ON FEBRUARY 24, a tectonic shift took place in the shadowy world of special operations. It was an event years in the making, but it probably wouldn't have happened at all if not for the al Qaeda attacks on September 11.
After two decades of holding special operations command at arms' length, the Marine Corps finally decided to join the nation's most elite cadre of warriors. The move was not without significant cajoling and arm twisting by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, but most experts and high ranking military officials believe the new force is a welcome and much-needed addition to a community stretched by near constant deployments.
"There's a whole lot of work to be done still across the board," said Lt. Gen. Robert Wagner, the Army's top special operations commander. "We're extremely fortunate to have the Marine Corps component now part of the command because of the additional capability and capacity."
In 2004, Rumsfeld formally designated U.S. Special Operations Command as the lead agent in the global war on terrorism. Even before that, special operators have been conducting missions worldwide to destroy terrorist networks and to help foreign security forces deal with unstable regions.
The 2,600-man Marine Corps Special Operations Command, or MarSOC, adds a significant chunk of manpower, contributing some of the service's best shooters, intelligence specialists, fire support coordinators and planners to be deployed against a global foe. Additionally, the new MarSOC force will be "expeditionary" in nature, floating aboard Navy ships to respond practically anywhere, anytime to terrorist threats.
THE COMMAND will be divided into several components. At one end of the spectrum will be the Marine Special Operations Companies, or MSOCs. Primarily made up of the Corps' most seasoned Force Reconnaissance troops, the MSOCs will be in charge of spec ops missions that involve "direct action" (killing or capturing terrorists) or "special reconnaissance" (surveillance deep behind enemy lines). The Corps will station several MSOCs on the East Coast and West Coast for deployment alongside Marine Expeditionary Units or for other missions designated by U.S. Special Operations Command.
Backing up these MSOCs will be a team of support Marines with expertise in electronic surveillance and eavesdropping, intelligence and counterintelligence specialists, interrogators and fire support coordinators. This unit will help develop targets for the MSOCs, exploit information gathered on raids and support them with air or artillery fire if they get into a pinch. It's important to note that these are not simple desk jockeys--they don't just sit in an air conditioned trailer pouring over satellite photos. These support Marines will be trained to high standards of marksmanship and special operations tactics, making them every bit as valuable "in the stack" during a commando raid as any MSOC operator.
"Every Marine, regardless of his job, was a gunfighter first," said an experienced Marine special operations commander. "We had a far bigger dimensional force because our Marines were lethal."
Along with a dedicated schoolhouse to train and certify these new operators, the new MarSOC will also flesh out America's "foreign internal defense" capability (training and advising allied militaries in basic operations and planning) with the incorporation of its new Foreign Military Training Units. These 11-man teams with specialized language, cultural, and military skills will deploy to regions such as northern Africa, the Caucasus, and South America to "help countries train their armed forces and understand how their armed force works under a democratic, civilian-led government" and to help these armies preempt the growth of terrorist networks on their soil, the Marines' top commander has said.
The first Marine spec ops foreign training team will deploy to Africa next month, and special operations commanders are only too happy to have these Marine trainers ready soon. America's top commando, Gen. Bryan "Doug" Brown, said on March 16 that the Marines will free up more experienced special operators for more technical missions.
"They have the capacity to do basic training on a foreign internal defense mission," Brown said. "They will allow us to use our higher-level skill people, such as the Green Berets and the SEALs, to do more counter-terrorism force type training."
But the incorporation of Marines into the spec ops world is not without an element of controversy. The first experimental Marine special operations unit--Marine Corps Special Operations Detachment One--proved extremely capable and valuable in its first and only deployment alongside a Navy SEAL squadron in the summer of 2004. But there were internal squabbles between SEALs and Marines over mission tasking and seniority. The detachment had only one deployment in its three-year existence and was unceremoniously disbanded on March 10.
Fleet Marines are also fearful that they will be losing some of their most experienced and highly-prized warriors and technicians for years. That's one reason why the Corps declined to join SOCom when it was established in 1986--the service wanted to keep its limited manpower for itself. Senior Marine officials (who are acting on direct orders from Rumsfeld to form the Marine spec ops units) argue that most of the Corps' commandos will deploy alongside regular Marine units, so fleet Marine forces will have some control over the commandos.
But others are skeptical. It's hard enough for the service to find and retain qualified applicants for its most specialized jobs in intelligence and reconnaissance units. It is uncertain how the Corps is going to be able to retain certain capabilities for itself and dole out those troops to SOCom.
Rumsfeld seems to like special operations because of their secrecy and economy of force. A huge expansion in all the services' commando units is underway. Special operations commanders and Pentagon leaders believe they can grow well beyond their current strength of 50,000 and still keep standards high. Adding the new Marine Corps component is another step in that direction.
Christian Lowe is a staff writer for Army Times Publishing Company and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard.