They use night vision and high-speed maneuver to launch small targeted boat attacks under cover of darkness, swim underwater for long distances to approach enemy shores, conduct clandestine reconnaissance operations and confront enemy fire amid hostage rescue or high-value target attack missions… to site just a few of the high-risk, high-casualty missions expected of Naval and Marine Corps Special Operations Forces preparing for major maritime warfare.
Given the last several decades of U.S. military war campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, many are likely to regard Special Operations Forces such as Navy SEALs or Special Naval Warfare units as primarily focused upon and experienced in counterinsurgency missions. While such a thought would indeed be accurate when it comes to the SOF mission envelope, war planners also see Special Operators as increasingly vital when it comes to the possibility of major-power maritime conflict as well.
This reality may in large measure be why a new U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard strategy document carves out a special place to highlight maritime Special Operations Forces as fundamental to the Navy’s pivot toward major power warfare.
“Naval special operations forces help prepare the operational environment in contested and denied areas. Their skills and access enable the Naval Service to insulate vulnerable partners and maneuver naval forces inside of contested areas,” the strategy, called Advantage at Sea .. Prevailing With Integrated All Domain Naval Power, states.
Marines even operate something called a MEUSOC, or Marine Expeditionary Unit, Special Operations Capable, to support specific kinds of smaller, more targeted yet vital intelligence, rescue or attack missions.
Perhaps a small group of Special Operations capable Marines need to drop in behind enemy lines to gather intelligence or even conduct clandestine hit-and-run attack missions otherwise not possible.
These are factors why a number of large Navy platforms are specifically engineered to support, transport and enable Special Operations Missions. Littoral Combat Ship mission packages, for instance, incorporate 11-meter rigid, inflatable boats, small watercraft often used by SOF for high-speed transport, rescue missions, maritime casualty evacuations or small, covert, highly surgical targeted attack operations.
Virginia-class attack submarines are also now engineered with a specific mind to supporting SOF missions; Block III Virginias, for instance, many of which are now operational, are built with what is called a Lock Out Trunk, an designated, separated area within the sub that can house small groups forces then fill up with water to enable SOF divers to quietly swim out of the submarine for stealthy reconnaissance or attack missions without needing to surface. This kind of innovation, which makes a certain kind of stealthy force insertion much more realistic and likely to favor success, seeks to leverage the training benefits and warfare skills unique to Special Operations Forces.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.