The Navy SEALs have been telling a San Diego congressman that they're under-equipped and forced to spend their own money on combat gear, and he is on a quest for answers.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., asked the military's top special operator why took his questions to the head of U.S. Special Operations Command in a budget hearing on Tuesday, asking Army Gen. Joseph Votel why it is that Navy special operators are forced buy some pieces of their own gear and to turn in their firearms at various points in the deployment cycle.
"They don't get weapons now to work up with for two years. They get their weapon when a guy comes back," Hunter said. "They have to turn that weapon back in again even if they're still in work-ups and they're going to deploy nine months later."
It's a different process than between 2001 and 2010, Hunter said, based on the accounts of according to the sailors who have visited him at his home office.
"I was in the Marine Corps. We just took what we could get and do what we were told," he added. "But you guys are special. That's why you have special in your name."
Army Gen. Josephy Votel, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command, deferred to Rear Adm. Brian Losey's team at Naval Special Warfare Command, adding but offered that the teams' high op tempo might be backing up some maintenance with the weapons.
"This is not a factor of too many rounds going through the weapon," Hunter retorted. "It's a matter of where the money's being spent. What are your priorities for the SEALs? If it isn't having a weapon that stays with you for a deployable term, then what are they?"
Hunter's questioning follows a Feb. 17 letter his office sent to Losey and NSW, arguing it's a problem that some SEALs say they're under-trained that though the command's operations and maintenance budget has increased by millions in recent years, the SEALs say they are still under-trained and under-equipped despite their millions of dollars in recent budget boosts.
"More concerning, it is my understanding that there aren't enough weapons for SEAL teams — let alone an individual operator — to have their own weapons," Hunter wrote. "As it currently stands, following a deployment, a SEAL will have his weapon taken from him, which has been fine-tuned to certain specifications, and given to a different operator to use. This means that SEALs standing by to deploy are waiting for different teams to come back stateside just so they can use their weapons."
Hunter requested a report of how the command spend its funds in 2015.
"I can confirm that Congressman Hunter has a congressional inquiry and we're working to provide responses to that," Naval Special Warfare spokesman Cmdr. Jason Salata told Navy Times.
Hunter's questioning comes a week after he invited a former active-duty operator and current reservist Lt. Cmdr. Sean Matson, who now owns a military gear company, to Capitol Hill to discuss these readiness woes, as reported by Stars and Stripes.
Matson said that, as an example, he had to put up $900 of his own money to buy a high-quality ballistic helmet when the Navy dragged its heels on upgrading his kit.
Hunter blames the issue on the command's supply chain, for not issuing the gear the SEALs have asked for quickly enough to make a difference.
"There are also reports of a lack of optics, night vision and laser attachments," Joe Kasper, Hunter's chief of staff, told Navy Times. "All this has happened while the [Operations and Maintenance]O&M budget for Navy Special Warfare has increased. So there are obviously some trade-offs being made, but they’re occurring at the expense of operators and their firepower — and those are the absolute worst trade-offs to make."
Some inside the Navy, however, question whether operators are truly going without, and if Hunter's inquiry has more to do with vendors like Matson, who would like to speed up the acquisition process to boost their businesses.
"There’s a lot of small business guys that do niche SOF equipment that want to get into the acquisition cycle," said one Navy official, who spoke on background to discuss the inquiry. because he was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly. "This guy
"Matson acknowledges that he was in fact issued an appropriate ballistic helmet," the official said. "I don't think it has to do with us not having enough rifles. I think it has to do with, when you want to buy a new sling for that rifle, how do you go about doing it?"
If he wanted a different helmet he felt was better, and bought it himself because he couldn't get it through the stock system, that's a lot different than NSW not properly equipping SEALs, he added.
"You know, we have a group of people in the Navy that do development group, they're called Naval Special Warfare Development Group," the official said.
Also known as SEAL Team 6, DEVGRU's acquisition cycle moves much more quickly, because the unit is tasked with doing researching on new gear.
"So let's say there was a group of people that had a way bigger mission than just the regular deploying SEAL," he said. "The processes are flatter for some parts of the NSW community than others, and that's what the others want to be like."
Once a request is made for a new piece of gear, it has to go through a series of SOCOM tests and evaluations before it's issued. In many cases, SEALs aren't allowed to deploy with off-the-shelf gear, particularly when it comes to body armor.
According to SOCOM policy, for instance, operators are only allowed to deploy with the SPEAR body armor system unless otherwise approved.
"Local purchase of body armor that has not been tested and approved by USSOCOM is prohibited," according to the instruction, obtained by Navy Times.
Speeding up the acquisition process throughout the command, the official said, would allow SEALs to be issued their preferred gear, though it's not clear whether items like helmets and sights can be used on a deployment if they aren't SOCOM-approved.
Kasper confirmed that Hunter is concerned both with SEALs' general readiness, as well as their acquisitions activities.