The Evolution of US Combat Diving. Part 6, the Necessity.

Why we need undersea SOF.

This is Part 6 of 7 taken from my Submarine Medical Officer Thesis “A Review of the Combat Diving Evolution of US Naval Special Warfare with a Focus on the Necessity of Disruptive Technologies and Innovative Scientists.” Stay tuned for part 7…

The Necessity of Manned Undersea SOF.

So, do we need “manned” undersea SOF capabilities? Or can NSW rely solely on newly developed technologies to fully replace the combat diver? RADM Flynn suggested that combat diving serves such a small part of the SEALs true operational work that the immense effort and resources devoted to this “underutilized” capability might be better focused elsewhere.1 When speaking of direct action missions he also stated, “We are such a strong nation, with so many ways of attacking things, one really wonders if offensive underwater operations by swimmers are needed.”2 While it is important that military commanders continue to critically assess the utility of SOF roles and capabilities, there are many problems with RADM Flynn’s argument.

The Argument. First, RADM Flynn openly admitted in a 2001 lecture that “the last time that I was briefed in a classified way about what our SEALs do was in 1992.”3 By necessity, nearly all SDV specific capabilities, tactics, and operations are highly classified, so very minimal information describing their current activities is available open source. This is important when one considers that he suggested the futility of certain undersea operations after anecdotally referencing the incompetent limpet attacks and mine detection capabilities from when he was an active duty SEAL.4 His unfortunate experience obviously shaped his opinions, but his experience also predated the SDV SEALs truly becoming competent at their undersea craft. Multiple other sources agree that it was not until the late 1980s and early 1990s that the SDV teams really began to master the art of combat diving.5,6 So, suggesting the elimination of a capability based on outdated intelligence and an unfortunate anecdotal experience is logically erroneous.

In contrast, if the actions of those who are privy to classified information and those who control the SOF budget are an indication, then the SDV teams must still contribute true value to NSW and SOF. It is telling that even after the ASDS program disaster, SOCOM leadership awarded another costly contract to develop a dry submersible with the same capabilities as the ASDS.7 Also, the DDS program is undergoing modifications and modernization, the new and improved Shallow Water Combat Submersible (SWCS) will soon replace the dated MK VIII SDVs,8 and research and development continues to produce newer, better, more capable combat diver technologies and equipment. So, without being privy to classified information, one can indirectly assess the importance of continuing “manned” undersea operations by observing the behaviors of informed SOF leadership and the support of civilian governmental leadership.

Second, SOF history is rife with examples of short-sighted leadership slashing capabilities and decommissioning SOF units after conflicts, only to realize their mistake in hindsight. After WWII, except for a few UDTs, all SOF units were decommissioned including the Army Rangers, Marine Raiders (early MARSOC),9 the Carpetbaggers (early Air Force SOF),10 Merrill’s Marauders, and the OSS (precursors to the CIA). With the advent of the Korean War five years later, military leadership scrambled to recreate SOF units to fill niche SOF roles. The same dynamic occurred after the Korean War and after the Vietnam War.11

But a “SOF truth” illuminates the problem with premature SOF elimination and reflexive regeneration, “Competent SOF cannot be created after emergencies occur.” Furthermore, the loss of institutional knowledge and skill was incredibly costly and forced the recycled units to “re-invent the wheel.” And with the changing nature of warfare, SOF and SOF capabilities are needed now more than ever.12 While limiting and redirecting efforts is occasionally necessary, completely eliminating capabilities is damaging. So, after more than sixty years of technological advancement, tactical refinement, and skill development, and now with a fully capable, highly effective combat diver force and infrastructure in place, it would be wasteful to discard this capability based on an uninformed idea and lack of foresight.

