Marine Corps and Special Operations Forces Teaming for Great Power Competition
By Major Michael F. Masters Jr.
The Biden Administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, in step with Secretary of Defense (SefDec) Austin’s recent Letter to the Force (SecDef21), continues to identify strategic competition with China as a top priority.[i] The Department of Defense (DoD) rightfully identified the People’s Republic of China's (PRC) ambitions of becoming a "great power" (i.e., strong, modernized, unified, and wealthy nation) in a detailed report to the U.S. Congress two decades ago, with many modern analysts believing that China is now well on its way to achieving their ambition to field a "world-class" military by 2049.[ii] Within the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC), the implications of DoD’s strategic strategic guidance coupled with China’s rising global status have triggered an iterative decade-long service redesign project entitled Force Design 2030 (FD2030). The following is presented to illuminate opportunities to inform the USMC's current restructuring process to allow for the optimization of USMC-Special Operations Forces (SOF) teaming through increased Integration, Interdependence, Interoperability, and Deconfliction (I3D).
Special Operations Forces I3D
The USMC's contributions to the future pacific fight are outlined in the recently released tri-service maritime strategy. However, the document only vaguely mentions Naval SOF's unique skill sets and ability to prepare the operating environment for maritime force access without delineating clear lines of effort or aligning resources.[iii] To visualize the possibilities of future USMC-SOF I3D, it is helpful to consider a continuum of conventional force and SOF cooperation from deconfliction measures on the low end to opportunities for Integration, Interdependence, and Interoperability on the high-end (Figure 1). Although the 2017 USMC-United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) agreement was nullified by FD2030’s release, the U.S. Navy, USMC, and USSOCOM are currently staffing a classified concept for Naval SOF integration that has the potential to reinvigorate the movement for closer USMC-SOF collaboration and codify current trends towards USMC-SOF I3D. To this end, the current MARSOC Commanding General, Major General Glynn, recently published an open letter to the force acknowledging Marine Special Operations Command’s (MARSOC) responsibility to serve as a vital connector between the USMC and USSOCOM while asserting that MARSOC is well suited as the USMC SOF component to “…prepare the operating environment for potential future operations in competition and conflict.”[iv] In concert with the U.S. Navy, the USMC must institutionalize varying levels of SOF I3D to successfully compete and deter China within gray zones within the Indo-Pacific region in the near-term or risk systematic defeat and future irrelevance.
USMC-SOF Cooperation Continuum
The USMC and USSOCOM must work together to prioritize activities and deconflict mission sets to come to complementary solutions that meet the USINDOPACOM Commander’s intent. Each has extensive capabilities to offer each other to pursue greater strategic and operational objectives. It is essential moving forward that the USMC identify capability gaps within its future force design-construct and mitigation measures to ensure proper investments over the mid to long term to ensure complementary efforts and reduce duplicative or even redundant capabilities. Assessing shared missions and capabilities (Figure 2) has direct operational implications and is also advisable due to looming DoD fiscal constraints as the joint force emerges from the Global War on Terror, in which Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding abounded. Since 2014, the DoD contends that SOF units paired with and supported by conventional forces during combat operations in Iraq and Syria have achieved strategic successes while also proving cost-effectiveness; however, such partnerships require institutionalization.[v]
USMC-SOF Shared Missions & Capabilities
The recently released DoD, Summary of the Irregular Warfare Annex to the National Defense Strategy of the United States of America (NDS-IW20), holds that “[s]uccessful military contributions to irregular warfare require a deliberate and sustained integration of conventional and special operations capabilities.[vi] As the USMC experiments with newly formed Marine Littoral Regiments (MLR) within the USINDOPACOM AOR, there will surely be USMC capability gaps and resource shortfalls. While the U.S. military postures forces in the Indo-Pacific to deter China, USMC and SOF units will likely operate within the same battlespace framework. Just as in the previous two decades of conflict, SOF will encounter capability gaps that USMC personnel augmentation and capabilities can and should satisfy. While the voided 2017 USMC-USSOCOM agreement lays out several approaches to USMC-SOF integration (e.g., SOF led, USMC led), it failed to address the reality that USMC forces are difficult to request successfully and employ due to service imposed restrictions.[vii]
Regarding Conventional Force and SOF interdependence, the NDS-IW20 clarifies that conventional forces and SOF have and must continue to maximize support relationships (i.e., supporting/supported) to compete and win in the reemerging era of GPC as they have done since the Vietnam conflict.[viii] One method to increase USMC-SOF interdependence within the Indo-Pacific, and other theaters, is for the service to actively pursue coordinated joint Theater Security Cooperation (TSC) opportunities with similar partners. Currently, “Marines and SOF both engage in TSC activities, often concurrently, but not often jointly.”[ix] Another potential venue to cultivate enduring USMC-SOF-Partner Nation relationships is committing to the Joint Combined Partner Exchange Training Program (JCET). Conceptually, USMC and SOF planners would template JCET participation years in advance to areas that benefit both element’s equities in a particular region. This will build trust among USMC-SOF-Partner elements and enhance USMC operational capability and reach (e.g., access to locations, agencies, funding, authorities).
