Deaths of Navy SEALs Won't Slow Down America's Shadow War

“This isn’t going to be a war-stopper like Beirut or Mogadishu,” says a former SEAL commander

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Pinned down by enemy fighters in eastern Afghanistan, the U.S. special operations forces personnel radioed for help and waited for reinforcements to arrive. A helicopter carrying a large contingent of Navy SEALs and other commandos was approaching the battleground when a rocket-propelled grenade slammed into the aircraft, sending it crashing to the ground, killing everyone on board.

It was June 2005, and the incident--known as “Operation Red Wings”--ended with the deaths of 19 special operations forces troops, including 11 Navy SEALs. It was, until this past Saturday, the deadliest day ever for the elite forces.

The deaths of 22 Navy SEALs and eight other U.S. troops when an insurgent shot down their helicopter this weekend wasn’t the first time the commandos have suffered a serious blow in Afghanistan; Operation Red Wings was a near-identical mission conducted in the same violent part of Afghanistan--with similarly grim results.

A close look at the earlier incident--and the special operations forces’ ferocious response--suggests that the pace of operations by SEALs and other U.S. “hunter-killer” teams in Afghanistan is likely to intensify, not decrease, in the months ahead.

“This isn’t going to be a war-stopper like Beirut or Mogadishu,” said retired Rear Adm. George Worthington, a veteran SEAL commander who headed the Naval Special Warfare Command in the 1990s. “There are probably operations going on tonight. You’re not going to see any kind of drop-off in the operational tempo.”

In the past 12 months alone, SEALs and other elite forces in Afghanistan have conducted more than 2,000 missions to capture or kill specific militants. The successful raid that killed Osama bin Laden inside Pakistan in early May attracted the most attention, but special operations commanders say the incident was just one of a large number of similar missions.

“There were somewhere between three and four-thousand operations of this nature conducted in 2010 alone,” Adm. Eric Olson, the then-head of the military’s Special Operations Command, said at the Aspen Security Forum late last month. “The tactics of this thing were routine, the people who were involved do this every night.”

Still, Worthington acknowledged that the loss of so many SEALs--highly skilled operators who have undergone years of specialized training--will be difficult. Fifteen of the SEALs were part of the military’s Naval Special Warfare Development Group, otherwise known as DevGru or SEAL Team 6, the storied unit that tracked down and killed bin Laden earlier this year. DevGru only has about 300 operators, so Saturday’s crash wiped out a disproportionately large share of its fighters.

“This hurts, no question about it,” Worthington said. “These guys aren’t just made overnight.”

On Monday, the U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan offered its fullest account yet of Saturday’s failed rescue mission. In the statement, the military said a second detachment of troops--identified by other military sources as Army Rangers--had been searching for a high-ranking Taliban leader in eastern Afghanistan’s Wardak Province when they engaged a group of insurgents armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

During the resulting firefight, the Rangers requested reinforcements, and the in-bound helicopter carrying the SEALs and other troops “was reportedly fired on by an insurgent rocket-propelled grenade while transporting the U.S. service members and commandos to the scene of an on-going engagement between ISAF and insurgent forces.” In all, 38 troops died when the chopper crashed, making the incident the bloodiest in the 10-year Afghan war and the worst ever for the elite forces.

For many in the SEAL community, the details of Saturday’s incident brought back vivid and unsettling memories of Operation Red Wings, which took place in Kunar Province, a short distance away from the Wardak crash.

The 2005 mission began the same way as Saturday’s incident, with a small contingent of elite troops, in this case a four-man SEAL detachment, airlifted into eastern Afghanistan to hunt down a senior Taliban leader. The men were discovered by three local goat herders, and the SEALs--after debating whether to kill the Afghans as a precaution--allowed the men to leave unharmed. Less than an hour later, the SEALs came under assault by an enemy force of more than 100 fighters.

The four SEALs radioed for help, and a detachment of other elite forces boarded helicopters at a nearby base and raced to the scene. By the time the reinforcements were in range, three of the SEALs on the ground were dead and the fourth was wounded and unconscious. As the helicopters flew over the scene of the firefight, an insurgent rocket-propelled grenade arced through the sky and slammed into one of the choppers. The 16 troops aboard the Mh-47 helicopter--eight SEALs and eight Army aviators--were killed in the resulting crash. The only survivor of the incident was Petty Officer Marcus Luttrell, a SEAL who was sheltered by local farmers and later escorted to a nearby U.S. base.

Operation Red Wings was a devastating loss for the tightly knit SEAL community, which had never lost so many of its troops in a single incident. And the deaths of so many SEALs on Saturday will undoubtedly make more of those special missions harder. Most of the dead were from one of SEAL Team 6’s four operational squadrons, according to a military source familiar with the matter. Each squadron is made up of three others units, and the crash killed everyone in one of those smaller detachments.

Worthington said DevGru was probably already bringing over replacements from the United States, where SEAL Team 6 and other elite units train when not deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq. As grueling as the DevGru selection processes can be--would-be members of SEAL Team 6 spend nearly two years training in skills ranging from high-altitude parachuting to close-quarters combat--the military has more of the commandos ready to deploy to the war zone at a moment’s notice. If past history is any guide, that means the shadow war between the United States and the Taliban will only intensify in the months ahead.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.