German Combat Divers Are Busy on Land and Underwater
The Kommando Spezialkräfte Marine is one of Berlin’s most elite units
It’s one of the toughest commando units you’ve probably never heard of. The Kommando Spezialkräfte Marine is Germany’s answer to the U.S. Navy SEALs.
The KSM—or Navy Special Forces Commando in English—is a relatively recent designation for a special operations force with decades of experience.
The first West German military frogmen trained in southern France back in 1959. Which means the combat swimmers lay claim to being the longest-serving special forces unit within the post-war German military, on land and at sea.
But in a world of asymmetric warfare and maritime piracy—along with a German government that’s exceedingly wary of sending its regular army abroad—these covert Kampfschwimmer have emerged as an important tool for Berlin’s foreign policy.
The KSM is technically a new organization created in April 2014. The commando unit is based at Eckernförde, close to Kiel, the traditional home of the German navy’s Baltic fleet.
Formerly, the combat swimmers were part of the clumsily named Spezialisierten Einsatzkräften der Marine—or Navy Specialized Operational Forces. This previous unit combined frogmen with other naval warfare specialists, including mine-clearance divers and boarding soldiers.
But as part of a major reorganization across the German military, the naval commandos split up into independent organizations. The combat swimmers at Eckernförde became the KSM, and are now responsible for handling their own training, logistics and operations.
The mine-clearance divers and boarding soldiers have meanwhile formed into a separate unit called the Sea Battalion. This unit, roughly 800 soldiers strong, also emerged from the disbanded SEKM.
“This new structure brings clarity for all participants,” KSM commander Frigate Capt. Jörg Buddenbohm said when the new formation emerged last year. “And that makes it easier for us to fulfill our objectives. Ultimately, the most important thing for me is that the guys can do their job at the highest level. That remains the case.”
The KSM regularly trains with the U.S. Navy SEALs in a partnership that dates back around 40 years. At any time, at least one SEAL instructor embeds with the KSM, in exchange for a German frogman.
The naval commandos also maintain close ties with the French navy’s combat swimmers, known as the Commando Hubert.
The German military hasn’t revealed exactly how many soldiers wear the swordfish insignia of the KSM. But the number is likely close to 130, according to German media reports. Unlike most of Berlin’s other military units, KSM remains an exclusively male domain.
During the course of the three-year training period, around 70 percent of applicants fail to make the grade. That’s actually an improvement on previous levels, which saw a washout rate of around 90 to 95 percent.
The fact that the KSM is getting better candidates is a direct result of Germany doing away with its conscription system—a Cold War relic. Around half of all applicants to the organization now come from other branches of the armed forces.
Between 2003 and 2014, the commandos—then part of SEKM—established a reputation as one of the busiest operational units in the German military.
While their exploits were not widely publicized, the 600 or so SEKM troops were active in Afghanistan, Cyprus, Lebanon, Kosovo and Somalia.
In Lebanon, a force of around 45 mine-clearance divers carried out harbor security operations, while their comrades stayed on German warships patrolling off the coast. Near Somalia, soldiers contributed to the European Union’s anti-piracy mission known as Operation Atalanta.
The training is rigorous. After passing physical and weapons tests, the frogmen focus on particular elements of their mission, be it diving, parachuting, land warfare, weapons or powered boats.
The Kampfschwimmer typically carry out three kinds of missions.
For one, the divers reconnoiter port facilities, beaches and hinterland. There’s direct action—which can involve freeing hostages or seizing material or equipment. And then there’s training foreign military and police units.
Among the equipment available to the frogmen are the locally-made Dräger LAR-V chest-mounted rebreather, which produces next to no bubbles. They also have the secretive P11 underwater pistol developed by Heckler & Koch, which fires steel darts rather than conventional ammunition.
While post-war Germany has rarely been willing to throw its soldiers into “hot” wars, providing “military support” is a popular—and politically acceptable—alternative.
As such, the KSM deploys to what the German navy describes as “host states,” passing on their expertise to local forces in order to “contribute to building stability in these countries.”
This includes the NATO mission in Afghanistan. But it’s more or less an open secret that the naval commandos conducted operations themselves—and didn’t merely advise Afghan troops or protect the German military in the country.
Operating in groups as small as four or five men, the Kampfschwimmer units each had a team leader, forward air controller, a sniper, medic and radio operator. Typical missions included watching convoy routes and roads, as well as gathering intelligence.
“In the last 10 years our partner units in the United States, the Navy SEALs, or the British SBS, were heavily involved in desert-like areas in Afghanistan,” an unnamed KSM soldier told the German armed forces’ official publication.
“This inevitably led to the neglect of waterborne operations. For us, however, maritime missions have been intensified by Atalanta,” the soldier added.
Nevertheless, around 80 percent of today’s KSM operations are on land.
The German government has been less coy about the unit’s activities in support of the EU’s anti-piracy mission off Somalia. The German defense ministry has confirmed that the commandos operate from the navy replenishment ship Berlin, which previously served as the flagship for the anti-piracy task force.
Using underwater scooters, the troops can creep up to pirate motherships undetected and disable their propulsion systems. The KSM can also board suspected pirate vessels from helicopters and rigid-hull inflatable boats.
Although not deployed to the Somali coast, the commandos train with specially-configured German army B0-105 helicopters known as Swoopers.
Currently, the German frigate Lübeck is taking part in the anti-piracy mission, and KSM troops are almost certainly on board the vessel. The warship can embark two Sea Lynx Mk 88 helicopters for ferrying the commandos toward their targets.
But the Sea Lynx has suffered from serviceability problems of late, and the Kampfschwimmer are already looking forward to the chopper’s replacement. This is the NH90 Sea Lion, which features a rear ramp for delivering soldiers—a useful addition to the fast-roping method normally used.
In the future, the Sea Lions will operate from frigates in addition to the navy replenishment vessels. Which likely means more at-sea bases for Germany’s combat divers. And more missions.