Challenging conventional wisdom about Special Forces

I’m very interested to see the debate currently going on in the US Marine Corps about its Special Forces component (MARSOC), their contribution to SOCOM, and the mission and future of the Corps itself. reports:

Dakota Wood, who worked as a strategist at Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command from 2012-2013, released a 60-page report on Thursday titled “Rebuilding America’s Military: The United States Marine Corps.” It was published by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank where Wood serves as senior research fellow for defense programs.

Facing relentless operational tempo and ongoing budget woes, the Marine Corps should reevaluate where it’s spending resources, Wood writes. As part of that effort, he said service leaders should “strongly consider disestablishing [MARSOC].”

“It’s a great outfit and they’re doing great things, so this is not to disparage MARSOC,” Wood told “It’s stepping back and saying, ‘OK, Marine Corps, what are you supposed to be doing? And how are you using the resources that you have?'”

Wood’s call to disband the command comes after the Marine Corps released its 2020 budget request, revealing plans to increase the number of MARSOC billets. But the 2,700 Marines already assigned to MARSOC do more to benefit U.S. Special Operations Command than they do the Marine Corps, Wood wrote.

“The Corps’ commitment to MARSOC, while a boon to SOCOM and the good work it does for the country, is an opportunity cost for the Corps and the work that only it can do, as opposed to SOCOM’s role and the contributions long made to its mission by the Army, Navy and Air Force,” he said.

. . .

For Marine Raiders who fought for a place within U.S. Special Operations Command over the past 13 years, Wood’s suggestion falls flat.

The original Raider battalions were disbanded toward the end of World War II, and it was a decades-long effort to bring them back. Having someone make a case for dispansion again undoes years of hard work on and off the battlefield, they say.

MARSOC’s critical skills operators were essential in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, said Nick Koumalatsos, who spent 12 years with the command and in the Marine Corps reconnaissance community. Dissolving MARSOC now, he said, would be a huge blow.

“This would set us back two decades, if not more,” Koumalatsos said. “It’s not the world we live in anymore. We’re not lining up tanks and we’re not lining up in trenches to fight a conventional battle.”

. . .

The Marine Corps also can’t operate in a vacuum, where it doesn’t have a connecting line to SOCOM, said Prime Hall, a former Raider and water-survival instructor.

“This is much larger than the Marine Corps,” Hall said. “This is about what is best for the Department of Defense and the country as a whole.”

There’s more at the link.  The whole article is well worth reading, for those interested in the subject.

I think this is a critically important debate, one that should have been started a long time ago.  It made a great deal of sense to boost SOCOM’s role (and therefore MARSOC’s) in a time of unconventional, anti-terror warfare, such as we experienced after 9/11.  However, special forces have never been intended to fight a major conventional war against conventional forces.  They’re typically equipped with lighter weapons, and trained to fight without access to powerful support arms and regular resupply.  Put them up against a well-trained and -equipped regular force, in a conventional combat role, and they’d likely come off second best.  Firepower and numbers matter on a battlefield.

I’m not by any means suggesting that Special Forces are somehow illegitimate or unnecessary.  They’ve proved their worth for many years, and I hope we continue to field them for the long term.  However, their role within the overall combat effort needs to be reassessed in the light of current and projected threats, and the balance of forces adjusted accordingly.  That applies to the Marine Corps, too.  Is a Marine Corps actually necessary or desirable in today’s combat environment?  If not, why does it still exist?  If it is necessary and desirable, what is its reason for existence?  Let’s train and equip it for that purpose, rather than fritter away its substance across an overly broad spectrum of responsibilities.

Personally, I think the Marine Corps should be expanded, and treated as the “fast response” arm of the US armed forces overall.  Let’s take that mission away from the US Army, freeing that service to train and equip itself to face a conventional adversary in likely combat scenarios and environments.  Similarly, let’s release the Marine Corps from the conventional combat requirement, freeing it to train and equip itself for fast responses to emerging threats.  The Marines could deal with lesser threats on their own, or stabilize and contain more serious problems until heavier conventional forces arrive.

