When America sends its super-secret warriors behind enemy lines, remaining camouflaged can mean the difference between nabbing the bad guy and causing a major international incident if discovered.
But staying in the shadows means more to those types of commandos than Ghillie suits and MultiCam combat uniforms. Instead, for special operators like SEAL Team 6 commandos and Delta Force soldiers, it's cultural camouflage that keeps them alive and on mission. When they're on a clandestine op, that means mingling with the population unseen.
While SEAL Team 6 and Delta Force can easily get their operators looking like the natives, it's proven to be a lot harder to get them sounding like a local in the country they're deployed to. Learning a language is very difficult skill, and the military has been at pains to get its operators up to speed quickly.
According to most experts, it takes at least six months for Special Forces soldiers to get proficient in one of the European languages like Spanish or French, and up to a year for proficiency in languages like Arabic and Chinese.
With smaller units like those in Joint Special Operations Command, taking operators off the line for that long makes it tough to keep units fully manned.
So SEAL Team 6 has been experimenting using sensory deprivation tanks to cut language learning to a fraction of the time used in traditional methods.
"They're able to steer operators into a state of optimum physiological and neurological relaxation and then introducing new content. ... And one of the examples is learning foreign languages," says John Wheal, the Executive Director of the Flow Genome Project which works to increase the performance of top-end athletes and business executives.
"By combining these sensory deprivation tanks with next-generation biofeedback they've been able to reduce a six-month cycle time for learning foreign languages down to six weeks."
Basically, sensory deprivation tanks are pod-shaped beds filled with lukewarm salt water that delivers neutral buoyancy. An operator will float in the chamber in pitch dark to remove any distractions and wear a set of specialized sensors that measure various physical readings like heart rate and brain wave activity.
Once the SEAL has gotten into the right state of mind, then the learning starts, Wheal says.
Previously the exclusive purview of rich show business types with money to burn, the nation's top commandos are now using cutting-edge tools like sensory deprivation tanks to get better at their jobs quicker.