scorecardHow US Navy SEALs train new special-operations units to make the seas into 'our playground'
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How US Navy SEALs train new special-operations units to make the seas into 'our playground'

Stavros Atlamazoglou   

How US Navy SEALs train new special-operations units to make the seas into 'our playground'
LifeInternational3 min read
  • US Navy SEALs travel around the world to train with other countries' special-operations forces.
  • In 2022, SEALs in Europe trained with Croatia's ZSS, a relatively new special-operations unit.

In 2022, a platoon of US Navy SEALs traveled to Croatia and trained with the country's maritime special-operation unit.

Through these training deployments, US Navy SEALs help new special-operations units to become proficient in new missions and skill sets.

Teaching the ropes to foreign commandos

Established in 2000, the Zapovjedništvo Specialjalnih Snaga — roughly translated as the Special Forces Command — is Croatia's elite commando force.

Major "Marko," commander of the ZSS, expanded on the joint training with the US SEALs, saying in a NATO press release that because about 70% of earth is covered by water, proficiency in maritime special operations in critical.

"The water will become our playground," Marko said.

The joint training, which mainly took place along the Adriatic Sea, included practice in several missions and skill sets. The frogmen conducted long-distance underwater swims with special rebreathers that don't emanate bubbles, seized bridges by infiltrating from the water, and simulated clandestine landings on enemy beaches.

Probably one of the hardest mission sets they practiced was maritime counterterrorism — rescuing hostages from a ship captured by terrorists.

"What we teach after depends on the foreign partner in question and what is their strong and weak points," a former Navy SEAL officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the nature of his current job, told Insider.

The former frogman said that if a special-operations partner wants to work on Visit, Board, Search, and Seizure operations, then "the [SEAL] platoon will help them with that," but there is usually a combination of marksmanship, close-quarters combat, static-line or freefall parachute jumps, combat dives, explosive breaching, and over-the-beach training.

"We will usually also train with other [special-operations force] units in the country and not just their frogmen," the former SEAL officer added.

When it comes to progression of training, SEALs use the same "crawl, walk, run" approach they employ in their own training. They have to make sure that their foreign partners are first proficient in the basics before advancing into more complex — and dangerous — skill sets.

"We have to be careful not to offend our foreign partners by seeming to be treating them as amateurs," the former SEAL officer said, adding that can often be tricky at times because the material can be easy for the US special operators.

But US special operators learn a lot too from these partnerships, which often evolve into an opportunity to share lessons learned.

"The people and the units we work with overseas are already among the best in their militaries. They might not have the same high-tech gear or training as us, but they usually have the same mentality. That makes our job so much easier and rewarding," a former SEAL officer told Insider.

Same training philosophy

Several of those units share the same training and philosophy as the US Navy SEAL teams, the result of relationships that go back decades.

For example, the Hellenic Navy's Underwater Demolition Teams, who frequently train with Navy SEALs and Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen in the Aegean Sea and Eastern Mediterranean, go through the exact basic training to become a frogman as their American counterparts.

In the 1950s, the Hellenic Navy sent two officers to San Diego to go through the US Navy's Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training. When they graduated with their American classmates, the officers returned to Greece and set up the same training course to become a frogman.

These relationships with foreign special-operations units give US special operators access to almost any region of the world.

Amid ongoing competition with China or Russia, or indeed if there is a conflict with those countries, those ties and that access can truly be golden, giving US commandos easier entry to a country and partners with native understanding of the battlespace.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate. He is working toward a master's degree in strategy and cybersecurity at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies.