There have been a number of recent, high-visibility incidents of inappropriate—and in some cases, illegal—behavior involving Navy SEALs. In response, the commander of Naval Special Warfare Command, Rear Admiral Colin Green, issued a letter to his forces in which he emphatically stated, “We have a problem” (emphasis in the original). He went on to say that he isn’t yet sure whether the problem is a cultural one, but he acknowledged a lack of “good order and discipline” in some of his subordinate units. Others, however, have been quick to blame these incidents on a “culture problem” inside the SEAL enterprise. Another popular hypothesis is that the operational tempo (OPTEMPO) of SEALs—the high rate at which they deploy—is running the force ragged. Which of these explanations is correct? The answer might be “all of them.”

In previous CNA work, we sought to understand what factors were contributing to similar issues in another service. What we learned from those studies was that the “culture problem” was merely a symptom—at its heart, the problem was one of OPTEMPO.

At the height of recent wars, these forces were experiencing very high OPTEMPO. Often, units were at 1:1 deployment-to-dwell ratios, meaning that they were home taking leave and training up for the next deployment for only as long as they had just been gone on deployment. Anecdotal evidence suggested that 1:1 deployment-to-dwell ratios were not providing sufficient time for service members and their associated units to finish everything that they needed to do.

Anecdotes are useful to a point, but to address this issue fully, they need to be supported by analysis. We were asked to conduct a study to explore the extent to which those anecdotes reflected reality. Ultimately, we confirmed that a number of types of units had more work to do than they had time to do it—what we called constrained training time. But more eye opening were the apparent impacts of those time constraints, as well as problematic behaviors (e.g., driving under the influence and using illegal drugs) that correlated positively with the extent of time constraint.

At the first order, units that do not have enough time in dwell sacrifice counseling and mentoring behaviors first. These are the “softest” responsibilities, and they are in a minority of unit expectations that are not reported up the chain via some sort of readiness or completion metrics. But they are the behaviors that establish rapport between leaders and their units, and that provide checks against “good order and discipline” transgressions. The leaders of these units also feel forced to cut corners to make it all fit—justifying cutting corners in one domain probably makes it easier to do the same in others, including those involving decisions of ethics.

At the second order, the inability to get everything done can result in “occupational stress.” This kind of stress has been associated with negative coping behaviors such as alcohol and drug abuse—a correlation supported in our analysis.

It is plausible that similar factors are contributing to the issues that the SEAL community has been seeing in its ranks, though counterarguments to the OPTEMPO hypothesis exist. The most notable of these stems from the observation that the special operations enterprise includes more than just SEALs. More specifically, many of the Army’s special operations force (SOF) units have had similar OPTEMPO and deployment-to-dwell ratios as SEAL teams, and yet those units aren’t seeing the same level of problems as Navy SOF. Those making these observations often conclude that the SEALs do, in fact, have a culture problem.

Of course, it is possible that both of these explanations are correct. It could be, for example, that the high level of OPTEMPO is creating “good order and discipline” problems within SEAL units and also that there is something cultural about the SEAL enterprise that is contributing to the same (e.g., perhaps the SEALs are managing their training or people in ways that are less effective than the Army at mitigating these issues).

A significant problem is that Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has not done the rigorous analysis necessary to fully understand what’s happening. While Congress mandated that SOCOM should conduct an internal “ethics and professionalism” review via last year’s National Defense Authorization Act, the result of that effort was submitted to Congress in March and not made public. When recently asked about that, a SOCOM spokesperson admitted, “while the command is doing a number of ongoing assessments to assess the impacts of the war on terror, “there is not an overarching study.”” To be fair, the need for such a study has been recognized by SOCOM—the command’s Joint Special Operations University (JSOU) included in its Special Operations Research Topics 2020 document a “SOF ethos and ethics” topic, which asks for research on whether the current spate of incidents represents a force-wide problem. However, JSOU’s publication is a wish list of study ideas. What is lacking is any actual study of these issues by SOCOM and the SOF enterprise in a rigorous and comprehensive way.

All of which is to say, it is easy to blame leaders, or culture, or the ethics of the force, or the stresses being put on our elite operators by years of repeat deployments, for the rash of issues we’re seeing today. But what’s really missing is the type of analysis that we have done previously—an empirical study to disentangle these hypotheses and provide SOCOM—and the SEAL enterprise especially—the insights it needs to effectively address these issues. Until such a study is completed, the answer to what is driving these incidents will remain elusive.