The Royal Road: A Mission-Oriented Service for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict
D. Robert Worley
SWJ Editor’s Note: This article was originally written in 2006 and a very condensed version was published in the 1st Quarter 2007 issue of the Joint Force Quarterly. The full original article has been updated as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan end, budgets decline, and the force drawdown is underway. Many footnotes refer to Shaping U.S. Forces: Revolution or Relevance in a Post-Cold War World (Westport, Conn.: Praeger Security International, 2006), which provides additional detail and abundant citations to a wide array of sources.
In 1942, the Royal Marines formed commandos—specialized battalion-sized units—in direct competition with the British Army commandos that were later disbanded. The Royal Marines began the transition to Great Britain’s special operations forces. The United States followed a different path after World War II. Special operations forces established for the war were disestablished by their parent services. The Marine Corps gave up its raider and parachute battalions and relied on large-scale amphibious assault as its raison d’être. The Corps survived the budget axe that befell special operations forces, but not without a struggle.
Budget cuts and reductions in force follow wars. There are political forces that will resist drawing down the Defense budget and drawing down the military force, but they will lose. More successful will be institutional forces that protect programs. Without a vision and strong management, a budget cut will be shared equally by the uniformed services and across major weapon acquisition programs. The result will be a smaller force, not a different force, and there is little reason to believe that the smaller force will be prepared for the needs of the 21st century.
This monograph proposes one bold, perhaps radical idea. It begins with a merger of Special Operations Forces and the Marine Corps under the Department of Navy to produce a coherent force for a range of missions to include special operations and low-intensity conflict. The merger produces a service that institutionalizes hard earned lessons in irregular warfare repeatedly lost after wars, establishes a proponent on par with the other services, and allows the other services to return to their primary statutory responsibilities and conceptions of war—mission redundancy avoided, bureaucracy reduced, acquisition streamlined, and greater coherence achieved.
The big services—Army, Navy, and Air Force—are divided by element—land, sea, and air. The Marine Corps and Special Operations Forces are designed for missions that span the elements, and there is considerable overlap in missions and capabilities.
Both Special Operations Forces and the Marine Corps and have the capacity for low-intensity conflict, including counterinsurgency, training indigenous forces, civil affairs, and psychological operations. SOF has statutory authority for low-intensity conflict but is limited in scale of operations. The Marine Corps has a capacity for larger scale operations and a long history in low-intensity conflict, but it lacks statutory authority for developing the capability. If history is a guide, the big services will put low-intensity conflict behind them and give budget priority to their own statutory responsibilities and conceptions of war. Creating a service for special operations and low-intensity conflict will free the big services to return to conventional warfare without losing the knowledge for low-intensity conflict lost after Vietnam and regained in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Both SOF and the Marine Corps have capacity for direct actions that can be conducted in isolation or enabling the war-winning general-purpose forces of the big services. Both have capability for non-combatant evacuation operations and personnel rescue. They can seize airports and seaports for follow-on forces.
Both SOF and the Marine Corps rely on the big services for major acquisitions and prefer to adapt existing systems rather than create new systems. The systems developed by the big services must then be patched together. Merger would ease technical interoperability by establishing a single system developer and ease procedural interoperability by establishing a single combat developer for doctrine and training.
Despite the shared characteristics, there are important differences, including the expensive, scarce, and specialized equipment; levels of elite; the selection and training of individuals; leader-to-led ratios in units; and headquarters capacities.
Merger would allow consolidation of redundant education and training programs currently spread across the services, reduce the number of administrative headquarters, and create the ability for SOLIC professionals to command at the subordinate unified command and joint task force levels.
Strong resistance can be expected from the “five services.” The greatest resistance can be expected from the special operations community whose members are justifiably proud of their accomplishments since establishment in 1987 and who identify with their parent services. The institutional Army and Air Force can also be expected to resist losing their crown jewels, even though they have a history of parental neglect. Less resistance might be expected from the Navy and Marine Corps, who would acquire broader responsibilities and the budgets that follow.
The sections below begin with the Special Operations Forces’ and the Marine Corps’ shared history of neglect and even dismemberment by the big services. Next covered is their overlapping mission space. A review of SOF and Marine capabilities is followed by steps for merger, consolidation, and institutionalization.
Buildups, Drawdowns, and Unpreparedness
Large-scale enterprises are subdivided for span of control and to provide focus on specialized knowledge and skill. But the separately built pieces must be reassembled into a coherent whole to achieve unity of effort. From the early days of the country, the highest level subdivision of military force was between congressionally declared war and the presidential use of force in conducting foreign policy below the threshold of declared war. After the Second World War, the highest subdivision was by element—air, land, sea. But SOF and the Marine Corps span the elements and are governed by mission-oriented rather than elemental design.
Prior to WWII, the Department of War and the Department of Navy were divided principally by the threshold of declared war. The War Department was prepared to mobilize the populace, the industrial base, and an army should Congress declare war and the president assume the position of commander in chief. Below the threshold of declared war, the Navy Department was the State Department’s strong arm of coercive diplomacy. One spoke of gunboat diplomacy and often referred to Marines as State Department troops.
After WWII, the National Security Act of 1947 divided the services instead by the element in which they fight—air, land, and sea. The Navy Department struggled successfully to retain its air force and its army. An unintended consequence is that the State Department lost its ability to lead and to orchestrate the instruments of national power below the threshold of declared war. Additional rounds of major legislation followed in 1949 and 1953. The Defense Department rose to dominance and a militarized foreign policy followed.[i]
There is no permanent right answer, but elemental is wrong now, and according to President Eisenhower, it has been wrong for a very long time. Eisenhower initiated another round of legislation in 1958 with a special message to Congress in which he announced that warfare by element—air, land, and sea—was over.[ii] The services may be separated by element, but warfare was not. Despite Eisenhower’s protestations, the big services remained focused on their roles in elemental warfare. Efforts to achieve unified effort since 1947 have been about solving the problems caused by the original sin of division by element.
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara introduced significant innovations internal to the Department during the Kennedy administration.[iii] To gain greater visibility over service programs, McNamara introduced three broad categories of military forces. Forces for high-intensity conflict (HIC) were strategic nuclear forces, including the nuclear triad from the Air Force and Navy. Forces for mid-intensity conflict (MIC) were the general-purpose forces of the four services. And forces for low-intensity conflict (LIC) were those that would fight third world proxy wars between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. JFK established a special group for counterinsurgency in his National Security Council. Kennedy favored special operations forces and was instrumental in bolstering the Army Green Berets and establishing the Navy SEALs in 1962, but the services were less than enthusiastic in follow through.
The Vietnam War diverted legislative attention through the late 1960s and early 1970s; after the war, the services attempted internal reforms to prevent another Vietnam. Special operations forces were stood down. The big services put LIC behind them and returned to their conceptions of conventional and interstate warfare and prepared to defeat the Soviet Union with high- and mid-intensity conflict forces.
After German counterterrorist commandos rescued hostages at the Mogadishu airport in October 1977, President Carter asked and was assured that the U.S. had a similar capability. But there was no capability organized, trained, and equipped for the mission. Instead, the “hasty response option” brought talented people together from across the services at the last minute. Delta Force was established a month later in November 1977. The hasty response option was a formula for unpreparedness.
In April 1980, the hasty response option was employed to rescue hostages taken in Iran. The Ranger’s airport seizure near Tehran succeeded in establishing a point of egress for rescued hostages. Hastily modified Air Force aircraft were used to refuel Navy helicopters flown by Marine and Air Force pilots transporting Delta Force personnel. The hostage rescue force came together for the first time at the Desert One rendezvous point and ended in a fiery disaster. SEAL Team 6 was established in October 1980.
The Grenada intervention in late October 1983 was planned in secrecy by the U.S. Atlantic Command, an almost exclusively navy command and very conventional. Rather than a coherent airborne assault by Army and Air Force capabilities, or a coherent Navy-Marine Corps effort, all four services were involved under Little League rules—everybody gets to play.[iv] Planned by conventional forces, SOF was given inappropriate missions and used against SOF doctrine.
Failures piled up as the services were brought together at the last minute. Operation Eagle Claw to rescue hostages from Tehran and Operation Urgent Fury, the intervention in Grenada, demonstrated that the executive branch had failed to produce a coherent force for conventional or special operations. Congress concluded that legislative intervention was necessary and initiated separate studies for conventional and special operations forces.[v]
Goldwater-Nichols legislation in 1986 had the greatest effect on conventional, general-purpose forces.[vi] The underlying SASC study argued cogently for mission-oriented rather than elemental force design.[vii] The recommendations were considerably watered down in the eventual legislation. Rather than a mission-orientation, elemental design remained and great strides were made in joint warfare—stitching together the services divided by element. The services were developers of force and the combatant commands were the users of force. Responsibility for mission integration was left to the combatant commands at the last minute.
