US Navy SEALs boosting numbers and returning to sea to tackle threats from China and Russia

US Navy SEALs boosting numbers and returning to sea to tackle threats from China and Russia

Jamie Johnson

·3 min read
Osama bin Laden
US Navy SEALs training - Steve Salisbury / REUTERS
 
US Navy SEALs training – Steve Salisbury / REUTERS

The US Navy SEALs are reorganising and retraining to focus on the maritime threats posed by Russia and China after decades fighting against militants and extremists in the Middle East.

Ten years after killing Osama Bin Laden, the number of platoons will decrease by 30 per cent, but the number of elite special forces fighters will increase, as the Navy looks to streamline and expand its capabilities on and under the water to counter “peer threats”.

There will also be a new, intensive screening process to ensure that higher-quality soldiers are given leadership roles after a number of scandals involving charges of murder, sexual assault and drug use rocked the force.

The Navy’s special operations forces have been focused on counterterrorism, but now must begin to evolve beyond those missions, Rear Admiral Hugh Howard, head of the US Naval Special Warfare Command, told the Associated Press.

For the past two decades, many have been fighting in the deserts of Iraq and mountains of Afghanistan. Now they are going back to sea.

US Special Forces killed Osama Bin Laden at this compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 3, 2011 - AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
 
US Special Forces killed Osama Bin Laden at this compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 3, 2011 – AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images

The decision reflects the broader Pentagon strategy to prioritise China and Russia, which are rapidly growing their militaries and trying to expand their influence around the globe.

US officials believe that war against militants and extremists has drained resources, causing America to lose ground against Moscow and Beijing.

“Now we need to put pressure on ourselves to operate against peer threats,” said Rear Admiral Howard.

Tensions are rising in the disputed South China Sea, for example, where the US and China have both deployed aircraft carriers in recent weeks.

Admiral Mike Gilday, the chief of naval operations, said the goal is to better integrate the SEALs into the Navy’s missions at sea.

“As the Navy Special Warfare community returns more and more to its maritime roots, their increased integration across the fleet – above, under, and on the sea – will unequivocally enhance our unique maritime capabilities to help us compete and win against any adversary,” Admiral Gilday told AP.

The reorganisation is also a response to a number of unsavoury incidents in recent years.

Navy Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher was arrested on war crimes charges that included murder of an Islamic State militant captive and attempted murder in the shootings of civilians during a 2017 deployment to Iraq.

He was acquitted of all charges except one, posing in photos with the dead captive.

More recently, a SEAL team platoon was pulled out of Iraq in 2019 amid allegations of sexual assault. Members of SEAL Team 10 were involved in cocaine use and tampering with drug tests. And Navy SEAL Adam Matthews was sentenced to a year in military prison for his role in the 2017 hazing-related death of an Army Green Beret in Africa.

Now, officials are intensifying the screening process with more psychological assessments to evaluate personality traits.