June 11, 2007
Interview with Captain Evin H. Thompson
Wave Rider: Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen Deliver the Fight to the Adversary
Commander Naval Special Warfare Group Four
Captain Evin H. Thompson is the commander, Naval Special Warfare Group Four, Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek, Norfolk, Va. As the special operations surface maritime mobility headquarters for Naval Special Warfare, he is responsible for supporting USSOCOM’s maritime surface mobility requirements by training, equipping and deploying Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen, maintaining the fleet of over 100 special operations craft, and developing strategic plans for the future of the special operations maritime fleet.
Thompson grew up in Iowa, the brother of a career AFSOC pilot. He graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1982 and qualified as a Naval Special Warfare officer in 1983. He has served in all facets of Naval Special Warfare on both coasts and overseas.
He has commanded at every level including command of Naval Special Warfare Unit Four and SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team One. He is a joint specialty officer having spent a year at the Army Command and General Staff College and joint assignments at USSOCOM and the Joint Special Operations Command.
Interviewed by SOTECH editor Jeff McKaughan.
Q: Could you give us an overview of the Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewman [SWCC] community?
A: SWCC is a new, dynamic and changing community. We recognized back in about 1994 that the operators that drove our boats needed to be special—they needed to have a system that made them and kept them special operators. Before 1994, we brought in sailors from the fleet who would serve in our special boat units for two to three years. Then they would go back out to the fleet and rarely be seen again. This meant that we were investing a whole lot of time and training to qualify guys, and then they would leave and we would start all over again, and we had no selection and assessment program.
In 1994, Rear Admiral [Raymond C.] Smith, who was the Naval Special Warfare Command commander at the time, decided to close-loop our boat drivers. He did this by giving them a special Navy Enlisted Code [NEC], which they would have while retaining their Navy rate. If they did well they were allowed to stay in the community. This worked out so well that we had guys staying. He also set up a selection and assessment course at the Naval Special Warfare Center.
At the same time the Navy was saying everyone needed to be warfare-qualified, meaning they had to be a surface warfare-qualified enlisted operator, an air warfare-qualified enlisted operator or a submarine warfare-qualified enlisted operator. Back then young sailors were coming into the special boat teams and were not getting a qualification pin, wanted to stay and had gone through the selection course. To address this back in 2001/2002 we gave our operators their own qualification—Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewman—and their own warfare qualification device. This was a milestone and the first awarding of the device was a great ceremony. We had Admiral Natter, who was a riverine boat guy in Vietnam as a Lieutenant j.g. and Silver Star recipient, spoke at the East Coast ceremony where the first SWCCs who were already in the community close looped were given their pins. Senator [John F.] Kerry, another Vietnam boat guy, spoke out on the West Coast and he gave the first pins to all the guys out there.
At this point, things were going pretty well. We had our own designation, we had our own NEC and then finally, last October as the Navy went through its overall changing of classifications, the SEALS went to the Special Warfare Operator rate—SO—and the SWCCS went to their own rate which is SB—Special Warfare Boat Operator.
Right now in the Navy we have 525 qualified SBs—ranging from SB3 [E-4] to SBCM [E-9]. When a man graduates from SWCC training they become a Petty Officer Third Class, if not already a Petty Officer, receive their pin and their rating designation, SB. Of those 525 SB’s, about 480 are assigned to Naval Special Warfare Group four and the three teams: Special Boat Team 20 in Little Creek, Va.; Special Boat Team 12 in Coronado, Calif.; and Special Boat Team 22 in Stennis, Miss.—Naval Special Warfare’s specialized riverine mobility capability.
Those 480, the majority of the SBs in the Navy, work under the NSW claimancy. The rest are on various staffs—USSOCOM, Theater Special Operations Commands, etc.
SWCCs have really progressed a long way in just the last 13 years. From being just guys in the fleet who came to do some time on fast boats for awhile to having a closed NEC, having their own pin and now having their own rate in the Navy, that’s significant progress.
About five years ago, we established our own warrant officer program. All of the special boat operators are enlisted and we felt we needed to grow some warrant officers for their technical skills, advanced leadership positions and continued professional development, so we developed our own program. We have 19 chief warrant officer SWCCs right now. We have no ensigns through admirals that are SWCCs. All of our SWCCs are led by these warrant officers or Naval special warfare SEAL officers, meaning the NSW community has two shooter rates—the SOs [SEALS] and the SBs [SWCCs].
This is a very exciting time.
Q: Much as been written and discussed about the increases in manning within special operations forces, particularly Special Forces and the SEALS. Will there be any growth in SWCC?
A: We were very well recognized in the last Quadrennial Defense Review across all of special operations. Throughout SOCOM, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, we are growing in Army, Air Force, Marine and Navy special operations. The SEALS are growing from 1,800 enlisted SEALS up to 2,500. Special boat operators will grow from 525 up to 825.
The major reason for this growth is that we do not have enough operators to man-up all of the detachments, nor to man-up all of the weapons systems onboard the boats. So, we went to a doctrinal template of having the right number of SBs on each of the craft, and that’s the number we will grow to in order to support the detachments required to deploy globally.
Q: What about the number of boats. Do you have more platforms than you currently man or will you need new boats?
A: Actually, right now I’m not manning up all of my boats. So I have a few boats that as we go through the deployment cycle I’m short-cycling the men but not the boats.
My deployment cycle is designed to be on a 1 in 4 rotation. The first six months of the rotation to be professional/personal development; second six months being unit-level training where the boat crews train up as boat crews; the third six months is squadron integration training where we bring the SEAL Team, their boat troops, SDV troops, and other combat enablers together to form up a Naval Special Warfare Squadron. They train and work together for six months and then they deploy to support the global war on terror for the final six months in the cycle.
Right now, SWCCS are really at about a 1 in 3.2 rotation. My growth will allow me to go to the 1 in 4 plus ensure that all of my boats are fully manned when they go out.
Q: Looking at your current organization, do you envision any structural or organizational changes to accommodate this growth, or is the template designed with growth in mind?
A: I think our template is really good. The vision that my predecessors had of making sure that we have the right number of operators on the boat—and it’s not just the SWCCs and the operators but the direct support technicians—enginemen, communicators… to work on the equipment so that the operators do not come off an operation and have to spend hours trying to get everything up by themselves. When they come off an op, they routinely spend a great deal of time working, but the technical expertise and extra manpower that comes from the fleet to augment them allows them to turn the boats around and have them continue supporting the theater commander quicker.
The structure of the three teams we have is the right organization. Teams 20 and 12 on each of the coasts are coastal special operations teams and focus on the NSW RIB and the Mk V craft that we have today. The team down in Mississippi concentrates on riverine special operations capabilities. Our structure marries us up to where our NSW centers of gravity are at.
Q: Special Boat Team 22 is focused on riverine operations. Do you see NAVSPECWARCOM becoming more riverine-oriented and perhaps acquiring more responsibilities in this area?
A: I think what the Navy had been ignoring [was] the riverine environment. We have the greatest Navy the world has ever known out in the blue water environment. What we were missing has been in the riverine and littoral environment, thus the creation of the Navy Expeditionary Combatant Command.
Naval Special Warfare has retained a superb littoral and riverine special operations capability since Vietnam. We were the spark that kept the fire going to give our nation something to operate in the close combat waters of these environments. Whenever something happened in the riverine or littoral environment, special operations got the call—operations Ernest Will and Just Cause just to name a couple
This was OK prior to the war on terror. What we are seeing now is the need for conventional riverine and littoral forces much like the Game Wardens in Vietnam, to sit at outposts for extended periods and monitor traffic and be where the enemy may see you and be a very visible presence, conventional missions. In special operation we like to tailor our missions to each operation so that we have the right size for the particular mission.
