Unconventional Marines
These guys will be special.


The U.S. Marine Corps is developing a brand new special-operations force to serve as an element of the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). Though unique, the force–officially “Marine SOCOM Detachment One”–will be the Corps’ participating equivalent of the Navy’s SEALs, the Army’s special-operations forces (Green Beret, Delta, and other special purpose forces), and the Air Force’s special operations units.

Specifics have yet to be finalized regarding the Marine detachment, but the prototype unit has been fighting in Iraq, performing raids against insurgent strongholds and conducting special operations missions.

Fighting is how they train to fight.

According to a report written for SOCOM and obtained by National Review Online, “Repeated successful conduct [by the Marine Detachment] of urban direct action and special reconnaissance, both mounted and dismounted, is an indicator of high agility and tactical effectiveness in what is arguably one of the most challenging combat environments.”

The report, “MCSOCOM Proof of Concept Evaluation,” adds, “Because USMC units frequently train and operate in field conditions–i.e. rural, coastal, mountainous, etc.–it is logical to suggest that given similar preparation they could operate effectively in a variety of environments.”

Considering the overall Corps combat performance, rigorous training, and warrior ethos, many wonder why the Marines are just now coming to the SOCOM table.

“When SOCOM was established in 1986, the Cold War was still on,” Gen. Paul X. Kelley, then-Commandant of the Marine Corps, tells NRO. “Parenthetically, I should note that in early 1985, a member of Congress informally wrote to me asking that I ‘consider the transfer’ of all SOF [special operations forces] to the Marine Corps–with the possible exception of Army Ranger battalions and Navy fleet SEAL assets, to be replaced by USMC raider battalions and Force Recon for theater UW [unconventional warfare] targets. Needless to say, I was not inclined to accept any mission changes that would impact upon our ability to conduct the broad spectrum of missions that Marines were already assigned around the world.”

Kelley adds that, as the founding commander of the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (the predecessor to the U.S. Central Command), he was “vocal” in his support of SOCOM, but that the Corps already possessed “inherent” special-operations capabilities.

Indeed, Marines fielded then–as they do today–a variety of special units and operators. These include, Force Recon (deep reconnaissance) teams, Reconnaissance Battalions (scouting elements for Marine divisions), ANGLICO (Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Companies), and special radio units, as well as individual leathernecks detached to special operations units from other services.

Also in the mid-1980s, Kelley directed that a program be formed that would enhance the special-operations capabilities of forward deployed Marine Amphibious Units, today known as Marine Expeditionary Units (Special Operations Capable) or MEU (SOC).

SOCOM members or not, Marines have always had a hand in the craft. Special operations units in the Marines are not accorded the same respect as they are in other branches. The Marines view special operations as simply another realm of warfighting. Marines are Marines, and no individual Marine or Marine unit is considered more elite than the other.

Operational independence also was one of the reasons the Corps resisted entry into SOCOM in 1986. And many Army, Navy, and Air Force members had no problem with the Marines lack of formal participation: After all, a SOCOM without Marines meant the other branches each got a larger piece of the pie.

That changed after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when turf battles took a backseat to real world concerns. And post-9/11 operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have only highlighted the need for more direct Marine involvement in SOCOM.

The size of the new Marine detachment is still under consideration.

Last summer, roughly 100 men comprised the prototype unit, which planned and executed more than 20 raids, netting numerous detainees and weapons caches, and killing or capturing at least nine guerilla cell leaders.

“If they bring a full component of 2,500, it will be a special operations Marine Air-Ground Task Force,” says U.S. Navy Commander Mark Divine, a SEAL officer who was tasked with observing the prototype unit in action and then writing the Proof of Concept report. “In addition to the air component, you’ll have your ’shooters,’ who are Recon Marines. Then there will be a logistical component, and a huge intelligence component.”

Divine says he does not believe there will be a duplication of efforts between existing SOCOM members, like the SEALs or the Green Berets, and the Marines. Every unit and “shooter” is uniquely trained and equipped, and though they can and do often perform similar missions, they complement one another.

“SEALs, for instance, have developed a unique direct action capability that allows them to
strike a target with a very short planning cycle,” he says. “Though the Marine Recon community also trains in direct action, their primary focus has for years been deep reconnaissance, a mission profile they are much better suited for than SEALs. Direct action is something the Marines do well–but for targets where a longer planning cycle and larger footprint of forces is acceptable–something akin to a Ranger-like operation,” but with organic air assets.

Retired U.S. Marine Gunnery Sergeant Joseph Vela says direct action is a Marine specialty, as is combat discipline, leadership, and obedience.

“The latter is something that is bred into a Marine when he is born on the parade deck in boot camp,” says Vela, a former Marine drill instructor who served with SEALs as a member of a Marine Force Recon team during Gulf War I. “It is this sense of instant, willing, obedience to orders. You tell a Marine to do anything, he’s going to snap to attention, say, ‘aye aye, sir,” and execute whatever it is he is told to do, without question or debate. My experience with other branches of service has been if it is something they don’t want to do, you are going to have a problem.”

Therein lie the two schools of thought: Unquestioning obedience or thinking outside of the proverbial box. Creative thinking is important for any special operator, but it can also become something of an exposed wire when the situation becomes desperate and time-critical. Vela says SOCOM will only benefit from the Corps’ unique approach to both obedience and leadership development (which in itself spawns creative thought).

At this point, the only thing keeping the Marine SOCOM Detachment from being formally stood up is the signature of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

“Is everyone in agreement that this is a good idea?” U.S. Army Major Paul Swiergosz, a Defense Department spokesman, tells NRO. “Secretary Rumsfeld thinks it is, so everyone else does too. Is there a piece of paper that actually says this is how we’re going to operate and do business? Not yet.”

Gen. Kelley believes the new detachment will bring a lot more to the table than simply its special operations trained-and-equipped air-ground-intelligence components. Like Vela, he says the individual Marine is the key.

“The most significant force multiplier that the Marine Corps can provide to appropriate special operations is a superbly trained and motivated Marine, one fortified by 230 years of enviable history and tradition,” Kelley says.

A former U.S. Marine infantry leader and paratrooper, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues and has covered conflict in the Balkans and on the West Bank. He is the author of four books, and his articles appear in a variety of publications.


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