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Improvement Plans in the Works for Special Forces Underwater Operations School


By Amaani Lyle
United States Department of Defense

July 6, 2015 - As humanitarian, training and operational missions continue in the Asia-Pacific region, the combat diving community’s most rigorous school will soon implement its area development plan in support of Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s “force of the future” strategy.

The development plan outlines an in-depth study of existing infrastructure improvements, specifically within the U.S. Army’s Special Forces Underwater Operations School’s Combat Diver Qualification , said Army Maj. Joshua Eaton, Commander of Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Special Warfare Training Group (Airborne).

The U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School runs the six-week course on Fleming Key at Naval Air Station Key West, Florida.

Assessing Future Infrastructure, Capacity

“The Special Forces Underwater Operations Dive School is a turnkey operation, Eaton said. “Everything you need to conduct combat diving is here on this compound.”

Still, he said, many facilities on the compound are approaching the end of their 20-year life-cycle, but plans are in place to improve the diving infrastructure, hyperbaric chamber, free-swim and ascent tower, and other critical infrastructure for full-mission profiles, including the potential addition of a maneuver live-fire range.

“The next step is identifying what the future of [Special Forces underwater operations] looks like and what are the infrastructure requirements of not only the company, but the visiting units that conduct training here,” Eaton said. “We need to increase capacity. We want to train more than 36-42 [special operations soldiers] ... per class and increase that number to around 60 per class, or 300 per year.”

The major explained that though most of the students consist of Army Green Berets, Army Rangers and even a few ROTC and West Point cadets, the school also invites coalition partners to attend.

Widely Applicable Skill Sets

Eaton said school initiatives also encompass partnerships with allied nations, including French and Canadian special forces.

“Whenever our allied partners come to our compound and train, we share our tactics, techniques and procedures in order to gain best practices and improve the way we conduct training on the compound,” the major said.

Students train in basic and advanced open-circuit diving before progressing to closed-circuit diving, advanced closed-circuit diving, and finishing with the waterborne infiltration course before planning and executing the culminating exercise, Eaton said.

“[Course graduates] can take these skill sets back to their operational unit and conduct more advanced training with their team, specific to the mission they may execute,” he added.

Twelve-man dive teams, or operational detachment alphas, must ensure they carry the skills they learn into the field for real-world missions or joint training missions with partner nations around the world.

Niche Within a Specialty

“Within the Special Forces regiment, it takes a special Green Beret to want to become a combat diver,” Eaton said. “It’s a niche within a specialized community.”

The Maritime Assessment Course, formerly known as “pre-scuba,” is a prerequisite that has significantly reduced wash-out rates for the combat diver qualification course, despite its rigors, Eaton noted.

“Since the reimplementation of the maritime assessment course, attrition has decreased significantly -- to around 17 percent, which is at an all-time low,” the major said. “The Green Berets and Rangers coming to this course are physically and mentally prepared for the combat diver qualification course.”

The school, which recently marked its 50th anniversary, is self-contained, with administrative and training facilities and classrooms, barracks, a dining facility, a parachute-drying tower and boat maintenance shop, not to mention the largest pool in Key West.

One Constant in School's History

The school’s storied history began in 1964 when soldiers from the JFK Special Warfare Center Scuba Detachment from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, were charged with developing a new underwater operations school. Over the next 20 years, the relatively stark site, once dotted with tents housing students, evolved into an advanced maritime special operations training facility with plans for continued improvement well into the 21st century.

But one constant, Eaton emphasized, is the ideal combat dive graduate, which he described simply as determined.

“You know they’ll never quit,” Eaton said. “Even under the worst circumstances underwater, when things get challenging, when they don’t have an air source, they will persevere and overcome and they won’t quit.”

Dive teams, the major said, were the first three combat teams in Afghanistan, a land-locked nation, and that was no mistake.

“They are the best teams, with the best Green Berets, they have the most aggressive personalities on the team, and they accomplish the mission.” 

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