Difference Between SEALs and SF (Serious)

Here’s a recently retired SF LTC describing the (we’d say “a”) key difference between SF and SEALS. Probably good for the general public, who’ve seen a lot of frogman propaganda (some of which makes the frogs themselves roll their eyes) lately.

We’d also like to note that he misses one of the big differences, and that’s that SF is primarily a terrestrial operation. Sure, we do air or maritime ops to get to work, but the SEALs have a maritime capability that is quite literally without equal, not just in the United States but probably in the world. (Some of our NATO allies have some excellent maritime SOF capabilities, but they’re different from what the frogs inherit from their UDT ancestors and have developed in some amazing directions).


OK, we’re having trouble with the embed code, the video can be seen on Business Insider, maybe we’ll have time to hack at it this evening.


19 thoughts on “Difference Between SEALs and SF (Serious)

  1. John M.

    President: “Say, we’ve got a terrorist we need to wax who lives in a landlocked desertish area in a semi-hostile country. Getting a small team in and out quietly by air–probably rotor wing–will be paramount. We need good pictures for proof, so we can’t drone strike him. Who’s our best team for the job?”
    SecDef: “I’ll call the Navy.”

    This struck me as odd.

    -John M.

    1. Seans

      It’s not as odd as it sounds. One Look who was in charge of JSOC at the time. Than consider of the two units. Both have vastly different mentalities on clearance operations.

      1. DB

        For OBL it was simply that the SEAL Tier 1 unit (Team 6, DevGru, whatever) operated exclusively in Afghanistan at the time, and Delta had Iraq. No conspiracy involved.

        1. Hognose Post author

          Behold, DB spills the simple (and correct) explanation for something that mystifies many. It was a simple question of who owned what battlefield.

          At first, before Iraq opened up, both units operated at a high optempo in Afghanistan from two separate locations. They burned out somewhat and both needed to reconstitute some; they reduced their strength in the Afghanistan area before the 2003 Iraq invasion. Later the decision was made to rotate UWOAs, later still the decision was made that each service’s element would “own” one theater for continuity of IPB and mission planning. There was probably more to it than that, too.

          1. looserounds.com

            Sometimes I read threads on gun forums about this topic and other topics comparing the Special Forces and SEALS and the different famous events and battles over the last 30 years. A lot of guys on those boards say they are experts on these things and have experience as one or the other. I have no way to know if they are for real or not but they at least convince others they are. It’s hard to get any kind of handle on these things from an outside view. I see why its such a confusing thing to understand why the Navy did something that seemed to be something Delta force was made to do ( not that I have any clue) At times it even looks to me like there was some sore feelings over that.

          2. Hognose Post author

            As far as tier one units go, remember my mantra: “Those that know don’t talk, and those that talk don’t know.” There are a few exceptions out there but most veterans of this kind of thing are very careful to hew to their nondisclosure agreements.

            A lot of the stuff in the papers comes from Washington people for whom any classified fact is a red-hot burden from which they must immediately unburden themselves to someone. Most of them do not understand the military end of things at all.

          3. mr. sharkman

            The funny thing – for a time – was this.

            The T1 crowd were basically on standby for a ‘top 10 target’.

            Meanwhile, the ‘vanilla’ (hate that term, using it for a reason though) Door Kickers were going out every early AM and evening (and twice more on Sundays) and nailing mid-level scumbags, racking up the DA count.

            Until The Jedi started paying attention to the #s. Some LPO in a ‘vanilla’ platoon who screened and passed but didn’t get picked up for Green Team yet (for some reason) and he’s kicking doors and shooting faces nearly every night. “Yeah, I coulda gone to the Death Star, but I like action”. ‘Mic drop’. :)

    1. Hognose Post author

      Because they have some really good capabilities, beyond just sticking limpet mines on freighters, conducting beach surveys and tapping suboceanic cables?

      The three national assets all cross-train (Army, Navy, FBI). They were originally set up for the mission FBI still calls hostage rescue and the services now call Personnel Recovery, but all three have a much larger and evolving mission set and distinct tasking letters.

      The tasking letter for any SOF unit is rather general in assigning missions, areas of operation and priorities of training, and is classified at least Secret. Most unit members literally never see that letter (even the CO might read it only once before passing it around his key planners, and locking it up in the CO’s safe) but it shapes the decisions the commander makes about mission development, training, equipment selection, and more.

      1. looserounds.com

        tasking letter?

        Is this something handed down from the higher ups or something? they write it every year or few years as something for guidance or something? or is it something that has been in that safe since the later 50s or something?

        did I ask too much about it?

        please don’t drone me

    2. mr. sharkman

      Because they heard there were chicks, booze, and Real (TM) Ripped Fuel (which means quality ephedra) there, so they scammed their way into a scammy op.

      Even better, they knew the SF cats were there and probably had already taken care of most of the hard work, but Esquire, Business Insider, and USA Today would still wind up giving the Frogs all the credit. :)

  2. Boat Guy

    I worked with said LTC on a “project” back a bit ago and saw this yesterday.
    Since I’m neither but have worked closely with both I’ll offer some dated observations from a “third party”. Scott’s absolutely right about “By, With and Through” though in their early days in Vietnam SEALs had a real capability at developing Intel sources that led to their ops.
    Pre 9/11 SEALs couldn’t even spell FID much less do it; SF excels at it either for it’s own sake or as a precursor to UW (a mission set we – all of SOF – were forbidden to even mention for a period). The language capabilities and cultural orientation of SF are nonpareil. From what I’ve seen more Team Guys now have languages at higher levels than they used to, this is a GOOD THING.
    While some of the most maritime-minded guys I ever worked with and for were SF; the Teams are simply (as you note) “without equal” as frogmen – though there are units of other nations (tiny units) who are very capable in their own regard. Pre-9/11 we had very good exchanges with those units and those paid significant dividends over the years.