I think that approach is perfectly suited to the way the Marines have traditionally operated, on a limited budget with limited, clearly focused responsibilities.  What’s more, it would fulfill an essential mission of our Armed Forces in a focused, unambiguous way.  At present, that mission is divided between conventional and special forces across several arms of service.  It siphons personnel and equipment from all of them, while not addressing the needs of any one of them in particular.  That’s created a nebulous situation that satisfies nobody.

That’s only one possible approach, of course.  There are many alternatives.  I look forward to this debate continuing and intensifying.  It’s long overdue, IMHO.



  1. Marine Infantry have no purpose in a landlocked, arid country.

    That being said, a large part of the reason why the Marines have been so successful lies in their limited resources and distrust of the other services. They didn't have the manpower or budget to be wasteful like the Army. They couldn't trust the Navy or Air Force, so they have their own air support. They didn't have many people, so each was held to a high standard of proficiency and readiness.

    MARSOC has wonderful people doing good. But, ultimately, they don't really belong to the Marine Corps, and don't do anything that couldn't be done by the Army or Navy.

    Here's an alternate thought – SEALS should belong to the Marine Corps, not the Navy. They operate primarily on land, after all.

  2. Heck, the Marines belong to the Navy, McChuck. The Marines (and the SEALS) wound up in the landlocked war because they didn't want to sit on the sidelines. The same reasoning got the Marines to the "halls of Moctezuma" way back when.

    Probably everything under the DoD needs to be re-evaluated considering its real world purpose and cost effectiveness. The worst part of that is that the ranking people with enough experience to do that job have built in hidebound biases that would impair their ability to do it effectively. Pretty much anyone above O-3 probably lacks that flexibility of mind.

  3. SEALs occupy a unique position in the Navy. The Marine Corps also occupies a unique position in the Navy.

    The Marines exist as presently constituted because they own amphibious warfare. "From the sea." The question that needs to be asked is whether amphibious warfare is dead or not. Likely not. Marines work well as light infantry, but the question of whether that roll is handled better by the Army is up for debate because the Army has the budget and Marines have to content themselves with what the Navy has left after it pays for hardware.

    SOCOM/JSOC is an Army command. Army budget. The SEALs were a forgotten outfit until the first movie came out and then, a couple years later, NAVSPECWARCOM was folded into JSOC. I know. I was there. The Army showed up and asked, "what do you want?" A significant portion of SEAL issued gear dated back to WW2 and the Vietnam War (depending on which article of equipment you're talking about). The Army poured money into the Teams, and made the outfit a lot more effective. Though it's a Navy command, it still falls under a general ultimately, and takes its funding from SOCOM.

    MARSOC is a completely different animal than NAVSPECWAR. Trust me. We trained a lot with the Marines, but their mindset is rifle infantry. And when they're away from that light infantry mindset long enough, they fit right in. But then they go back and need to be re-educated into how Marines fight, which is a Marine thing.

    I recall many instances when Marines showed up and were perplexed because they didn't know who to salute. No rank, no service branch, and a far more relaxed atmosphere disturbed the Marine brain. That even extends to the SEAL compounds where it's blue-and-gold swimmer shirts, shorts and sandals. Not a lot of saluting but if you say, 'hi', they say 'hi' back.

  4. Lots of opportunities for improvement in the military. Marines have the challenge is there is a lot of overlap of what they and the army currently do.

  5. To build on what LL said, the Marines were the original Special Forces. Designed to fight both at sea (US Marines were famous for their sharpshooting from the fighting tops during the days of sail) and land, meant to be the first force in, equipped as light/heavy infantry (light as in mobile, heavy as in able to fight in intense situations.) Their support weapons, cannon and early repeating weapons both rotary and more conventional machine guns, were provided by the Navy and crewed by Navy personnel.

    The function of MARSOC is a refined extension of the 'First In, Farthest away, Fewest numbers and equipment' role that the Marines have embraced (partially because of the lack of numbers and equipment provided to them) over their 243+ years of existence.