We could probably use a few more boats to give us a little more flexibility. We currently have 20 Special Operation Craft-Riverines [SOC-R] in the inventory and that’s meeting our requirements. I have several boats deployed constantly and have our focus in one area; a few more boats would give me the ability to flex a little more in other parts of the world.
Q: You mentioned training and we have talked about the increase in personnel that you are expecting. Can you talk about the SWCC training pipeline and how you bring people from start to finish and how you will accommodate the additional people coming in?
A: There are two ways that we get young men into the SWCC community. One way is through fleet accessions where a sailor is already serving in the Navy and says he wants to be something else—something special. Everyone in the Navy is a volunteer once, to become a SWCC you have to volunteer a second time to go into special operations.
The second way we get people is we have young Americans coming to us directly off the street who say “I want to join the Navy, do something special and drive a fast boat for special operations.”
Those two groups of young men meet up together in Coronado and go through the first six weeks of what I consider our selection course. It is run by the Naval Special Warfare Center and is a combination of mentally and physically challenging events and exercises that really select guys who live up to our motto—“On time, On target, Never quit!”
So what we find in those first six weeks are those guys who will never quit. This is the basic crewman training—BCT.
As soon as they finish that, they move on to the next 15 weeks which is crewman qualification training—CQT. Now we are assessing them to make sure they have the proper mindset, the right skill sets and motor skills to be a special boat operator. They do long navigation exercises, weapons training, navigational training and so on, so we can assess whether they have what it takes to be an SB.
After 21 weeks we have our basic operator coming out of the schoolhouse. Then they go through an 18-month rotation before they ever make that first deployment. During that first deployment, they will have one of the basic tasks onboard the boat—most likely the chief engineer, the lead navigator or perhaps a gunner.
When they come back from that first deployment they will take that experience and will start training up to be a boat captain. The boat captain is the guy who drives the boat and the guy who is in overall command of that boat. Before his next deployment he will go through a pretty rigid qualification process with both practical exercises on the water and a very demanding board with my team COs and their command leadership before they qualify them as a boat captain. This represents their second deployment.
After the second deployment they may go to shore duty or they may stay with the team. Their next qualification is patrol officer and this is where they are in charge of two or more boats at a time to execute a mission. They are given tactical and operational responsibility for mission success.
This is how we build a SWCC to be successful on the battlefield.
Q: We have talked a little bit about the people, now let’s talk a little about the equipment. The Mk V SOCs have and are serving well. There have been some development efforts to find a replacement boat. Can you talk about the characteristics that you would look for in a new boat and a timeline that you are hoping for?
A: The Mk V SOC has been a great program and a great boat. It was the first USSOCOM major acquisition program. From the time the combat development document was produced—then called operational requirements document—to the time we had the first boat in the water was 26 months. Unbelievable in the acquisition world!
In the future, in order to fight the war on terror, it’s going to require us to go further than the Mk V SOC currently goes. A new boat has to have the great maintainability and reliability of the Mk V SOC—we have had an unprecedented 95 percent reliability rate with the Mk V SOC. Typically, my months are at about 98 percent reliability and I have even had 100 percent months. We have to have a boat that, when it’s time to get underway, it gets underway. So, reliability is important.
Range—it has got to go further. I think we need a boat that can transit within the theater from point A to point B. Now the Pacific is a bit of a challenge! But we have to extend the range.
The other really important characteristic is that our boat has to have a lower signature. Signature reduction, as we think about boat designs of the future, has to take this into consideration due to the proliferation of low-cost radars and other detection devices. We need to be able to get our operators to the beach, perform their mission and retrieve them without being detected. Or perhaps we need to loiter offshore without being detected.
Right now, USSOCOM in the program budget has R&D dollars for a start in FY10 for the replacement of the Mk V SOC.