    1. looserounds.com

      sometimes you guys use terms and insider language that is slightly baffling. I often regret that so much info said in these comment section will forever be lost to me ’cause I have no insight into that language. Sad Panda

    1. Hognose Post author

      FID= Foreign Internal Defense. Training friendly nations to deter, delay, degrade and if need be defeat civil wars and insurgencies.

  3. mr. sharkman

    I’m sorry, but when I hear ‘the difference is’ nowadays I tend to assume ‘incoming blather’, always with an agenda. Doesn’t matter if the speaker is SOF (usually with an axe to grind), a writer (stirring shit sells books), or a reporter (stirring shit, again).

    Due to cross pollination between the branches’ SOF when it comes to missions and skill-sets, the previous differences fade more and more.

    ‘What are Frogmen doing in the mountains?’ The ’50s called, they want their unknowing assumptions back. But even that is inaccurate. During Korea, UDTs were doing joint inland demo raids with Royal Marine Commandos.

    ‘Army SF is FID!’. Well, yes. But they got their DA on plenty over the last decade+. To say they are ‘FID’ more than ‘DA’ is to take the uneducated outsider’s view. They all train at DA, some ODAs wound or will wind up kicking more doors than others. As always, in SOF the real specialization has to be addressed at the individual or tactical (platoon, ODA, etc.) level.

    Everyone’s cadre swap notes, lessons learned, AARs, and lies. A lot of guys from different branches go to the same schools for the same skill sets.

    I’d say only major institutional ‘standout’ is combat swimmer (as opposed to combat diver) for the Teams. And I think the only reason it has remained a standout in terms of difference is that the mission itself is rare enough, and the # of assets vs. targets well covered enough, that there is truly no point in Army SF training guys for real-deal, world war X, dedicated combat swimmer ops. Having said that, if it had to be done for some reason, an Army SF ‘combat diver’ ODA knows enough to cause some serious trouble. The differences would only become major issues if we were talking a primary ‘ end of the world’ type target with attendant planning difficulties and obstacles – we’re talking a strategic target like sub pens that already have a package, mission, and unit that would be ‘ready to go’.

    One difference that did exist early in the GWOT (that disappeared as the SF guys made it disappear so they could kick more doors by adapting, gee, how SF of them) was planning cycles for DA missions.

    Coming from the ‘inland raid from the sea’ background of the UDTs, the planning cycle for the Teams was markedly shorter. Intel on a target, plan, go ashore, get your Pirate on, return to the mothership, wash/rinse/repeat. It’s not like the mothership is going to park somewhere for a week and there’s not going to be in-depth rehearsals prior to sneaking in and wrecking a tunnel and some rail line.

    As it was explained to me re: the Army SF side of things, historical DA ‘DNA’ had a lot to do with Army SF dudes taking a bunch of their trained guerilla/commando types, planning a DA on a target and staging from their camp/base/whatever. So the cycle was going to be longer. Plan, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, execute.

    When the spooky types were going to the local Teamguys for all the ‘intel processed at breakfast target hit before midnight’ type DA ops, the Army SF guys rightly asked ‘WTF, O?’ and when the explanation was ‘they’re ready to go right after dinner’ the Army SF guys talked to the Teamguys, institutional knowledge got swapped, now it’s in the DNA/bone with Army SF, if needed.

    That’s one mission, it’s happened with a lot more missions and skill sets.

    It’s gotten to the point that the guys at the 2 mobs that will not be named are basically interchangeable when it comes to a majority of missions.

    I spent a little time with the SBS and they really chafe about similar ‘speculation’ when it comes to them and their SAS brothers. Most are unaware that both groups undergo land warfare training that is essentially the same.

    At the base level, the guys who wind up doing the job in any SOF unit are the kind of guys that will ‘make it work’ no matter the mission, as long as it’s a mission that is part of their repertoire (holy hell, I nailed that without spell-check, Ms. Lincoln must be smiling wherever she is).

    FID was institutional herpes to a lot of guys in the Teams for a long time. The history of the Teams from the time of the Scouts & Raiders through UDT time to modern times is heavy on ‘KP&BTS’. And no small % of the times where Teamguys wound up doing ‘diplomatic’ FID (say, working with Egyptians in the ’80s as a small part of a deployment) the unofficial ‘official’ word was ‘don’t teach them too well or too much, we may be fighting them sooner or later’.

    FID and UW were always in Army SF DNA due to the Cold War heritage. I think that made it less herpes-like for Army SF dudes. Training a bunch of oppressed Eastern Europeans to take out 2 key bridges and a fuel dump and stopping 3 Sov armored divisions from reaching the fight so the tide of the war turns in Southern Germany is ass-kicking motivation.

    Training some middle-eastern ‘navy commandos’ for part of a deployment so they ‘feel like they are badasses’ doesn’t inspire quite as much. :)

    1. Boat Guy

      Well put Sharkman. A friend from an early deployment (Pre-9/11) had done one of those “Feel like they are badasses” gigs and said they had exactly that guidance. Fortunately for the world those guys were never gonna be badasses anyway.
      I do remember very vividly chafing at FID exercises being given away as party favors by senior (and non-SOF) GO/FO’s . Watching our carefully-planned training year get hosed because of that has stuck with me to this day.
      What HAS been cool is to watch the DNA-swap. The real pros throughout the community are far less concerned with parochial issues .
      I’ve also had the privilege to spend time with our Brit brothers and my admiration for them continues unabated. Some other European allies that I’d not had any experience with have proven to be real assets as well.

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