Basic and Advanced Skills
Navy SEALs are a curious breed of warriors. They are special, but what makes them so? How do they get that way? Before delving into the specifics of SEAL operations, we need to look at the organization that projects this force and puts them in the fight—how they are organized and trained, and how they are deployed around the world for operational taskings. Because the battle is different today than in the past, the lengthy process that prepares SEALs for battle dramatically changed in the last few years.
If you have read my prior works on the Navy SEALs, The Warrior Elite and The Finishing School, you already have a good idea of how SEALs are made. You have to understand the animal and his training before you can understand how he hunts and moves in a hostile environment. SEAL training today is the culmination of an ongoing, evolutionary process of testing and training that in the end produces a unique warrior, one who can trace his roots to the Navy frogmen in World War II. Those hastily trained volunteers went ashore in Sicily, Normandy, and the beaches of the western Pacific Ocean ahead of the amphibious landing forces. On Omaha Beach alone, more than half of the men who preceded the invasion force were killed or wounded. Two key philosophies have endured from the days of making Navy frogmen to the current practice in the making of Navy SEALs–doctrines that are unique in military training and other special operations training.
The first is a philosophy of selection. Those aspiring to become Navy SEALs are put through a harsh and efficient process that quickly reveals the right kind of men for this work-men who would rather die than quit. In the early days, volunteers were immediately thrust into a week of intense physical hardship and virtually denied any sleep. Those who survived were trained in demolitions and hydrographics, formed into teams, and sent ashore to recon and clear the landing beaches. This philosophy of "train the best, discard the rest" became the cornerstone of Navy frogman training, and, later, SEAL training. This Indoctrination Week quickly became known as Hell Week, or, during times of political correctness, Motivation Week. It survives in much of its original format to this day. The frogmen who trained for clearing beaches at Saipan and Iwo Jima can swap similar Hell Week stories with SEALs coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. In many ways, it is a rite of passage. Early in SEAL training, candidates must not only survive, but perform continuously as a team, for five days with no more than five hours of sleep. During these brutal five days, they are cold, wet, and sandy the entire time. Most who begin this challenging week do not finish it. They simply quit. Those who do make it through are candidates to become Navy SEALs.
The second legacy from the frogman days of World War II is the belief that officers and enlisted men should train side by side. The pain, cold water, and lack of sleep are shared equally. The only distinction is that officers and senior enlisted petty officers are held to a higher standard of leadership.
While there is a sense of continuity between those first frogmen and today's SEALs, there are also some key differences between modern SEALs and their predecessors. One difference in the making of a modern SEAL is the length of time in training. During World War II, men were trained in a matter of a few months and rushed off to combat. Immediately following their Hell Week, they were given basic demolition training and deployed overseas. During Vietnam, training consisted of the basic training course, which had by then become BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) Training. BUD/S was then a four-month course. The advanced training that a young warrior would need to survive in combat was conducted at his SEAL team by returning team veterans. In less than a year, a young sailor or newly commissioned officer could be on patrol in the Mekong Delta. Today, few SEALs deploy without three years of training. They are now trained to a professional standard that is rigorous and exacting. I'm often asked if training is harder today than in my time-when being a SEAL guaranteed you were going to Vietnam. In deference to the SEALs of my era, I'll not surrender any of the ground we might claim in the "tough" category, but I can say this without reservation: Those of us from previous generations would have to take our game to a much higher professional level to meet current Navy SEAL standards. To take an analogy from professional basketball, could Jerry West or Bob Cousy guard Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant? I don't think so. They, like the SEALs of my generation, were perhaps the best of their era. However, the bar has been raised. This is a new game with new standards of excellence and professionalism. One thing that is unchanged in the experience of frogmen of World War II, the Vietnam-era SEALs of my generation, and the SEALs on deployment today is this: If you are a Navy SEAL, with some exceptions, you will go in harm's way; your deployments will be combat deployments. If you are a Navy SEAL today, you will literally be putting your gun in the fight. When I was the OIC (officer in charge) of Whiskey Platoon, SEAL Team One in 1970, I distinctly remember telling my platoon SEALs, "This will be an active combat deployment. You're all volunteers. If anyone doesn't want to do this, come see me later, and I'll see that you get a set of orders to another duty station." They all chose to go with me on deployment because they wanted their gun in the fight, and I brought them all home. It was an achievement in which I still take a great deal of pride. The credit, however, goes to the professionalism of my SEALs and the enlisted leadership of my platoon.
