Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewman


running up that hill
Jan 3, 2007
in Wonderland, with my Alice

They call it the “E-ticket Ride:” a 33-foot Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat (RHIB) vs. Mother Nature. Middle of the night, almost pitch black; a pair of RHIBs race through open waters of the Pacific Ocean. The crew wears night vision gear, but still find it hard to see the waves. Each ocean swell–unpredicted– creates a ramp and sends the craft airborne for what seems like seconds at a time. And when they come down, they come down hard. The crew braces for shock, the boat shudders and a giant plume of boat wash is the only mark left in the faint moonlight as the boat races forward into harm’s way.

Forty knots, in the blackness, wind ripping across the open craft–this is daily life for a Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewman (SWCC), (pronounced “swick”) and these guys wouldn’t have it any other way. “We judge boats by their speed and rounds per minute,” said Engineman 1st Class (SWCC) James Martino, a member of Special Boat Team (SBT) 12 in Coronado, Calif. He, like others at the command, wears a command T-shirt that reads “God, Country, and Fast Boats.”

Who are these guys – the ones who drive these camouflaged boats on the horizon? First guess for most would be Navy SEALS. But these Special Warfare operators are actually SWCC–aka the “boat guys.”

Some recognize the difference, like the editors at Men’s Fitness magazine. They recently did a cover story on “Military Fitness” and went to the Navy specifically seeking out a boat guy. They wanted someone from that unique community which is so unknown in the Navy, yet creates such a wake of attention when they are around. “We need someone tough!” the editors said. “We need someone fit, aggressive, a warfighter and someone who can dead lift 450 pounds without thinking twice.”

The guy they put on their cover, which appeared on the newsstands in Aug 04, is Sonar Technician (Surface) 3rd Class (SWCC) Peter Hamilton. Somehow those civilian editors knew that SWCC had something special–a no-fear attitude, aggressiveness, and the intelligence and skills to conduct covert operations in littoral regions of the world.

SWCC teams conduct unconventional special operations. To be exact: they drive go-fast speedboats down narrow, winding rivers or open ocean, transporting SEALs to and from hostile situations and operating nearly every weapon with a trigger the military has to offer. And they do things that would make James Bond tremble at the knees. When a call comes, a boat team can form up, put a 33-foot RHIB in the back of a C-17, fly half-way around the world to a hot zone, push the boat out of the plane into the ocean and then jump in after it, wearing parachutes, over enemy territory, with little or no notice.

They use craft like the Mark FIVE (MK V), the RHIB and the Special Operations Craft-Riverine (SOC-R). Way beyond any putt-putt fishing boat you may have seen growing up, these boats move, as noted in Jane’s Fighting Ships–“MISSION: High speed, medium range, all weather insertion/ extraction of Special Operations Forces, maritime interdiction operations, tactical swimmer operations, intelligence collection, operation deception, coastal patrol, and more.”

What Jane’s doesn’t describe is the fact that the crew routinely takes bone-jarring wave shocks of 10- 15 g’s with peaks of 20 g’s. The pounding of the sea is so severe that seats are equipped with million-dollar shock absorbing technology that mitigates the rough ride.

“Once, we were in 15- to 20-foot swells, recalled Quartermaster 1st Class (SWCC, PJ) Christopher Moore, from SBT-12. “Our boat, a 24-ft. RHIB, could barely make it up the swells before the engine would sound like it was going to die. Then we would get to the top and become a 24-ft. surfboard coming down the other side. We couldn’t even keep in visual contact with our other craft.

“After getting beat up in conditions like this for 10 hours, the only thing you want to do is get off the boat–but you can’t because your knees are locked up, your hands are frozen to the helm and your back feels like you just got out of the ring with Mike Tyson,” said Moore.

“Then you go out the next night and do it again,” he added.

Boat guys do more than just go fast. SWCC missions include unconventional warfare, direct action, combating terrorism, special reconnaissance, foreign internal defense, information warfare, security assistance, counter-drug operations, personnel recovery and hydrographic reconnaissance. SWCC numbers hover around 600 personnel–less than 1 percent of the U.S. Navy, but they offer big dividends on a small investment. The SWCC units’ proven ability to operate across the spectrum of conflict and in operations other than war in a controlled manner, and their ability to provide real-time intelligence and eyes on target offers decision makers a lot of options.

Three SWCC communities exist. The West Coast SWCC units are based in Coronado (SBT-12) and operate RHIBs and MK Vs. The same inventory is located at the East Coast SWCC (SBT-20) in Little Creek, Va. And down south, in Stennis, Miss., SBT-22 operates the SOC-R craft.

