By Rick Schwertfeger
Captain, Frontier Partisans Southern Command
I jumped. At night, on oxygen, out of a plane from 20,000 feet! Cold as hell, well below freezing. I’d be airborne for thirty or forty minutes, and land a good 40 miles upland from where I dropped! This was a HAHO: High-Altitude, High-Opening operation: the aircraft drops you while you’re in clear space, and then you ride the winds and fly under canopy until you’re behind enemy lines, too small to be picked up on radar. But I wasn’t alone up there. Off to my left in the distance I saw an eerie series of lights: red, green, white, and two faintly strobing beacons – the navigation lights of a commercial aircraft! Those passengers had no idea a Navy SEAL was dropping by while they watched their in-flight movie. They were a lot warmer than me. And a lot less crazy.
Crazy perhaps. But Brandon Webb comes across as highly intelligent; with an objective, practical mind; and a make-up that’s almost beyond rigorous. He mastered the SEAL skillset to a commendably thorough degree; and in The Red Circle artfully shares the extraordinary SEAL training, and the resulting skills they perform both in hard-ass tests designed to weed out all but the best, and in life or death combat operations.
Many of us have read about the super challenging SEAL basic training, called BUD/S – Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL. It’s designed to eliminate approximately 90% of those who attempt to become SEALS, so that only the strongest, mentally toughest badasses make it. Webb relates his extreme efforts to pass that brutal training. He was one of 20 graduates from a class of 220. And BUD/S grads still aren’t SEALS until they pass some equally difficult post-BUD/S courses.
But where Webb’s book shines in his accounts of the training he had to master even after earning his SEAL Trident. While the Sea part of the job seems to get the most attention, there’s equally rigorous training on Land and Air operations. All SEALs become parachute qualified. But some get selected for advanced training. And that’s where the astonishing HAHO gig came in after Parachute School. Webb, because of high scores achieved in almost every training rotation – and his genuine desire to be one of the best of the best – regularly was selected for or talked his way into the most advanced trainings a SEAL can get.
That characteristic led to the most interesting part of The Red Circle: SEAL Sniper Training. SEAL Snipers truly are an elite of an elite. And Webb’s thorough, very clear account of this ultra-challenging course is the best stuff I’ve ever read about shooting and marksmanship. The candidates camp out in the California desert for three-months, twelve-hour days without any days off. It’s obsessive immersion in every conceivable aspect of marksmanship. You’ve got to score 80% or above on everything tested or you’re gone — back to your regular platoon. Sniper training is so rigorous that it’s the one training that if one washes out, the guys back in the platoon don’t give the returnee any shit about it. They know that almost no one makes it!
Why is it that tough? The course is extreme high pressure because that’s the combat environment a sniper must be able to function in. He must be get himself into position without being detected — sometimes involving stalking considerable distances; take the shot and take out his target without his location being detected; and extricate himself successfully from the kill shot location without being captured or killed by the enemy. So the course covers everything imaginable about the several kinds rifles they use: internal ballistics — what’s happening in the barrel once a bullet is fired; external ballistics — bullet behavior while its on its way; terminal ballistics at the target; how to read the wind, figure the elevation needed to cover the distance to the target, etc. And they’re tested out to long distances of 800, even 1,000 yards and beyond. There’s even a .50 caliber rifle used to destroy parts of a vehicle or a rocket.
In combat a sniper usually has one shot to take out his target. No warmup, no practice shots. So there are Cold Bore Tests! An example: Report to the 500-meter line at 0600 with your rifle and one bullet. You have one minute to run to the 300-meter line, control your breathing, find the target, set up, and fire. Hit the head or the heart of the silhouette for a 10 or 9. Hit the body for an 8, the target otherwise for a 7. Miss for a 0. A couple of zeroes and you’re gone.
The stalking skillset is fascinating. Finding a route with cover, using plant clippings attached to ghillie suits, crawling when necessary. Guys wash out because they can’t get to a kill shot location without being detected by eagle-eyed instructors. While there’s much practice, each series of shooting and stalking tests are make the grade or good-bye. Some candidates earned shooting averages of 79. “Adios.” No slack whatsoever. And guys certainly were kicked out when they were detected too often during stalking.
Webb got shipped to Afghanistan – among the very first Americans after 9/11. And among the very first to explore the caves Osama bin Laden hid in. When other guys screwed up, he came close to getting killed several times. Fortune played quite a role in his war. His combat experiences, while captivating, are less the heart of his book than the training. And, he eventually made a huge contribution to the training of future SEAL snipers after being assigned to redesign the entire program, which he then led for several years.
Webb’s now 48; continuing his adventurous life as a small plane pilot, entrepreneur, and author. He’s contributing from his Red Circle, the place he operates from effectively and defends as necessary. Find him today at
https://brandontylerwebb.com. And read The Red Circle.
© Rick Schwertfeger firstname.lastname@example.org December 2022