US Navy SEALs are training to fight on land and water in a ‘strategic location’ near Russia

Navy Special Warfare Hungary Danube Budapest
Hungarian special operations forces and Naval Special Warfare operators test Special Operations Craft-Riverine (SOC-R) capabilities in the Danube River in Budapest, May 5, 2021.

  • During the first half of May, US and European special operators teamed up for an exercise across Eastern Europe.
  • The drills were meant to test how conventional and special-operations units would work together in a major conflict.
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In early May, the US Special Operations Europe (SOCEUR) conducted its largest annual exercise in conjunction with a smaller one, training with special-operations units from several NATO member and partner countries.

Trojan Footprint 21 and Black Swan 21 are especially pertinent as tensions with Russia in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea are still simmering.

SOCEUR planned both exercises to happen at the same time to simulate a full-blown conflict with Russia ranging from the Baltic states and Scandinavia south to Ukraine and the Black Sea region.

Army Romania Ukraine Special Forces Green Beret
Romanian, Ukrainian, and US Army Green Berets conduct close-quarters-battle training during Trojan Footprint 21 in Romania, May 6, 2021.

US Navy SEALs, Navy Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen (SWCCs), Green Berets, and Air Commandos were joined in the exercise by special operators from Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, Georgia, Hungary, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Spain, Ukraine, and the UK.

The realistic exercises took place in Romania and across Eastern Europe.

Besides testing the interoperability of different national special-operations units in skill-sets such as close-air support, close-quarters battler, and visit, board, search, and seizure, the two exercises, particularly Trojan Footprint, focused on how conventional and special-operations units would work together in a major conflict with Russia.

Integration between conventional and special-operations troops is essential in a near-peer conflict environment.

Navy SEALs vs. Russia

Navy special operations Croatia Hungary Adriatic
Naval special-operations forces from Croatia, Hungary, and the US conduct maritime training in the Adriatic Sea during the Black Swan 21, May 8, 2021.

In a potential conflict with Russia, Naval Special Warfare units would be extremely valuable for several reasons.

Since the annexation of the peninsula, the Russian military has bolstered its presence in the region, making it a seemingly impenetrable fortress guarding Moscow’s southern flank both from land and air.

In addition to potent radar systems that can track surface vessels hundreds of miles out, Russia has deployed several batteries of the formidable S-400 anti-aircraft system – the same one that caused Turkey to be kicked out of the F-35 program – to Crimea.

Indeed, Moscow has turned the peninsula into a prime example of the anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) concept, which aims to defeat US air and naval supremacy by threatening ships and aircraft with missiles and other weapons and thus preventing them from getting within range.

Air Force MC-130J special operations Albania
A US Air Force MC-130J during low-level flight training over the mountains of Albania, May 4, 2021.

Crimea, however, would be an ideal environment for Naval Special Warfare operations.

SEAL Teams can conduct over-the-beach raids and ambushes, maritime and land special reconnaissance, and underwater special operations, such as placing sensors on the ocean or limpet mines on enemy vessels.

Russian radar installations and A2/AD batteries and command-and-control systems would be a logical target for SEAL platoons.

But SEALs aren’t the only Naval Special Warfare element that could play an important role in a potential conflict with Russia.

An unknown gem

Croatia, Hungary, and the US Navy special operations Adriatic Sea
Naval Special Operations Forces from Croatia, Hungary, and the US conduct maritime training in the Adriatic Sea during the Black Swan 21, May 7, 2021.

Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen (SWCC) are one of the smallest special-operations in the US Special Operations Command.

With less than 1,000 commandos – out of about 70,000 special operators in the entire US military – Special Boat Teams specialize in maritime direct-action, special reconnaissance, and infiltration/exfiltration of other special-operations units.

