3 movies that the US Army’s elite Green Berets say actually show what their jobs are like

Close quarters combat rehearsal
Green Berets storm a room while practicing close-quarters combat.

  • Hollywood has a reputation for distorting and misrepresenting how the military actually operations.
  • But some movies get right, depicting how US troops conduct themselves and perform their missions.
  • Several Green Berets told Insider which ones they thought reflected the Special Forces experience.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Hollywood is usually quite off the mark when it comes to war and the military, but there are a few films that actually reflect the Army Special Forces experience, according to Green Berets themselves.

“Military movies have always been a challenge for me to watch. Having been in the military for quite a few years, my eyes are drawn to the slightest details, such as dialogue, uniform accuracy, and character representation. Special Operations movies, the few that have been made, are even more difficult for me to enjoy,” a retired Green Beret told Insider.

Hollywood often tries to convey a message about war or politics through war films, and that usually leads to an unrealistic film rife with big and small inaccuracies.

“Little effort is placed on accuracy and quality acting when dealing with military subjects. There are, of course, exceptions, but most of the films are set during World War II, a war that even Hollywood celebrates as justified and necessary,” the retired Green Beret added.

The three films below, which depict three different conflicts, are among the best war films out there, several current and former Green Berets told Insider.

’12 Strong’ (2018)

12 strong
“12 Strong.”

In the days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, small teams of CIA paramilitary officers and Green Berets inserted into Afghanistan and linked up with local anti-Taliban groups.

Supported by US airpower, the intelligence officers and commandos were able to defeat Taliban and Al Qaeda in a few weeks. The commandos’ flexibility and ability to deal with partner forces and with ambiguous situations were key to the success.

“12 Strong” is “a more recent film about a Special Forces detachment that infiltrates Afghanistan early in late 2001. I think this movie has good acting, represents Green Berets well, and most importantly it’s based on a true story,” the retired Green Beret said.

This film is particularly relevant today, with the Taliban back in control of Afghanistan after a very short campaign – the same way they were ousted from power nearly 20 years ago.

A retired Delta Force operator told Insider that “12 Strong” was “a good movie as far as Hollywood goes.”

The movie depicts an Operational Detachment-A – the smallest Green Beret element – and its mission “in a realistic way,” the retired operator said.

“Not many people know that a 12-man ODA can be broken down into two or even smaller teams in order to enable and lead more guerrillas. That inherent flexibility in SF [Army Special Forces] is what makes them so good,” the retired Delta operator added. “But the movie has a poignant aspect with everything that is going on in Afghanistan at the moment.”

‘Black Hawk Down’ (2001)

black hawk down nikolaj coster waldau
Nikolaj Coster Waldau as Delta Force sniper Master Sgt. Gary Gordon in “Black Hawk Down.”

“Black Hawk Down” puts the viewer on the ground in Mogadishu, Somalia, alongside Task Force Ranger as they tried to stop a brutal civil war by capturing the Somali warlords.

On October 3, 1993, the Task Force’s Delta Force operators and Rangers got into a hellish battle within Mogadishu after the Somali militiamen shot down two MH-60 Black Hawks with rocket-propelled grenades.

What followed was hours of street-to-street combat as the American commandos tried to hold off thousands of Somali militiamen and fighters.

“Black Hawk Down is a classic one. Although the movie doesn’t accurately depict what went down on the ground, it is fairly close for Hollywood,” a retired Delta Force operator who also served in the Army Special Forces told Insider.

“What makes it a good movie and distinguishes it from other war movies is the violence of action. The producers and directors did a really good job at capturing that. I think they had help and advising from SOF [special-operations forces] veterans,” the operator added.

The commandos involved received dozens of awards for valor during the battle, including two Medals of Honor. The Pentagon recently reviewed the awards and upgraded dozens of them.

‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979)

Martin Sheen in the jungle with Dennis Hopper
Martin Sheen in “Apocalypse Now.”

Set during the Vietnam War, “Apocalypse Now” is a classic and celebrated war film.

Col. Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando, is a Green Beret officer who was tasked with taking the fight to the Viet Cong but went too far and created an army of indigenous people who thought he is a god.

