A term often thrown about in military special operations circles that you might have heard before, or likely will hear if you are ever around SOF maritime elements for any period of time, is a “rubber duck” insertion. This term likely didn’t originate in the Navy SEAL community — the SEALs were founded in 1962 — as it probably came about in the 1950s with the founding of the U.S. Army Special Forces. Regardless, the Navy SEALs fully embraced the concept of duck insertions decades ago, and it remains a core competency of the Naval Special Warfare community.
If it quacks like a duck…
So what do we mean by a “duck” insertion? While I cannot find any official definition, consider these the unofficial descriptions of various types of duck insertions, as learned by one former SEAL — me — roughly 20 years ago. Undoubtedly the particulars of these techniques have changed since those days, but the fundamentals are no doubt largely the same.
As far as I know, the original term describing these techniques was rubber duck. This referred to a combat rubber raiding craft (often commonly called a Zodiac in the SEAL teams) being air-dropped out of an airplane, such as a C-130, under parachute into a large body of water. The boat’s motor and the team’s gear (or some portion of it) was also sent out of the aircraft, generally secured inside the boat. Jumpers would then follow the boat, parachuting out behind it. Once jumpers were in the water, they would swim to the boat, cut away its parachute, and rig it for further insertion into whatever area of operations they were infiltrating.
These duck drops could happen out of fixed-wing aircraft, but also out of rotary-wing platforms (helicopters). If the boat was fully inflated when pushed out of the aircraft, the term applied was often hard duck. If only partially inflated, the boat was said to be a soft duck. If not inflated at all, and rolled up, it was called (not surprisingly) a rolled duck.
Are you ducking kidding me?
As the rubber duck insertion technique was used extensively over time, variations on the simple parachute drop developed. These variations centered around using other means of insertion instead of parachuting. If a helicopter could simply hover at a safe altitude over the water, and maintain a safe (minimal or zero) forward speed, then why couldn’t operators simply jump out of the helo after the duck? And thus, the K-duck was born.
According to lore, a K-duck is short for Kangaroo Duck. I believe the first use of it involved a boat actually strapped to the bottom of the helicopter, with a quick-release rope system that allowed a crew member to release the boat when the helo reached the right insert location and altitude. SEALs or other operators would then “helocast” after the boat. That means they jumped out of the helo and into the water. They would then once again rig the boat for further insertion to the target area. These K-ducks are generally hard or soft ducks, but again, a rolled duck would also work.
The K-duck was developed over time to be more commonly executed by simply pushing the boat out of the back of a large helo over the water. A CH-46, for example, can lower its ramp, the operators can push the boat out into the water, and can then helocast after the boat. That was the most common form of K-duck I performed while in the SEAL teams, given that it was easier to rig up and execute than the version with the boat strapped to the outside of the helicopter.
Don’t fowl up your fast rope
SEALs, being SEALs, have tried many variations of the duck insertion with greater or lesser success. The only other method used fairly regularly in my day was called the T-duck. I believe this name originated given the shape of a “T” created by a fast rope hanging from a helicopter. In this method, the Zodiac is dropped first from the helo, which then hovers over the top of the boat (anywhere from 20-50 feet above it, ideally). The SOF team then drops a fast rope into the boat, and each team member then slides the rope and lands in the boat.
This might sound a bit hairy, because it absolutely is. For one thing, the rope has to stay in the boat and not fall into the water before or while the operators are on the rope. Secondly, by the time a fourth or fifth operator is sliding the rope into the boat, it gets pretty tight in there and you risk a guy landing on your head. Third, weirdly enough, a static charge can build up on the rope while it is over water, and what looks like blue lightning can begin to appear down around the boat area. That is not a fun sight to behold as you are about to slide down the rope.
Not surprisingly, the T-duck was not quite as common as the K-duck, because why slide a rope if you can just cast it into the water? Despite that, it was a technique we practiced in case we needed to employ it.
With that, you have been officially enlightened on duck insertions. There are surely some more recent innovations involving the technique, but we will keep those a mystery for the time being.
Feature Image: U.S. Marines with Alpha Company, 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion, 2nd Marine Division (MARDIV), jump out of a CH-53E Super Stallion to conduct a soft duck insertion over Onslow Beach, Camp Lejeune, N.C., June 3, 2014. The Marines practiced soft duck insertions, jumping out of the back of a CH-53E Super Stallion, to improve their technique for future operations. (U.S. Marine Corps photograph by Cpl. Christopher A. Mendoza, 2nd MARDIV, Combat Camera/Released)