The Marines and America’s Special Operators: More Collaboration Required
Change is coming to the U.S. Marine Corps. For decades, the service pinballed between two different roles, serving as an amphibious “second land army” in both world wars, but specializing in counter-insurgency and police action for most of the rest of its history. In two recent documents — the Commandant’s Planning Guidance and Force Design 2030 — the Marine Corps officially embraced support to fleet operations as its preeminent purpose. The Marine Corps seeks to enable the U.S. Navy’s access to contested areas and support the penetration of adversary air and maritime defenses while simultaneously disrupting enemy efforts to threaten the U.S. fleet. Operationally, the Marine Corps’ concept for expeditionary advanced base operations calls for a dispersal of the force. This creates the potential to dismantle Marine air-ground task forces — the most hallowed organizing principle in modern Marine doctrine and culture.
U.S. Special Operations Command should take a keen interest in the modernization efforts of the Marine Corps. They serve as a live-action case study for dramatic organizational change — the sort of change that Special Operations Command may now be expected to enact. The public dialogue among relatively junior marine officers also exemplifies the bottom-up driven debate about the future of the service that the special operations community should seek to emulate. Finally, the Marine Corps’ new concept is likely to require significant special operations support, and the two commands should craft a symbiotic relationship as they compete and prepare for conflict.
Why Work More Closely Together?
To be successful, the Marine Corps will need support from special operations forces during both competition and conflict conditions. This may require a reprioritization of Special Operations Command’s overseas missions. If a theater commander expects the Marine Corps to establish a dispersed force with a suite of manned and unmanned aircraft, rocket artillery, and anti-ship missile batteries throughout the South China Sea or anywhere else, Marine forces would have to gain access, before and during the crisis. Though security cooperation by Marine component commands deepens relationships with partner nations, Marine forces generally lack the capabilities to conduct the preparation of the environment that would be required to introduce reinforcements in the midst of conflict with a near-peer adversary. Marine leaders should work with their counterparts at each service component within Special Operations Command to determine opportunities and limitations for support.
The Marine Corps and special operations forces should also collaborate on new concepts for logistics. Marine officers are discussing novel options for logistics that support dispersed maritime and littoral bases. Both the Marine Corps and special operations forces operated in a dispersed fashion during the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. Unlike potential operations in the Pacific, the American missions in the Middle East occurred in landlocked terrain, in close proximity to large support bases, and in areas where the adversary might contest but could not deny logistical resupply. The distance between dispersed elements operating in the Pacific could easily span time zones and national borders, and a future enemy would certainly work to neutralize traditional means of communication and resupply. Special operations forces have long confronted the problem of sustaining forces operating in denied areas, in both landlocked and littoral environments, but not at the scale which might be required in the Pacific.
In addition to the avenues through which special operations forces could support the Marine Corps concepts, many of the components of those concepts would help special operations forces. Expeditionary advanced bases ashore could serve as logistical hubs for special operations forces. Although Special Operations Command itself is a joint headquarters, the partnerships developed by special operations forces overseas are built almost exclusively for the purposes of special operations forces, and are rarely expanded in a manner that enhances the ability of conventional forces to work in the same space. Conventional forces, Marine and otherwise, establish similarly insular partnerships with their foreign partners. All of these relationships could be built more strongly in joint, rather than unilateral, fashion. Marine forces could contribute conventional forces to special operations forces’ security cooperation efforts, while the persistent presence of special operations forces could help to maintain relationships between U.S. Marine forces and their host-nation counterparts.
Various operating concepts for the other U.S. military services represent an obstacle to the level of integration that I propose. The Department of Defense is developing the Joint Warfighting Concept, which will provide a sort of capstone to encompass all of the service concepts. However, even if the Department of Defense releases the joint concept today, its implementation will take years, and it will emerge after all of the individual service concepts have already taken shape. The services will continue to build their own individual concepts, and to design their forces accordingly. This process stovepipes the focus of each Special Operations Command component toward the initiatives of its service headquarters. U.S. Army Special Operations Command seeks to establish its niche within the Army’s multidomain operations concept, while U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command examines new concepts for joint all-domain operations.
Marine Corps Force Design: Template or Cautionary Tale?
Special Operations Command should view the Marine Corps force design initiative as a case study in dramatic organizational change. Only time will tell whether the reforms proposed by Gen. David Berger will succeed. Regardless of the ultimate outcome, this is an example of a leader taking a chainsaw to the status quo. The speed at which Berger shifted the Marine Corps’ focus in response to the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy and National Military Strategy wildly outpaced the rate of change in the other services. Berger even began divesting the Marine Corps of some organizations and capabilities without being told to do so — an unprecedented action for a modern service chief. Clearly, he wants the Marines to change on the service’s own terms, without waiting for the civilian chain of command to force compliance.
Since the publication of the Commandant’s Planning Guidance last summer, national security experts have showered the Marine Corps’ concept with praise. From an outsider’s perspective, realigning to support naval operations and focusing wholeheartedly on China as the “pacing threat” seem entirely sensible. However, because of the small size of the Marine Corps and — in the words of President Harry Truman — the service’s having a “propaganda machine almost the equal of Stalin’s,” marines are perhaps too conscious of a particular narrative of their service’s history. This narrative is replete with examples, real and imagined, of other services’ efforts to chip away at Marine Corps assets or to eliminate the service entirely. Tailoring the Marines to support the Navy as a primary mission could be seen, internally, as the beginning of the end. An overwhelming focus on China as the adversary might also reduce the service’s flexibility. This may, understandably, create internal friction that Berger and his successors will need to manage.