Greater authority was given to the JCS chairman, including greater authorities over service programs. The CJCS entered the realm of joint force developer. A separate combatant command was established in 1999 to create a more joint force to ease the burden on the regional combatant command that would ultimately use force. Joint Forces Command failed in that assignment and was stood down in 2011.
Nunn-Cohen legislation in 1987 oriented on special operations and low-intensity conflict forces. In essence, a fifth service was created in the face of poor stewardship by the Army, Navy, and Air Force.[viii] Rather than a true service, legislation established a four-star combatant command, the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), with service-like train, organize, and equip authorities. Special operations, civil affairs, and psychological operations forces were legally designated as Special Operations Forces (SOF) and assigned to SOCOM. Analogous to a civilian service secretary, an assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict (ASD/SOLIC) was mandated to represent SOF in Pentagon processes. A board for low-intensity conflict was mandated on the National Security Council to establish national, whole-of-government policy for low-intensity conflict. And a major force program, MFP-11, was established to complement processes initiated by McNamara. The big services were less than enthusiastic in implementing congressional intent and more rounds of legislation followed to push home the message.
The preponderance of forces assigned to SOCOM were orphaned branches of the big services, for example, the Army branches of Special Forces, Civil Affairs, and Psychological Operations. Much of the designation of special operations forces was about providing career progression, equipment acquisition authority, and budget protection for military specialties not central to the big services’ conceptions of war. The forces designated as SOF were not selected to constitute a coherent force for a type of war. Instead, they had to be established in law because the Army, Navy, and Air Force considered special operations and low-intensity conflict to be side work. Valuable, yes, but hardly a force sized and shaped for the larger-scale operations to be conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The next challenge came at the end of the Cold War when the force and budgets were coming down. President George H.W. Bush and Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell planned for a major strategic adjustment but the effort was derailed by Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. A huge opportunity was missed and has been understudied.
National and military leaders failed to recognize the end of the Cold War for what it was—the abrupt end to a long era of major power conflict. Great power conflict will come again. The end of the Cold War was by definition the beginning of an interwar period. Interwar periods are not peaceful, but they are not characterized by conflicts between the forces of major powers—major wars—but by conflict between major and small powers—small wars. As the force and the budget were drawn down, the need to be prepared remained, but prepared for what?
Failing to recognize the change in the strategic environment, reformers set about to transform a force designed to defeat a known industrial-age great power into a force to defeat an unknown information-age great power in the uncertain future. The defeat of an unknown and unknowable future information-age great power rested on a revolution in military affairs. The darlings of this RMA were the high-tech, equipment-centric services providing missile defense, space-based assets, and long-range bombers.
In the interwar period, however, the capabilities of the man-centric Special Operations Forces, light Army, and Marine Corps made them the main effort, and the capabilities of the other services were indispensable supporting arms. Transformation failed to prepare the force for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Two decades have passed since the interwar period began, the small wars in Iraq and Afghanistan draw down, the budget contracts, and we must ask again, prepared for what?
We’re not facing anything new. History shows a pattern of postwar draw downs and unpreparedness for the next war.
- After World War II, the force was drawn down, and the army of occupation and nation building in Japan was ill prepared for the conventional war in Korea. Truman tripled the base Defense budget.
- After the Korean War, Eisenhower drew down the force, especially the Army. He relied on strategic nuclear weapons to deter major transgressions and on carriers and marines to underwrite coercive diplomacy and respond to lesser transgressions.
- Kennedy claimed that Eisenhower’s drawdown forced the U.S. to either acquiesce or go nuclear. He began a military buildup of general-purpose and special operations forces and initiated low-intensity interventions in Southeast Asia.
- After Vietnam, Nixon began a drawdown. The budget fell by almost 50 percent and the force entered a freefall without adequate planning. The result was called the “hollow force.”
- Carter initiated, and Reagan greatly amplified, a force buildup for industrial-age warfare against a great power alliance.
- After the Cold War, the elder Bush administration identified a Base Force below which the United States could not carry out its putative responsibilities as the last remaining superpower. But the force was reduced by nearly 20 percent in 4 years and fell through the floor established by the Base Force. Simultaneously, the use of force escalated, including the invasion of Panama, the Gulf War, and a humanitarian intervention in Somalia.[ix]
- The Clinton administration conducted a Bottom Up Review that resulted in a smaller but not a different force. The force was reduced almost 19 percent in 8 years. At the same time, military interventions short of war continued to rise, including Kosovo and Haiti.[x]
- The Bush 43 administration, initially opposed to using the military for nation building, attempted “transformation of the force” from an industrial-age force for great power conflict to an information-age force for a future great power conflict—a Revolution in Military Affairs. The force was unprepared for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. As Secretary Rumsfeld said, “you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” Force size remained relatively constant but was augmented by an extraordinary expansion in the use of civilian contractors.
Today’s military has been shaped by a decade of nation building and low-intensity conflict. It’s unlikely that a smaller version of that force will be prepared for other forms of warfare. As we go forward, we must ask again, prepared for what?
Establishing Common Ground
The Army, Air Force, and Navy are divided by element—land, air, sea. The Marine Corps spans the elements—globe, eagle, anchor. Element-spanning is explicit in naming the Navy SEALs—sea, air, land. Special Operations Forces and Marines are organized by mission rather than by element and fill the cracks between the big services. The Marine Corps and Special Operations Forces also share a history of bureaucratic neglect, misuse, and disestablishment.
Two types of special operations histories are available. One starts with missions—usually direct action and irregular warfare—and is told in the stories of those units who execute them. The other type of history starts with the forces currently designated in law as SOF and traces the histories of those units. The two histories have a great deal in common, but there are forces included in each that are not included in the other. The history of legally designated SOF is more appropriate to understanding the culture of current American SOF, but including those forces not currently assigned gives greater clarity to the mission space.
While it is customary for special operations forces to trace their roots to before the Revolutionary War, their clearer origins are in WWII,[xi] and they have an even closer relationship to the Vietnam era. Present-day Army Rangers claim a strong relationship with the Ranger battalions of WWII. Darby’s Rangers were the first ashore at Omaha Beach disabling German strongholds. Marine Raiders conducted hit and run amphibious assaults in the Pacific, sometimes inserted by submarine. But much of special operations history is about counterinsurgency, including Army General Black Jack Pershing in the Philippines, the Army’s Merrill’s Marauders in Burma, and Marine counterinsurgency operations before WWII. These histories invariably include references to the Marine Corps Small Wars Manual as the foundation of American counterinsurgency thinking.
Even before victory was declared in WWII, the services were under the budget axe and the big services, designed for great power war, quickly jettisoned those things that were not central to their core. Forces for unconventional, irregular, and special warfare were sacrificed without qualm. All three air commando groups and Army Special Forces were stood down, Marine amphibious scouts and raiders were disestablished, and Army Rangers were completely disbanded. Only civil affairs forces survived, and they survived only until postwar reconstruction efforts were completed in the European and Pacific theaters. Postwar legislation assigned the unconventional warfare mission to the CIA during peacetime and to the Army in wartime.
Organize, Train, and Equip the Force
Statutes assign the services roles—primacy in an air, land, or sea element—functions, and primary and collateral responsibilities.[xii] Services are authorized to spend money to accomplish their primary responsibilities, but collateral responsibilities—often in support of other services—are expected to be accomplished without additional funding. Less explicit than statutory authorities, each service has a conception of warfare that embraces its statutorily assigned roles, missions, and functions. Conceptions and statute change slowly.
The four services, and the three military departments, are producers, not users, of force. They are charged in law to organize, train, and equip not the forces they want but the forces needed by the combatant commanders, the users of force. Each of the big services—Army, Navy, Air Force—has a conception of war that guides it. Anything that deviates too far from those conceptions—including the combatant commander’s needs—does not fare well in budget competitions.
The big services have a long history of neglecting critically important capabilities that are not central to their elemental conceptions of war. Special operations, low-intensity conflict, and amphibious forces were neglected by the big services. When wars ended and budgets came down, the big services were quick to sacrifice capabilities that lay outside their primary responsibilities and core conceptions.
- Air commandos were developed for a tertiary World War II theater in China and Burma, and were quickly abandoned so that the new Air Force could pursue strategic bombardment.
- Rangers were established for World War II, Korea, and Vietnam and just as quickly abandoned after each war so that the Army could return to its central conception of war.
- After WWII, the unconventional warfare mission was assigned to the CIA in peacetime and to the Army in wartime. The result was an Army that did not prepare in peacetime and was unprepared in wartime.
- The Navy neglected all aspects of brown-water operations until Vietnam. A separate riverine capability was developed from scratch and proved effective. The brown-water navy was again neglected as the Navy returned its focus to Soviet blue-water capabilities after Vietnam. The Army, Navy, and Marine Corps all retain a small-boat capability for riverine operations.