The Mk V SOC replacement will be called the Combatant Craft Heavy, CCH. I actually hate to call the CCH an Mk V SOC replacement because it will be something that is so much better. It’s probably going to have enhanced weapon systems, better range and the other features we need to perform as required in the battlespace.
Q: What is the status of the Cyclone class ships and is there a need for a Cyclone-size ship in the NSW fleet?
A: The Cyclone was a great ship, but it wasn’t a great boat—and there is a huge difference. One of the challenges we faced when [we] brought the Cyclone in was we really wanted something similar to what I described for the Combatant Craft Heavy—CCH. We wanted a boat that had good range that could stay on station for awhile. What we did though was make it too big. It couldn’t go all the places we wanted it to—the draft got too deep and we started worrying too much about creature comfort instead of the mission. The mission always has to come first. We need to take care of our people, so maybe we need two crews to rotate crews ashore to eliminate the need for racks on board and think about providing MREs instead of nice cooked meals.
I think we tried to make Cyclone too much of a ship and not enough of a combatant craft. The range of the ship I loved. You could drive that thing across the ocean and only have to refuel once, or drive it down to South America and not have to refuel at all. As a naval officer it had a lot of advantages in navigating and freedom of the seas.
One thing I think we missed with the Cyclones was not putting a missile system on them. I think that as we fight our adversaries today we need to be able to reach and touch them from a distance. We have to use our reduced signature to hide and then when the time comes to go kinetic, we need to have that capability.
The current status of the patrol coastals as I understand it is that we have sold one through foreign military sales; there are several still in the navy and doing an incredible job in the Persian Gulf helping protect the oil platforms. Because of their size and performance they are perfectly suited for that role.
They are still serving our nation well but they were just a little too big and a little too manpower intensive for Naval Special Warfare.
Q: Looking at the smaller boats like the Mk V, RIBs and SOC-R, going fast over water is rough. Shock mitigation has long been an issue. What are you doing to take care of the crews on the boats now and what future solutions show promise?
A: There are several ways to attack shock mitigation. One way that we have implemented in our special boat teams is the right type of physical training for the operators. Doing push-ups and pull-ups doesn’t train a man to handle the rigors of being on a boat.
There are specific exercises that can be done to condition the back and strengthen the right parts of the body. My coastal teams, for example, have more spinal column stress so they will focus on conditioning the parts of the body that are most impacted there. My guys who drive on the river—because of all the body armor and boat dynamics—experience more multi-dimensional and upper body stress.
We have certified trainers/strength conditioning specialists with each of our teams to work with each man to physically train him to handle the rigors of being on the water. What we have seen over the last the last four years is a drastic decrease in injuries. We attribute this largely to this physical training program. It has been great. If you go and watch a PT session with a special boat team you will wonder what we are doing because it is extremely focused on what the professionals say the human body needs to do. We condition our operators because the impact and dimensional stress (demand) will always be there. Therefore, training the body to better adapt and handle the environmental stresses has demonstrated great results.
The second part is the mechanical piece. We have been very fortunate through some Congressional plus-ups to have shock reduction seats put into the Mk Vs. They are beautiful! I can be in 6-foot seas, get into one of these seats and fall asleep for three hours. It really reduces the shock tremendously.
Finally, shock can be fixed in hull design. If the hull is designed right and the designers understand the seas that the operators and the boat will be in, and design the hull correctly, shock will be reduced. The boat needs enough speed so that with a cruise speed of about 40 knots it will have the ability to properly manage the sea—in a sea state 3—that you are not bouncing between troughs but riding with the troughs.
A great deal of this has to do with the operators understanding what the seas are all about. We have embarked on what I call the master mariner program where we teach guys how to sail. The first thing people on the water ever did was sail and they became very knowledgeable about how the seas worked by sailing. A lot of my operators are going through basic sailing courses to get that understanding.
