes involved about two dozen SEALs each. Such high-profile events — especially the crash, when survivors talk of loved ones lost — make it difficult to shield the identity of the unit involved. Seventeen SEALs and five SEAL support personnel (there’s a big difference in the military between being assigned to a SEAL unit and being a SEAL) represent a significant chunk of SEAL Team 6’s roughly 250 members (out of a total SEAL force of some 2,500).

The increasing emphasis on special operations has led to rapid growth in their ranks, which also makes them tougher to hide. Since 9/11, the number of personnel assigned to the U.S. Special Operations Command has doubled (to about 57,000, including some 20,000 career commandos, slated to grow to 70,000 by 2015), its budget has tripled (to more than $10 billion annually), and its overseas deployments have quadrupled (classified). A Pentagon official estimates up to 10,000 of the 100,000 troops now in Afghanistan — one in 10 — are linked to special ops units. Such forces conducted about 2,000 operations over the past 12 months in Afghanistan — an average of more than five a day. Eighty-eight percent of them were flown at night; 85% of the time, U.S. troops didn’t fire a shot.

Yet key elements of special-ops forces remain invisible. No reporter has yet named — nor apparently even spoken to — any of the 23 SEALs who participated in the Pakistani raid that killed bin Laden.  A senior special ops commander, who recently stopped by Battleland’s offices, resolutely declined to say anything on the record, about anything.

A former member of SEAL Team 6 complained to the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot on Sunday about all the recognition. “Why would you want to bring any attention to yourself?” he told the SEALs’ hometown paper. “Team guys just want to go about their business without shining a big spotlight on themselves. Most of them just want to do their jobs and go home.”

The spotlight also swung the commandos’ way when Lieut. General Stanley McChrystal was tapped to run the Afghan war in 2009, after spending much of his Army career in special ops units, including at the helm of the Joint Special Operations Command (made up of the Army’s Delta Force, 75th Ranger regiment, and the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment; the Navy’s SEAL Team Six; and the Air Force’s 24th Special Tactics Squadron). McChrystal ended up resigning the next year after his staff’s unflattering comments about their civilian leaders ended up in Rolling Stone magazine. The snafu generated talk in military circles that special operations forces — even at the most senior levels — may lack political acumen.

But that wasn’t on exhibit over the weekend. McRaven, who succeeded McChrystal as JSOC chief in 2008, took command of the Special Operations Command midday Monday. Following the crash, Pentagon officials let it be known that the change of command ceremony in Tampa, Fla., would be even lower-key than originally planned. McRaven’s first words as commander of USSOCOM were to “extend my deepest condolences to the families, the friends, and the teammates of those special operation warriors, those aviators from the 10th Mountain Division, and our Afghan partners who were killed in Afghanistan over the weekend.” He told their survivors that “we will never forget your sacrifice, nor the ultimate price your loved one paid, to protect this great nation.”