Seapower and Naval Special Warfare: Tracking NSW’s Strategic Role Since 1990

NSW Combatant Craft

By Cole Black.

In the early 1990’s, American naval strategy underwent a fundamental design shift to better suit a changing global maritime environment and battlespace. Up to this point, the United States had organized her navy to respond to major open water conflicts against comparably armed opponents. Large, powerful fleets were crucial to warfighting in WWII, but were soon replaced by more versatile platforms. Aircraft carriers, whose air wings could conduct more adaptable strategic strikes, replaced immense battleships. Submarines augmented naval fleets’ abilities to operate undetected in enemy waters.

The nature of fleet-on-fleet conflict may have adjusted its image to fit the proliferation of new naval platforms, but its ideology remained relatively consistent: a traditional focus on fleet-on-fleet warfare and “blue water” battlespace rooted in Alfred Thayer Mahan’s naval strategy laid out in The Influence of Seapower Upon History, his 1890 book that would shape maritime naval strategy to varying degrees for over a century.

Going into the early 90s, soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall and dissolution of the Soviet Union, the United States would reevaluate its Mahanian naval emphasis as the nature of naval conflict shifted away from great power engagement. Naval Special Warfare (NSW) was an obvious asset in this new focus. Their traditional role as pre-assault assets for amphibious operations fit into the “brown water” operations of littoral combat against simultaneously in multiple regions against unorthodox opponents. Instead of facing large fleets of opponent nations, the USN would come up against transnational, non-state actors and maritime disruptors, including increasing piracy and terrorism in regions of instability. Tracking the role of NSW through the broader shift in naval strategy of the 90s and early 2000s reveals the successes of NSW in supporting American naval and maritime power, and the weaknesses/exploitations of their increased importance in naval operations.

NSW has transformed from a loosely organized, underemphasized, but notably successful asset of the USN during 20th century conflicts, to an irreplaceable asset in the regional maritime conflicts of the 21st century, especially throughout the War on Terror. As network-centric warfare increasingly becomes the dominant focus of American military strategy, NSW is positioned to play a key supporting role in joint-service operations.

In 2003, the Navy released Sea Power 21, detailing their plan to transform the USN to better fit the modern battlespace. Sea Power 21 has been adjusted since its original publication, (through documents like Admiral Gilday’s (CNO) 2022 Navigational Plan which clarified the importance of interservice cooperation and joint-service operations moving forward) but provides a useful framework to locate NSW’s role in a shifting American strategy. It describes three main enablers for American naval strategy: Sea Strike, Sea Shield, and Sea Base. Each enabler contains important NSW missions, but greater attention should be given to the major role of NSW in Sea Strike and Sea Base operations. Sea Power 21 also emphasizes the necessity to shift military strategy to a network-centric approach, one ready to take on threats to the USN’s command, control, communication, computer and intelligence systems (C4I). NSW will play a key role here in intelligence gathering and battlefield direction.

But prior to an analysis of NSW and Sea Power 21, we look at the proliferation of NSW mission sets in the late 1990s, especially its meteoric rise after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. The global War on Terror ignited by these attacks transformed NSW into a modern, highly capable, highly funded warfighting system. However, it also made the traditionally clandestine world of Special Operations significantly more visible. If NSW is expected to continue its unique roles, it must be able to conduct missions with small, highly skilled, self-sustaining teams, outside of the public eye. Otherwise, the USN will lose the benefits of NSW missions, which provide America with the ability to operate without political liability or risk of escalation. 

In 1998, a series of bombings targeted two US embassies across East Africa. Near simultaneous attacks were conducted on the US embassy in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The organizers behind these truck bombings were suspected to be operating in Somalia, a politically unstable country and safe haven for the ringleaders of terrorist groups for decades. During the notorious 2003 “Black Hawk Down” incident in Mogadishu, Somalia, US Special Operations Forces were tasked with abducting violent Somali warlords in an effort to influence the Somali Civil War, as well as providing humanitarian aid to the starving people of the city. Somali National Alliance forces attacked the outnumbered and poorly organized American forces, killing 18 soldiers and dragging their bodies through the streets. SOF operations in Africa steadily rose to unsustainable levels, straining the elite soldiers of Marine RECON, Navy SEAL, and Army Special Forces units, as well as Tier One units like Naval Special Warfare Development Group (SEAL Team 6) and Delta force. Oftentimes, military tasking was given to units outside of their area of expertise, simply because of an exaggerated belief in the versatility and durability of Special Operations Forces soldiers.