- The Marine Corps developed amphibious assault against all forms of bureaucratic resistance. During WWII, Douglas MacArthur called the Marines’ methods too costly and unnecessary. After the war in 1949, Omar Bradley testified to Congress that the Marines’ frontal assaults would never again be conducted. During the Korean War in 1950, the same MacArthur turned to the Marines for the war-changing assault at Inchon.[xiii]
- To support amphibious assault in WWII, the Navy developed an abiding interest in underwater obstacles in the surf zone. Underwater demolitions teams were created to conduct hydrographic reconnaissance to identify and destroy obstacles. The Marines, who shared that interest, were equally concerned about inland emplacements that might threaten the landed Marines. Marine Force Reconnaissance was established. After the war, the Navy retreated to blue water and lost interest. The Marines did not. Later, at Kennedy’s insistence, the Navy established the SEALs with a capability nearly identical to Marine Force Recon. The need for the capability is clear; the need for duplication is not.
Throughout its history, the Marine Corps has had to ward off disbandment and takeover attempts by presidents, the Army, and the Navy. These attempts are consistently initiated in a postwar drawdown of the force driven by shrinking budgets. Retired Army general William Odom resurrected the argument as recently as 1997.[xiv]
For much of the Marine Corps’ early history, survival was assured as being a force in readiness. It was a standing army of professional soldiers, “first to fight,” while the War Department stood by prepared to raise an army of citizen soldiers. But during the Cold war, the U.S. maintained a standing army, and in 1973 that army became an all volunteer force. The Corps can no longer stake its survival on being a force in readiness.[xv]
The Marine Corps Bill of 1952 put some Marine Corps survival issues to rest, or beyond the president’s or service’s reach. The Corps’ minimum size was set at three marine divisions, air wings, and supporting forces.[xvi] The Marine Corps’ statutory authorities are straight forward.
The Marine Corps, within the Department of the Navy, shall be so organized as to include not less than three combat divisions and three air wings, and such other land combat, aviation, and other services as may be organic therein.
The Marine Corps shall be organized, trained, and equipped to provide fleet marine forces of combined arms, together with supporting air components, for service with the fleet in the seizure or defense of advanced naval bases and for the conduct of such land operations as may be essential to the prosecution of a naval campaign.
The Marine Corps shall develop, in coordination with the Army and the Air Force, those phases of amphibious operations that pertain to the tactics, technique, and equipment used by landing forces.
In addition, the Marine Corps shall provide detachments and organizations for service on armed vessels of the Navy, shall provide security detachments for the protection of naval property at naval stations and bases, and shall perform such other duties as the President may direct. However, these additional duties may not detract from or interfere with the operations for which the Marine Corps is primarily organized.
Amphibious landings may be opposed or administrative. Amphibious assault is not mentioned in law but might legitimately be inferred. There’s nothing conventional about amphibious assault. Specialized equipment, doctrine, training, and reliance on light, compact, ship borne forces are required. The logistics to land and support the force are extraordinary. In short, amphibious operations are special operations.[xvii]
The Corps’ forward presence aboard ship still offers a quicker response than deployment of a garrisoned Army force, but it also puts itself at odds with special operations forces. The Corps consistently shows utility in foreign interventions below the threshold of major war—e.g., humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, small wars, and forward presence—and as a second land army. The Marine Corps is called upon frequently for missions arguably outside its statutory authorities, but the Corps’ uncontested statutory role as lead in amphibious warfare is something rarely called for, continuing the Corps’ tenuous political position.
One of the root issues at the legislative birth of SOF is the commingling of forces for special operations and low-intensity conflict. The expression, special operations, connotes small, elite fighting forces striking and departing quickly. In contrast, low-intensity conflict generally entails protracted peace operations, nation building, and humanitarian assistance sometimes in an environment of guerrilla insurgency. Some parts of SOF are fully capable in both special operations and low-intensity conflict.
Many SOF missions are conducted in denied, politically sensitive, or hostile areas. Sophisticated methods of ingress and egress, surprise, violence of action, high fidelity rehearsal, and a preference for the night are common. Many are executed with extreme tactical precision designed to produce effects at the operational or strategic level of war.
Direct action has come to dominate SOF in recent years. Direct actions are short-duration strikes and other small-scale offensive actions to seize, destroy, damage, exploit, or recover targets of high value. Recovering targets of high value includes combat search and rescue, the recovery of downed pilots or any other individual who may be injured and within denied or hostile territory; noncombatant evacuation operations, larger operations that typically extract embassy personnel from threatening environments; and in extremis hostage rescue. Underway ship assault, oil-platform assault, airport seizure, and seaport seizure are also valued direct actions. The latter two may enable follow-on forces to be landed.[xviii]
Special reconnaissance is an operation to observe and gather information, often covertly, often in denied or hostile territory, and often for weeks or months. Special reconnaissance may support direct actions or conventional operations.
Information operations (IO) are “operations designed to achieve information superiority by adversely affecting enemy information and systems while protecting U.S. information and systems.”
Counterterrorism and counter proliferation. Rather than missions, they are purposes for which direct actions and special reconnaissance may be conducted. Counter proliferation is about preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and counterterrorism is directed at terrorists themselves.[xix]
Foreign internal defense (FID) trains and advises indigenous forces. FID was used in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq to build the capacity of a friendly government resisting insurgency—counterinsurgency. In less hostile environments, the residual effect of FID is to build trust and confidence between the U.S. and the host nation. It builds relationships that advantage the U.S. if a larger intervention is later initiated.
Unconventional warfare (UW), like FID, trains and advises indigenous forces. But UW trains indigenous forces to oppose a government unfriendly to the United States—proinsurgency to impose regime change or to conduct sabotage and resistance to an occupying power or illegitimate authority as done in WWII France. Unfortunately, “unconventional warfare” is often used to mean anything other than conventional warfare.
Both FID and UW require forces that are regionally oriented, language trained, and culturally sensitive.
Civil affairs (CA) operations are “activities that establish, maintain, or influence relations between U.S. forces and foreign civil authorities and civilian populations to facilitate U.S. military operations.”
Psychological operations (PSYOP) are “operations that provide truthful information to foreign audiences that influence behavior in support of U.S. military operations.” Psyops were recently renamed military information support operations (MISO) to avoid the negative connotations.[xx] MISO units create and disseminate information to foreign publics in support of both special operations (e.g., winning hearts and minds) and conventional operations (e.g., inducing desertion or surrender).
Counterinsurgency (CI) are “those military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological and civic actions taken by a government to defeat insurgency.”
Counterinsurgency on a small scale can be carried out by Army Special Forces conducting FID supported by CA and MISO. CA and MISO can create the permissive conditions necessary for FID and UW. Counterinsurgency on a larger scale—like Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan—outstrips SOF’s CA and MISO capabilities and the excess must be picked up by general-purpose forces.
Security Force Assistance “supports the development of the capacity and capability of foreign security forces.” Effective assistance requires the coordinated efforts of all instruments of national power, not just the military instrument and, therefore, it is traditionally run by the State Department through the ambassador and country team in the host nation. But the need to train the security forces of Iraq and Afghanistan quickly exceeded SF capacities even when augmented by the capacities of Navy SEALs and Marine Special Operations forces. General-purpose forces have had to pick up the FID mission in a large way. Accordingly, recent legislation gives SOCOM a global coordination role over military resource allocation for security force assistance.[xxi]
The Use of Force
Statutory protections have been instituted to protect forces for special operations, low-intensity conflict, and amphibious operations. Their organize, train, and equip authorities may be protected, but their employment is not protected from misuse by commanders from the general-purpose force.
In its early history, the Navy repeatedly attempted to break large Marine units into small detachments aboard ship, as military police and guards, or as logistical shore parties. Under Army command in WWI, Marine combat units were initially disassembled and employed as guards and military police; Marine aviation was stripped off and never supported Marine ground forces in the war. In the WWII Pacific, under Army command, Marine aviation was held in reserve; under Navy command, Marine aviation was employed in fleet actions rather than in support of Marines ashore. In more recent times, Marine fighter/attack squadrons are employed aboard carriers in place of a Navy squadron. Similar attempts to strip aviation from the Marine Corps and put it under a joint force air component command were made in Vietnam and Iraq. The Marine Corps fought hard to prevent the disassembly of a competent air/ground team on the altar of jointness.[xxii]
Under big Army command in Korea, Rangers were often given missions suited to conventional light infantry. In Grenada, SOF was given inappropriate missions and employed in opposition to SOF doctrine. In Iraq, special operations provided personnel security to high profile Iraqi officials. In Afghanistan, Rangers are often employed in missions well suited to conventional light infantry or air assault forces. Following a decade of the direct approach and large footprint operations conducted under conventional force headquarters in Afghanistan and Iraq, SOCOM is agitating for adopting a more indirect approach and lighter footprint that is more sustainable in the long term.
Labels like counterinsurgency, irregular warfare, small wars, low-intensity conflict, nation building, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, post-conflict reconstruction and stabilization, military operations short of war, or military operations other than war have all been used to refer to a complex mission space. There are differences, sometimes significant and sometimes only a matter of nuance, but they share important characteristics. One thing they have in common is being treated as lesser included cases, i.e., a force designed to conduct conventional warfare and major war is assumed to be sufficient to successfully conduct irregular warfare and small wars. Large portions of SOF and the Marine Corps share this mission space. SOF can lay claim through statute, but the Marine Corps cannot. During postwar budget competitions, lack of statutory cover can be debilitating. Another characteristic of small wars is that they require orchestration of all instruments of power, not just the blunt military instrument of fighter wings and armored divisions.
In contrast to periods of great-power conflict, interwar periods require classic coercive diplomacy, punitive expeditions, strikes, raids, and small wars rather than major wars. The difference between major wars and small wars is not measured by the number of forces committed, the number of casualties, or the war’s duration. The Marine Corps’ Small Wars Manual of 1940 makes the important distinctions between major and small wars.[xxiii]
- Major wars are conducted between “first rate” powers—peer states. Small wars are the interventions of a major power into the affairs of a lesser power, typically a failed or failing state.
- “In a major war, diplomatic relations are summarily severed at the beginning of the struggle. [In small wars] diplomacy does not relax its grip on the situation.”
- “In a major war, the mission assigned to the armed forces is usually unequivocal—the defeat and destruction of the hostile forces.” “The motive in small wars is not material destruction. It is usually a project dealing with the social, economic, and political development of the people.” [In small wars] the mission will be to establish and maintain law and order by supporting or replacing civil government.”
- In major wars, the organized forces of two peer states will seek decisive battle. In small wars, the forces of a major power will often clash with irregular forces, and the conflict will typically degenerate into guerrilla warfare. “Irregular troops may disregard, in part or entirely, International Law and the Rules of Land Warfare in their conduct of hostilities.”
Small wars are not small in the sense of area spanned, resources committed, or losses sustained. They are, in fact, national in scale. Scale of operations is achieved not just through greater numbers, but also through headquarters with the capacity for planning and sustainment with the ability to command at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels. Combatant command headquarters have those characteristics but orient on major war and conventional warfare employing general-purpose forces. SOF lacks the scale for large operations, and the Marine Expeditionary Force, which can conduct the larger-scale operations, lacks the specialized capabilities found in SOF. The typical solution is to assign highly specialized SOF to conventional force commands where they are poorly utilized.
Big Army and the Marine Corps do not conduct small wars in the same way. Nowhere are the differences in big Army’s and the Marine Corps’ methods in counterinsurgency more clear than in Vietnam.[xxiv] The senior decision makers in the highest echelon commands, including General Westmoreland, were firmly rooted in the large-unit operations of WWII. The senior Marine commander, Lewis Walt, attended the Basic School and studied the Small Wars Manual under Chesty Puller who earned his reputation in Haiti and Nicaragua.[xxv]
The Marine Corps’ air-ground methods and counterinsurgency approach is in opposition to the methods of the big services. Both led to operational problems in Vietnam. These issues were raised all the way to the White House but were resolved only when the Marines were withdrawn toward the end of the war.
Prosecuting small wars on a national scale requires a coherent force with organization, doctrine, training, and equipment integrated across the elements of air, land, and sea, and spanning the full range of arms including combat, support, and service support. The forces currently designated as special operations forces are the orphaned special operations, civil affairs, and psychological operations forces of the big services. They are valuable, highly specialized pieces, but not a coherent force. In contrast, the Marine Corps has achieved coherence over a range of missions through a long evolution, but it lacks the specialized capabilities found in SOF and it lacks statutory authority to prepare for counterinsurgency.
Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict Forces
There are currently about 63,000 personnel designated as SOF, up from 50,000 in 2006, and with some modest growth planned. The Army provides the bulk of SOF personnel, about 28,500, including civil affairs, psychological operations, Rangers, aviators, and Special Forces. The Air Force provides another 12,000 on active duty, the Navy contributes almost 9,000, and the Marine Corps about 2,600.[xxvi]
There are important divisions within SOF. The force is highly stratified with several levels of elite. There is no common entry point for SOF. The Army dominates and Fort Bragg can compete with SOCOM headquarters in Tampa. Acquisition authorities are divided between the Army, Air Force, Navy, and SOCOM. SOF aviation units come from the Army and Air Force. In general, lighter helicopters come from the Army and heavier helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft are provided by the Air Force.
The 75th Ranger Regiment comprises three battalions. Rangers, like much of SOF, are focused on direct action. Unlike the rest of SOF, they are capable of company- and battalion-sized operations, including airport seizure. The regiment isn’t to be found in garrison or in the field. A Ranger battalion is assigned and collocated with an Army corps of general-purpose forces. It is conceivable but highly unlikely that the three battalions could be collected to conduct a regimental-sized operation. More likely, the mission would be assigned to an airborne, air assault, or marine expeditionary brigade.
Ranger School is ten weeks long. Most graduates return to their unit of origin in the conventional forces, never to serve in a Ranger unit. The purpose and focus of the school is to develop individual leadership skills that apply throughout the Army, not just in Ranger units.
The lower ranks who make up the largest numbers in Ranger units are volunteers from Army airborne units who enter the Ranger Regiment. The typical volunteer is a young man on his first enlistment who undergoes the three-and-a-half week Ranger Indoctrination Program (RIP). After serving six to twelve months in a Ranger battalion, he may meet the requirements to attend Ranger School.
In contrast, all officers and senior enlisted members of a Ranger unit have attended the Ranger School. Ranger companies are commonly commanded by majors who have already commanded a company in the conventional force as a captain.
Rigorously trained, aggressive young men led by experienced non-commissioned and commissioned officers is a potent formula employed by Rangers and SEALs. After a three-year assignment, most Rangers return to the general population.
Special Forces Groups
Army Special Forces are organized into five active duty Special Forces Groups (SFG), each oriented on a specific region. Two more groups are in the National Guard. The regional orientation allows for concentration on language and culture. Each 1400-man SFG has three battalions and is in the process of adding an additional battalion to each group. A battalion comprises three companies that each holds six of the standard building blocks of Special Forces, the 12-man operational detachment-A (OD-A) or A-team. Today’s Green Beret A-Team looks a great deal like the WWII Office of Strategic Services Operational Groups airdropped into occupied France to conduct sabotage and to train and advise resistance forces (unconventional warfare).[xxvii] One A-team is combat-swimmer qualified, and another is freefall qualified. Unlike SEALs, Rangers, and Marines, the A-team is built exclusively from experienced NCOs and officers rather than first term enlisted men. Unlike Army Rangers, Special Forces is a permanent branch assignment like armor and artillery.
Special Forces training lasts well beyond a year. Candidates are subjected to a three-week assessment of their emotional, psychological, physical, and leadership qualities. Those selected attend the three-phased Qualification Course. The first phase trains small-unit tactics common to all SF. The second phase trains one of four occupational specialties ranging in length from 13 to 45 weeks. The four specialties are weapons, engineer, medical, and communications. Weapons sergeants must be familiar with those weapons commonly available to third world forces. Engineer sergeants are responsible for construction methods for buildings, sanitation, roads, and bridges. Medical sergeant training, the longest, includes trauma, common treatment of indigenous populations, and veterinary medicine. The communications sergeant provides the lifeline for a small group of men operating in hostile or denied territory. Cross training is the norm. The third phase of the Q-course brings together specialists into an A-team for unit training.
Green Berets conduct foreign internal defense (FID) and unconventional warfare (UW). Army Special Forces are also quite capable of direct action and special reconnaissance.
After completing the Q-course, graduates undergo up to six months of foreign language training. Some will become combat swimmers, and others will attend advanced courses in parachute freefall, civil affairs, and information operations. Warrant officers attend an additional 18 weeks of training. Every Green Beret represents a tremendous investment and the most versatile of soldiers.
Army Special Forces Operational Detachment-D, more commonly known as Delta Force, was established November 1977 with the counterterrorist mission. At the time of establishment, terrorism generally meant hostage taking, and counterterrorism meant hostage rescue. As terrorism evolved, Delta evolved to keep pace. Delta draws from across the Army, but most successful candidates have an infantry background and come from Airborne, Ranger, or Special Forces units. Extremely high standards are prerequisite to entering the selection process. Even then, only one in ten advances after the one-month selection course. Those few selected enter a six-month Operator Training Course with 60 to 70 percent completion rate.
Special Operations Aviation Regiment
The Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) provides highly modified light, utility, and transport helicopters organized under four battalions. They are day-night and adverse-weather capable, enhanced with sophisticated electronics to enable low altitude infiltration and exfiltration, and capable of aerial refueling. In addition to gunships and lift helicopters, SOAR also operates unmanned aerial vehicles capable of reconnaissance, surveillance, and hunter/killer operations.
Army aviation, including SOAR, has an important characteristic that distinguishes it from Marine Corps aviation. Most Army pilots are warrant officers who continuously accumulate many years in the cockpit. The Marine Corps relies on commissioned officers who rotate through flight, staff, and command billets diluting their technical proficiency in the long term. Flight skills are highly perishable. Competence is highly correlated with total cockpit hours, not with rank or time in service.
Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations
The largest numbers assigned to SOCOM are civil affairs (CA) personnel provided by the Army Reserve. They are organized into four CA groups of two brigades built on 200-man battalions. The battalions of the 95th CA Brigade support special operations, and the others support Army general-purpose forces.
Military information support operations (MISO) personnel are organized into three groups of three battalions each.
These and other personnel—e.g., Navy intelligence analysts—augment SOF, bring valuable skills, but do not undergo the rigorous selection and training processes of SOF. Moreover, it doesn’t make a great deal of sense that these personnel undergo the same expensive training programs. But if these personnel are to work closely with elite forces in the complex missions of irregular warfare, then there must be some shared experience to build on.
Naval Special Warfare Groups
The basic building block of naval special warfare forces is the 16-man SEAL platoon of 14 enlisted and two officers, one a lieutenant (O-3). Six platoons constitute a SEAL team headed by a commander (O-5). Depending on mission, platoons may be subdivided into 8-man squads, 4-man fireteams, 2-man sniper/reconnaissance pairs, or 2-man swim pairs. Special boat units provide recognizable pieces of the otherwise neglected brown-water navy and more specialized vehicles that provide waterborne ingress and egress for SEALs, including small submersibles delivered by submarine. There are 10 SEAL Teams, 2 Special Delivery Vehicle Teams, and 3 Special Boat Teams.[xxviii]
All SEALs (about 2450) are combat swimmers and capable of hydrographic reconnaissance and underwater demolition. They are also capable of foreign internal defense and unconventional warfare, but these missions are not embraced to the degree of Army Special Forces. SEALs are focused on direct actions, but that could change. Before 9/11, many SEALs were conducting demining operations and building relationships.
The typical SEAL is an aggressive young enlisted man, rigorously selected, highly trained, and competently led by more experienced personnel than are found in similarly sized units in the conventional force. All attend Navy basic training before entering the 24-week Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training program.
BUD/S begins with a 3-week orientation followed by seven weeks of physical conditioning, seven weeks that produces a combat swimmer, seven weeks of land warfare instruction, and a 3-week jump school. Officers attend an additional four weeks, but command only after several years in service. BUD/S is followed by 26 weeks of SEAL Qualification Training. But real proficiency is gained in an 18-month work-up period as a unit that may include language, communications, sniper, and close quarters combat training. Some will attend the 6-month Army medical training program.
An eleventh SEAL team—SEAL Team 6—has a counterterrorist focus. The Team, established in 1980, was redesignated the Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU) in 1987, but the old name remains in common use. Rather than the high leader-to-led ratio found in other SEAL teams, senior, experienced personnel are used throughout. All enter as SEALs from the beginning before being invited into DEVGRU after demonstrating competence and accumulating experience in one of the other SEAL teams.
Air Force Special Operations Forces
The Air Force provides over 100 specialized rotary-wing and fixed-wing aircraft to SOCOM. These capabilities were almost transferred to the Army in the 1980s as a way to resolve the cultural, technical, and procedural interoperability problems that remain today.
Air Force SOF aircraft are heavily modified versions of aircraft found in the conventional forces. Specialized variants of the C-130 provide close air support and interdiction, aerial refueling, ingress and egress, electronic warfare, and information operation capabilities.
The MH-53, a heavily modified version of the CH-53, was originally developed to search for and rescue pilots from hostile territory—combat search and rescue (CSAR). But the same equipment and crews can provide infiltration and exfiltration of small units over long distances, in adverse weather, and at night. Training for the MH-53 crew lasts eight months and that only after crewmembers have mastered conventional aircraft operations. The CV-22, a specialized variant of the Marines’ V-22 Osprey is entering the force and is replacing the CH-53.
SOF rotary-wing and fixed-wing aircraft trade off lift capacity for sophisticated electronics to enable nap of the earth, adverse-weather, and night flight. Lacking conventional lift assets SOF units often poorly utilize their highly specialized aircraft for mundane logistics operations.
In addition to flight operations personnel, the Air Force provides approximately 400 personnel for combat search and rescue, combat air control, tactical air control party, and meteorology. Selection criteria are similar to that found across special operations forces and training is long and arduous. Training begins with ten to twelve weeks of physical conditioning followed by up to 7 weeks as combat divers, the three-week Army jump school, followed by four weeks of free fall. Subsequent to the common training, combat air controllers undergo 28 weeks of basic and combat air control training, while pararescue jumpers (PJs) complete 32 weeks of medical training.
Marine Special Operations Regiment
Marine special operations forces escaped initial assignment to SOCOM in 1987. A Marine component to SOCOM was established in early 2006. There are approximately 625 critical skills operators growing to 844, 32 teams growing to 48, and 9 companies growing to 12 by 2016.
The Marine Special Operations Regiment includes 3 Marine Special Operations Battalions and 1 Marine Special Operations Intelligence Battalion. The Marine Special Operations Support Group provides supporting elements to the deployed units of the battalions. The Regiment’s mission set includes direct action, special reconnaissance, foreign internal defense, counterterrorism, information operations, and unconventional warfare.
The basic building block is the 14-man team with a headquarters element and two tactical elements. The tactical elements, led by a staff sergeant (E-6), have three critical skills operators (E-5/E-4) and a Navy Special Amphibious Reconnaissance Corpsman. The headquarters element is led by a captain (O-3) and includes three staff NCOs (E-8/E-7/E-6) as team, operations, and communications chiefs.
All Critical Skills Operator (CSO) candidates are NCOs screened for physical and psychological suitability. Assessment and selection follows screening. Only 20 percent of applicants are selected. After selection, CSOs complete seven months of individual skills training, including small unit infantry tactics, jump school, combat diving school, and survival, evasion, resistance, and escape (SERE) school. Advanced training includes an eight-week version of Ranger School, the Army’s mountain leader’s course, pathfinder’s course, freefall parachuting, medical skills training, sniper training, close quarters battle training, and more. Individual skills training is followed by a six-month unit workup. Unit training is broken into seven packages familiar to Green Berets, SEALs, and Air Force combat air controllers.
Special Mission Units—e.g., Delta, DEVGRU, and the 24th Special Tactics Squadron—are assigned to the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), a small subordinate unified command of SOCOM.
Delta Force is a small force organized, trained, and equipped for high payoff discrete actions. When the situation demands, Delta has scaled up its operations by working closely with Rangers. Their common history in light infantry operations makes successful mission integration possible and is one way Delta is distinguished from DEVGRU.
Whether we call it low-intensity conflict, small wars, or irregular warfare, A-Teams augmented by CA and MISO can conduct small footprint, low profile operations. While conducting foreign internal defense and unconventional warfare, a single A-team can train and advise a battalion of several hundred indigenous forces. In the field, a handful of OD-As can be assembled under a B detachment (OD-B) which, in turn, can be assembled under a C detachment (OD-C). But there are limits to the scale of operations.
Theater Special Operations Command, one per regional combatant command, reports to a combatant commander with a regional view, rather than to the commander of SOCOM with a global view. The typical regional combatant commander’s career progression is through the general-purpose force oriented on conventional warfare.
SOF can scale up only so far. When larger scale is required, the mission is assigned to a conventional force headquarters and SOF made a component alongside Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps components. In this configuration, SOF is frequently misused or underutilized.
The entire Marine Corps is drawing down from 203,000 to 182,000. Rangers, SEALs, and Marines build on the same aggressive young male. In contrast to the other services, the Marine Corps is known to push responsibility as far down as possible and employs, for example, a sergeant (E-5) to lead a squad of three four-man fireteams while an infantry unit in the conventional Army employs a staff sergeant (E-6) to lead a squad of two fireteams (sections). The officer-to-enlisted ratio in the Corps is nine to one while the equipment-centric big services are four or five to one. The Corps considers itself an elite force and goes out of its way to discourage internal distinctions—every Marine a rifleman.
Fleet Marine Forces
Forces are organized under three Fleet Marine Forces. FMFs are administrative headquarters that house the legally required minimum of three divisions, three air wings, and their service support forces, although those levels are not maintained. Its Navy partner brings medical and dental battalions, strategic mobility, all the power projection capability entailed, and a capacity for major equipment acquisitions.