Interoperability between USMC and SOF elements is the highest standard of cooperation possible for a notional USMC-SOF I3D Continuum. For the truest form of interoperability to take hold and sustain, it is most helpful for USMC and USSOCOM planners to think about operational and technical interoperability. Operational interoperability referring to “…knowledge and experience bases of military personnel and tailored to improving operational design below the level of strategy” and technical interoperability, referencing “…capabilities of combat systems…”[x] Both types of interoperability between the USMC and SOF are advisable, considering the high probability of shared mission sets and codified future supporting relationships during Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) within the Indo-Pacific in the near-term. To enhance operational interoperability, the USMC must introduce SOF concepts and core activities to Marine officers at key waypoints during officer Professional Military Education (PME). Natural service level touchpoints for SOF instruction include but are not limited to: The Basic School (TBS), Expeditionary Warfare School (EWS), and Command and Staff College (CSC). In terms of technical interoperability and the CMC’s vision to bolster joint “kill chains” through investment in resilient low-cost redundant systems and capabilities. It is advisable that the USMC partner with USSOCOM programmatically when considering the next generation of "sensors and shooters" (i.e., radars, long-range precision fire control systems, and Unmanned Ariel Systems). Once emerging capabilities requirements for the Indo-Pacific region for both the USMC and USSOCOM are analyzed via the Joint Requirements Oversight Council (JROC) process and binned into similar Joint Capability Area (JCA) portfolios, both cost savings and efficiencies will likely be gained in both research and development (R&D) and acquisitions of new equipment time horizons.[xi]
To optimize the USMC’s FD2030 concept for GPC, a strategy for USMC-SOF teaming is required. Specifically, USMC-SOF Integration, Interdependence, Interoperability, and Deconfliction, must be addressed to ensure future operational success; particularly in the INDOPACOM AOR. The future operating environment and the USMC's EABO concept will likely demand a closer USMC-SOF I3D during execution. The value in realizing similar mission sets and potential capability gaps and requirements before hostilities enables mutually beneficial training opportunities, identification of reliable partners, and potential for future cost savings in the procurement of the service's next generation of equipment that is required to communicate in a highly joint and multi-domain operating environment.
[iv] Glynn, James, F, “A Letter from the MARSOC Commander,” Marine Corps Gazette, (January 2021), 27, https://mca-marines.org/wp-content/uploads/A-Letter-from-the-MARSOC-Commander.pdf.
[xi] Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff, CJCSI 5123.01H, Charter of the Joint Requirements Oversight Council (JROC) and implementation of the Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System (JCIDS), (Washington, DC: Joint Staff, August 2018).
Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff. CJCSI 5123.01H. Charter of the Joint Requirements Oversight Council (JROC) and implementation of the Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System (JCIDS). (Washington, DC: Joint Staff, August 2018).
Department of the Navy. Advantage at Sea: Prevailing with Integrated All-Domain Naval Power. (Washington, DC, December 2020). https://Media.defense.gov.
Glynn, James, F. “A Letter from the MARSOC Commander.” Marine Corps Gazette. (January 2021). https://mca-marines.org/wp-content/uploads/A-Letter-from-the-MARSOC-Commander.pdf.
Headquarters US Marine Corps. United States Marine Corps and United States Special
Operations Command Concept for Integration, Interdependence, and Interoperability, (Washington, DC: Headquarters US Marine Corps, July 2017).
Russ, Michael D. “Interdependence, Interoperability, and Integration: Joint Force Analysis at the
Operational Level.” (Master’s thesis, Marine Corps University, 2011).
The White House. Interim National Security Strategic Guidance. (Washington, DC, March, 2021). https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/NSC-1v2.pdf.
US Department of Defense. Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments
Involving the People’s Republic of China. (Washington, DC, 2020).
US Department of Defense, Letter to the Force, (Washington, DC, March, 2021),1-3, https://www.psmagazine.army.mil/Portals/74/PDFs/2021/MESSAGE%20TO%20THE%20FORCE%20OSD00188021%20FOD%20FINAL.pdf?ver=fx4kF4kVp_leDs0CYUGO6A%3D%3D×tamp=1615382360842.
US Department of Defense. Summary of the Irregular Warfare Annex to the National Defense Strategy of the United States of America. (Washington, DC, 2020). https://media.defense.gov/2020/Oct/02/2002510472/-1/-1/0/Irregular-Warfare-Annex-to-the-National-Defense-Strategy-Summary.PDF.