To be sure, NSW and similar SOF groups were extremely successful in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency efforts across Africa. Look to the successful rescue of Captain Phillips by SEAL Team 6 from the hands of Somali pirates, a hostage rescue mission against seemingly impossible odds. SEAL snipers simultaneously shot three Somali captors from the back guided missile destroyer. In 2014, two platoons from SEAL Team 2 successfully took control of an oil tanker held by a Libyan militia group. This prevented the Libyan sect from selling the oil on the black market, which would have significantly funded their violent methods of rebellion.

But even the successes of NSW in these operations came at a price: the price of public attention and admiration. Wildly popular media, from the comedically action packed 1990 film Navy Seals to the myriad of documentaries, movies, and books written after Operation Neptune Spear, or the book detailing the 2009 Maersk Alabama operation written by Captain Richard Phillips within a year of his rescue, and its screenplay adaptation in 2013, increased awareness and interest in NSW, bringing their operations into a dangerous international spotlight. Efforts to capitalize on the NSW name and its sensitive mission set for monetary gain, or to rouse political support, or to seek public recognition, or even with wholly moral intentions, came at the expense of the safety afforded to NSW by its secrecy. This, coupled with the overemphasis of Special Operations Forces in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency efforts past their capabilities, jeopardized the effectiveness of NSW in naval strategy.

The operational intensity, public vulnerability, and misuses of Special Operations assets proved to be a big strain on the community. In 2016, largely because of operations in Africa, more Special Operations soldiers were killed than conventional soldiers. In 2017, four Special Forces soldiers were killed in an ambush in Tongo Tongo, Niger, in part because they did not have adequate intelligence or contingency support. A 2020 comprehensive review of culture and ethics by USSOCOM found “The continuous global demand for SOF capabilities, combined with a SOF culture focused on force employment and mission accomplishment, has led to sustained high operational tempo which challenges unit integrity and leader development, and erodes readiness.” This is a worrisome, if obvious, conclusion. Ongoing naval strategy, as detailed in Sea Power 21, needs to avoid these pitfalls if it is to properly capitalize off the skill set of NSW assets. Correctly balancing operational tempo with suitable mission tasking allows NSW teams to do what they do best: move small, highly skilled teams covertly into crisis areas to effectively shape the battlespace alongside broader joint-service operations.

The aforementioned advantages and weaknesses of NSW should be considered in correctly weaving their operations into the Sea Power 21 strategic framework. Sea Strike capabilities mean the ability for the USN to strike “from the sea” on strategic land targets, as well as other maritime assets. NSW’s role in Sea Strike is both immediately obvious and surprisingly nuanced. “From the sea” strikes are well suited for a force designed to swiftly attack littoral and riverine environments. Able to insert themselves into the battlespace from multiple specialized platforms, like the combatant crafts or RIBs manned by Special Warfare Combatant Crewman units (SWCC) or the submarine-launched SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV), Navy SEAL and other NSW assets are well equipped for direct Sea Strike. Newer Virginia class submarines have been designed with NSW mission sets in mind, allowing SDV deployment and accommodations for larger SEAL attachments.

In ship-on-ship strikes, NSW has a long history of maritime interdiction and visit, board, search, and seizure (VBSS) missions. But Sea Strike does not solely mean clandestine amphibious assaults, with movie star-like Frogmen jumping out of planes into coastal waters. Indeed, Sea Strike encompasses all sea-based offensive weapons systems, from Tomahawks fired by surface or submarine platforms to mines laid in strategic maritime waters. The extreme end of Sea Strike capabilities are submarine launched ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads. NSW assets can assist in these more conventional Sea Strike missions by gathering battlespace information and advising targeting strategies to better support on-ground operations. In Afghanistan, NSW assets collected information during their hunt for Osama bin Laden, then directed Navy and Air Force aviation assets from carrier and land-based air wings in bombing runs that destroyed an al Qaeda weapons cache. NSW information gathering can and should be used to greater extent in joint-service Sea Strike operations, especially in volatile, complex battlespaces.

