As military operations in Afghanistan wind down and pressure to reduce defense spending heats up, policy makers and military leaders must carefully assess how to effectively posture the US military for the challenges of the 21st century. Part of this assessment must include identifying the right mix of general purpose forces and special operations forces.

Given the potential demands for traditional capabilities during the so called “Naval Century”, striking an affordable and sustainable balance between the two-forces must be of particular concern for the Naval Services. A recent CSBA report on strategic choices for the DoD identified Special Operations Forces as one of the four “crown jewels” that should be protected in light of forthcoming austerity measures while reducing the size of the Marine Corps and the number of Navy surface ships.

Over the past several months, two reports from the Congressional Research Service began to scratch the surface on this complex issue. First, Andrew Feickert identified that the increasing demand and expanding role of special operations forces will push up against its self-imposed force endstrength limits, intended to maintain the high-quality of personnel within the SOF community. This creates a greater demand for special operations “enablers” from the conventional forces. This shift will have to occur at the same time reducing the endstrength of the Army and Marine Corps is taking place.

Similarly, naval expert Ronald O’Rourke raised concerns for the Navy in his report, Navy Irregular Warfare and Counterterrorism Operations: Background and Issues for Congress. Specifically, O’Rourke identified two significant issues for Congress:

  • To what degree can or should Navy IW and CT activities be used to reduce the burden on other services for conducting such activities?
  • Is the Navy striking an appropriate balance between IW and CT activities and other Navy concerns, such as preparing for a potential future challenge from improved Chinese maritime military forces?

The issue of what role and to what extent the Navy should play in the traditional Army-centric mission space of special operations is being scrutinized by respected national security journalists as well. Veteran Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus raised the question, “Navy Special Forces units: How many are needed?” Pincus questions the Navy’s motivation for the increased attention given to the IW and CT missions, asking: “Is the Navy’s increased interest in irregular warfare and counterterrorism “partly motivated” by concerns about remaining relevant, or by a desire to secure some of the growing funding for Special Forces units, or both?” That question is extremely shortsighted and unfortunately, Pincus’ treatment of the subject fails to address a critical issue – the capabilities provided by the original “soldiers from the sea”, the US Marine Corps.

There is little sense in reexamining the history or logic behind the Department of the Navy simultaneously maintaining the world’s largest and most capable Marine Corps, skilled at executing a variety of missions on land, at sea and by air (and potentially undersea in the future), while growing the Naval Special Warfare Community to over 9,000 personnel and standing up the Naval Expeditionary Combat Command after Sept 11. However, it is important to recognize that from the late 1930s to the 1980s the capabilities of Marine Corps reconnaissance units and Navy UDT/SEAL teams were largely developed in parallel and it wasn’t until the creation of USSOCOM that the inherent special operations capabilities of the two sea services took significantly divergent paths.

Despite implementing the Marine Expeditionary Unit Special Operations Capable (MEU (SOC)) certification program in the 1980s and establishing the Marine Corps Special Operations Command in 2005, today the Marine Corps is contemplating how to better integrate with the special operations community as it defines and refines amphibious operations for the 21st century. To this end, enhancing the naval partnership with US Special Operations Command is a primary focus area of the Ellis Group (a small group of big thinkers formally chartered by the Commandant). However, the Marine Corps must focus on unique capabilities and not simply duplicate those of other services. Marine Corps expert, LtCol Frank Hoffman, USMCR (RET), recently raised a similar concern in the Marine Corps Gazette by asking, “How does replicating the Army/special operations force capability with 30,000 advisors/trainers fit within the national architecture? “

While not routinely part of US Special Operations Command, even the US Coast Guard has developed special operations-like capabilities within their Deployable Operations Group and for a time, it sent top Coastguardsmen to SEAL training. However, as Captain Jim Howe and Lieutenant Jim Doblow noted in a 2009 Proceedings’ article, emerging missions, a clash in culture and constrained resources pose severe challenges that threaten USCG performance and long-term viability. “To avoid this train wreck,” the authors noted, “the nation’s decision makers should now contemplate and answer the tough questions to help put the Coast Guard on a stable course.”