The long term health effects of whole body vibration and shock/jerk experienced by our operators has not been fully described by the medical community. Anecdotally and intuitively, we believe that a career of riding these craft may be detrimental to spinal health if we don’t physically train correctly and have the right designs and material in the boats. However, we don’t have published data to prove it. My medical department is currently developing a methodology to qualify and quantify the acute and chronic health effects of operating high speed boats. It is critical that we define the problem in scientific terms so that we can develop and implement strategies to mitigate the effects of shock/jerk.
All of these aspects, working together, will improve our shock mitigation efforts. The sea can be a cruel sister and we have to learn how to operate safely within that environment.
Q: The exercises you mentioned, was that something that was developed internally or was in brought in from the outside?
A: The program was generated based off of a demand analysis and consistent and repetitive career injury patterns found and documented in SWCCs and SEALs. We view it more than just the right exercises. Over the past four years we developed an integrated physical training system to combat the stresses placed on the operator. Program methodology and design was influenced by many strategies and philosophies utilized by experts throughout the country and integrated into the performance training program. We looked at what a lot of elite athletes were doing. We looked at other organizations that were around and realized that the conventional military PT didn’t train our operators right. Oversight and direction of the program is done by an industry professional that has a vested interest in the success of the program. Through this integrated approach of training we have seen a massive reduction in injuries and now we are implementing this across the community.
Q: You mentioned needing the capability to be able to go kinetic when necessary and mentioned interest in an onboard missile system. Trials have been done with the Amos 120 mm mortar system mounted on the Swedish Combat Boat 90H. Does Naval Special Warfare need its own integral heavy firepower or should it rely on the big Navy for that?
A: It’s really important to have a toolkit of capability. Our boats right now are under-gunned—.50 calibers and Mk19s are the biggest thing on board. There may be a time when we know where the adversary is and we need to be able to destroy them and can’t wait for the conventional Navy.
The conventional Navy is 220 ships—which means there are times when there aren’t a lot of ships out there to come help you. With the Air Force—can they get global reach to you in time? The alternative is to allow us, with a reduced signature boat, to be wherever we need to be, and when we find the bad guys to be able to do something about it.
I’m not sure we can do everything we need to unilaterally with our light weapons, but having a heavier weapon system—a missile, the Amos or something like that—tied into my reduced signature boat gives special operation and our Navy the ability to clandestinely be someplace with the capability to act if circumstances allow.
Q: What role do unmanned systems have in your organization?
A: Unmanned platforms are huge combat enablers. We have been using UAVs from our boats for some time. When we first employed them during the early stages of OIF we had the Pointer UAV, and a couple of smart SWCCs figured out they could do a carrier launch from a SOC-R at speed. They basically held it up, got speed under the wings, let go and it took off. The Pointer would fly its mission, and they would land it on the river bank and retrieve it, put a new battery in it, and it was ready for the next mission.
As SWCCs and other special operators were clearing the waterways up into Basra, that’s how they would do their ISR and decide proper courses of action.
Today, we have UAVs that we are flying from our boats in both Iraq and the Philippines. We are utilizing a system called the Aqua Puma which is launched from the boat and designed to land in the water. When it lands it floats and is retrieved and ready for the next mission.
This is a tremendous ISR platform. For example I can drop my 36-foot RIB into an area with my Aqua Puma onboard, drive to the objective area, fly the ISR mission, perform the mission as required and proceed with complete tactical awareness.
As I said UAVs are tremendous force multipliers but UAVs are easy because they fly in the air—a fairly constant dynamic, USVs—unmanned surface vehicles are a bit more of a challenge. Recently the Naval Post Graduate School did an analysis in the riverine environment for NECC [Navy Expeditionary Combat Commander] in which they concluded that USVs represented the most bang for the buck, more than both manned and unmanned aerial systems. They should be cheaper than UAVs because they are, in reality, just things that float on the water and can provide forward-looking reconnaissance for boats that are on the move or planning a move. You could even put weapon systems on the USV and let it do engagement type missions. The challenge we have had with USVs so far is that they are big. We need to get our USVs down to a manageable size [so] that we can put them on the SOC-Rs, RIBs or Mk Vs. Then we can standoff and send the USV in close and do ISR or whatever else it is equipped to do.
