After 15 years of keeping its distance, the tradition-oriented U.S. Marine
Corps is cooperating more closely with the unconventional U.S. Special Operations
The two organizations are stepping up joint training exercises and deploying
together more often in combat operations. The Marines have agreed—for
the first time ever—to contribute a small unit to the Special Operations
The end result, according to some insiders, eventually could be a major Marine
organization within special operations, on a par with the Navy’s Sea,
Air and Land (SEAL) teams or the Army’s Special Forces.
USSOCOM was formed in 1987 in an effort to improve the military services’
ability to perform unconventional and sensitive operations.
The new command—headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, in Tampa, Fla.—was
to include all special operations forces in the U.S. armed services.
The Army, Navy and Air Force all contributed units. The Army provided Special
Forces, Delta Force, Rangers, specialized helicopter units, psychological operations
and civil affairs teams. The Navy supplied SEALs, special-boat units and SEAL-delivery
teams. The Air Force established helicopter and C-130 squadrons equipped for
special operations missions.
Only the Corps opted out, choosing instead to develop Marine Expeditionary
Units, which are trained to conduct maritime special operations. MEUs—each
including 2,200 combat-equipped Marines, with helicopters, Harrier jets and
armored vehicles—patrol the world’s trouble spots in groups of amphibious
While MEUs perform a variety of special operations, such as hostage rescues,
embassy evacuations and recovery of downed pilots from hostile territory, the
Corps did not turn them over to USSOCOM. Instead, the Marines retained control
over their MEUs, arguing that they were needed in order to perform the service’s
basic mission—to project U.S. military power from the sea.
“Our highly trained, cost-effective, first-on-the-scene forces provide
a much-needed special operations capability that is complementary, not redundant,
to the mission of our nation’s special operations forces,” Marine
Commandant Gen. Michael W. Hagee told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
Although they have maintained their independence, Marines and special operators
have cooperated from the beginning, said Lt. Col. Giles Kyser, head of the Marine
Air Ground Task Force special operations section of the plans, policy and operations
at the Corps’ headquarters. The Corps routinely assigns individual Marines
to regular tours of duty at USSOCOM, he told National Defense. Currently, he
noted, 105 of them are filling such assignments.
Interaction between the two organizations has picked up during the war on terrorism.
In Afghanistan, for example, Marine Brig. Gen. James N. Mattis commanded Task
Force 58, which took Kandahar. It included 8,000 Marines and sailors, and it
coordinated its efforts with special operations troops, Kyser said.
Another task force, headed by Marine Maj. Gen. John F. Sattler and including
troops both from his service and special ops, has deployed to the Horn of Africa.
Its mission is to help stabilize countries in that region, such as Somalia,
Eritrea and Kenya, against terrorist activity.
A major reason for the heightened interaction is that USSOCOM needs the help.
The command has approximately 46,000 troops, active duty and reserves, a small
percentage of the 1.4 million active-duty personnel in all the services. Special
operators deploy to about 140 countries on training, peacekeeping and humanitarian
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters that the Marine Corps will
be expected to develop a closer relationship with the special operations forces.
The Marine Corps has 173,000 troops, many of whom could fill special operations
roles, Kyser noted.
In November 2001, then-commandant Gen. James Jones and Air Force Gen. Charles
Holland, head of USSOCOM, signed a memorandum of agreement pledging greater
“The time is right to enhance interoperability between USSOCOM and the
Marine Corps in order to prosecute the global war on terrorism and to meet future
challenges,” Jones said.
Specifically, the MOA set up a board with representatives from special operations
and the Marines to explore how the two organizations might do more together,
Action came quickly. In mid-2002, Marine Brig. Gen. Dennis Hejlik—until
recently the commandant’s military secretary—was named chief of
staff at USSOCOM. He is the first Marine general officer ever assigned to special
Later in the year, Marines from the U.S. European Command, in Stuttgart, Germany,
began replacing Green Berets in a program to train soldiers in the former Soviet
republic of Georgia. The training is intended to help Georgia defend itself
against infiltration by Islamic rebels from next-door Chechnya, which is fighting
for independence from Russia.
The Green Berets trained a Georgian commando battalion. The Marines are to
instruct a mountain battalion, a light-infantry unit and a mechanized company
team. Training will include tactics such as daylight company-level attacks,
nighttime defensive operations and platoon-level patrols.
In 2002, a conference of special operators and Marines hammered out an agreement
for a full Marine detachment to be assigned for the first time to USSOCOM, starting
in 2004. The detachment is to be detailed to special operations as a two-year
“proof of concept,” an experiment to help figure out the organizational
details of a more permanent unit, Kyser said.
