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Combat Divers’ Group: The Brazilian Navy’s Elite Unit

The unit adapted to respond to national and international naval special operations.
Marcos Ommati/Diálogo | 21 January 2019

Brazilian Navy Commander Michael Vinicius Aguiar leads members of the Combat Divers’ Group into complex and high-risk air, land, and sea operations. (Photo: Marcos Ommati/Diálogo)

The Brazilian Navy’s (MB, in Portuguese) Combat Divers’ Group (GRUMEC, in Portuguese) was created in 1964, and gradually evolved while combining two different operational concepts: the U.S., based on beach obstacle demolition to support amphibious operations, and the French, focused on operations to sabotage enemy vessels. This led the unit to develop their own doctrine to align with national and international scenarios, particularly those of a naval character. Diálogo spoke with MB Commander Michael Vinicius Aguiar, GRUMEC commander, to learn more about MB’s special operations unit.

Diálogo: Is GRUMEC MB’s only special operations unit?

MB Commander Michael Vinicius Aguiar, commander of the Combat Divers Group: Of the Navy Fleet, yes. There are two different special operations units under MB: GRUMEC, which is part of the Brazilian Navy Fleet, subordinated to the Submarine Force Command, and the Tonelero Battalion, from which amphibious commands deploy, which is  the Marine Corps special operations unit, under MB, with tasks different from ours.

Diálogo: How did you become aware of combat diving in the Navy and when can an MB officer volunteer to join the Combat Divers course?

Cmdr. Aguiar: I became aware of combat diving when I was in my third year of Naval School [MB’s secondary school located in Angra dos Reis, Rio de Janeiro] in 1992. Combat divers often train in the waters of Angra dos Reis, mainly for specialized aquatic training, such as special operations diving, since the Naval School typically serves as the support base for special operations teams who train there. Seeing that small group, all in black, carrying a lot of equipment, weapons and explosives, closed and semi-closed-circuit diving equipment, sparked my interest at the time. A young person, between 15 and 17 years old, with many dreams and expectations can easily become enthusiastic. This is when I started to learn about and research combat diving.

Officers who wish to volunteer for the Combat Divers Course choose to do so at the beginning of their careers, right after completing the Naval College [MB’s undergraduate institution to train officers, located in Rio de Janeiro].

Diálogo: How long is the Combat Divers Course and what is the typical officer’s rank at the beginning of their training?

Cmdr. Aguiar: This course lasts about nine months. We joke that it’s the length of a pregnancy. Currently, the candidate starts the course as a second lieutenant, but in my time, almost 20 years ago, we took the course as first lieutenants, because at the end of the midshipman instructional cruise, [a six-month trip MB officers who complete the Naval College carry out in the training ship Brasil, with stops in many countries], we still had to deploy and serve on Navy ships for two years, before beginning the Combat Divers Course. This two-year deployment was a career requirement to join the course. Only at the end of those two years as a second lieutenant could we be promoted to first lieutenant. Those who passed the screening tests—which consisted of psychometric, health, and physical aptitude tests—would be automatically enrolled in the course. Over the past few years, due to the need to increase personnel, naval administration changed the career plan for officers, cutting down the two-year deployment period on ships to a single year, which allowed us to admit more volunteers to the course, since officers can start at a younger age.

Diálogo: How did it benefit MB?

Cmdr. Aguiar: The big gain is that now we can recruit younger officers. The younger, the better, since this activity requires health, dedication, determination, and physical endurance. This way, the majority of volunteer officers start the Combat Divers Course as second lieutenants, which brought us numerous benefits, such as an increase in personnel and operational life of the activity.

Diálogo: Can the 18 year olds who serve their compulsory military service apply for the course, as noncommissioned officers (NCOs)?

Cmdr. Aguiar: No. The volunteers must be non-temporary officers or NCOs from the Brazilian Navy, in other words, recruits are not allowed to apply for the Combat Divers Course. NCOs must be corporals or sergeants from the Brazilian Navy. Our training is very technical, specific, confidential, and specialized. We cannot provide super-specialized training to a service member who isn’t committed or who doesn’t have career ties to the Navy, since upon leaving the institution they could apply the acquired knowledge in other areas, including criminal activities.

Diálogo: What are the determining factors to deem an operation special?

Cmdr. Aguiar: Basically, these operations are conducted by selected personnel who are physically and psychologically very well-trained, applying non-conventional actions and methods to destroy and damage specific targets of strategic interest. They are typically conducted to capture and rescue personnel and equipment. Normally, these are limited-time operations, characterized by confidentiality, fast action, the element of surprise, and aggressiveness, and involve complex high-risk activities.

Diálogo: What’s the difference between a search and a rescue activity?

Cmdr. Aguiar: Special operations units don’t conduct search activities. There is a clear difference between conducting a search and a rescue. Combat divers are equipped to rescue hostages, such as war prisoners in enemy territories. Confidentiality is required during such hostage-rescue missions, as well as fast actions, the element of surprise, and aggressiveness against the enemy. In turn, search activities rest on units who conduct search and rescue of survivors of aerial or maritime disasters, for example. These are administrative search-and-rescue operations to save humans or even equipment, if needed, depending on the circumstances.

Diálogo: Does GRUMEC’s mission require a vessel?

Cmdr. Aguiar: Not necessarily. We can deploy in various ways, such as with rotary-wing aircraft (helicopters) and fixed-wing aircraft (planes), submarines, mini submarines, kayaks, diving, militarized or non-militarized vehicles, or even in solely ground operations, via patrol, thus vessels aren’t always required. The characteristics and traits of the task assigned will define the resources GRUMEC will use.

Diálogo: What was GRUMEC’s role in security operations for the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympic Games?

Cmdr. Aguiar: GRUMEC conducted special reconnaissance, monitoring, and counterterrorism tasks, which are intrinsic to our activities. GRUMEC has a specialized tactical team to conduct counterterrorism activities, known as the Special Rescue and Recovery Group. We deployed during the major events, along with other special operations units from the Armed Forces and other public security agencies, such as the Federal Police, Military Police, and Civil Police.

Diálogo: So GRUMEC would only respond to an actual terror attack?

Cmdr. Aguiar: Yes, exactly. In the case of any terror attack or attempt to put people or facilities at risk, GRUMEC would be immediately ready for action, as well as the other special operations units that participated in the major events.

Diálogo: What was the main lesson learned from the major events?

Cmdr. Aguiar: The interoperability between participating teams. It was very important because we were able to participate jointly at all levels with the other deployed forces in the events, right from the start, with the planning and preparation phases. We learned how other tactical teams deploy and what their capabilities and limitations are, and how they prepare and train. We became familiar with their modus operandi, equipment and weapons, which helped with planning and integration during major events. Everyone learned a lot, and this experience was very beneficial. We got to know one another better.

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