In future wars, US Marine special operators will need to do more than ‘kicking down a door,’ top Marine says

April 17, 2022

In future wars, US Marine special operators will need to do more than ‘kicking down a door,’ top Marine says

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US Marine Raiders helicopter- US Marine special operators
US Marines with the 1st Raider Battalion train with the US Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, September 29, 2015.US Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Jacob Snouffer
  • The top Marine general is taking the Corps back to its naval roots amid a shift to great-power competition.
  • That has implications for the Corps’ special operators, Marine Forces Special Operations Command.
  • The Marine Raiders have “great value” that conventional forces don’t, Gen. David Berger says.

US special-operations forces have been on the frontlines for more than 20 years.

Those forces have played a major role in US counterterrorism and counterinsurgency campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. But with Russia and China posing a growing challenge, the Pentagon is looking at how to employ those operators’ unique skills in a different environment.- ADVERTISEMENT -

Each US military branch has been brainstorming how its special operators can contribute. For Marine Forces Special Operations Command, the question is particularly pertinent.

SOCOM’s newest member

Marine raiders- US Marine special operators
US Marine Raiders in front of a Japanese dugout on Bougainville in the Solomon Islands in January 1944.US Marine Corps Photo

The other US military branches established their special-operations commands in the late 1980s and early 1990s. US Special Operations Command, a combatant command overseeing each branch’s special-operations component, was formed in 1987.

The Marine Corps resisted invitations to contribute to SOCOM because of a belief that “every Marine is special” and that Marines didn’t do separate special-operations forces. The Corps eventually relented, however, and MARSOC joined SOCOM in 2006.

The Marine Raider Regiment, as the Marine unit attached to SOCOM is known, specializes in direct-action missions like raids, special reconnaissance operations, and foreign internal defense — the training and advising of partner forces. They can also conduct unconventional warfare, which involves working with proxy fighters, and counterterrorism operations.

“MARSOC initially started out with a unique organizational structure and capabilities,” which were unparalleled in US Army Special Operations Command or in Naval Special Warfare Command, retired Marine Raider Maj. Fred Galvin told Insider.

Marine Corps Special Operations MARSOC- US Marine special operators
Marines take part in MARSOC’s Assessment and Selection course at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, January 30, 2015.US Marine Corps/Sgt. Donovan Lee

“These capabilities provided a very robust ‘raid’ capability with an organic infantry security platoon, which even Tier 1 units do not have in their organic organization, nor do Tier 1 units have available for integrated training throughout their entire pre-deployment training life cycle,” Galvin added.

Galvin is the author of “A Few Bad Men,” an account of the first Marine Special Operations combat deployment to Afghanistan and how it overcame attacks from all sides.

Throughout the global war on terror, Marine Raiders deployed and fought in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and across Africa. Marine Raiders made the headlines in January 2020 when they were the first responders to an al-Shabab attack on a Kenyan military base that killed three Americans.

With the end of major combat operations in the Middle East and the resulting decline in demand for counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations, MARSOC has been competing with Naval Special Warfare and Army Special Operations for funds and missions.

Culture, language, and low-visibility operations

Marine Raider Battalion- US Marine special operators
Marines with 3rd Marine Raider Battalion during urban-combat training at Camp Lejeune, November 17, 2016.US Marine Corps/Cpl. Christopher A. Mendoza

During a conference in February, US Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger offered some insight into how the Marine Corps’ special-operations forces might be fighting in the future.

With the war on terror winding down, SOCOM has declared a need to better balance deterrence of strategic rivals with counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations.

Having a forward-deployed force working with allies and partners across the world to build credible defenses against near-peer adversaries, such as China and Russia, is as important as targeting violent extremist organizations.

For MARSOC to support such a pivot, Berger described an emphasis on low-visibility and operational preparation of the battlefield operations, which aren’t combat operations but prepare a battle space for potential kinetic actions.

Marine Raider Regiment free-fall parachute
Members of the Marine Raider Regiment conduct a free-fall jump from an MV-22B Osprey over North Carolina, September 1, 2015.US Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Austin A. Lewis

The Marine Raiders’ “great value is their persistent presence forward and in their deeper cultural and language” skills, as well as “their connectivity through the country team into the nation,” Berger said. “Conventional forces don’t normally have any of that.”

For example, a Marine Raider team could go into Kenya to map out roads, safe houses, active or potential airstrips, and other points of interest that could be used to support the quick deployment of special operators in response to an attack.

To conduct such operations, special-operations units need to have mature troops who can blend into the environment, and the ethnic and linguistic diversity of the US special-operations community facilitates that goal. For example, units like the Army’s 7th Special Forces Group, which is assigned to Central and South America, emphasize those cultural connections and tailor their language instruction to that region.

Special operators with those backgrounds and skills can blend in to where they’re operating, making it easier to connect with potential partners and harder for rival forces to detect them.

‘Back to naval roots’

Marine special operations helocast VBSS
Marines with the 1st Marine Special Operations Battalion helocast during Visit, Board, Search and Seizure training near Camp Pendleton, California.US Marine Corps/Cpl. Kyle McNally

Berger has sought to reorient the Marine Corps toward the maritime realm after years of combat in places like Afghanistan, and he said he’d like to see a similar shift for Marine Raiders.

“Hopefully if you were to look two or three or four years into the future, [MARSOC] would follow a similar path as the rest of the Marine Corps, back to naval roots [and] how does it support the naval expeditionary forces forward,” Berger said at the National Defense Industrial Association conference.

Berger’s push to ditch “big heavy things” and build a smaller, lighter, more naval-focused force has won support in Congress and among Pentagon leaders, but it has also drawn backlash. More than two dozen retired generals have mounted a campaign against it.

Like other US special-operations units, Marine Forces Special Operations Command has felt the strain of the past 20 years of near-constant combat operations in the Middle East and Africa. But that experience has also yielded lessons and capabilities that the command can apply to great-power competition in the future.

MARSOC has come a long way, developing “greater combat capabilities and integration with more assets that provide their deployable forces with enhanced lethality that did not previously exist,” Galvin said.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.