Divisions, Regiments, and Battalions
If full up, each division provides nine rifle battalions under three regimental headquarters plus a regiment of artillery battalions. Each division also provides several one-of-a-kind battalions and companies, including tank, amphibious assault, light armored infantry, reconnaissance, engineer, intelligence, communications, remotely piloted vehicle, and others.[xxix]
Air Wings, Groups, and Squadrons
Each FMF houses an air wing of fixed-wing and rotary-wing air groups. A Marine Air Group (MAG) is sized and configured for independent air operations at a single base, including an air traffic control unit and a squadron for base support operations. The groups’ flying squadrons typically house a single aircraft type for efficiency. Fixed-wing assets include attack, fighter/attack, and transport aircraft. Rotary-wing assets include attack, utility, medium-lift, and heavy-lift helicopters. Tilt-rotor aircraft are replacing the heavy lift helicopters. [xxx]
Marine Air-Ground Task Forces—Scaling Commands
Marine forces are employed as Marine Air-Ground Task Forces (MAGTFs) with command; ground combat; air combat; combat service support; and surveillance, reconnaissance, and intelligence elements. There is no standard configuration; each is purpose built. Ground elements are based on a battalion, regiment, or division. The MAGTF headquarters are permanent but units from the FMF are assigned as needed. The larger MAGTFs can conduct a wide range of missions suited to a light-infantry based air-ground force and are capable of conducting operations on a larger scale than can be found anywhere in SOF.[xxxi]
Marine Expeditionary Unit. The Marine Expeditionary Unit, Special Operations Capable, MEU(SOC), is deployed forward afloat as part of a Navy amphibious readiness group (ARG) after a 6-month workup integrates the pieces into a coherent whole. The workup begins with a trained rifle battalion augmented to form a battalion landing team (BLT). Some are prepared as urban snipers and scout swimmers. The air component prepares separately before joining the BLT to form the MEU. The ARG works up separately and then joins the MEU with landing craft and small-deck carriers.
The ARG/MEU(SOC) is prepared for many of the same missions as SOF. Missions include non-combatant evacuation operations, tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel, hostage rescue, boat raids, and a variety of direct actions. Its forward presence means it is sometimes advantaged over distant SOF.
Marine Expeditionary Brigade. The Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) can be configured for a variety of missions, ranging from amphibious assault to humanitarian assistance. The ground element is a standard infantry regiment. In addition to the regiment’s rifle battalions, the MEB brings armor, artillery, engineers, amphibious assault units, and strike and transport aircraft. The amphibious assault culture and capability is located here. The MEB headquarters is the basis upon which to build a Marine Expeditionary Force in a process called compositing, whether conducting an opposed or administrative landing.
Marine Expeditionary Force. The largest MAGTF is the Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF). In operations, it usually commands a division, air wing, and support forces. In some cases, a MEF has commanded two divisions, and could command more.[xxxii] There is insufficient amphibious shipping to conduct a MEF-sized amphibious assault. A purpose-built MEB conducts the forced entry and its headquarters becomes a MEF-Forward to command the follow-on MEBs as they arrive. A MEF arrives and departs one MEB at a time but conducts operations as a MEF.
Each FMF has organic reconnaissance assets. The Force Reconnaissance Company provides deep reconnaissance to the MEF commander. The Reconnaissance Battalion provides tactical reconnaissance to the division commander. Scout/Snipers are distributed throughout the force.
For most of their history since WWII, formally since June 1957, there were three Force Reconnaissance Companies, one per FMF.[xxxiii] The Marine Corps resisted initial assignment of Force Reconnaissance to SOCOM in 1987. As a result, Marines did not participate in the invasion of Afghanistan. Not being among the “first to fight” caused the Corps to rethink its position. By 2004, one hundred were serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. New organizations were defined under SOCOM and 4,000 Marines, most from the Force Recon Companies, were assigned to SOCOM in 2005. The Fleet and the MEF commanders lost their deep reconnaissance asset.
Some Force Recon units join a Marine Expeditionary Unit for a six-month work up leading to the special operations capable designation, and then deploy for a six-month float. They may also be subordinated to conventional commands, e.g., as in Iraq and Afghanistan where they may be underutilized or misused.
Air-Naval Gunfire Liaison Companies
Each FMF provides an Air-Naval Gunfire Liaison Company (ANGLICO) with the ability to direct air strikes, naval gunfire, and artillery often independent of a larger ground force. ANGLICO is unique in the Defense Department being able to control fires from air, land, and sea platforms. Officers are drawn from artillery or aviation branches. Substantial numbers of enlisted personnel have a communications background. Depending on the era, many are jump qualified. Cross training is the norm. ANGLICO units were deactivated in 1999 and reactivated in 2003.
Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel Platoon
Each Marine Expeditionary Unit afloat has a TRAP capability built on a specially trained rifle platoon transported by helicopter and supported by fixed-wing aircraft. The platoon may be used as a standard rifle platoon or for its special mission as the situation demands. Its forward deployment often puts it at odds with SOF combat search and rescue, for example, Air Force Captain Scott O’Grady, downed in Bosnia, was rescued by TRAP rather than CSAR capabilities, even though both were on scene.
Marine Security Force Regiment
The Regiment includes Fleet Antiterrorism Security Teams (FAST) and Recapture Tactics Teams (RTT). Initial training is common to both. And counterterrorism is a common mission.
Two FAST companies in garrison provide teams on a rotational basis to the European, Central, and Pacific combatant commands. A company comprises 500 Marines organized into 5 guard platoons of 50 and a weapons platoon of 50. Each platoon has 3 squads of 16. Since 1987, FAST has deployed as mobile platoons on short notice, limited duration missions. Embassy reinforcement is a common tasking.
Recapture Tactics Teams (RTT), unlike FAST, are assigned to fixed, high-value facilities. RTTs are trained and equipped for close quarter battle and are prepared to recapture a breached facility. Unlike FAST, their unit of action is the squad.
The Marine Security Force Regiment should not be confused with the Marine Corps Embassy Security Group that provides detachments to embassies around the world under direction of the civilian Regional Security Officer (RSO).[xxxiv] The primary mission of embassy guards is protection of classified material inside the compound. They have minimal capacity for defense of the embassy. They are large enough to hold until host nation forces arrive. A FAST unit or Marine Expeditionary Unit afloat may be tasked to defend a threatened embassy.
Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations
There are four Marine Civil Affairs Groups. Two provisional groups were established in Iraq. Army and Marine civil affairs units differ in orientation. The Army orients on large, post-conflict reconstruction and nation building. Marines orient on the relief effort during and immediately after hostilities. Marine MISO detachments (psychological operations) push down teams to support rifle battalions.
The country needs a single-service, not for an element, but for a complex mission space that operates across elements. It is a combined-arms force that integrates combat, combat support, and combat service support arms. It is not a joint force. Producing a coherent force with a common culture for the wars of the 21st century requires significant changes to administrative and operational command structures in the field, and it requires unified combat development and system development structures in garrison.
A coherent force for any part of the conflict spectrum, or for any mission, benefits from having common roots, culture, experience, and lexicon and from the trust and esprit de corps that obtain. Common training and education is the initial and persistent requirement for a coherent force.
Procedural and technical interoperability is also a prerequisite to a coherent force. Far greater success has been obtained within a single service with a single combat developer and single system developer than has been achieved by patching together the systems of disparate services and calling it joint.
- Capability across air, land, and sea, and the full range of combat, support, and service support.
- Personnel interoperability rooted in a common culture built on shared education, training, and experience.
- Procedural interoperability provided by a single combat developer.
- Technical interoperability provided by a single system developer.
Changes to Administrative Command
After WWII, legislation established an independent air force, and relevant personnel, equipment, and bases were transferred from the Army to the Air Force. That process should be repeated to transfer legally designated Special Operations Forces to the Department of the Navy and to the Marine Corps where the merger will take place. A more drastic alternative would be to establish a new military department for a SOLIC service and transfer SOF and Marine assets to it.
Force organization for today’s social conflicts requires alignment with people, cultures, and language, rather than alignment with oceans and fleets. The land-region orientation employed by Army Special Forces Groups is more appropriate than the maritime orientation employed by the Fleet Marine Force. While the law specifies a minimum of three Marine divisions, it does not specify the composition of the division. The current three divisions can be divided into five or more divisions with fewer battalions each. All forces, from all services, should be organized according to the Army SF regional model under five regional FMFs.
The internals of the new FMF might be organized along the lines of the old FMF with subordinate administrative commands, but there should be no fixed composition. The needs of the region should govern. The three administrative commands might be as follows.
- Marine rifle, tank, light armored infantry, amphibious assault, and artillery units, along with Ranger, SF, and SEAL units should be under a single subordinate administrative command.
- Marine, Army, and Air Force rotary- and fixed-wing assets should be merged under a single command replacing the current administrative commands of the services.
- Support forces—including communications, intelligence, medical, and motor transport—should be included in a third administrative command.
The Touchstone: Training and Education
Coherency requires a career-long training and education system. Both SOF and the Marine Corps have school systems that could be merged into a coherent whole, including entry, intermediate, and advanced levels.
Scale requires headquarters organized, trained, and equipped to plan and command sustained operations on a countrywide scale. This requirement in turn demands that education and training prepare commanders and staffs up to the operational and strategic levels of small wars. Commanders steeped in SOLIC should be capable of commanding at the highest echelons, even with general-purpose forces subordinated, rather than subordinating SOLIC forces to general-purpose force commanders whose expertise is in conventional warfare.
Professional competence requires development through an orchestrated combination of education, training, and experience. Reality within SOF is that the necessary specialization produces different types and degrees of elite. The Marine Corps will have to adapt. The new SOLIC service will have to continue the specialization and stratification, but throughout their careers SOLIC troops will return to an educational touchstone and circulate through the various organizations gaining experience and reducing the friction at the seams of stratification.
It is often claimed that SOF epitomizes “jointness” and that the rest of the armed services should follow suit. There are, however, observable rifts within SOF; some lie along service lines and others lie between levels of elite. There is no common entry point for SOF troops. Marines, in contrast, all undergo the same initial training to become Marines before learning a branch specialty. Every Marine officer leaves the Basic School understanding the role of commander of a rifle platoon, and in boot camp and infantry training every enlisted Marine learns the role of rifleman in that same platoon. Every Marine a rifleman. The other services are trusted to teach the specialized skills of artillery, armor, and aviation, but they are not trusted to build Marines.
To assure a common culture, a common entry point is required for privates and second lieutenants. The Marine Corps has the statutory authority to recruit. SOF does not, instead, relying on the big services. Creating a true service, SOLIC would have recruiting authority.
The initial training for enlisted personnel should resemble the four-month Marine Corps boot camp and the follow-on infantry training. The Marine Corps 6- to 10-week Officer Candidate School and 26-week Basic School should serve as a starting point for all officers. Both enlisted and officer entry programs should be adapted over time to meet the common needs of the Corps. The three-week jump school should be standard. By this mechanism, all new personnel would be Marine qualified at the outset, initiating the pipeline that will eventually populate all specialties. The 13-week Warrant Officer Basic Course should be adapted to accept new accessions as career rotary wing aviators. Specialty MOS training would follow and in many cases be provided by the big services as is the norm today. The 13-week Infantry Officers Course, however, should remain in the new Corps.
The big services would continue to provide considerable MOS training, including, for example, initial flight, artillery, armor, and medical training. Within the first year, all new entrants to BUD/S, RIP, pararescue, and combat air control training programs first would be Marine qualified. Within two or three years all flight crew candidates for rotary- and fixed-wing units would be Marine qualified and would have passed through the big services’ training programs before advancing to training on the specialized aircraft and missions of SOLIC.
A single-service approach would allow for resolution of different standards and training programs, for example, sniper, combat swimmer, communication procedures, and parachute standards and training. Each of the big services operates its own medical training programs. The Navy has a hierarchy of specialized training programs for Navy corpsmen to operate within the FMF, for Force Recon, and for Navy special warfare. The Army operates its own program for Green Berets, and the Air Force for its PJs. The Navy could accommodate the medical training requirements for all elements of the new Corps.
The number of candidates completing initial “imprinting” must be both small enough to be affordable and large enough to expand the force in times of need. To address this dilemma, some new accessions should have primary and secondary service affiliations. To earn Marine qualification, some new accessions of the big services would attend Marine initial training and then return to their primary service for occupational specialty training and duty. Those with Marine qualification can serve in the conventional force in scout, reconnaissance, and cavalry units and as liaison to SOLIC units. They would return to SOLIC for intermediate and advanced training and education throughout their careers. To meet surge requirements, they could be reassigned from their primary service to SOLIC. Equally important, they would greatly expand the candidate pool for Special Mission Units and Special Forces.
There is considerable experience in current SOF that cannot be replaced for a decade or more. None of the experience need or should be lost. All currently designated SOF should remain in place until natural replacement works through the pipeline. Preservation of the Army SF capability is critically important. This is the slowest capability to transform due to the years of experience prerequisite to entry, lengthy training and education, and duration of service after qualification. Loss of the considerable experience and capability resident in Army Special Forces, even temporarily, is an unacceptable permutation. The transition would take a decade or so and then only with careful preparation. Similar concerns apply to Special Mission Units.
Consolidation of Specialties
Force Recon Marines and SEALs are capable of many of the same missions. After merger, all entrants to BUD/S should come from the Marine Corps. Every entrant to BUD/S would be first Marine qualified. Those who cannot meet the rigorous standards can return to the Corps for productive employment rather than return to the Navy for training in some other specialty. And there is no reason why both types of unit should remain after several years.
After merger, new entrants to RIP and Ranger School should have first attended Marine initial training. If the times require more Ranger battalions, any Marine rifle battalion could be converted by applying specialized training and the high leader-to-led ratio.
The Army Special Forces capability is unique and must be preserved. After merger, candidates should come from second-enlistment Marines. There may be a crossover period when candidates come from both the Army and the Marine Corps. Great care must be taken in this particular transition.
Aircraft and Aircrews. Flight crews from the Air Force and Army do not share a common culture with SOF on the ground. They do share a 17-day SERE school. In contrast, all Marine aircrews attended the same entry training as their infantry counterparts. Marine pilots frequently return to their roots on the ground, serving in MAGTFs of all sizes, serving in ANGLICO, and during Vietnam some Marine aviators even served as rifle platoon and company commanders.
The Marine Corps lacks the highly specialized lift assets found in SOF but brings considerable conventional lift, including the C-130, tilt-rotor V-22, and heavier lift CH-53—the basic airframes of specialized SOF aircraft. And the Corps brings utility and attack helicopters as well as attack and fighter/attack jets not found in SOF. Scarce SOF aircraft would not be used when conventional aircraft would suffice. After merger, the AC-130, MH-53, and CV-22 aircrews of the next generation should come from the Marine aviation pipeline.
The new SOF should retain the Army aviation model, including warrant officer pilots. In special operations, proficiency is more important than promotion potential. Some flight-rated commissioned officers might remain to fill command and staff positions. This may seem like a stretch for the Marine Corps culture, but from WWII to the end of Vietnam, the Corps had enlisted personnel piloting fixed-wing aircraft. Warrant officers should dominate rotary-wing crews, but long-standing practice will likely dictate some number of commissioned officers in fixed-wing flight crews.
Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations. The Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and SOF all provide civil affairs and psychological operations capabilities. They apply to both conventional and special operations. Perhaps only small numbers need to be available within SOF—for example, the four CA battalions currently designated for special operations—and the rest permanently returned to the conventional force, even though that risks their marginalization by big Army.
Combat Search and Rescue. The degree of specialization in organization, training, and equipment are different for TRAP and CSAR. After merger, the eight-month MH-53 training program should be filled by Marine CH-53 aircrews (the CH-53 is being replaced by the V-22), and new entrants to the pararescue training program should be the product of Marine Corps initial training or from the traditional Navy Corpsman path.
Combat Fire Control. The combat air control mission is contested by the Air Force, Army Special Forces, and Marine Corps. The Air Force component of SOCOM provides combat air controllers trained to high SOF ground standards. Green Berets are trained in the same procedures and on the same equipment, but the Air Force owns the equipment and prefers to provide equipment and personnel as a package. Unit integrity is sacrificed when Air Force controllers and an Army A-team join at the last minute for direct action.
Marines trained in close air support are present throughout the force, but they are not trained to the SOF standard. Marine ANGLICO brings air and naval gunfire to the mix of fire support. Personnel trained in directing artillery fires are present throughout the Marine Corps and conventional Army, but they are not trained to SOF standards. The Air Force, for obvious reasons, has little interest in directing artillery fires or naval gunfire.
Future training should be for controlling all remote fires whether air, land, or sea based, as is currently done in ANGLICO. After merger, new entrants to SOF fire support training should be the product of Marine initial training.
Special Mission Units. Delta Force, DEVGRU, and the 24th Special Tactics Squadron should remain under JSOC command. DEVGRU and Delta Force develop their capabilities differently. DEVGUR draws tested candidates from other SEAL Teams. DEVGRU has few choices, given that small unit infantry tactics are foreign to big Navy. Delta draws from a much larger pool, across the Army but typically from airborne, Ranger, and Special Forces. Each progression has its logic, but there is no need to continue both. The Delta model is more consistent with the new Corps and should survive. This transition must be managed with great care.
Changes to Operational Command
A coherent force must be capable of scaling up and down according to the demands of the mission—scale not just in numbers but also in the ability to plan and command at the strategic and operational level of war. A larger force includes potentially assigned general-purpose forces. Command of a larger force implies the ability to establish an operational headquarters in a failed state. To achieve larger-scale operations today it is common to subordinate SOF to general-purpose forces where they are often misused or underutilized. Adding more SEAL platoons and A-teams won’t change that, and these forces can’t be massed produced.
In a failed state scenario, the current practice is for a regional combatant command to establish a subordinate unified command or JTF headquarters with Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and SOF component headquarters. The higher headquarters are commanded by officers from the general-purpose force. Instead, SOLIC should provide the higher echelon headquarters with capabilities for planning and directing operations at the strategic and operational levels.
Current SOF lacks the command structure for large scale and for commanding assigned general-purpose forces. The joint special operations task force (JSOTF) is a component to a combatant command but doubles as a joint task force headquarters without the legal benefits of a JTF. Education and training in SOF, however, is not commensurate with the requirement to command large forces in sustained operations. Command in small wars is relatively flat relying on widely distributed small units given only broad mission guidance. Marine and SOF cultures intuitively embrace this model more so than do the big services.