Attempts by the US military to rein Kurtz in fail, so they send a young intelligence officer, played by Martin Sheen, to find him, bring him back, or kill him.

“You can’t go wrong with Apocalypse Now. The movie is an epic. The plot, acting, theme are on point. Everything is on point, except perhaps that it runs a little long. It shows unconventional warfare, the bread and butter of SF [Special Forces], and what an SF guy can do,” a National Guard Green Beret told Insider.

“Hero or villain, Col. Kurtz shows the [Army Special Forces] Regiment’s capabilities and the force-multiplier aspect of SF,” the Green Beret added.

Reception was mixed up its release, but it is now considered a classic by many cinephiles. In 2000, the Library of Congress included the film in the US National Film Registry, which identifies movies worth preservation.

John Milius, who wrote the script for “Apocalypse Now,” “is one of the few people in Hollywood that has an interest in the military and representing it well on the big screen,” the retired Green Beret added. “Hollywood doesn’t care for war flicks for the most part. Just reflect back to 1989 when ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ took best picture over ‘Born on the Fourth of July.'”

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

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Special-ops veterans feel frustrated about Afghanistan and want answers for the ‘scandal’ that kept them there for 20 years

Afghan flag Pekha Valley Nangarhar Province Afghanistan
An Afghan flag at an observation post in Pekha Valley of Nangarhar Province, October 19, 2017.

  • After 20 years of operations, US forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan.
  • In recent days, the Afghan government has collapsed and the Taliban has swept across the country.
  • The events have frustrated US special-ops veterans, some of whom question why they spent 20 years fighting there.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

After almost 20 years of operations, the US began its withdrawal from Afghanistan earlier this year, precipitating in recent days the fall of the Afghan government and the Taliban’s reconquest of the war-ravaged country.

Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, US special-operations forces, alongside members of the US intelligence community, were the first in, partnering with anti-Taliban guerrillas and defeating Al Qaeda and the Taliban after a short campaign.

Throughout two decades of war, special-operations forces were at the tip of the spear, conducting raids, capturing high-value targets, trying to win over the population, and training and advising the Afghan military and police.

As usual, their contribution was disproportionate to their numbers, and they often achieved wonders with a few men. But as the years passed, the US military lost focus on why it was there in the first place.

Why are we here again?

A US Army Special Forces soldier in Afghanistan
A US Army Special Forces soldier on an advising mission in Afghanistan, April 10, 2014.

The US went to Afghanistan with the goal of defeating Al Qaeda and preventing the country from being used as a base for future terrorist attacks against the US.

The Taliban was only relevant as it was hosting of Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda fighters. Initially, the US wasn’t planning to do any nation-building.

“After 9/11, we went into Afghanistan after Al Qaeda to ensure they could not use Afghanistan as a staging base and prevent further attacks. For nearly 20 years we have attacked and attacked relentlessly. Additionally, we have funded, equipped, and trained [hundreds of] thousands of Afghans to protect themselves. For this, I am proud,” John Black, a retired Special Forces warrant officer with several deployments to Afghanistan, told Insider.

“I am disappointed in Afghanistan and its failure to be able to secure itself after we told them we were leaving in 2014,” Black said.

US Navy SEALs in Afghanistan
US Navy SEALs discover a cache of weapons during a mission in the Jaji mountains of Afghanistan, February 12, 2002.

Fred Galvin, a retired major and former Marine Raider, told Insider that the “time and sacrifices” of those who fought in Afghanistan were not wasted but that Americans do need to hold to account lawmakers who imposed rules of engagement that “favored the enemy.”

Senior military leadership who promoted an unwinnable hearts-and-minds counterinsurgency strategy should be held accountable too, Galvin said.

Hearts-and-minds strategies involve efforts by one side in a conflict to persuade the local population that it is a better partner than the enemy, often as part of a counterinsurgency campaign.

The US failures in Vietnam and Afghanistan are perhaps the two most well-known examples of such a strategy, but it has seen success elsewhere – by the British against communist rebels in Malaysia and Oman, for example.

