During last month’s Swim Around Key West, a pair of Army Green Berets wearing specialized propulsion devices zipped through the 12.5 mile course before race personnel had even set up the finish line.
The Army Special Forces Underwater Operations School Executive Officer Capt. James Blackburn asked race organizers if the Green Berets could compete in the equipment category and were told ‘sure’ and to have fun.
“We had two intentions,” Blackburn said. “To continue to be active with the community by taking part in these athletic events and to really get some good training time in with this equipment.”
The men wore what are called Jetboots — small, but powerful battery operated propellers attached to their legs. A few companies make versions of the gear, which resemble something James Bond might wear.
“The Jetboots allow the diver to extend the range of their equipment by using less oxygen and arriving fresh and rested to the beach landing site, as opposed to swimming hard to get to their target on time,” Blackburn explained. “Jetboots propel the diver through the water and fins are used like aelerons on an aircraft wing, to make adjustments as you’re flying through the water.”
The Jetboots have been incorporated with some of the course work at the dive school on the northern tip of Fleming Key, which trains Green Berets and other soldiers how to be combat divers. It is widely considered to be one of the most physically and mentally demanding courses in the Army.
And for the most part, the operational capability of what those combat divers can do has changed little over the last few decades, but the command staff and training cadre want to push the men and their abilities further.
“The Jetboots are just the beginning of what used to be called a force modernization program here at SFUWO,” Blackburn said. “There is a paradigm shift going on where our force modernization is a bigger idealogical shift to include what will the combat diver look like in the future, and what are those capabilities,” Blackburn said. “The idea is that the operational capability combat diving specific to Special Forces needs has changed very little over the last 30 or 40 years. We are entering a time where technology and tactics are merging to create new opportunities to make combat diving more operationally relevant.”
Or in civilian speak: The commandos over on Fleming Key are working with some very cool new gear. Blackburn spoke of the Jetboots, but he said other technological improvements are not public knowledge. Special Forces typically work in the shadows and much of that work is classified.
Over the last couple of years, the Green Berets have begun to work more closely with dive gear companies on research and development of gear that is specific to the needs of combat divers.
“We’re connected with Dräger (company that specializes in rebreather dive equipment widely used by special operations forces across the globe) and other industry leaders and periodically they’ll show us new equipment,” Blackburn said. “We’re tied in to those evaluations. When the equipment is designed, they contact us to see if it meets our needs. We’re trying to get more and more involved in the early stages of that process.”
Combat divers don’t want generic gear, they want equipment specifically designed for them.
One, perhaps obvious, example of this is low visibility gear or equipment that’s black as opposed to the flashy stainless steel and bright yellows, blues and greens that dominate civilian gear.
Civilians can buy Jetboots, which hardly makes them a classified piece of equipment, but there was once a time when the special rebreather systems now commonly used by expert civilian divers were once only used by highly trained military operators and weren’t available to the public.
GPS technology that is now common among civilians was once solely used by the military.
Or think of it this way: Isn’t it cool to ponder that years from now some new piece of gee-whiz, must-have dive gear will emerge that could have been pioneered right here in Key West by the quiet professionals on Fleming Key?