The Marine Corps brings the ability to command a wide range of air-ground forces well beyond that of present-day SOF. Today’s MAGTF headquarters are sized and configured to command a combined arms team based on a battalion, regiment, division, or larger ground force.
The appropriate SOLIC headquarters may look something like a MAGTF or a JSOTF but be neither. It might be as small as an Operational Detachment B or C scaled to command OD-As. It might be as large as a subordinate unified command.
In counterinsurgency, the headquarters should be prepared to function as part of the ambassador’s country team where a whole-of-government effort can be managed, and in proinsurgency, managed from the watch office in a neighboring embassy. But in a larger conflict—Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq—SOLIC should be prepared to stand up a subordinate unified command or JTF headquarters to benefit from the legal authorities that obtain. And it should be prepared to command general-purpose forces if assigned. MEF headquarters should be converted to that purpose. Professional development for command and staff is through MEU, MEB, and MEF assignments supported by the consolidated school system.
To prevent misuse or underutilization of SOF in the near term, senior Army SOF officers must remain prominent at the higher headquarters. Considerable time will pass before the new common core produces senior leadership with the right education, training, and experience for not just special operations or for low-intensity conflict, but for both.
Its service-like responsibilities transferred to the new Corps, SOCOM should remain, perhaps as a specified rather than as a unified command. JSOC should remain as a subordinate command.
Both SOF and the Marines prefer to adapt rather than develop equipment. Only when the big services or the private sector don’t provide an adaptable system do they undertake a major acquisition. SOCOM has a separate budget line and service-like acquisition authority but relies heavily on its separate Army, Navy, and Air Force components for equipment, doctrine, organization, and training. The Marine Corps has a single combat development command (training and doctrine) and a single system development command (equipment). The Marine Corps relies on the Navy for major acquisitions, for strategic mobility, and for budget.
The Navy Department is well suited to provide major acquisitions—a single structure for a coherent force. A coherent force requires technical and procedural interoperability, and that is best achieved by a single force development process. The functions and organizations of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, Marine Corps Systems Command, SOCOM equivalents, and the equivalents of the SOCOM service component commands should be brought together. Big Navy should continue to conduct major acquisitions—e.g., the V-22 Osprey and its variants—as it currently does for the Marine Corps and for Naval Special Warfare. Communication interoperability, among other things, would be simplified across ground, rotary-wing, fixed-wing, and combat support systems.
Unification of the Armed Forces was attempted after WWII. The Department of War was stood down and replaced by coequal Departments of Army and Air Force. Air assets—personnel, equipment, and property—were transferred to the new Air Force. A similar process needs to begin to create a single service focused on special operations and low-intensity conflict.
There are cultural obstacles to be overcome. The Marine Corps considers itself an elite force and rejects attempts to identify an elite within the elite. Tier 1 elements of Special Operations Forces don’t consider the Marine Corps to be elite. A single-service approach with common entry point, consolidated education and training system, and leadership can close the cultural divide over time.
Assigned forces would live and train together as an integrated sea, air, and land force. Over time, units will be designed—not because that’s the way the Army, Navy, or Air Force designed them—but because the Corps designs them for its own mission space.
Both the Marine Corps and Special Operations Forces have developed and maintain positive working relations with embassies around the world. The new SOLIC Corps should build on the existing relationship and reestablish the strong relationship that once existed between the State Department and the naval services before WWII. State must be restored to its dominant role in foreign policy. It is the appropriate agency to orchestrate all the instruments of national power so critical in small wars.
The merger would produce a single service proponent for special operations and low-intensity conflict that can compete in budget processes and institutionalize the culture of an important, and often neglected, warfare domain.
There are alternatives. The big services, specifically the conventional Army, could transform to better conduct small wars, but it would resist. And if history is a guide, resistance will prevail. But if the big services are successfully transformed from major wars to small wars, who shall fight and win the country’s major wars?
It is easy to imagine the objections to the above proposals. The big services will cry foul at the loss of their crown jewels, but their objections can’t be taken seriously after the consistent pattern of neglect that eventually forced congressional intervention. Arguments for the nation’s security needs must prevail over the emotional and parochial.
Adams, Thomas K. US Special Operations Forces in Action: The Challenge of Unconventional Warfare. Portland, Ore.: Frank Cass, 1998.
Daniel, Dan. “U.S. Special Operations: The Case for a Sixth Service. Armed Forces Journal International, August 1985.
Feickert, Andrew. “U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF): Background and Issues for Congress.” Washington: D.C.: Congressional Research Service 2013.
Krepinevich, Andrew. The Army and Vietnam. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.
Marquis, Susan L. Unconventional Warfare: Rebuilding U.S. Special Operations Forces. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 1997.
Special Operations Warrior Foundation. U.S. Special Operations Forces. Tampa, Fla.: Special Operations Warrior Foundation, 2003.
Thompson, Julian. The Royal Marines: From Sea Soldiers to a Special Force. London: Pan MacMillian, 2001.
USMC, Small Wars Manual 1940 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1940).
U.S. Senate. Defense Organization: The Need for Change, Staff Report to the Committee on Armed Services. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1985.
Worley, D. Robert. Shaping U.S. Military Forces: Revolution or Relevance in a Post-Cold War World. Washington, D.C.: Praeger Security International, 2006.
Worley, D. Robert. Orchestrating the Instruments of Power: A Critical Examination of the U.S. National Security System. Raleigh, N.C.: Lulu Press, 2012.
[i] Worley, Shaping, 35-37.
[ii] President Dwight D. Eisenhower, message to Congress, April 3, 1958. “…separate ground, sea, and air warfare is gone forever. If ever again we should be involved in war, we will fight it in all elements, with all services, as one single concerted effort.” Quoted in Worley, Shaping, 37.
[iii] Worley, Shaping, 7, 38.
[iv] Attributed to former Marine Commandant General Charles Krulak. Quoted in Worley, Shaping, 251.
[v] Worley, Shaping, 214.
[vi] Worley, Shaping, 39-41.
[vii] United States Senate, Defense Organization: The Need for Change, Staff Report to the Committee on Armed Services (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1985), commonly referred to as the Locher Report after James Locher III, the principal committee staffer responsible for the effort.
[viii] Worley, Shaping, 209-210, 215.
[ix] Worley, Shaping, 46-47.
[x] Worley, Shaping, 48.
[xi] U.S. Special Operations Forces (Tampa, Fla.: Special Operations Warrior Foundation, 2003). The book recounts the history of special operations forces replete with individual stories and photographs. It is an excellent example of how the special operations community sees itself and is presented with a rare combination of authority and aesthetic. See also Susan L. Marquis, Unconventional Warfare: Rebuilding U.S. Special Operations Forces (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 1997) and Thomas K. Adams, US Special Operations Forces in Action: The Challenge of Unconventional Warfare (Portland, Oreg.: Frank Cass, 1998).
[xii] Worley, Shaping, 36, 2212-215.
[xiii] Worley, Shaping, 185, 213.
[xiv] William Odom, “Transforming the Military,” Foreign Affairs 76 no. 4 (July-August 1997): 54-64.
[xv] Worley, Shaping, 189-193.
[xvi] Douglas Mansfield Act of 1952, PL 416 of the 82nd Congress.
[xvii] Worley, Shaping, 182-186.
[xix] Worley, Shaping, 211.
[xx] DoD Directive from Secretary Gates on 3 December 2010.
[xxi] Public Law, October 2008.
[xxii] Worley, Shaping, 186-189.
[xxiii] United States Marine Corps, Small Wars Manual (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1940).
[xxiv] Andrew F. Krepinevich, The Army and Vietnam (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986).
[xxv] Worley, Shaping, 177-180.
[xxvi] Worley, Shaping, 209-212.
[xxvii] Thomas K. Adams, US Special Operations Forces in Action: The Challenge of Unconventional Warfare (Portland, Oregon: Frank Cass, 1998), 37. OSS Jedburghs were 3-man teams. OSS Operational Groups were French-speaking U.S. Army volunteers of 15-man sections comprising two officers and 13 enlisted men, including infantrymen, demolitions experts, communicators, and medics.
[xxviii] http://www.public.navy.mil/nsw/Documents/NSWC_OrgChart.pdf, accessed April 26, 2013.
[xxix] Worley, Shaping, 195-198.
[xxx] Worley, Shaping, 198-199.
[xxxi] Worley, Shaping, 201-206.
[xxxii] In the Gulf War, the MEF commanded two marine divisions, a heavy Army brigade, and international forces. The MEBs arrived separately and composited up to a MEF. Upon departure, one MEB was rerouted to conduct a humanitarian assistance/disaster relief operation in Bangladesh.
[xxxiii] Worley, Shaping, 226-228.
[xxxiv] Foreign Service Act of 1946.