The detachment, to be based initially at Camp Pendleton, Calif., already is
taking shape. Key personnel are scheduled to report in March, with training
to begin in June. The commander will be Lt. Col. Bob Coates, an infantry officer
with a reconnaissance background, according to Kyser.
The detachment will consist of 81 hand-picked Marines and five Navy corpsmen,
Kyser said. Included will be 22 people in a headquarters element, 30 reconnaissance
specialists, 28 intelligence operators and six Marines providing fire support
elements. “These will be very highly trained, well-seasoned men,”
The detachment will deploy with SEALs based at the Naval Amphibious Base in
Coronado, Calif. Its mission will be to augment SEAL teams in conducting special
reconnaissance missions and direct-action strikes to seize, recover or destroy
designated personnel or materiel, he explained. The detachment also will participate
in programs to help friendly nations protect their societies from subversion,
lawlessness and insurgency.
The organization is designed to be flexible in size, Kyser said. It is possible—but
not guaranteed—that it could grow into a Marine Corps Special Operations
Command, resembling those of the other services.
“Almost anything is possible,” Kyser said. “This unit could
grow into something very large, or it could stay the same size that it is now.”
Either way, Kyser said, “it can’t help but improve the level of
trust and comfort between special operations forces and the Marine Corps.”
Meanwhile, the Marines are taking steps to improve their ability to conduct
special operations missions. A long-term effort is underway, for example, to
strengthen the Corps’ famed reconnaissance units.
Recon, as the specialty is known, trace its origins to the Marine Raider Battalions
formed during World War II. Recon Marines are highly skilled infantrymen, qualified
as paratroopers and scuba divers. They specialize in going behind enemy lines
to gather information, conduct small raids, call in air strikes or naval gunfire,
or help prepare the way for major combat operations.
Recon units were cut back during the budget reductions of the early 1990s,
but now, in an era of repeated regional conflicts, their skills are back in
To meet this need, the 1st Marine Division’s reconnaissance company,
at Camp Pendleton, in 2000 was increased to battalion strength, the same size
it was a decade ago.
In 2002, the 2nd Force Reconnaissance Company, based at Camp Lejeune, N.C.,
was reassigned from the 2nd Marine Division to the II Marine Expeditionary Force,
giving the MEF commander direct control over the company.
Late in 2002, the Corps extended the military occupational specialty for enlisted
recon Marines (0321) all the way from private (E-1) through master gunnery sergeant
Previously, Kyser explained, when a recon Marine was promoted to staff sergeant,
he was switched to another job specialty, infantry team leader (0369).
As a result, the staff sergeant could be transferred out of the recon field,
resulting in a needless loss of years of training and experience, Kyser said.
“I’ve got a master gunnery sergeant working with me who is a first-class
diver,” Kyser said. “He’s military free-fall capable. He has
a master’s degree. He has a private pilot’s license. He has an acquisition
background. There’s nothing that guy can’t do. You don’t want
to lose guys like that.”
In addition to strengthening its recon units, the Marine Corps also is reactivating
its active-duty Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Companies, known as ANGLICOs, Hagee
ANGLICO personnel provide fire support for allied military units. They routinely
work with Marine recon and Army Special Forces units, requiring them to have
the same level of training. This includes parachute, survival, pathfinder and
helicopter rope-suspension schools.
Active-duty ANGLICO units were disbanded in 1997. Their duties were turned
over to reservists. As a result, the 1st and 2nd ANGLICO units are scheduled
to return to active duty later this year.
Also, Hagee said, fielding the troubled V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft will
“bring the Marine Corps and Air Force special operations forces closer
together.” The Marines plan to acquire 360 of them, and the Air Force
Special Operations Command wants 50.
Designed to transport 24 combat-equipped troops more than 500 nautical miles,
the Osprey has been plagued by crashes in flight tests that killed 23 Marines
Since then, the Osprey has been modified in an effort to correct the problems,
and the test flights have been resumed.
When the Osprey completes flight testing, Marine and Air Force pilots and maintainers
will train with the V-22 squadron at Marine Corps Air Station New River, N.C.,
“The jointness that will occur at this training squadron will go a long
way towards promoting closer understanding and coordination between Marine Corps
and Air Force Special Operations aviation units,” he said.
In many respects, special operations are nothing new for the Marine Corps,
which “has been the expeditionary force for the United States since its
inception in 1775,” said retired Special Forces Col. Al DeProspero, who
also served as a Marine.
The service accumulated extensive experience with counterinsurgency operations,
first in the Caribbean and Central America during the early 20th century, then
later in the Cold War and in Vietnam. Recent changes “merely mark a realization
that the Marine Corps has a definitive role to play in low-intensity conflict
and special operations,” he said.