“Everyone, EVERYONE knew that would never work, and the officers who ordered the immoral hearts and minds [strategy] – especially those officers who retired and immediately went to board of director memberships at defense firms and coerced their former subordinates they left in the Pentagon to go along with the 20-year spending scandal – need to be exiled to Kandahar,” Galvin added.

Marine Corps Special Operations Command marine sandstorm in Afghanistan
A Marine with Marine Forces Special Operations Command takes cover from a sand storm in Farah province, Afghanistan, February 28, 2010.

After years in Afghanistan, and as an insurgency ravaged Iraq, the US’s goal in Afghanistan shifted from counterterrorism to nation-building, a tough proposition even in a cohesive, “normal” nation, which Afghanistan isn’t.

“Afghanistan is a tribal culture. Therefore few have love of ‘country.’ Their idea of country is lines someone else drew in the sand,” Black said. “It’s impossible to win against an idea or belief. The Taliban and others will continue to spread and hopefully we can look at containment, rather than defeat.”

“We should have left after a few years, leaving behind a small CT [counterterrorism] contingent to deal with any bad guys. We should have also trained only a few number of loyal Afghans, like the commandos and some other special units, and avoid[ed] any nation-building dreams,” a former Navy SEAL officer told Insider.

A sour aftertaste

US Special Forces soldiers in Afghanistan
US Special Forces soldiers and Afghan National Interdiction Unit agents board CH-47 helicopters for an operation in Helmand province, September 12, 2016.

The US withdrawal and the rapid collapse of the Afghan military has left many veterans of the conflict wondering what their sacrifices were for. In some cases, they’ve questioned in whose interests their commanders were acting.

Galvin and his MARSOC Fox Company, a Marine special-operations unit, were falsely accused of killing civilians while fighting off an ambush in March 2007. Seven Marine Raiders were prosecuted and ostracized, despite all available evidence indicated they acted within the laws of war, before finally being acquitted years later.

“Afghanistan was the ultimate military scandal fueled by retired generals influencing those in the Pentagon and lawmakers to spend, spend, spend forever,” Galvin told Insider. “America should never forget this, and the people must exercise their freedoms by removing and punishing the military officers and lawmakers who profited through the needless loss of lives, limbs, and trillions of American dollars.”

The killing of Osama bin Laden and degradation of Al Qaeda are often pointed to as important accomplishments in Afghanistan, but that is little consolation for some who fought there, especially as the future now looks dire for Afghans, with the Taliban expected to reverse any progress made over the last 20 years.

US Air Force pararescuemen board US Army CH-47F Chinook helicopter
US Air Force pararescuemen board a US Army CH-47F Chinook after an exercise at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, March 14, 2018.

“It definitely hurts to see the country collapse in such a short amount of time after all the blood, sweat, and tears we shed. I get the arguments that it wasn’t for nothing and that we made Americans safer and the Afghan people better off, at least for a few years, but it just feels bad right now,” the former Navy SEAL officer said.

Other special-operations veterans say it wasn’t all for naught. Black said he would remember his time in Afghanistan “with great love and sadness.”

“I have many trips and built incredible friendships there. My teammates and I fought hard and were very triumphant in battle,” Black added.

While many veterans may be upset or feel that their comrades fought and died for nothing, “that is the wrong way at looking at it,” Black told Insider.

“For nearly 20 years the US and its partnered forces fought tirelessly to help the people of Afghanistan, and for that we can be proud,” Black said. “In the end, we would much rather fight the Taliban in Afghanistan than in our home country. And for nearly 20 years there has not been a major successful attack against the US. We pray for the Afghan people and hope for peace in a war-torn land.”

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

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How Delta, Rangers, and the Green Berets’ unique training would pay off in an Arctic war with Russia

Army Green Beret Special Forces Arctic
US Army Green Berets with 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) practice self-recovery from a glacial crevasse during an Arctic warfare exercise in Seward, Alaska, October 15, 2020.

  • The increasing accessibility of the Arctic has led to more commercial and military activity there.
  • The demanding Arctic environment requires special skills to survive and operate effectively.
  • US Army special-operations forces have long emphasized those skills and could put them to use in a war.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

After a long period of hibernation, tension in the Arctic is increasing, with military build-ups and encounters there between the US and its near-peer competitors, Russia and China.