“SWCCs are a perfect fit for a near-peer contingency. We’re such a small community people tend to underestimate our capabilities. But we bring so much to the table. We’re more than the ‘boat guys’ who transport SEALs on target. We can conduct operations unilaterally in both an open-sea and riverine environment,” an active-duty SWCC operator, who was granted anonymity to speak about the unit’s role, told Insider.

There are three Special Boat Teams, two focusing on blue-water, or ocean/sea, operations and one on brown-water, or riverine, operations.

Special operations forces helicopter repel Hungary
Austrian, Croatian, Hungarian, Slovakian, Slovenian, and US special-operations forces during exercise Black Swan 21 in Szolnok, Hungary, May 12, 2021.

They operate several special-operations platforms, including the Combatant Craft Assault (CCA), Combatant Craft Medium (CCM), Combatant Craft Heavy (CCH), which are all geared toward littoral and open-sea operations, and the Special Operations Craft-Riverine (SOC-R), which is essentially a gun platform designed for riverine operations.

“But perhaps our greatest asset is our stealth and firepower. Done correctly, the enemy would never know we were there, or they would be too dead to care,” the SWCC operator added.

Besides clandestinely transporting SEALs to Russian installations in Crimea, SWCCs can be very effective in rivers with the SOC-R. Riverine operations offer some great advantages, namely, speed, firepower, and stealth.

During Black Swan 21, SWCCs honed their riverine skills on the Danube River, Europe’s second-largest, which flows from Germany to the Black Sea and passes through 10 countries.

US special-operations units do have some real-world experience on riverine environments and riverine operations.

Naval Special Warfare SWCC Hungary Danube
Hungarian special-operations forces and Naval Special Warfare operators conduct infiltration and exfiltration training with Special Operations Craft-Riverine (SOC-R) in the Danube River during Black Swan, May 5, 2021.

During counterinsurgency operations in Iraq, Navy SEALs and Rangers sometimes used rivers to their advantage when the improvised explosive device (IED) threat made roads too dangerous.

In a number of operations, SWCCs transported a SEAL or Ranger ground force close to a target by river, where insurgents wouldn’t be waiting for them, to great success as the insurgents were caught unawares.

In the 2012 movie “Act of Valor,” which was sponsored by Naval Special Warfare Command and starred active-duty SEAL and SWCC operators, showcased the utility and advantages of riverine operations during a fictional hostage-rescue scenario.

In the movie, SWCCs clandestinely insert a SEAL squad that rescues the hostage from the terrorist base – located very conveniently right next to a river – and extracts them under fire.

Despite its fictional aspects, the movie shows how riverine special-operations capability can be used to strike very deep behind enemy lines, where an enemy wouldn’t expect it and thus would be less prepared.

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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The Coast Guard is taking a frontline role against US foes on the other side of the world

Coast Guard Hamilton Bosphorus Turkey Black Sea
US Coast Guard cutter Hamilton in the Bosphorus on its way to the Black Sea, April 27, 2021.

  • In April, Coast Guard cutters had close encounters in the Persian Gulf and sailed into the Black Sea.
  • Those missions are indicative of the Coast Guard’s growing role overseas, but that increase further strains limited resources.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Encounters far from home in April underscored the US Coast Guard’s growing overseas role, which is set to expand as more attention and resources are dedicated to countering China.

On April 2, an Iranian ship repeatedly sailed in front of Coast Guard patrol boats Wrangell and Monomoy at “an unnecessarily close range” as they operated in the Persian Gulf, which the US deemed “unsafe and unprofessional” actions.

Three weeks later, Iranian vessels again approached US ships – Navy patrol boat Firebolt and Coast Guard patrol boat Baranof – in the Gulf. After verbal warnings to the Iranian ships went unheeded, Firebolt fired warning shots.

Wrangell, Monomoy, and Baranof are all based in Bahrain as part of Patrol Forces Southwest Asia, the Coast Guard’s largest unit outside the US, which was set up in 2002 to support operations in the Middle East.