The making of a Navy SEAL today is the construction of a triangle. This triangle is sketched or lightly drawn during basic SEAL training. The lines of the triangle are more firmly outlined during advanced training, and still more deeply etched during predeployment training. The life of a Navy SEAL is a life of training-the tracing and retracing of this triangle. One side of the triangle is conditioning-physical and mental. SEALs live with a diet of running, swimming, and constant physical training. This physical dimension and shared experience of Hell Week serve to build a mental reservoir against the times when conditions are unbearably harsh and day upon day might pass without sleep. A Navy SEAL knows he's been there before; he must always maintain the physical and mental conditioning to be able to go there again-any time and without advanced warning. You often hear a SEAL describe a difficult operation down range as "It was hard and we were cold, but it wasn't Hell Week cold." The second side of the triangle is professionalism. Training and learning are never over. Throughout his career, a SEAL must continue to refine and upgrade his professional skill set. The skills learned during basic and advanced training are not good enough for operational deployment. The skill level of a SEAL on his first deployment is less than what is expected of him on his third deployment. The life of a SEAL is one of professional evolution-a continuous cultivation of a special operations skill set. Many things remain the same and must be practiced again, but new skills have to be learned to meet emerging enemy capabilities. The final part of the triangle is the base, which represents character. To be a fully formed SEAL warrior, a man must develop a firm moral platform from which to project his power. The Navy core values of honor, courage, and commitment are part of the equation. There is also the short list of discipline, integrity, trust, and personal accountability. The development of character and the maintenance of personal honor are as important as the physical and professional components in creating a Navy SEAL.
Now let's talk about the mechanics of training Navy SEALs. The first challenge that an aspiring sailor or young officer must face is Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL Training-BUD/S. It is the BUD/S experience that defines the SEAL culture and forms the glue that binds all SEALs together, from seaman to admiral. It is a thirty-week course that separates those who think they want to become a Navy SEAL from those who are willing to pay the price to achieve that goal. There has always been a debate about BUD/S: Is it training-a course of instruction-or simply a testing or screening process? From my close observation of BUD/S Class 228, which was featured in The Warrior Elite, and subsequent BUD/S training, I believe it is both. Skills learned during BUD/S provide the foundation for the diverse warrior skill set that all SEALs must develop. These skills are mixed in with a daunting physical regime throughout the BUD/S curriculum. The seven-and-a-half month BUD/S course is conducted at the Naval Special Warfare Center at Coronado, California.
BUD/S is conducted in three separate and distinct phases preceded by a four-to-six-week Introduction Course, or Indoc. This introductory period is a mix of running, swimming, and physical training, or PT. The new trainees are introduced to the obstacle course. They learn about cold water by spending extended periods in the Pacific Ocean. Few have been teeth-rattling, to-the-bone cold, but they get a taste of this in the Indoctrination Course. This course is to prepare BUD/S trainees for First Phase training. About 20 percent will voluntarily drop from training during Indoc. There are a few injuries, and some will quit from the pain of the moment-but most quit because they now understand that the long, tiring days and the cold water will go on for months and months. Indeed, long days and physical hardship are the life of a Navy SEAL. Indoc also introduces the trainees to the protocols and routines that have evolved from the early days to what is now modern BUD/S training.