I am very excited about UAVs and USVs.
The underwater vehicles I think have great application as well, especially in the riverine environment. Instead of relying on charts to tell me where all the sandbars are before I go on an operation I can send out a UUV.
We do have a very small shop at my headquarters that is looking at all the technologies relating to unmanned vehicles. With higher headquarters at Naval Special Warfare Command and USSOCOM we are constantly looking at options and opportunities.
Q: You mentioned airdropping the RIB, I understand that the Maritime Craft Aerial Delivery System [MCADS] recently passed an important milestone. What can you tell me about this?
A: It’s a great system. We’ve been dropping our boats out of aircraft for about 10 years now. We started out with the 24-foot RIB which was our legacy craft. While we were first developing the NSW RIB, we put the capability in as a requirement for the new boat.
It was a bit of a challenge because the NSW RIB has sponsons, and when they are inflated, it will not fit in a C-130. So, we had to develop an auto-inflation system.
We just completed our 100th RIB drop in March—we can drop out of anything bigger than a C-130.
This is a very exciting capability that has global reach, and these detachments are deployed at a couple of key locations around the world. At the desires of the theater commander based on the operational requirement, he can get a couple of aircraft, pick up the team and their boats, and he now has an operational reach to move that team where they are needed.
Our adversaries are so elusive out there that you have to have the capability to rapidly respond and MCADS is one of those capabilities.
Q: Is there anything else that you would like to add?
A: Yes there are two things I would like to mention.
The first is the RIB replacement, the Combatant Craft Medium, CCM. We are currently getting ready to go to USSOCOM’s requirements evaluation board for the CCM. And just like the CCH the things that we are conceptualizing for the future are maintainability, reduced signature, and a boat design that reduces shock. From my perspective, it can be any design—it can be wave riding, it can be wave piercing, it can be wave hopping, it can be air-cushioned. It doesn’t matter to me as long as it has maintainability, reliability, a low signature, and has a central backbone that allows us to spiral into the future.
I want to be able to plug-and-play if we come up with new missiles or guns, new communications gear, improved FLIRs or anything else; I want the boat has to have the power and weight available in the boat to accomplish that.
Our requirements document is going to USSOCOM and we have money in the POM to fund the replacement RIB. Now that being said, we are a little short on our R&D dollars, but we can work through that. We should have the CCM by FY12. The RIB has been a great boat but we need more weight and power along with the other things I’ve mentioned for the future.
The Combat Craft Heavy is a little more down the road and that may end up being a Navy-common boat that we make a special operations variant much like Army special operations did with the CH-47. I believe the Navy needs more boats, especially as it reduces the number of capital ships; we need more boats to continue our force projection capability anywhere in a maritime environment.
The SOC-R is the best boat in the world for river ops. That boat was designed by really smart guys along with input from our operators. In fact the SOC-R won the Packard Award for Acquisition Excellence—as did the NSW RIB. Between the Navy, NAVSEA-Carderock and USSOCOM Combat Craft Program Office we have a great boat development team.
That’s sort of a wrap up on the materiel side, on the people side the SWCC community is only about 13 years old. It’s hard to imagine that we were able to do business 13 years ago when I look at how far we have come and our warriors today compared to then. That’s how I look at SWCCs 13 years ago—all great and brave Americans, but the young men that we have operating our special operations boats today are incredible. They have been selected, assessed and then trained to take on the most difficult special operations missions.
They are deployed around the world in harm’s way, they leave their families behind, and for me it is a tremendous honor to command General Brown’s and Rear Admiral Maguire’s boat force for USSOCOM and special operations capability for the United States Navy.
SWCCs live by their code: “On time, On Target and Never Quit!” They do that every single day.
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