SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team Two launch an SDV from the Los Angeles-class submarine USS Philadelphia. Photo: US Navy

Last month, the US Navy SEALs unveiled their new MK11 SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV), which is slated to replace the MK8 SDV in service since the 1980s.

Significantly, this capability upgrade may be part of a reorientation in the use of US Special Forces from counterterrorism and counterinsurgency to great power competition and could be deployed in any conflict in the South China Sea.

SDVs are small, free-flooding submarines that can transport a small team of well-equipped SEALs for infiltration, reconnaissance, direct action and other amphibious missions.

When being free-flooded, SEALs are surrounded by sea water during the entire mission while they breathe compressed air from the SDV’s life support systems or their own breathing apparatus.

The MK11 SDV reached initial operating capability (IOC) this summer, while its “next generation” isn’t scheduled to reach full operational capabilities until 2027. Before achieving IOC, the first five units delivered between 2018 to 2020 underwent thorough tests and alterations.

The MK11 features a digital life support system into which divers can plug into. It features an upgraded communications suite that allows diver-to-diver, diver-to-platform and platform-to-platform communications.

Compared to the MK8, which will be replaced on a one-to-one basis, the MK11s are twelve inches longer, six inches taller and wider, and 4,000 pounds heavier.

They could also be armed with Black Scorpion mini torpedoes. This would require installing five-inch launch tubes for six torpedoes on the port and starboard sides of the sub. However, arming a mini-sub with mini-torpedoes is not believed to have ever been tried before.

New MK11 could be used to deploy US Navy SEALs on seek and destroy missions. Image: Twitter

The MK11 follows a system-of-system approach to its design and is part of a larger system that includes new SEAL personal equipment, the MK11 SDV and the new Virginia and Columbia-class subs.

It is designed to be compatible with the latest SEAL personal equipment, such as jet boots, dive tablets and thermal suits, allowing operators to carry more equipment while having more space. That, in turn, will conceivably reduce crew fatigue, allow for longer missions and preserve operational effectiveness.

The MK11 is also designed to be compatible with upgraded Dry Deck Shelters (DDS) which may be installed in future units of the Virginia-class and Columbia-class subs, as the current Ohio-class subs are nearing the end of their service lives.

A DDS acts as a cylindrical garage for SEAL equipment, SDVs or underwater drones. Currently, the US is modernizing one of its six DDS units, extending it by 50 inches and allowing for remote control from the host submarine with the goal of increasing its payload volume by 30% and payload capacity to 300%.

It will also have remote operation capabilities from Virginia-class subs.

The MK11’s introduction indicates a major paradigm shift in US Special Forces doctrine. While being heavily engaged in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency from the late 20th to early 21st century, Special Forces capabilities are being built for future great power competition with China and Russia.

For the past two decades, US Navy SEALs were the spearhead for hunting down terrorists in land-based campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, but are now returning to their original maritime mission skill-set. As such, the US is gearing up its SEAL teams to be effective against great power rivals it considers to be near-peer adversaries.

As a niche but highly capable platform, the MK11 can stealthily transport SEAL teams close to enemy harbors, naval bases or other strategic targets.

In the South China Sea, for example, SEAL teams deployed to small islands could operate with a very small footprint and great mobility, making them especially difficult to detect and destroy.

SEAL teams deployed from the MK11 may move to destroy China’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) assets on its occupied sea features, including radar sites and missile batteries, and thus allow US and allied forces greater freedom of action in the disputed area.

The China-occupied Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea. Image: People’s Daily

The MK11 with its embarked SEAL team could be deployed to infiltrate enemy naval bases and sink hostile warships at port using limpet mines or mini-torpedoes. They could also perform small-scale sea denial missions by mining the approaches to enemy harbors and bases using various explosive devices.

Both the MK11 and its SEAL crew may also perform strategic reconnaissance missions, acting as covert eyes and ears for carrier battlegroups and assisting warships with over-the-horizon targeting for cruise missile strikes or airstrikes from carrier-based aircraft.

A MK11 or SEAL team stationed on or around one of the South China Sea’s many remote islands may be able to use advanced sensors to detect and transmit the location of passing Chinese warships to US and allied air, naval, and ground forces in the vicinity, which could then open fire on the target.