Navy SEALs Seek New Tech for Covert Missions

Whether it is in super-fast and stealthy boats, mini-submarines or combat diving suits, Special Operations Command’s elite maritime forces — better known as SEALs — are on the lookout for technologies that make their jobs easier.

“We’re predominantly focused on access for maritime mobility, getting into denied areas other people can’t go — other countries can’t go. We provide the means and the methods for the insertion,” Navy Capt. Randy Slaff, program executive officer for maritime systems at Special Operations Command, said at the May SOF Week conference.

The good news to come out of the conference was that SEALs would soon receive the long-awaited Dry Combat Submersible, a mini-sub built by Lockheed Martin that can remain underwater for 24 hours, has a range of 60 miles, and can travel at depths of 330 feet.

Naval special operators needing to travel undersea must currently don wet suits and use the SEAL Delivery Vehicle MK 11. The dry submersible — which can transport eight SEALs, plus two crew members — is expected to give them more time underwater because they are not exposed to the cold.

The concept for a dry submersible dates back to the early 1980s with a contract awarded to Northrop Grumman to build six of the Advanced SEAL Delivery Systems in 1994. After years of delays due to technical issues, the Navy canceled the program in 2009 after spending some $883 million. The current iteration was the Navy’s third attempt at developing a dry submersible for SOCOM.

Also helping keep SEALs dry — at least until they arrive at their destination — is the Dry Deck Shelter, which attaches to Virginia-class attack submarines. SEALs use the shelter to don their wetsuits and leave and return via a lockout system.

“We’re starting to look at what the next one looks like and how are we going to get after replacing them because they can’t last forever,” Slaff said.

The command is currently studying the requirements for the Dry Deck Shelter Next, which will be affixed to the top of the new models of the Virginia-class submarines.

The program is seeking a new shelter capable of dispersing up to 18 swimmers and their equipment, as well as unmanned underwater or surface vehicles, according to slides.

It should also support “dry” missions, suggesting that it connect to the new dry submersible.

Like the Dry Combat Submersible, the Navy will develop the new shelter on behalf of SOCOM, which is currently working through the requirements.

Once SEALs are in the water, they rely on combat diving equipment to do their jobs. Most of that comes from the commercial or recreational diving world, said Jim Knutson, combat diving program manager. It takes off-the-shelf equipment and modifies it for special ops use, he said.

One area where divers need industry help is underwater communication when SEALs use mixed gases to extend their time underwater. They need to speak “clearly with each other so they’re not talking like Mickey Mouse,” Knutson said.

As for the small, speedy surface boats that deliver SEALs to their missions such as the Combatant Craft Assault and the medium and heavy models, the fleet is mostly built out with boats now entering the sustainment part of their lifecycle, Slaff said.

However, the command is starting to look at “what comes next and how do we want to keep going on the craft and have some evolutionary upgrades.”

Conrad Lovell, next-generation mobility team lead under the command’s Science and Technology Office, said his program is interested in new ways to make the watercraft stealthier. That includes reducing their acoustic, visual and thermal signatures as well as high-tech coatings, composites and metamaterials that can help them evade radar.

Slaff said his office is always on the lookout for new technology that can assist naval special warfare. “When you have … some new whiz bang technology that we could use downrange, we definitely want to hear about that. If it’s something about reliability, maintainability, sustainability, we want to hear about that, too. The whole spectrum is ours.”