In a reflection of that tension, the Army recently released a strategy meant to secure its military preeminence in the Arctic.

Dubbed “Regaining Arctic Dominance,” the strategy aims to create a dedicated headquarters and specialized Arctic warfare units, improve infrastructure in the region, and invest in individual and collective training.

Although mentioned only briefly in the document, Army special-operations units are expected to have a significant role in the region both in peacetime and during war.

Why the Arctic?

Army Green Berets Special Forces Finland Poland Estonia Arctic parachute
US Army 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) soldiers and Finnish, Polish, and Estonian special-operations forces jump out of a C-130 during airborne operations over Rovaniemi, Finland, March 14, 2018.

Economic and military activity in the Arctic is nothing new, but the region’s value has been steadily increasing as it becomes more accessible.

As the ice melts and more passages open, trade becomes easier. The Northern Sea Route, stretching along the Russian coast from Norway to the Pacific Ocean, promises to connect Europe and Asia, two markets with more than 70% of the world’s GDP.

In addition, the increased accessibility caused by climate change allows for the exploitation of natural resources that have thus far been unreachable. Although the exact size of the oil and natural gas reserves underneath the Arctic is still uncertain, it is considerable enough to catch the interest of every major global player and several regional ones.

Further, climate change means that the region is becoming increasingly accessible to military forces.

Russian Arctic Elk
Members of a Russian Northern Fleet motorized rifle brigade being pulled by reindeer during an exercise in 2017.

Recent satellite images show that Russia is amassing forces in the region and testing new weapons.

In addition to Russian ground and air force buildup in the Arctic, there is the formidable Northern Fleet, which is Russia’s largest naval formation, accounting for close to 75% of its naval power. It is responsible for both the Arctic and the Atlantic oceans.

Russia is a legitimate Arctic state and has the world’s longest Arctic coastline. China doesn’t border the Arctic, but Beijing still wants a slice of the pie.

In 2018, China declared itself a “near-Arctic state” and launched the Polar Silk Road Initiative. Similar to the much-criticized Belt and Road Initiative, this project aims to make the Arctic a route for Chinese goods.

Since 1996, the countries bordering the Arctic – Iceland, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Canada, Russia, and the US – have used the Arctic Council to address issues facing the region, with the exception of security matters. A number of non-Arctic states have observer status with the Council, including China.

Army commandos in the Arctic

Army Green Berets Special Forces Finland Arctic
Army 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) soldiers and Finnish special operations forces during live-fire training in Rovaniemi, Finland, March 16, 2018.

In the Arctic, Army special-operations units can contribute significantly to deterrence in peacetime and in a potential conflict.

Rangers, Delta Force operators, and Green Berets all have valuable mission-sets and skills that can translate very well to the Arctic domain.

The 75th Ranger Regiment is the world’s premier light infantry special-operations unit focused on direct-action missions, such as raids, ambushes, and airfield seizures.

The harsh Arctic climate means logistics and the resupply of forces are particularly challenging, making the Rangers’ ability to seize airfields especially useful in case of conflict.

Army Rangers Arctic snow Wisconsin
Students in a Cold-Weather Operations Course, including 75th Ranger Regiment soldiers, on a ruck march at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, March 1, 2019.

Delta Force is the Army’s direct-action special-mission unit and primarily specializes in hostage rescue and counterterrorism.

In the Arctic, Delta Force could conduct unconventional warfare and sabotage operations similar to the World War II missions of the British Special Air Service (SAS), a unit that influenced Delta’s formation and early days.

The SAS wreaked havoc on Nazi and Italian forces in North Africa, destroying more planes on the ground than the Allied planes did from the air. SAS operations also forced the Axis powers to use a significant number of their forces for base and vehicle convoy security rather than on the frontlines.

“We certainly have the capability and the necessary skill sets to operate all alone and deep behind enemy lines for long periods without regular resupply. The Unit has already done it in the past during Desert Storm and the invasion of Afghanistan but also more recently in Syria,” a former Delta Force operator told Insider.

Army Green Beret Special Forces ice diving
Green Berets from 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) prepare for a dive during ice-dive training at Fort Carson, Colorado, February 18, 2021.

