The Coast Guard wants to get a bit more "hooyah" by jumping on the special operations forces bandwagon with a new program that could put as many as 28 of its personnel into elite Navy SEAL teams by 2016.
Under an agreement signed in early August among the Navy, Coast Guard and U.S. Special Operations Command, as many as four Coastguardsmen from across the service will be selected each year to undergo the rigorous SEAL training, including Basic Underwater Demolition School and follow-on instruction. Eventually they would become full-fledged members of SEAL commando teams deployed to terrorist war zones.
Coast Guard officials say this limited number of Coasties-turned-SEALs re-entering their ranks after a tour in the special warfare community -- which could last as many as seven years -- will be a boon for morale, training and job skills in a service that bridges the worlds of counter-terrorism operations and law enforcement.
"What this does is it provides us better capability, increased competencies, more experience and greater knowledge to do the things that we are already doing today," said Rear Adm. Thomas Atkin, commander of the Coast Guard's Deployable Operations Group which deals with specialized counter-terrorism and military missions.
"They're going to be able to bring back an esprit de corps that you learn within the SEAL community. We don't always have that," Atkin added during an Aug. 15 interview with military bloggers. "We have a great service, I'm very proud to wear the blue, but the esprit de corps that comes out of the folks that go to BUDS [and] members of SEAL teams ... those experiences, that knowledge, that mindset are all things that are going to benefit the Coast Guard in the long term."
Though Atkin said "anecdotally" there's a lot of enthusiasm for the program, so far no Coastguardsmen have applied in the two weeks since it was announced. The deadline for applications is in mid-September.
The SEALs, along with other special operations forces in the Army, Air Force and Marine Corps, have been adding to their ranks since the Sept. 11 attacks and the injection of even a few more personnel from the Coast Guard is a welcome addition, a Navy Special Warfare officer said.
"What that means to us is approximately two SEAL platoons," said Lt. Cmdr. Christian Dunbar, director of training at the Navy Special Warfare Center in Coronado, Calif. "This just adds a greater base of qualified candidates that don't come from recruits in the Navy or from the fleet. ... It's a win-win for everyone."
The new relationship between the SEALs and Coast Guard was forged in an Aug. 1 memorandum of understanding signed by Commandant Thad Allen and representatives of the Navy and Special Operations Command after nearly a year of negotiations among the services. Allen wrote in an "Alcoast" message announcing the plan that Coastguardsmen will gain "valuable skills and knowledge to support [the] DoD and increase the Coast Guard's capabilities in our ports, waterways and coastal security mission, specifically counter-terrorism and anti-terrorism operations."
But the new program is not without its critics, particularly within the highest ranks of the Coast Guard community, sources say. The culture of the more than two century-old service bridges both civilian and military operations with a traditional emphasis in rescue, maritime safety and law enforcement.
Since the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security and the Coast Guard's new counter-terrorism role, that culture and operational mentality has changed, experienced Coast Guard sources say. That's made the shift toward a more SEAL-like ethos -- particularly in the newly established Deployable Operations Group, where the SEAL vets will return for duty after their team tour -- more acceptable to old-school Coastguardsmen.
"I think it's going to be very compatible," said Coast Guard Master Chief Petty Officer Darrick DeWitt, the DOG's senior enlisted advisor. "When you look at the way the Coast Guard's evolving ... bringing in that type of mentality and culture and understanding of the operations is going to be great for our organization."
Officials with the DOG will handle the initial SEAL applicants, putting them through a set of physical tests to demonstrate whether they have what it takes to be a commando -- a process Dunbar said would "set them up for success." Those who make it through will enter pre-BUDS training in December, and the first group will join a BUDS class in February 2009.
So far the plan is to have two officers and two enlisted personnel assigned to the SEALs each year, but Atkin said he's not going to stick to that formula if the qualifications don't match.
To Atkin, a former SEAL steeped in both the traditions of special warfare and law enforcement would be a key addition to his command -- and one long in coming.
"This is historic, it's different, but I think it's very consistent with the long partnership we've had with the United States Navy stretching all the way back to our birth 218 years ago," Atkin said.