Also, since NSW is the primary maritime specialized component of SOF (Fig. 19), it is their responsibility to be “masters of the littorals.”13,14 And it is difficult to “master the littorals” while eliminating the undersea dimension. RADM Sean Pybus – commander of WARCOM15 from 2011 to 2013 – stated, “Our SEALs have been fighting two land wars for the last decade, and there is plenty of work back in the maritime environment.”16 RADM Olson also reminded NSW of its role when he explained that the “mother services” have largely avoided the near coastal regions: “That leaves the littoral environment ours for all those things that can and ought to be done to influence the battle where the sea and the air and the land come together. And there is simply no one else qualified to do the work.”17

Figure 19: The men of undersea SOF, doing what they do best.18

Moreover, considering our forward deployed fleet and the current preponderance of asymmetric warfare,19 whether or not offensive combat diver operations play a significant future role, the SEALs’ knowledge and skill should be shared with those individuals and units responsible for defensive counter-diver operations to ensure the continued safety of our own ships.20 Another “USS Cole scenario” but perpetrated by enemy divers would be highly damaging to the morale of the Navy and the nation. SEALs and SDV teams should continue to serve as a “Red Cell” to test the effectiveness of current conventional Navy counter-diver defenses as described in many SEAL memoirs.21,22,23 By training in a “Red Cell” capacity, SEALs and surface ships evolve their tactics in combat diver and counter-diver operations simultaneously.

Finally, at least in the foreseeable future, humans will continue to play a preeminent role in SOF warfare. Even the five time-proven SOF truths24,25 either overtly declare or indirectly refer to the importance of the individual in SOF. As long as humans are waging war with humans against humans, warfare will require primarily a human element – especially in SOF where the unique human endowments of self-awareness, conscience, will power, courage, and creativity are absolutely necessary.26 There will always be a need for intelligent, skilled, adaptive warriors in the wide variety of SOF missions, and undersea operations are no exception. Even while condemning some combat diver roles, RADM Flynn admitted, “One can think of operations that would be useful, of specialized information collection, or the placement of certain sensors, when you really need to have a man there to do the mission.”27

Continued in Part 7…


  1. Joiner, Naval Forces: A Look Back, 2-56, 57.
  2. Ibid., 2-48-57.
  3. Ibid., 2-52.
  4. Ibid, 2-53.
  5. Kelly, Brave Men, 165-166
  6. Kelly, Never Fight Fair, 230-231
  7. Osborn, “SOCOM Develops Dry Submersibles.”
  8. “New Navy SEAL Swimmer Delivery Vehicle,” accessed February 1, 2015,
  9. Josh Higgins, “The Past aligned with the future: MARSOC becomes Marine Raiders,” Tip of the Spear (MacDill AFB, FL: USSOCOM, August 2014), 28-29.
  10. Orr Kelly, From a Dark Sky: The Story of U.S. Air Force Special Operations (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1996), 43–49.
  11. Tucker and Lamb, Special Operations Forces, 73-80, 85-86, 90-93.
  12. Joiner, Naval Forces: A Look Back, 2-70.
  13. “Littorals” refers to the shallow water near coastal regions.
  14. Joiner, Naval Forces: A Look Back, 2-74.
  15. The Naval Special Warfare Command is referred to as WARCOM.
  16. Donna Miles, “Special Ops Components Adapt for Future Challenges,” (May 21, 2013) accessed February 1, 2015,
  17. Joiner, Naval Forces: A Look Back, 2-74.
  18. Navy Seals OTB, picture, accessed December 29, 2015, navysealscom-000525.jpg.
  19. Kelly, Never Fight Fair, 227.
  20. Ibid., 195-198.
  21. Kelly, Brave Men, 165-167
  22. Mark Owen, No Hero: The Evolution of a Navy SEAL (New York: Penguin, 2014), 39-53
  23. Kelly, Never Fight Fair, 230-247
  24. The Five SOF Truths: Humans are more important than Hardware. Quality is better than Quantity. SOF cannot be Mass Produced. Competent SOF cannot be created after Emergencies occur. Most Special Operations require Non-SOF Support.
  25. “SOF Truths,” accessed February 1, 2015,
  26. Stephen R. Covey, “Seven Habits Revisited: Seven Unique Human Endowments,” (November 1991), accessed February 1, 2015,
  27. Joiner, Naval Forces: A Look Back, 2-52, 53.

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