Finally, Special Forces operators can be very valuable as trainers of conventional Army units.

Green Berets thrive in foreign internal defense, or the training of foreign partner forces. They can take that knowledge to train their conventional counterparts in specialized skills such as mountaineering and cold-weather operations.

The 10th Special Forces Group already routinely trains soldiers from the Army’s 4th Infantry Division in cold-weather operations.

There are many other courses run by Green Berets that could prove useful, such as the Special Operations Advance Mountaineering School and the Winter Mobility Instructor Course.

Army Green Beret Special Forces ice Arctic
A Green Beret from 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) climbs a frozen waterfall at Fort Carson, November 14, 2019.

“If you look at the Multi-Domain Task Force and long-range precision fires that will be in there, the capabilities, it’s ideal for the amount of training space that we have, whether it’s a maritime component, whether it’s a land component, or an air component,” Maj. Gen. Peter Andrysiak, commander of US Army Alaska, told Insider during a March press briefing.

“So there’s a lot of opportunities to look at the breadth and depth of a future battlefield where Special Operations Command will play a role,” Andrysiak added.

All of the above units can also conduct special reconnaissance and direct both airstrikes and naval gunfire.

Other Army special-operations units, such as the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, known as the “Night Stalkers,” and the Psychological Operations Groups could also contribute by enabling operations or shaping the critical information environment.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

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How Green Berets prepared to carry ‘backpack nukes’ on top-secret one-way missions during the Cold War

Green Light HALO
A Green Light operator conducting a High Altitude Low Opening (HALO) jump with the MK54 SADM.

  • During the Cold War, military planners wanted nuclear weapons they could use without sparking an all-out nuclear war.
  • That led to the development of tactical nuclear weapons for use against military or military-related targets.
  • Teams of Army Green Berets were trained to carry those nukes to their targets, which they saw as a one-way mission.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Throughout the Cold War, as the nuclear arms race became more frantic, a nuclear confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union remained a major concern.

With intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched missiles, and air-dropped bombs, both countries had several options when it came to nuclear warfare.

But the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the closing days of World War II made clear the destructive capability of nuclear arms and the danger of a full-blown nuclear conflict.

As a result, US strategists sought ways to use nuclear weapons without triggering an all-out nuclear war.

The tactical nuclear option

Davy Crockett Bomb mini nuke nuclear
An M-388 Davy Crockett nuclear weapon mounted to a recoilless rifle at Aberdeen Proving Ground, March 1961.

In the 1950s, the US military came up with the tactical nuclear option, using weapons with a lower yield and range than their strategic counterparts.

These weapons would be used on the battlefield or against a military-related target to gain an operational advantage. For example, the Air Force could drop a tactical nuclear bomb on a Soviet division invading Poland to stop its advance without triggering a disproportionate response – such as a nuclear attack on New York City.

There were two types of tactical nuclear munitions: The Medium Atomic Demolition Munition (MADM) had a medium-yield payload and required several troops to carry it. The Special Atomic Demolition Munition (SADM) had a low-yield payload but could be carried by one soldier.

The order to use tactical nuclear weapons would still have to come from both political and military authorities. SADMs were subject to the same command-and-control procedures as other tactical nuclear weapons and were meant to be used only if there were no other means of creating the desired effect.

Tactical nuclear weapons came in several forms, including artillery shells, gravity bombs, short-range missiles, and even landmines. But perhaps the most interesting iteration was the “backpack nuke,” which was to be carried by Army Special Forces operators.

Green Light Teams

Davy Crockett nuclear bomb
US officials with an M-388 Davy Crockett nuclear weapon. It used one of the smallest nuclear warheads ever developed by the US.

Specially trained Green Berets were assigned to Green Light Teams. Their purpose was to clandestinely deploy in NATO or Warsaw Pact countries and detonate their SADM in a conflict with the Soviets. The Pentagon later included North Korea and Iran on the target list.

Green Light teams’ main targets were tunnels, major bridges, mountain passes, dams, canals, ports, major railroad hubs, oil facilities, water-plant factories, and underground storage or operations facilities.

In other words, SADMs were intended to either slow down the enemy by destroying or significantly altering the landscape or to target the logistical, communications, and operations hubs that are vital to an army, especially during offensive operations.

Green Light teams primarily carried the MK-54 SADM. Nicknamed the “Monkey” or “Pig,” the device weighed almost 60 pounds and could fit in a large rucksack.

In each team, there was a chief operator who was primarily responsible for the activation of the SADM. He and other members of the team held the codes required to activate the bomb.

Like every Green Beret team, Green Light teams were trained in various insertion methods, including parachuting – both static-line and military free-fall – skiing, and combat diving.

Free-falling was probably the most realistic insertion method other than ground infiltration, but doing it with the device was tough.

During parachute insertions, the chief operator seldom got to jump with the device because it had a high probability of injury for the jumper, and the chief operator was key to mission success.

An operator would have to strap the SADM between his legs like a rucksack, but the device would work against him as he tried to stabilize in the air before deploying his parachute. Even in static-line parachuting, when the ripcord is hooked to the plane, there would still be issues.

Paratroopers will release their rucksacks or other heavy cargo attached to them via a line moments before landing to prevent injuries. But the SADM tended to get stuck between the jumper’s feet in the crucial seconds before landing, resulting in several sprained ankles and broken legs.

Everything even closely associated with Green Light teams was top secret, and the seriousness of the mission followed Green Light operators outside work. They were instructed to travel only on US airliners and never to fly above a communist country in case the plane had to make an emergency landing, which could lead to them being held by local authorities.

No one is coming for us

Army Special Forces Green Beret skiing
Soldiers of the 77th Special Forces Group are towed on skis during training at Camp Hale, Colorado, February 5, 1956.

A common thread among successive generations of Green Light teams was their distrust of leadership when it came to their specific mission.

“During training, the instructors had told us we had about 30 minutes to clear the blast radius of the device. We never really believed that,” a retired Special Forces operator who served on a Green Light team told Insider.

“In every other mission, teams would have an extraction plan. We didn’t. It was all up to us to get the hell out of dodge. But that’s not how the Army works. So that’s why we never really believed that we could get out alive in case we had to use one of those things. It was a one-way mission,” the retired Green Beret added.

There were Green Light teams forward-deployed in Europe – even in Berlin – always on standby to launch. Some Green Light teams even sought to forward deploy inside East Germany to be ready in case the Soviets unleashed their military on Western Europe.

Green Light teams also deployed to South Korea at different times and were on standby in case tensions with North Korea turned into war.

With the end of the Cold War, the Green Light teams were deactivated. They were never used in a real-world operation.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (National Service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

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All US special operators train for combat diving, but Navy SEALs take it to another level

Navy SEALs
Navy SEALs.

  • Special-operations units from each US military service branch train to conduct combat diving as a part of their missions.
  • Navy SEALs take that capability further, however, practicing not only to travel through the water but to conduct underwater missions as well.
  • With the military refocusing for a potential conflict in the vast Pacific region, that diving capability is taking on new importance.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Water covers more than 70% of the earth, making maritime operations a must-have capability for any competent military.

Besides having the strongest Navy in the world, the US military possesses potent maritime special-operations resources, with the majority of its special-operations units having some combat diving capability.

Marine Raiders and Reconnaissance Marines have different training pipelines but go through the same dive school in Panama City.

Navy Marine Corps combat diver
A Navy special amphibious reconnaissance corpsman, left, and a reconnaissance Marine in underwater gear during a Marine combat diving course in Okinawa, May 20, 2020

Army Green Berets have dedicated combat diver teams, and some Rangers go through the arduous Special Forces Underwater Operations School in Key West, Florida, one of the most challenging courses in the Army, where even special operators wash out.

Air Force Combat Controllers, Pararescuemen, and Special Reconnaissance operators also go through dive school in Panama City before finishing their own training courses. Those units often send students to the Army’s course.

With some exceptions, such as Special Forces dive teams who teach combat diving to foreign troops, for these units combat diving is primarily an insertion method – a way to the job rather than the job itself.

However, Navy SEAL Teams take maritime special-operations to another level.