    But… Yes, we do need to focus on the traditional roles of Marines. Fighting on shipboard (especially in littoral combat,) Pirate suppression, and a quick reaction force. With the ability to back up Raiders and Landing Parties relatively quickly with integral heavy units (armor, artillery – well, unless the Navy is going to go back to providing sailors for shore units…)

    An emphasis on integrating some MARSOC tactics and philosophies into the Landing Team concept might be a good thing.

  6. For another, shorter, discussion of the same issue see

    While being informed by history is vital to looking forward, some of the discussion here and elsewhere takes the past as current that is does not reflect current realities. Post Vietnam the Marines have become more a service in their own name and less an adjunct to the Navy. MARSOC is under Army command and mostly the Marine Corps is equal not subordinate to the Navy. There is a back forth swing and currently the Navy has again as in the past replaced some traditionally Marine functions with Naval Infantry.

    On June 7 2005 Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Vern Clark, directed development of a “Navy Expeditionary Sailor Battalion Concept” with the goal of standing up a combat battalion in fiscal year 2007.1 This is return to the past. Up through the 1970s, competency as naval infantry—sailors performing as infantry, and sometimes providing land based artillery support [Civil War lots of naval cannon in land battles crewed and served by sailors "Fittingly, the tallest monument in Vicksburg National Military Park is the obelisk dedicated to the role of the United States Navy in the campaign. Positioned on a ridge above the current location of the gunboat U.S.S. Cairo, and near both the National Cemetery and Confederate-held Fort Hill, it is also on the site of Battery Selfridge, the only gun emplacement in the siege manned exclusively by sailors from the Union fleet."
    on up through history—has been an integral part of the Navy’s operations.2 While this competency has been gone from the fleet for a generation, its return can be facilitated by an examination of a rich history.
    Might remember that the Army had more boats qua boats than the Navy in late WWII and more men in the Pacific than the Marines.

    The Marine function as primarily light infantry has recently been useful in Marines training foreign forces themselves light infantry. many foreign forces have reduced resources compared to the U.S. Army combined operations.

    The Marines in history have been the President's Own as the President has been able to use the Marines in short of declared war operations from the Shores of Tripoli to Latin America without a Congressional Declaration of War. War Powers have been disputed or undefined in recent years. Arguably be a good thing to allow the President to use Marines as first responders – a Marine expeditionary force is a useful force and combat air operating off what might be called Jeep carriers has already seen combat in the Middle East.

    With the decline of Naval gunfire support – cough cough Zumwalt guns – it's not obvious what the once proud ANGLICO units have left to do. Time was the Marine notion was that like the Royal Marines everybody was special.

    I suppose I'd vote for the Marines to be the mobile light infantry force as the President's own. I'd detach MARSOC from Army command and control leaving plenty of joint operations and movement back and forth but distinct identity not merged. Then again I remember the so called Strategic Army Corps when the folks at Bragg spent a lot of time alerting and packing and then unpacking which at best interrupted otherwise useful training time.

    What I wonder does Tom Kratman have to suggest?

  7. Actually the "regular" armed forces are being relegated to supporting roles while SOCOM runs the 'real wars' – like the defeat of ISIS. Gigantic industrial age armies and navies are potentially being made obsolete by the combination of special forces and precision weapons.

    Currently, the battlefield in the Ukraine are dominated by large SPEC-OPS formations [Spetznatz Brigades!] backed up by a mass of lightly-armed (and cheap!) irregulars and a few elite armored units for occasional raids. Devastating artillery strikes make it very dangerous to have any expensive, easily-detected units of armor on the front lines, so they deploy behind screens of UAVs and SUV-mounted light infantry.

    When was the last amphibious landing by a Marine division, anyway?
    Years, decades, or half a century ago?

  8. For the 3758th time, the Marine Corps' position administratively under the Department of the Navy does not make them part of the Navy. The Navy and the Marine Corps are separate services that are both under the administration of the Department of the Navy.

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