79 years after first submarine commando raid, Navy SEALs say it hasn’t gotten any easier


Members of SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team 1 pull a comrade aboard the guided-missile submarine USS Michigan during a SEAL Delivery Vehicle familiarization exercise in the southern Pacific Ocean, on February 20, 2012. US Navy / MCS3 Kristopher Kirsop

  • In August 1942, the US Marine Raiders carried out the first amphibious attack ever launched from submarines.

  • Since then, technological advances have allowed commandos to conduct much more complex submarine operations.

  • Submarine operations are a great way to deploy special operations forces, but they are always difficult to achieve.

  • See more stories on the Insider business page.

August marked the 79th anniversary of the first special operations raid directly supported by submarines.

Decades later, special operations underwater has become a staple of Navy SEAL teams and one of the US military’s most valuable capabilities.

The first submarine commandos

US Marines on the USS Nautilus before the raid on Makin Island

US Marines aboard the USS Nautilus just before the raid on Makin Island, August 17, 1942. United States Marine Corps

In August 1942, the US Marine Raiders carried out the first amphibious attack ever launched from submarines.

During the raid on Makin Island, the USS Nautilus and the USS Argonaut landed 200 Marine Commandos on the small Japanese-held island in an attempt to destroy enemy installations, capture prisoners and collect information.

While the raid was neither a success nor a failure – the Marine Raiders achieved some goals but failed others – it paved the way for future special ops from submarines.

Underwater operations

US Marines on USS Argonaut prior to raid on Makin Island

US Marines aboard the USS Argonaut on their return from the Makin raid in Pearl Harbor on August 26, 1942. United States Marine Corps

Since World War II, advances in submarine technology and combat diving have enabled much more complex submarine operations involving commandos.

Nowadays, submarines do not have to surface to disembark special operators, as they did in the raid on Makin Island, and can instead deploy commandos when submerged. .

Submarine operations can be used to transport a special operations team close to a target without leaving a trace, making it the ideal starting point for special reconnaissance, direct action, sabotage, rescue of ‘hostages or personnel recovery operations.

Navy SEALs, the maritime component of US Special Operations Command, are the natural choice for such operations. From the outset, SEAL training emphasizes the water element, and all SEALs receive advanced submarine training.

But the Navy SEALs aren’t the only special operations unit in the US Army that can launch from submarines. For example, Army Special Forces Combat Diver teams also train and conduct submarine operations.

Navy submarine evacuation trunk

A Marine exits the locked trunk of the USS Mississippi during special operations forces training in Hawaii, Nov. 17, 2015. United States Marine Corps / Sgt. Tony simmons

The difference between the two units, however, is that Green Berets use combat diving as a method of insertion – a means of hitting the target – while Navy SEALs can also conduct direct action or sabotage operations. at sea after launching from a submarine.

Some underwater operations can last for long periods. The special operations contingent on board may be ongoing for days, weeks, or even months.

For example, during the Falklands War in the South Atlantic, British commandos of the Special Boat Service – the British equivalent of SEAL Team Six – spent several weeks aboard submarines as they deployed from the UK. United towards the Falklands to begin operations against Argentina.

When en route, the special ops element “gets by” – sleep, eat, plan, and train wherever there is a small free room, such as in the torpedo room.

In danger

Naval Special Warfare and Navy SEAL diver on submarine

Navy divers and members of the SEAL 2 Delivery Vehicle Team and Naval Special Warfare Logistics Support conduct lockdown training with the USS Hawaii, October 26, 2007. US Navy

To prepare for submarine operations, Navy SEALs and other commandos with a maritime specialty conduct realistic training exercises, such as escape chest exercises in pools or tanks and dockside training on sub -moored sailors.

Evacuation chest drills are very important. Combat divers and submariners are placed in a spherical trunk about 6 feet high that is flooded with water almost to nose level. The trunk is placed at the bottom of the pool or tank. The person inside can breathe but cannot do much more.

Then the trunk hatch is opened to flood the last few inches, submerging the person inside and forcing them to swim 30 or 40 feet to the surface. This exercise is used to simulate an escape from a sunken submarine.

“Submarine operations are always delicate and dangerous. You cannot get complacent no matter how many platoons you have under your belt. But they are also very useful for several eventualities,” said a former Navy officer. SEAL to Insider.

“Locking and locking – respectively, exiting and re-entering a submerged submarine – are tricky business, especially if conducted in the middle of the night. The ocean can get quite dark at night. You can’t even see your hand in front of it. your face, [it’s] this darkness, ”said the former officer.

“This is why we always operate in pairs, and the operators are tied together by a rope. But these procedures are important, and we must master them because they allow us to infiltrate and exfiltrate clandestinely,” he added. ‘former officer.

Special naval war diver on navy submarine

A diver from a Naval Special Warfare Logistics Support Diver conducts lockdown training with the USS Hawaii October 26, 2007. US Navy

During lockdown and lockdown operations, Navy SEALs and other combat divers enter a specially designed room above the submarine, called a “lockout trunk,” with their scuba gear. Then the trunk slowly floods with water to match the outside water pressure.

Once this pressure is reached, the commandos open the hatch and swim out of the trunk, retrieving the essential equipment for the mission in the boxes installed on the hull of the submarine. The submarine remains underwater but close to the surface because the lower pressure there allows the commandos to operate.

“During a locking operation, care must be taken with the air levels, ensuring that the air supply in the trunk is not too polluted with CO2, as this can prove fatal or compromise the mission by emitting bubbles that the enemy can pick up It’s a delicate process, ”said the former Navy SEAL officer.

In a conflict with China or Russia, submarine operations are a great way to deploy special operations forces close to an enemy target.

The South China Sea, where Beijing builds and fortifies dozens of man-made islands, or the Black Sea, where Moscow turns Crimea into a fortress, would be ideal environments for such operations.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a veteran of the Hellenic Army (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ) and a graduate of Johns Hopkins University.

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