BY LT. GENE HO, NAVAL SPECIAL WARFARE GROUP TWO N41 AND LT. BOBBY SCHMERMUND, FLAG AIDE TO COMMANDER, NAVSUP GLOBAL LOGISTICS SUPPORT
SEAL – Sea, Air and Land
Location: Undisclosed, East Africa, 2015. The drone of the engines and the heat from propeller wash blow over me. It is 2:00 a.m. and pitch black at the end of a runway in a remote part of East Africa. There are no lights anywhere to show the surrounding area with the exception of the faint green glow from the cargo bay of the C-130J.
A figure in the night appears and yells into my ear to throw my gear into the back of an up-armored, non-standard tactical vehicle, a pickup truck, sulking in the blackness. As I turn to do as instructed, the C-130J roars off into the darkness like a phantom in the night; a calm silence descends upon the immediate area.
Life as a SEAL Team N4 department head and Combat Service Support Troop (CSST) commander was far from anything we had expected. Day-to-day operations are outside the realm of routine, and contingency or crisis response is always a very real possibility. Success in such a fast-paced and remote environment hinges upon the ability of the N4 to adapt and overcome any obstacle through the professionalism and logistics acumen instilled across the Supply Corps. It is days such as this that make us appreciate both the Joint Logistics courses and the Expeditionary Combat Skills Course in Mississippi that we attended prior to being assigned to our respective SEAL teams.
In early 2015, the N4 was the first on the ground in Iraq at the outset of the ISIS crisis response and was responsible for establishing a “beach head” to support what would later become Operation Inherent Resolve. Similarly, in East Africa, the N4 built a supply chain network to sustain newly established remote outstations accessible only by air. As with all military operations, a successful deployment starts with months of preparation.
LIFE IN CONUS GARRISON
Supply Corps officers initially report to their respective Naval Special Warfare Logistics Support Units (LOGSUs) where they begin training and familiarization within the expeditionary world. Once acclimated, lieutenants are assigned to SEAL Teams as the N4 department head and CSST commander.
The CSST carries out conventional supply functions such as purchase card requisitions, contract procurement, inventory management, and budget control. However, Supply is only one division within the much larger CSST construct.
The troop commander is responsible for approximately 45 personnel consisting of a junior supply officer (an ensign or lieutenant junior grade) on his or her first sea duty assignment, a Civil Engineering Corps officer, a medical officer, gunner’s mates, logistics specialists, Seabees, machinist mates, Navy divers, independent duty corpsmen, and parachute riggers. These personnel are broken down into five functional divisions: Supply, Weapons and Ordnance, Engineering, Medical, and Logistics.
INTER-DEPLOYMENT TRAINING CYCLE
While stateside in garrison or home duty station, the SEAL team is in constant motion. SEAL teams are split into troop elements, each led by a SEAL lieutenant commander. These troops then deploy to different areas of responsibility (AORs).
Like on a ship, there is an 18-month pre-deployment work-up period, called an inter-deployment training cycle in Naval Special Warfare (NSW), in which the special operators are on constant travel with support personnel by their side to ensure maximum readiness during training.
Most unit training is conducted away from Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek, Virginia or Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, California. Whether it be in Oklahoma for land warfare, Mississippi for jungle warfare, Nevada for tactical driving, Alaska for arctic warfare, or Florida for diving, the CSST is there supporting it.
Each step of the way, CSST personnel either travel with the operators to provide direct support for the training or work back in garrison to prepare for the next training evolution. Contracts must be developed, equipment procured and fielded, and airlift and line-hauls scheduled, to ensure the training evolutions are flawlessly executed.
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Each team is issued more than 800 weapons and optical systems that must be meticulously maintained and accounted. Combat rubber raiding crafts and outboard motors must function at peak performance, main and reserve parachutes packed and double checked, and cargo loaded and transported all over the United States to each training location.
Akin to Fleet operations, the CSST commander must be in lockstep with the operations officer (N3) to understand operational and training requirements. This is critical for CSST divisions to maintain support to each SEAL troop as they complete the multiple training phases.
Pre-deployment culminates in Task Group Integration Training (TGIT), which requires one year of planning and constant coordination between the Operations Training Officer (N35) and the CSST leadership. The TGIT exercise, similar to the Composite Training Unit Exercise in the Fleet, consists of the disaggregation of the entire SEALTeam throughout the United States. It is supported by contracts in excess of $1 million that are developed by the CSST and awarded by Naval Special Warfare Command, NSW’s Echelon II command commonly referred to as WARCOM. These exercises employ Army, Air Force, Marine, and Navy units.
Once TGIT is complete and the SEAL Team is certified to deploy, the CSST takes charge of the preparation and execution of a highly complex deployment evolution, transporting over 300 personnel and 400 tons of equipment to often a dozen operating locations across multiple geographical combatant commander AORs.
Currently, deployed SEAL Team N4s assume the roles and responsibilities as director of Supply and Logistics (J4) for a Joint Special Operations Force within their respective AOR. Depending on the AOR, the J4 leads a team of 15 to 35 military officers and enlisted personnel disaggregated across multiple forward-operating bases to provide direct logistics support to a SEAL task group headquarters, a SEAL troop, and any additional assigned Special Operations Forces (SOF) elements, including Army Special Forces units, Special Boat Team detachments, and Joint Special Operations Aviation Command squadrons.
While the J4 role primarily focuses on the immediate AOR, the N4 role dictates the need for constant communication with the rest of the CSST, which are often located on different continents.
Every operation requires an accompanying detailed support plan to overcome the challenges of sustaining disaggregated forces across vast land areas with a complex – or sometimes non-existent – logistics infrastructure. Simply put, if you don’t plan for it, you will not get it. Support plans must include leveraging the capabilities of the various SOF logistics networks, Service logistics networks, the Joint Logistics Enterprise, the Department of State, and other government agencies.
Regular visits to the various outstations are critical to understanding the operating environment and logistics challenges faced. Each location is different and requires different support plans to be in place. For example, some locations can only operate using cash and at times have nearly $500,000 on hand.
Funds and assets come from an intricate network of Joint and SOF providers that the J4 must meticulously maintain. Resupply procurement and property management of assets worth millions of dollars is a vital role of the J4 in order to sustain unit operations and maintain accountability.
The vast array of responsibilities, unique operating environment, and extensive network of Joint, SOF, foreign, and non-military commands makes the J4 rely on leadership and personal skills to coordinate support of strategic-level operations with national-level impact. Innovation is imperative as the battlefield and conventional logistics infrastructure can change in an instant.
A tour as a SEAL Team N4 allows junior Supply Corps officers to obtain valuable skill sets for later in our careers. Learning about the Joint planning and execution system, time phased force deployment data, operational planning, and Joint collaboration are all skills that a mid-career staff officer working in an Echelon III or higher command will inevitably need.
Working as a SEAL Team supply officer and forward deployed in a Joint command has been incredibly challenging but ultimately rewarding. Supporting 200-plus special operators and directly contributing to the success of their combat operations leaves a strong sense of accomplishment. This tour is an incredible opportunity to push yourself as a Supply Corps officer and as a leader.