Office of Strategic Services OSS frogmen
Office of Strategic Services Special Maritime Unit Group A frogmen on Santa Catalina Island, California, December 1943.

Navy SEALs trace their lineage to the Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT) of World War II.

These frogmen were tasked with amphibious reconnaissance and clearing beaches before the Marine Corps or the Army landed. They saw action in Normandy during D-Day and in almost every major operation in the Pacific.

Since then, the combat diver capability (or combat swimmer, as SEALs call it) is part of every SEAL’s DNA. SEAL students receive combat diving training during the initial and the advanced portions of the SEAL pipeline.

Aspiring SEALs learn the basics of combat diving during the Second (or Dive) Phase of the six-month Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training course. This portion of the training contains Pool Competence, the pipeline’s second most difficult event after First Phase’s Hell Week.

During Pool Comp, students go through increasingly stressful underwater tests in a monitored environment. The goal is to see if they can follow basic procedures that could save their lives in a real-world operation while under extreme physical and mental stress.

During the SEAL Qualification Training (SQT) course, which comes after BUD/S, aspiring SEALs receive additional and more advanced combat diving training.

Navy SEAL diver
A Navy SEAL assigned to Naval Special Warfare Group 2 during military dive operations in the Gulf of Mexico, October 11, 2018.

The reason for the additional training is that SEALs are the only special-operations unit tasked with underwater special operations, such as placing limpet mines on enemy ships or conducting reconnaissance of an enemy harbor.

One of their better-known underwater missions took place in 1989 during Operation Just Cause. A four-man SEAL element was tasked with sinking Manuel Noriega’s personal boat to prevent the Panamanian dictator’s escape. Despite some resistance from a few vigilant guards, the SEALs were able to plant limpet mines and destroy the vessel.

Although the SEAL Teams’ missions might be different than those of other US special-operations combat diver units, the basic training isn’t.

“Actually, the military’s combat diver communities are all very similar in the curriculums being taught,” a highly seasoned Special Forces combat diver told Insider. “We all fall under SOCOM [US Special Operations Command], and the Navy is the proponent for all diving operations. They approve and monitor tasks being taught at each school.”

“We all use [combat diving] for the same reason – clandestine infiltration using an oxygen rebreather,” the operator said, referring to the MK25 MOD2, made by Dräger.

“[We all] get to work using our fins,” added the operator, who has taught at the Army’s combat diver school and at BUD/S.

A potential conflict in the Pacific is a reason for all services to maintain or even improve their combat diver capabilities. However, there is still a lot to be done on that front, especially for Army special-operations units, where the capability has been neglected to a dangerous extent.

Diving into the future

Army Special Forces combat diver
A combat diver assigned to 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) off the coast of Washington, August 14, 2014.

With the Pentagon focused on great-power competition, maritime special-operations are increasingly relevant and important, and that’s where the SEAL Teams can shine.

“The Teams can do so much in conflict with China,” a former SEAL officer told Insider. “We have the ability to conduct small unit surveillance and reconnaissance during over-the-beach ops; place sensors to aid intelligence gathering, again during over-the-beach ops; train foreign forces (for example, training the Taiwanese in all manner of stuff to balance Chinese capabilities); and also do direct action (an extreme example, but doable if so required).”

Unlike other special-operations units, in the SEAL Teams everyone is combat diver qualified. As a result, there is a vested interest in the capability, both from an operational and budgetary standpoint.

us navy seal submarine delivery vehicle SDV
SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team Two members prepare to launch a SEAL Delivery Vehicle from Los Angeles-class attack sub USS Philadelphia during an exercise.

“Compared to other special-operations commands, NSW [Naval Special Warfare] as a whole will be more relevant in a great-power competition setting, at least in the Pacific, because of the maritime nature of the environment,” a SEAL officer told insider. “We might see platoons diving but not to place a limpet mine on a Chinese warship but a sensor on a ship of interest.”

Aside from traditional combat diving operations, the SEAL Teams also possess the SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV) capability.

There are two SDV Teams that are manned by SEALs who undergo even more combat diving training and operate the mini-submarines. Although much of their mission-set is classified, they are known to conduct special reconnaissance and stealthily transport SEALs closer to a target.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (National Service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

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