The rear ramp of the MH-47 Chinook hung wide open as it thundered over the blue waters outside of Key West, Florida. Two combat divers jumped out, fins fastened to their legs, and plummeted to the ocean below. Saltwater hit their face as they swam to a floating platform. They are at home in one of the most unforgiving environments on planet Earth: the ocean.

They were competing in the 2023 U.S. Army Special Operations Command Best Combat Diver Competition, which concluded Wednesday night with a team from 5th Special Forces Group taking home the win. 

The John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School (JFKSWCS) hosted this year’s competition at the Army’s Special Forces Underwater Operations School at Naval Air Station Key West, Florida. 3rd Special Forces Group hosted the previous two competitions at Fort Liberty, North Carolina, and was comprised of mainly in-house competitors.

But, the latest evolution of the Best Combat Diver Competition is much larger in scale, with Navy SEALs, Air Force Pararescueman and Combat Controllers, Marine Raiders, and Army Special Forces and Rangers all invited to participate. The grueling three-day competition put the teams through a rigorous assessment of their basic and advanced combat diver skills. 

Though the invite was open to all special operations units, the Marine and Air Force teams had to withdraw from the competition at the last minute. 

Navy SEALs don’t attend the Army’s Combat Diver Qualification Course (CDQC), instead using their own joint accredited schoolhouse, which teaches the same skills under the same standards. Special Forces Underwater Operations commander Maj. Brandon Schwartz said the competition will test certain qualities and skills combat divers are known for by design. 

“We’re testing for those key attributes of grit, mental and physical toughness, and then the ability to stay calm and collected under pressure,” Schwartz said. 

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13 two-man dive buddy teams participated in the competition, completing a sequence of ten events. Day one started with a physical fitness test that included hand release pushups, situps, a 250-pound deadlift for max repetitions, pullups, and a 2-mile run.

If competitors stopped at any point during the test, that would stop the count. Some competitors scored up to 51 deadlifts, over 20 pullups, and an 11-minute two-mile run. 

“They brought it today — we have some real monsters among us,” Schwartz said. “They were far exceeding my expectations on this test.”

The competition included a dive planning and physics academic test, a water airborne drop, a kayak race, underwater closed-circuit navigation, and several other challenges. No electronic navigation devices were allowed during the competition, and the inherent risks present when pushing the limits of breath holds and closed-circuit diving in the ocean were accounted for by demanding the same safety and performance standards as CDQC students. 

Schwartz said his cadre went to great lengths to ensure everyone demonstrated the proper competence to compete and completed safety checks on all equipment before competition began.   

“So they’re underwater with only a compass to tell them an azimuth to follow,” a CDQC instructor said, who spoke with Task & Purpose. His name was withheld as an active duty Special Forces soldier. The instructor explained why the underwater navigation event was the most challenging part of the competition.

“They got to know their fin kick speed, what the current is doing, what the tides are doing, in order to hit a very specific target on the beach or a set of boats that are going to be pre-staged,” the instructor said. 

The competition is a prestigious event to participate in, but its purpose extends past a friendly competition. Though SEALs and Special Forces combat dive teams do not often work together, it does happen. Having a previous working relationship is essential to effective performance during their missions. 

“You can learn from each other. Whatever group you’re coming from, whatever you use in your area of the world, you can learn from each other and build the team,” said Lt. Col. Scott Elliott, commander of 2nd Battalion, 2nd Special Warfare Training Group (Airborne). “So, if we ever do have to meet each other somewhere down the road, then we have worked together at least once before.”  

A 2nd Special Warfare Training Group dive buddy team placed second in the competition. They had not competed in the previous two competitions, so it was a great learning experience for them.

“The main thing that we were doing after competing is talking about ‘hey, how did you guys handle this?’ or ‘What do you guys bring to the table?” said the 2nd Special Warfare Training Group team. “Ultimately, it was a huge sharing experience of unilateral capabilities.”

Schwartz said he hopes that the immeasurable human capital of both SEALs and combat divers is evident to both the public and his chain of command. He believes the two groups are interoperable and can complete the most dangerous and complicated land or maritime missions. 

“Competition is great. Inter-service rivalry is great. Because iron sharpens iron, it all makes us better,” Schwarts said.

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