American Enterprise Online
February 27, 2006
By Alan W. Dowd

They are known as “The Few. The Proud. The Marines.” And until recently, they were “The Only”—as in the only military branch under Pentagon control without a Special Operations command. That changed when the Marine Corps Special Operations Command (MARSOC) opened for business at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina on February 24. 

Most Marines would take issue with the notion that the Corps is a latecomer to the Special Operations team, arguing instead that all Marines are considered elite or “special forces.” As Gen. Dennis Hejlik, MARSOC’s first commander, told Proceedings magazine, “All Marines are special.”  

Given the Marine Corps’ relatively tiny size, it would be hard to argue with Gen. Hejlik (not that it’s ever a good idea to argue with a Marine general). The Marines account for just 216,000 of the 2.3 million troops in the US armed forces (including Reserve components). That’s barely 9 percent of the total force. 

Even so, one would expect Marine Special Forces to be “more special”—and to have a special title to match their special status. After all, the Navy’s elite are known as SEALs; the Army has Delta Force, Green Berets and Rangers; the Air Force has its Air Commandos. But when asked by Proceedings about the name of his new cadre of Marines, Gen. Hejlik’s response said it all: “Marines.”  

To underscore the Marines’ determination to prevent any stratification within the Corps, MARSOC Marines will be rotated back into regular Marine units after just three to five years in Special Ops. Not only does this highlight the Corps’ view that it is, by definition, a special force, it also serves as a reminder that this is not an easy step for the Marines to take. It pays to recall that the Pentagon’s Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has been around for 20 years, and the Marines have remained politely, if noticeably, absent from it until now.  

Once fully operational, MARSOC will comprise 2,600 Special Ops Marines. Some will specialize in training foreign troops; others will be paired with Marine Expeditionary Units at sea; and still others will stand at the ready at bases on either coast—North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune and California’s Camp Pendleton. According to the American Forces Information Service, “Some elements, including the Foreign Military Training Unit, are expected to assume missions almost immediately.” 

This is not surprising. The Marines have been quietly collaborating with SOCOM for years. In 2002, the Marine Corps signed a memorandum of understanding with SOCOM aimed at promoting cooperation and interoperability. The Marine Corps then began building an embryonic Special Operations force in 2003—the clumsily named “Marine Corps SOCOM Detachment.” In addition, a handful of Marines trained with SEALs in 2003, as the San Diego Union Tribune has reported. 

Most observers say the Marines were finally pushed into creating a separate Special Ops component by the tireless Donald Rumsfeld—and by the unmistakable reality that the War on Terror, which could last for decades, is a Special Ops war. That means the Marines could miss out on new material, new missions and new money. 

Consider SOCOM’s growth since 2001: At around $8 billion, SOCOM’s budget is double what it was just five years ago. There are now some 50,000 Special Ops personnel, and the Pentagon’s latest Quadrennial Defense Review calls for another 15-percent increase in Special Ops manpower.  

As Robert Kaplan details in The Coming Anarchy, they are perhaps the most active and least noticed arm of the Pentagon.  In 1996 alone—at a time of peace—“US Special Forces were responsible for 2,325 missions in 167 countries.” In 1998, Special Ops personnel were sent into 144 countries.  

With more places to go and more personnel to deploy, Special Ops units are also getting more equipment to deliver them into their secret wars. The Navy, for example, is converting four massive submarines from Trident nuclear missile platforms into stealthy Special Ops transporters. Once the reconfiguration is complete, each sub will be capable of deploying 60 Special Ops personnel and 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles for good measure. By way of comparison, most subs that deploy Navy Special Forces today can handle only 10 to 20 SEALs. 

In short, what some have called the US military’s fifth branch has clearly come of age in the post-September 11 period. “Galvanized by the assault on America,” as historian Derek Leebaert concludes, “special warfare is in its heyday." 

Consider how the Pentagon has shifted much of the authority for prosecuting the war to SOCOM, in an effort to improve the speed and lethality of the global anti-terror campaign. The switch, which was reportedly endorsed by Rumsfeld himself, is a dramatic one: US military campaigns are generally handled by one of the regional combat commands (depending upon where the war is being fought), with Special Operations troops usually working under the regional commander, in support of his mission—until recently.  

This change stands to reason: When our enemy’s center of gravity was juggernaut war industries, we matched him with heavy industries that produced bombers that flattened Germany and Japan. When our enemy’s center of gravity was endless armored formations and long-range missilery, we matched him with weapons that could incinerate those formations and decapitate Moscow. Now, in a conflict started by small cells of highly motivated specialists in asymmetric warfare, it only makes sense to match the enemy with our own asymmetric warriors who can hunt and kill the enemy from the shadows.   

In Afghanistan, these shadow warriors spearheaded an inter-service, inter-agency team that took down the Taliban in a matter of weeks. At the height of the Iraq war, almost 10,000 Special Forces were deployed to prepare the battle space, neutralize the missile threat, secure oil fields and platforms, protect the northern front, gather intelligence and call in pinpoint air-strikes against Saddam’s inner circle. Special Ops teams were also essential to tracking and neutralizing Saddam and his sons.  

In the last five years, they have been deployed to Timbuktu and the Horn of Africa, to the Philippines and Thailand, to Georgia and Uzbekistan, on and probably inside the Syrian and Iranian borders, to Pakistan and Afghanistan and Iraq, and into scores of faraway places undisclosed to the public.  

In other words, MARSOC will have plenty to keep itself busy.