Though Special Operations Command is much younger than the Marine Corps and has a far less cohesive culture, special operations forces face similar challenges in reorienting a force after 20 years of focusing on small wars in the Middle East. Exquisite manhunting and direct-action capabilities will be relevant for many years to come, but certainly not at the scale to which the special operations components developed them to fight in the Middle East. Deliberately focusing less training time and money on surgical strike missions may be as abhorrent to the special operator as breaking up the Marine air-ground task force is to a marine. Gen. Richard Clarke, the commander of the Special Operations Command, has more “tribes” to deal with than his Marine counterpart, but the struggles will be in parallel.
Public Dialogue on the Service’s Future
The ongoing debate about Marine force design on social media and in print should inspire jealousy on the part of Special Operations Command leadership. Marine junior and mid-grade officers are writing articles about the service. Ideas that are initially tested in team rooms and wardrooms can quickly receive attention throughout the national security community.
Compared to their Marine counterparts, officers in the special operations community have not made much of an effort to shape the public debate about the future of their command — although there are a few exceptions. Why are junior and mid-career special operators so quiet about this? For an organization that is purportedly bottom-driven, there is surprisingly little public dialogue about its future.
Special Operations Command should encourage its officers to publish articles on issues of key importance to the command. Silence from the junior and middle ranks about the operational concepts for the employment of special operations forces cedes the debate to civilians, conventional force officers, and whichever other external actors weigh in. The enterprise is losing a critical opportunity to develop thinkers from within, and junior leaders in the special operations community are missing the chance to shape the future of the force at a critical moment. It is likely that the veil of the “quiet professional” is a central impediment to this sort of dialogue, but only in rare circumstances do capstone concepts for special operations need to be secret.
What Is to Be Done?
Both the Special Operations Command headquarters and the force design planners at the special operations components should watch Marine reforms closely. The outcomes of these efforts could pay dividends by informing comparable planning efforts within the special operations community.
Special Operations Command’s components need not restructure to fit multiple service mandates, but the force should understand and have a concept for integration with emerging concepts most likely to see employment in its areas of responsibility. For special operations forces aligned to the Indo-Pacific, this means the Marine concepts. Even if the vision of agile naval infantry fighting to ensure U.S. fleet access fails to take hold, the ideas have enough merit to encourage the development of unique special operations concepts.
Regionally aligned special operations forces should understand the expeditionary advanced base concept before it is tested through computers and live-action wargames. Once Special Operations Command and the Marine Corps acquire a shared understanding of the concepts on paper, they should seek to jointly validate these concepts in theater. There should not be a major Marine Corps exercise in the Indo-Pacific or in Europe without participation by a joint special operations force. Likewise, any major theater special operations exercise should include Marine participation. These joint efforts will serve to strengthen and inform service concepts.
Leaders within the special operations community should consult with Marine counterparts about resistance to the new force design. Issues that the Marine Corps encounters inside the service and among external stakeholders in Congress will likely mirror the friction that special operations forces will experience during efforts toward change. Just as Berger’s vision prescribed sweeping changes for his service, Clarke’s 2020 Comprehensive Review recommended centralizing special operations force management within Special Operations Command’s headquarters and deliberately deemphasizing capabilities focused on direct-action and counter-terrorism in favor of a fuller spectrum of missions. These sorts of actions may not seem as radical as the Marine Corps commandant eliminating all of his service’s tanks, but they represent a sharp departure from 20 years of precedent. Both forms of change may require senior leaders to overcome bureaucracies inherently resistant to change, as well as marines and special operators who feel that their careers and military legacies are threatened. The commanding generals from either organization can expect resistance to these initiatives from without and within, and the manner in which the Marine Corps manages these obstacles can inform efforts by special operations forces.
Marine Special Operations Command provides special operations forces with both access and reach into the Marine Corps, while providing the marines with a lateral conduit to the special operations community. Marine Corps special operations forces should exemplify the sort of integration with expeditionary advanced base operations that each Special Operations Command component should strive to have with its parent service’s concepts. Marine special operations forces can assist Special Operations Command’s other components by providing lessons learned and best practices that should, in turn, enable better collaboration between special operators and marines.
Finally, leaders at Special Operations Command and within the individual special operations components should encourage junior leaders to contribute to continued public debate on the future of the enterprise. Iron sharpens iron, and the intellectual edge cannot be honed in a vacuum. Like marines, special operators deserve leaders who are willing to expose ideas to public criticism, and to attack and defend operational concepts to make them stronger. Compartmentalized debates pale in comparison to open dialogue in allowing new ideas to take root and outdated ones to be eliminated. So long as the discourse protects classified material, the hallmark of the “quiet professional” should be in his or her willingness to engage in this open debate. The sweat equity invested now will pay dividends in stronger concepts for employment.
Gordon Richmond is a U.S. Army Special Forces officer assigned to the 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne). The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.
Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Christopher Callaway