In a National Security Emergency, Do You Call the Marines or the SEALs?
The Marine Corps prides itself on its niche role as the nation’s “911” quick response force that gets called to deal with dicey security crises.
But it’s been the Navy SEALs that of late have garnered the spotlight and captured the public’s imagination as the go-to force.
“You can’t pick up a paper without seeing some reference to special operations forces, and I am very proud of that fact,” Adm. William McRaven, who heads U.S. Special Operations Command, said earlier this month.
Navy SEAL elite amphibious operators cornered and killed Osama Bin Laden in May, and most recently, rescued hostages who had been held by Somali pirates. Special operations forces, which include Army, Air Force and Marine Corps components, also are key players in the Obama administration’s counterterrorism campaign involving strikes with unmanned drones.
Obama’s 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance says special operations forces will increasingly be relied upon to "help address national security threats and challenges on a global scale ... given their ability to operate in a wide range of environments and undertake tactical actions that produce strategic effects," notes Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, director of the homeland security and counterterrorism program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
In addition, McRaven recently has requested that U.S. SOCOM receive greater authorities to deploy SOF and launch operations across the globe. “Such authorities would allow SOF capabilities to be brought to bear with greater speed and flexibility in regions such as Africa, Asia, and Latin America,” Nelson says. If McRaven’s proposal is accepted, it would “solidify SOF’s increasingly prominent position as a truly global force.”
SOCOM is the only major component of the U.S. military that is growing in size and budget.
The expanding clout of special operations forces, however, should not be seen as coming at the expense of the Marine Corps’ traditional role in crisis response, said Lt. Gen. Richard Mills, Marine Corps deputy commandant for combat development and integration.
There is no SOF intrusion into Marine turf, Mills said Feb. 15 following a speech at the Defense Strategies Institute’s Expeditionary Operations Summit, in Washington, D.C.
“I am a big believer in special operations forces,” Mills said. “They’re great. But they do what they do.”
As to who gets to be the nation’s go-to 911 force, it depends, he said. “If you say they’re a crisis response force, I would say, what crisis? … When you look at the whole spectrum of what a crisis can be, it can anything from humanitarian relief, natural disaster response, terrorism, civil war.”
Special operations forces “fit in someplace there but there are cases when you need a different force with different capabilities,” Mills said. “The capabilities we provide are unique. I don’t think you deploy special operations forces to a disaster relief operation, I don’t think you deploy special operators to a peacekeeping situation where you need forces on the ground to stabilize a crisis.”
The Marine Corps, “with all due modesty, provides a much longer, much wider capability,” Mills said. “We become more valuable as a general purpose force, as a crisis response force for the entire spectrum” of crises, he added.
Mills, who previously served as commander of the I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward)/Regional Command Southwest in Afghanistan, has only praise for special operators.
“I watched special forces in Afghanistan absolutely decimate the leadership of the insurgency … with pinpoint accurate surgical strikes. They did a tremendous job and continue to do a tremendous job within their band.”
Mills noted that the Marine Corps, despite overall force cutbacks planned for the next five years, will be increasing the ranks of Marine Corps Special Operations Command.