Hours after Baranof’s encounter, the Coast Guard cutter Hamilton sailed into the Black Sea, where longstanding tensions increased this spring, amid a Russian military buildup on the border with Ukraine.

Coast Guard Monomoy Persian Gulf Iran
Iranian ship Harth 55, left, crosses the bow of US Coast Guard patrol boat Monomoy, right, in the Persian Gulf, April 2, 2021.

Hamilton had escorted two cutters sailing from the US to join Patrol Forces Southwest Asia but remained in Europe, sailing into the Black Sea on April 27. Russia’s Defense Ministry said that day that its Black Sea Fleet was monitoring Hamilton’s “actions.”

Hamilton is the first Coast Guard vessel to enter the Black Sea since 2008 and is “emblematic of our presence in the Black Sea,” Laura Cooper, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia, said in response to a question from Insider at an Atlantic Council event on April 29.

The Coast Guard is part of the Department of Homeland Security, not the Defense Department, but it often works with other branches of the military and with foreign militaries.

“We particularly appreciate the Coast Guard’s ability to cooperate with other equivalent services … around the world, but in this case in the Black Sea,” Cooper said.

Cooper echoed Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz, who said in March that while the service hadn’t operated in Europe “in a good number of years,” the deployment suited its ability to cooperate and compete.

“I think the Coast Guard brings access. The Coast Guard brings a different look. The Coast Guard brings some unique, complimentary capabilities,” Schultz told reporters after his annual address to the service.

Coast Guard Hamilton Turkey Mediterranean Sea
A Turkish coast guard boat escorts the Hamilton in the Mediterranean Sea, April 27, 2021.

‘We’re going to push them out’

The Coast Guard often ventures long distances to enforce US laws and help other countries assert their own.

Coast Guard ships patrol the eastern Pacific Ocean to intercept drug smugglers. Cutters were deployed to Africa’s Atlantic coast to assist countries there in 2019 and 2020 for the first time in nearly a decade. In late 2020, a cutter was deployed on a South Atlantic patrol for the first time “in recent memory.”

The Coast Guard’s presence in the western Pacific Ocean is also increasing amid broader competition with China.

Since mid-2020, the service has stationed three new fast-response cutters in Guam, a US territory. Those ships have “about a 10,000-mile reach,” Schultz said in March.

“We’re going to push them out to some of the outer reaches of Oceania. We’re going to team them up with national security cutters on occasion,” Schultz added, referring to the service’s largest cutters, which include Hamilton.

Many recent Coast Guard operations have focused on countering illegal fishing, a growing source of friction with China. In December, a Coast Guard cutter helped Palau apprehend a Chinese vessel suspected of illegal fishing.

Japan Coast Guard
US Coast Guard Cutter Kimball and Japanese Coast Guard ship Akitsushima during an exercise near Japan’s Ogasawara Islands, February 21, 2021.

Coast Guard ships also work with the US Navy in the region. In May 2019, a Coast Guard cutter transited the Taiwan Strait for the first time, sailing alongside a Navy destroyer.

“I just think those lines are going to thicken,” Schultz said of Navy-Coast Guard cooperation.

The Navy’s operational tempo “has been very high for a considerable period … so it’s not surprising that they’d reach out and try to supplement” the Coast Guard, said Michael Desch, a professor and international-security expert at Notre Dame.

But the Coast Guard’s more overt role comes as military branches balance resources between current missions and modernization.

The Coast Guard has a number of domestic responsibilities and a growing role in the increasingly accessible Arctic but didn’t see the same budget increases as other branches did during the Trump administration.

While the Coast Guard is very capable and often better suited than the Navy to work with foreign forces, the growing workload should raise questions about the scope of US commitments, Desch said.

The recent encounters “seem to be indicative of the fact that we’re being stretched by all the things that we’re doing,” Desch told Insider. “Rather than throwing everything we’ve got but the kitchen sink at some of these missions, we ought to ask ourselves, are these missions really essential?”

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