Sea Basing has an equally important space for NSW assets, not only in conducting Sea Strike missions, but for advancing the goal of Sea Basing, which is to minimize reliance on ashore installations of allied forces, like foreign airports or military outposts, to minimize obstacles that can arise from untrustworthy or inefficient partners. Sea Basing, primarily done through prepositioned forces on conventional platforms like surface ships, aircraft carriers, or on-station submarines, is most effective when done by small, self-sufficient assets. Attaching a platoon of SEALs to an SDV-capable submarine in strategically important waters gives US naval strategy the option to strike from the sea by means of forward-deployed NSW assets, as opposed to moving NSW assets on-station, potentially re-tasking them from previous mission sets. SWCC forces attached to Marine amphibious platforms serve a similar purpose. A Sea Base with an in-house SWCC/SEAL contingent could be stationed off North Africa, the South Pacific, or the Mediterranean to combat piracy and enforce sanctions/embargoes through VBSS operations.  NSW assets don’t have the manpower, nor skillset, to act as standalone Sea Base groups, but are vital to augmenting the capabilities of conventional USN assets. At the same time, stationing NSW assets on Sea Base groups minimizes the need to build up NSW or Marine forces on shore, as Sea Base assets can be quickly deployed as needed. Sea Bases should act as afloat forward staging bases for NSW assets, in conjunction with broader strategic maritime goals.

NSW has been useful in strengthening the vision of Sea Power 21 since its publication in 2002. Their integration into this vision should continue to be emphasized and resourced and adjusted to fit the joint-service focus of NAVPLAN 2021. In doing this, tasking should be given to NSW forces in line with their expertise, at a rate sustainable by the sailors being asked to risk their lives, not at a rate thought possible by zealous politicians or out of an overreliance on NSW’s mythic resiliency. The NSW mission is well defined by the Special Operations Forces Reference Manual: providing an effective means to apply counterforce in conjunction with national policy and objectives in peacetime and across the spectrum of hostilities from peacetime operations to limited war to general war. The missions given to NSW, and Special Operations Forces in general, should reflect this mission.

All efforts should be made to make sure NSW missions can be conducted out of the public eye to protect its members. NSW is uniquely positioned to influence US seapower in ways far less obvious than movements of conventional surface fleet assets around the global maritime theater. In Sea Strike and Sea Base efforts, NSW assets should be recognized for their advantages, but play a supporting, augmenting role in greater naval strategy, without a needlessly burdensome emphasis. In thinking about continuing to adapt NSW to modern naval warfare, and how this has been successfully and unsuccessfully pursued since the 90s, the USN should always be looking into the future to preemptively react to changing battlespaces. This means, and has meant for over a decade, greater importance placed on network-centric offensive and defensive capabilities. Information warfare of the 21st century will impact all of NSW’s mission areas. Securing the flow of sensitive information regarding NSW missions is mandatory if NSW is to operate confidently. At the same time, NSW will have an offensive role in information-space warfare. Missions focused on special reconnaissance objectives can provide information used for internal NSW purposes and contribute to greater battlespace detail.

If Mahanian principles are poised for a resurrection as the USN prepares for potential conflict with comparably armed fleets of powerful nations like Russia and China, they will be applied to a modern “blue water” conflict far different from those described in The Influence of Seapower Upon History. Offensive and defensive efforts in technology-reliant information networks will open the door to “winning without fighting” maritime strategies. NSW finds its strength in its ability to adapt to adversity and new challenges: that mindset will serve their community, and American seapower, well going forward.



ADM Clark, Vern. “Sea Power 21: Projecting Decisive Joint Capabilities”. Proceedings. United States Naval Institute. 2021

History and Research Office. USSOCOM History. 6th ed. 2008

Joint Special Operations University. “Chapter 4: US Naval Special Operations Forces”. In Special Forces Operations Reference Manual. 4th ed. JSOU Press, 2015

Mahan, Alfred Thayer. The Influence of Seapower Upon History. Little, Brown and Company, 1890

National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum “SEAL History: The Story of Naval Special Warfare”. National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum. 2020

Richard, Gary. Naval Special Warfare’s Contribution to Global Joint Operations in Support of Sea Power 21, The United States Navy’s Vision for the Twenty-First Century. Fort Leavenworth, 2004

United States Special Operations Command. “Comprehensive Review of SOF Culture and Ethics”. 2020 In

Author: Cole Black grew up in San Diego, CA, and is currently attending Yale University. He is pursuing a history major with a focus on War and Society.

Photo: Naval Special Warfare combatant craft conducts maritime interoperability training. Pacific Ocean, April 17, 2021, U.S. Navy photo. (Creative Commons, Flikr)