First Phase is the conditioning phase; the physical regime is taken up a notch or two from Indoc. First Phase trainees do PT with sections of telephone poles to build strength and teamwork. They begin surf-passage drills in rubber boats. They learn the concept of "it pays to be a winner." Those who come in first get a brief rest. Those that don't are rewarded with a trip to the surf and a roll in the sand. First Phase is all about teamwork, desire, stress, and the management of physical pain-pain that is not unbearable, but which becomes a daily burden. First Phase is also about Hell Week, which is scheduled two to four weeks after this phase begins. Twenty to 40 percent of a class will quit prior to Hell Week. Of those who remain, some half or more of those will quit during Hell Week. For all their physical trials, First Phase and Hell Week are primarily a mental game. Many quit prior to Hell Week because they know what is ahead; the trainees now understand what it is to be tired and cold all the time. Just thinking about being tired, cold, and denied sleep causes them to quit. During Hell Week, 90 percent of the trainees quit during the first day. Why is this? Certainly the first day of this five-day ordeal should be the most bearable. But many quit because they say to themselves, "One day and I'm really hurting-I can't do this for four more days." The ones who do make it are thinking, "One day and I'm really hurting-but I'll hang in there for one more day." The actual teaching that is done in BUD/S really begins after Hell Week. As the survivors heal from their brutal week, they begin to learn about the basics of hydrographic reconnaissance, cartography, and small-boat navigation.
Second Phase is the dive phase. There is a saying in the teams that you can't be a SEAL unless you first become a frogman. Throughout Indoc and First Phase, the BUD/S trainees have been challenged by cold water and long swims. They were also made to perform skills like tying knots underwater at fifteen feet while they hold their breath. They had to master a technique called "drown proofing," where they must survive and perform tasks while their feet are bound and their hands are tied behind their backs. All this is to get them comfortable and confident in the water. During Second Phase, they learn to dive. After classroom work in diving physics and physiology, they take to the pool. They not only learn to dive, they learn to dive under stress and harassment while performing specific tasks underwater. After a brief introduction to an open-circuit scuba, the trainees begin diving with the rig used in the teams, the Draeger LAR (lung-activated rebreather) V scuba. Within a matter of days of their first underwater experience, the apprentice frogmen are boring holes in San Diego Bay on a compass heading-at night. In Second Phase, they will learn the basics of underwater navigation, pace count (estimating distance traveled while swimming underwater), maintenance of their tactical scubas, and diving safety-the foundation for their journey to become proficient combat swimmers. In the SEAL teams, they think of themselves as combat swimmers, rather than as divers.
Third Phase is the Demolitions and Tactics Phase. In the past it has been called Land-Warfare Phase. It is in Third Phase that these sailors learn the basics of soldiering. They are introduced to combat demolitions and a variety of weapons. They learn the basics of small-unit tactics and land navigation. Their primary weapon, as it will be in the teams, is the M4 rifle. They carry it everywhere. Much of BUD/S Third Phase is conducted on San Clemente Island off the California coast, where there are shooting, grenade, and heavy demolition ranges. And, of course, water. Tactical training problems usually involve coming from the water to complete a mission on land and returning to the water. Third Phase also introduces the new men to the methodology and mechanics of mission planning. From the senior class officer to the junior enlisted man, they work as a team to plan, prepare for, and execute a special operation. It is basic and highly formatted, but this fully integrated team planning process is the baby step that will lead to the flexibility and rapid-response capability that has been the hallmark of current SEAL operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. It all begins at BUD/S during Third Phase.
Roughly one man in five who reports for Indoc will graduate from BUD/S. It is an accomplishment and milestone in their journey to becoming a Navy SEAL. It was a milestone for me when I graduated from BUD/S with Class 45 in 1969. And it was yet another milestone when I was allowed to follow Class 228 through training and document modern BUD/S training in 1999-2000 for The Warrior Elite: The Forging of SEAL Class 228.