The Drift

Navigation Brief

ALEXANDRIA – I don’t have strong opinions about fly fishing.

I know it is a rabbit-hole of a hobby: a sucking vortex of ever-more elaborate flies and frightfully expensive rods and reels, and has bound up in it about as much accepted wisdom and voodoo as in any hobby with an impassioned following. But I certainly wouldn’t know how to correct someone’s cast or tell you what flies a trout likes verses a small-mouth bass. That’s because I’m unfamiliar with the sport. And even if I saw someone doing something that I thought was wrong, I wouldn’t be comfortable correcting them because it’s just not my area of expertise.

Now, if we want to talk about backpacking, there I might be able to help you.

I want to suggest that for Big Navy – Submariners, Aviators and SWOs – special warfare is a bit like fly fishing is for me: Unfamiliar. And they might see something they think is wrong, but they are uncomfortable getting involved because it’s not an area they know a whole lot about.

I’d like to suggest that it’s time to get comfortable.

Let’s Drift.


Conduct Unbecoming

This won’t be a long conversation, but it begins with pointing out that the SEALs are a unit of about 2,500 people. That’s less than the crew of an aircraft carrier. This is not a large organization.

Now, let’s review some recent SEAL history. This is not a comprehensive list.

We started this conversation by pointing out that the SEALs are an organization that numbers fewer than the crew of an aircraft carrier. Now look at this non-comprehensive list of egregious SEAL misconduct and tell me, honestly, if all this alleged rape, alleged murder, alleged drug abuse and alleged child abuse happened on board the Harry S. Truman, do we honestly believe that the CO of the Truman would still have a job? Do we honestly believe that there would not be a heavy-handed effort from Big Navy to crack down on that command?

As a former Navy Times reporter, I can say with some authority that this would be a top priority of Fleet leaders. But so far, the SEALs have been largely allowed to police themselves. And where Big Navy has tried to send strong messages (charging SEALs with war crimes, for instance) they’ve fucked it all up. Completely.

And then there has been some of the truly weak arguments for why the SEALs are repeatedly being accused of outrageous behavior: They’re victims, we’re told. OPTEMPO is too high, they’re fraying at the edges. Maybe that’s true, but I’d want to see a study that shows that Green Berets and JTACs and Rangers are seeing problems on this scale at the same rate. I’ve not seen many examples of similar behavior in the public domain, despite similar pressures on the unit.

Now, let’s take one of the more dubious responses from Navy leadership. When asked about war crimes and drug use among SEALs, we heard from Navy Undersecretary Thomas Modley the typical excuse about how the Navy is a cross-section of society and how in a big organization you are going to see these issues. Via

Navy Undersecretary Thomas Modly told reporters Thursday that while service leaders are concerned about recent high-profile allegations of wrongdoing in the Navy SEAL community, there's nothing that "is indicative of a cultural problem."

"We're a huge enterprise and so, as a huge enterprise, we have problems just like every other huge enterprise," he said at a Defense Writers' Group event in Washington. "So when these types of problems arise, we have very, very good processes to go through a legal adjudication of them, and I think we do that very well." …

"These obviously are high-profile because they do come from our most elite warfighting areas, but my sense is that we don't have a cultural problem there," Modly said. "Obviously, we're concerned about it -- it doesn't reflect well on the service. But these are fairly isolated incidents."

"This also could be a result of 17 years of being at war in stressful conditions," he said, a sentiment several members of Congress shared last year during a special-operations policy forum.

Read: Official Says Navy SEALs Testing Positive For Drugs And Other Infractions Are ‘Isolated Incidents’

That’s nonsense on its face. As I pointed out in the intro, this is not a large group of men. It’s a small, tight-knit, “elite” force with enough allegations of outrageous conduct in the past two years to warrant nothing less than a full-scale, independent inquiry into what’s ailing the culture.

How many more war crimes allegations is it going to take? How many more alleged rapes? How many more shocking revelations of widespread drug use inside a small organization is it going to take for the Navy to treat the SEALs like any other part of the organization?

I don’t know what’s wrong with the SEALs, I don’t have any answers. But what I do know is that leaving the SEALs to investigate themselves, as they have been doing, is foolhardy. It’s not how misconduct on this scale would be handled anywhere else in the force.

The Navy should commission an independent body to perform a complete review of the SEAL organization on the scale of the Comprehensive Review commissioned after the twin accidents of 2017. With Platoons being pulled from the war zone, we are now seeing SEAL misconduct have a direct impact on warfighting readiness.

Big Navy: You must fix the SEALs.

The Hotwash

The Royal Navy’s long-developing debacle

A British tanker is seized in the Persian Gulf, and there were no Royal Navy assets close enough to stop it. That simple realization has triggered a lot of self-reflection inside the United Kingdom. That was the subject of a long piece I wrote that narrowed in on some of the specific decisions that have hamstrung the RN in this crisis, and some of the political factors that are at play as well.

Please take the time to read it!

Read: In a naval confrontation with Iran, Great Britain can find neither ships nor friends

More Reading

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SEAL shenanigans in the spotlight (again)

U.S. Navy conducts tests of revolutionary unmanned aircraft

Navy Love-Triangle Murder Trial Opens in California

Navy Answers How a 57-Year-Old Maverick Could Still Feel the Need for Speed

David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.

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