But to get to one of these units, you must attend SWCC basic school: a physically grueling indoctrination into the ways of Naval Special Warfare, portions of which are combined with SEAL basic training. After this 10-week “weed out the weak” phase, a required Crewman Qualification Training (CQT) course is taken. After CQT, a Sailor earns the SWCC pin: a unique insignia that is worn with your regular Navy uniform and that identifies these professionals’ important place in Naval Special Warfare.

“You will run, swim and do more push ups and sit-ups than you ever thought your body could do,” said Moore. “SWCC school is extremely tough. You have never been challenged like this before in your life. It’s very demanding physically and mentally, and it’s designed to get rid of weak individuals who aren’t focused and driven. If you have any questions in your head about being there you will be packing your bags for a new career.”

Moore also noted that the attrition rate is high–about one-third make it through.

“When it’s 3 a.m., and you’re getting yelled at, doing a lot of push-ups, sit-ups and getting wet and sandy in the cold water of San Diego, many Sailors ask themselves, ‘Why am I doing this?’ If the answer to the question is, ‘I don’t know,’ you’ll quit. For those few guys who don’t ask themselves that question, or come up with an answer that motivates them, they will move to the next evolution.”

After SWCC school, graduating students arrive at a Special Boat Team where they begin an 18-month pre-deployment training cycle starting with Professional Development (PRODEV), Core Training and Squadron Interoperability Training (SIT).

“You need to be hard to make it as a SWCC,” said Master Chief Damage Controlman (SWCC) Patrick Battles, who went through the school at the age of 37. “The attrition rate in my class was high,” he said. “We started with 47 and ended up with 16.” Battles added that those who are strong swimmers have an advantage. He agreed with Moore that the traits required to be successful as a SWCC are being razor sharp –physically and mentally–which is required due to the extremely dangerous nature of their work.

“You have to be intelligent, good-hearted and physically and mentally tough,” said Moore. “It takes a unique person to do our job–one who can adapt to new surroundings quickly and efficiently.”

Heavy weapons knowledge is also a tool of the trade. And Battles, like other SWCCs, have it. In “war speak” understood by a select few, he said his “preferred weapons posture is to mount a .50 caliber MSHB machine gun with PEQ TWO lasers forward on both RHIBs. We also have a .50 caliber machine gun aft, and sometimes a MK-19 Mod 3 40 mm Grenade Machine gun.”

According to Battles, “It’s pretty exciting to launch 40 mm high explosive dual purpose grenades and fire .50 caliber armor piercing incendiary tracer rounds.”

Indeed. SWCC personnel embrace a philosophy of dominance through superior firepower. As a petty officer in charge of a small force of riverine specialists at Special Boat Unit 22, Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class (SWCC) Thomas Wiggins knows this well.

During a typical SEAL extraction, Wiggins and his crew, along with three other Special Operations Craft, rush into an extraction point at up to 30 knots in a hailstorm of protective fire from a trio of M-60 machine guns aft, and a thundering .50 caliber machine gun at the bow.

To see this sight is awesome, but only if you’re on the shooting end. Spent rounds bounce off the metal deck, tracers pierce the darkness, dense foliage is shredded with a barrage of cover fire, ears ring, and the thumping .50 caliber drumbeat massages insides, as dominating, incessant firepower is laid toward the enemy. SEALs board the craft, a speedy exit is made and the fire continues until they are out of sight.

An extraction of this sort is measured not in minutes but in seconds.

While these combatant crewmen specialize in scaring the enemy with dominating, ear-crushing, non-stop firepower, they also have the ability to be invisible, entering the bad guy’s backyard undetected.

Such was the situation in Iraq, when MK V Detachments combined with RHIB crews in the dead of night and silently inserted two SEAL platoons onto oil platforms off the coast of Iraq at the onset of conflict.

This insertion assured that the platforms, named Mina Al Bakr Offshore Terminal and Khawr Al Amaya Offshore Terminal, weren’t set ablaze during ensuing hostilities.

“We took both platforms down simultaneously in the middle of the night,” said Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class (SWCC) Gary Luna, who was the MK V boat captain on the mission. “We inserted the platoons silently with the RHIBs. They were totally overwhelmed.”

The crew that night all wore night vision devices, and the MK Vs had a nifty toy called Maritime Forward Looking Infrared or MARFLIR–a thermal imaging device which lets wearers see up to two miles out on the horizon, day or night. This capability, along with the boat’s incredible acceleration, stop-on-a-dime handling and maneuverability give them the advantage on the water. Insert a crew of five SWCC Sailors and some firepower, and the enemy’s got quite a problem.

“There is always something new and exciting going on at work and in the world. Nothing about SWCC is boring or redundant,” said Moore. “When something happens in the world, we get to be there to help take care of things and do what we have trained so hard to do so well.

“Being a SWCC is personally satisfying,” added Moore. “I am very proud to be part of a small, elite team, and push 110 percent all the time. Every day brings change and a new challenge.”