US Special Operations Command developing new mini-sub for SEALs’ transportation.

US Special Operations Command developing new mini-sub for SEALs' transportation.

US Special Operations Command and Lockheed Martin Develop New Combat Mini-Sub

US Special Operations Command and Lockheed Martin Develop New Combat Mini-Sub

Amid rising tensions with Russia and China and the conflict in Ukraine, the US military is not only focusing on its preparedness for a major conventional war but also updating the capabilities of its special operations forces. In particular, the US Navy SEALs are receiving attention, with innovations being made to equip them for underwater missions. One significant development in this regard is the introduction of the Dry Combat Submersible (DCS), a new underwater vehicle designed to transport SEALs more efficiently and effectively.

The Dry Combat Submersible, developed through a partnership between the US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and Lockheed Martin, is a battery-powered vehicle that measures about 40 feet in length and weighs slightly over 28 tons. It is larger than the current SEAL Delivery Vehicles in use and cannot be accommodated in the dry deck chambers attached to Navy submarines. As a result, it needs to be launched and recovered by a surface vessel.

However, the key difference between the DCS and other submersibles used by SEALs is the fact that it keeps its occupants dry. Unlike other vehicles that are open to the sea, the DCS provides a completely dry environment for the SEALs during their missions. The DCS can accommodate 10 personnel, including two crew members and eight passengers. It has a maximum operating depth of nearly 200 feet and can travel up to 140 miles when sailing at 5 knots.

“The Dry Combat Submersible has the potential to transform undersea warfare for special operators,” said Gregg Bauer, a vice president at Lockheed Martin. The vehicle’s lock-in and lock-out chamber allows operators to enter and exit while the submersible is submerged, further enhancing its capabilities.

SEALs prepare to launch a SEAL Delivery Vehicle from the submarine USS Philadelphia in the Atlantic Ocean in May 2005.

While the DCS is now closer to being fully fielded following SOCOM’s declaration of initial operational capability in June, operational testing has been delayed due to various factors, including Covid-19 and “materiel issues.” The results of the testing will be shared by the end of the current fiscal year.

SOCOM has ambitious plans for the DCS and other mini-submersibles. At a conference last year, the program manager for special-operations undersea systems at SOCOM described the DCS as an “electric truck” with the potential for various roles and missions. The US Navy and Naval Special Warfare Command are also designing the Mark 11 Shallow Water Combat Submersible to replace the Mark 8 SEAL Delivery Vehicle currently in use since the 1980s.

The Mark 11, set to reach full operational capability in 2027, aims to transport small teams of Navy SEALs to enemy harbors and shores undetected. With its advanced sensors, better navigation system, and modular command-and-control structure, the Mark 11 will enable easier integration of new technology. Additionally, it will be capable of operating at depths of approximately 165 feet.

Naval Special Warfare operators train aboard a SEAL Delivery Vehicle Mark 11 at Pearl Harbor in May 2020.

The British military has shown interest in acquiring Mark 11s to replace the SDVs used by the Special Boat Service, the British counterpart to the SEALs. In 2018, the US State Department approved the sale of three Mark 11s to the UK. Retaining the ability to deploy from a dry deck chamber on a submarine or be launched from the surface or an aircraft, the Mark 11 ensures effective use across the vast Indo-Pacific region.

The development of both the Dry Combat Submersible and the Mark 11 is fueled by the anticipation of a complex fight in the Indo-Pacific region. Improved communication capabilities and power usage are essential goals for both vehicles, ensuring seamless coordination between SEALs, other US Navy vessels, and friendly forces. These advancements will enable operators to cover longer distances and operate for extended periods.

The introduction of the Dry Combat Submersible and the planned deployment of the Mark 11 Shallow Water Combat Submersible mark important milestones in the modernization of US special-operations forces. As technology continues to evolve, these innovative underwater vehicles will play a crucial role in enhancing the capabilities of the Navy SEALs, ensuring they remain one of the world’s most elite fighting forces.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate. He is working toward a master’s degree in strategy and cybersecurity at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies.