Another more radical proposal would be
to establish a wholly new U.S. Special
Operations Force. This new command
could train and maintain a cadre of
operators organized into teams by skill
set, akin to the British Special Air Service
(SAS). In this form, the team is broken
down into four troops, each with a
specialization in a specific type of
insertion and extraction (e.g. Air, Boat,
Mobility [motorized vehicles], and
Mountain). SAS operators are not only
cross-trained in their specialty, but they
spend a great deal of time learning and
developing skills that are requisite once a
given team has inserted.

Clearly, this latter concept is a matter for
discussion beyond the scope of this
article; however, it remains something
that should be considered by the
military’s planners as we continue
through this era of limited war. At the
time of the commissioning of the first
SEAL teams in 1962, there was a
pressing and urgent need for special
operations forces capable of operating in
a largely Riverine environment (i.e.
Vietnam). So too was there a need for
this capability to be numerically robust
enough to conduct littoral operations
against the myriad potential targets that
might arise in the event of war with the
Soviet Union.

Today, the U.S. does not face an overtly
belligerent threat from any major power.
The Cold War ended, changing the
landscape of conflict from one of
superpower versus superpower to one of
confrontation of terrorists, warlords, and
insurgents. The maritime landscape has
long since changed from clandestine
limpet mine attacks against enemy
warships in port to one of putting SEALs
ashore in hostile territory as merely the
first phase of a longer overland mission.

That said, the potential for conflicts with
China or Russia also demand that the U.
S. retain sufficient special operations
capability to present a credible response
to counter any potential or actual
aggression from larger military powers.
Combining the teams with a larger force
as described above (in either scenario)
would retain this capability, while allowing
the military to confront the
unconventional but quite real threats
posed by terrorist, insurgents, and

In conclusion, it is accepted that the
Navy’s SEAL teams are exceptionally
skilled and experienced in the maritime
environment. They include amongst their
ranks some of the most highly trained
and capable maritime special operations
personnel in the world. Yet, it should also
be recognized that, in today’s real-world
conflicts, maritime special warfare
personnel are not called on to use this
specific and limited skill set, except in
very rare occasions. Rather, it is their
expertise in traditional beyond-the-beach
missions, such as tracking down high
value targets, nighttime raids on enemy
compounds, and commando-style
assaults that are these units’ primary

Any sober analysis of potential future
conflicts reveals that these sort of
missions will remain at the top of the list
for the unique talents of America’s SOF.
Thus, it is important that we consistently
revisit the function of the Navy SEAL
teams and their future role within the
special operations community.
About Thomas B. Hunter
Mr. Hunter served as an intelligence
officer with the Defense Intelligence
Agency (DIA) from June 2002 to April
2007. During this time, he specialized in a
variety of analytical areas, including
Homeland Security, Detainee Support,
and South American narcoterrorism.
While serving in the Weapons Branch,
Mr. Hunter specialized in the analysis of
terrorist tactics, techniques, and
procedures (TTP), which included in-
depth study of improvised explosive
devices and the TTP employed in their
use worldwide. He earned numerous
honors and awards including citations
from other government agencies with
whom he consulted and coordinated
hundreds of finished intelligence papers.

Mr. Hunter has also written extensively
on numerous topics for such publications
as Jane’s Intelligence Review, Jane’s
International Police Review, and U.S.
Naval Institute Proceedings. In this
capacity, he has published over 100
articles on subjects ranging from
maritime piracy and special operations to
counterterrorism, transnational crime,
and other topics pertaining to
asymmetric threats and responses. He
has also served as the editor of the
Journal of Counterterrorism and Security
International and the Special Operations

Mr. Hunter holds a Masters Degree in
Unconventional Warfare from the
American Military University; a Masters
Degree in International Security Studies
from the University of St. Andrews
(Scotland); and an undergraduate degree
in English and American Literature from
the University of Southern California. He
is currently an adjunct professor at
Henley-Putnam University.
Do We Need More Than the
by Thomas B. Hunter
Yet, despite arguments to the contrary,
the maritime environment as it pertains
to special operations largely boils down
to one of a number of routes of entry
into an operational area requiring a
specific type and method of
transportation. Other methods include air
(i.e., air assault, airborne) and land (i.e.,
foot patrol, vehicle). There is little tactical
mystery to the techniques involved, save
some small variations, particularly given
the fact that dozens of nations have long
maintained similar capabilities within their
own SOF units.

It is obvious that the SEAL teams
provide no small measure of pride,
mystique, and even awe among the
general public and within the services.
That the SEALs have been the subject of
popular Hollywood films, best-selling
books, television documentaries, and
innumerable magazine articles has done
nothing but increase the prestige
associated with this famed unit. From a
recruiting perspective, it is natural that
the Navy would want to retain the SEALs
on this basis alone.

There is also no question that the SEAL
team operators are amongst the most
skilled and highly trained special
operations personnel in the maritime
domain. However, the reality is that
operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have
shown the future of special operations to
be not in the water, but on land. The
vast majority of SEAL operations have
taken place not in seas, oceans, or bays,
but in the mountains and caves of
Afghanistan and in the streets of towns
and cities in Iraq. Clearly, while the ability
to insert and extract from the sea is a
skill that must be maintained, it is not an
oft-practiced real-world mission.

Should the Navy require littoral combat
mission, such as beach reconnaissance,
the U.S. Marines Corp reconnaissance
teams are, and have proven, more than
capable of filling this role. This, in fact, is
USMC reconnaissance’s bread and butter.
This does not require the skill set of a
SEAL whose true value, ostensibly, lies
beyond the surf zone.

So what then should become of the SEAL
teams? One proposal that merits
consideration is combining existing SEAL
teams into the U.S. Army’s Special
Forces Groups. These latter units
maintain an excellent maritime domain
expertise derived, at least initially, via
attendance at the Army’s Combat Diver
Course, Combat Dive Supervisor Course,
and other maritime training opportunities
in the U.S. and abroad. Yet, these
personnel do not spend the majority of
their time in the water. Instead, this skill
set is viewed (and accurately so) as
another method of clandestine entry into
a target location – a small piece of a
much larger picture. Incorporating the
SEALs into the USSF would greatly
enhance the U.S. military’s special
operations capabilities while retaining the
specialized skills developed by the teams
over the last 45 years.

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Copyright © 2021  Barry M. Baker  
Raising the question as to whether or
not the United States military needs the
SEAL teams is, at the very least, bound
to raise a few eyebrows. Yet, when one
examines the question with a
dispassionate eye, the answers are not
so clear-cut. In fact, careful consideration
of the idea requires an equally careful
solution. In the final analysis, it may be
that the future of the SEALs lies not with
the Navy, but with a carefully thought-
out integration with other special
operations forces (SOF).

This is not to say that the Navy should
have no role in special warfare; quite the
contrary. In fact, the Naval Special
Warfare Command plays a critical role in
this equation. The Navy’s Special Boat
Units (SBU) along with their attendant
Mobile Support Teams (MST) provide an
experienced, highly trained cadre capable
of operating a number of specialized
platforms (e.g. Mark V Special Operations
Craft, NSW Rigid Inflatable Boats, Special
Operations Craft -Riverine) ideal for the
overt or clandestine maritime insertion of
special operations teams. Additionally,
the Navy’s other unique special warfare
platform, the Swimmer Delivery Vehicle
(SDV) units, offer a proven and
important capability for clandestine
maritime insertions.
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