Underwater Drones Tell the Story of Navy SEALs' War

Technology employed by Naval Special Warfare shows elite unit's transition from desert back to ocean.

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A decade of kicking in doors in Iraq and Afghanistan has brought the storied U.S. Navy SEALs away from their maritime roots, and with it the kind of gear that give the elite unit its distinct niche.

SEALs and their support teams began using small underwater drones for their missions roughly a decade ago, according to Naval Special Warfare Command. But the nature of the last 10 years of war, combined with budget restraints in recent years, forced them to scrap the program roughly two years ago.

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Now the U.S. is preparing to pivot back to the Pacific, where Navy special operations experts say the SEALs will spend more time in wetsuits and using gear like these drones to help them on the attack.

"As the greater demand for Naval Special Warfare shifts from Afghanistan back to its original and primary maritime focus, Naval Special Warfare will be looking at its 'spectrum of capabilities,'" a NSWC spokesman says in an email to U.S. News. This will determine if it wants to invest again in these drones.

Experts in the field think this is a good idea.

"We're back to square one, where we have to re-identify the threats because we have to pivot away from the Middle East," says Chris Harmer, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War and veteran Navy helicopter pilot who flew special operations missions during his 20-year military career.

"You have got to know the water terrain you're moving through," says Harmer, pointing to one of the missions these drones can take on. "Sub-sea surface mapping is a hell of a lot cheaper than training enough divers to do it, or sending ships in to do it."

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Special operations are now leaving behind the ability to have massive logistics in Iraq and Afghanistan for a more desolate battlefield on the ocean, he says, where any gear must be hauled along.

SEALs – an abbreviation for "SEa, Air, Land" – trace their roots back to the World War II underwater demolition divers who searched for mines or other offensive weapons, and cleared beaches for landing craft. They evolved these skills on the shore during the Vietnam War, which also shaped the warriors who would go on to develop and train today's modern fighting force.

Harmer says Navy headquarters has become a little paranoid about the SEALs losing their wide-ranging core mission.

Real world operations and actual combat experience will inherently change any group of warriors, says Mike Ritland, a Navy SEAL Team 3 veteran who was deployed to Iraq before retiring.

"Once that's learned in blood, it absolutely changed some of the protocols and doctrines and how you conduct training," he says. During his tenure Ritland became an expert in a different kind of tool the SEAL teams used to assist their assaults. His book, "Trident K9 Warriors" documents his use and training of dogs in special operations warfare.

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Increased use of technology, such as underwater drones, plays a comparatively larger role on the battlefield, he says. Though operators at this caliber are reluctant to rely entirely on any piece of equipment that could fail.

"No matter how high speed it is, if you don't have guys who are physically and mentally capable enough, [and] competent enough to pull that mission off, all of that is useless," he says.

"The caliber of the man and the selection course he goes through is without a doubt the most single important piece of technology that exists in modern warfare."

Ritland points to an important piece of the SEAL's next 10 years of warfare, performing what one senior officer privately tells U.S. News is a re-evolution to the Pacific.

Another SEAL veteran from before Sept. 11 says he sees the brand of training that Navy Special Warfare employs in how his comrades adapt from the jungles of Vietnam, to the urban centers of South America and to the mountains and deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The cool thing about SEALs is this last decade allows us to show the skills we have on land as well," says Stew Smith, a SEAL officer who retired in 1999.