As is well documented on this USNI blog, the Navy is facing a host of operational challenges today that will be exacerbated should defense funds begin to decline in the near future. Problems include: ship building plans, acquisition issues and an overall decline in readiness conditions. Additionally, traditional capabilities must also compete with emerging mission areas such as information dominance and expeditionary operations. Should the navy focus on the traditional mission areas and resolve longstanding known issues or continue to develop important but peripheral missions that could be accomplished by another service? Could the Marine Corps assume a greater role in naval CT and IW mission areas?

While there is no doubt that special operations forces will play an increasingly prominent role in the US national defense posture in the 21st century, clearly the dilemma of balancing traditional capabilities with emerging special operations missions will affect the naval services for the foreseeable future. However, given the fiscal realities facing the entire Department of Defense, an important debate must occur of how to best integrate complementary capabilities within the naval services and joint force as well as identifying the risk associated with trading-off traditional naval capabilities as a result of committing additional scarce resources to special operations.

Posted by Robert Kozloski in Navy

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  • grandpabluewater

    And the night of the long knives begins… Sequestration has consequences.

    • RightCowLeftCoast

      The share of defense relating spending is dropping, and the size of entitlement programs increase with leaps and bounds, with no seeming end in sight. This mirriors what occured in the United Kingdom where it shed its global navy and a large land arm to use the funds to grow entitlement programs like the National Health Service (which was celebrated in the openning of the 2012 olympics).


    SOF has a disproportionate impact in every branch, yet every branch seems to hate their own SOF. Maybe it’s because these guys get much done at very little cost relative to conventional forces, and maybe it’s because they’re harder to control than conventional forces. Somehow SEALs seem to get more done than the rest of the Navy combined with very few flag officers and for very little money. I’d wager it’s the same for the other services as well. It would be interesting to see how much SOF forces cost in $/kill relative to conventional forces. We’re talking about teams that can fly commercial air into a country, kill or extract high value individuals, kill heads of state, government secretaries, and conduct other high impact strategic operations, and get themselves out with minimal additional support. That’s impact for your money. If anything needs to go it’s tail, not tooth, and SOF is our biggest, sharpest tooth.

  • Matt

    As much as SOF does, they have not actually won any wars that I know of on their own. Would China be emboldened by reducing large numbers of ground forces for the sake of SOF? What is the purpose of SOF vs. regular troops? If small numbers of high end forces does deter China why are they not deterred already? Just seems more of the same leading to more losing. SOF, just like drones, lead our cowardly leaders to believe they can accomplish unrealistic strategic goals leading to a broad failure to meet those goals. Hitler thought he was going to win WWII because of all sorts of nifty high end weapons. He lost too. We could’ve done more in AFG with 1 million soldiers armed with AK47s and proper ROE then we have done with 100,000 high end soldiers. It is irresponsible to conduct war without considering, realistically, what victory actually demands. If you aren’t willing or otherwise cannot provide the resources required for victory then do not go to war.

  • RightCowLeftCoast

    It maybe an unfortunate result on focusing on the decade long ground combat that for the most part has not had a naval or a large littoral component. Due to the relative dominance of American Aerial capability and global independent logistics reach, the CVBGs aircraft legs have been reduced (increasing demand of inair refueling), and the loss of ASW capability (thought to have been less needed due to the lack of a potential Soviet sub wolfpack threat to SLOCs).
    SEALs have their place, as scouts and precision resource capture/destruction for a follow-on Amphibious Marine Operation

    • grandpabluewater

      I thought frogmen running around the Hindu Kush re-running Kipling’s “Sergeants Three” playbook was the way it was supposed to be (when the Army isn’t up to the task).

      • RightCowLeftCoast

        I have to wonder the tasking of wet work missions within SOC. Who is to say, due to overlapping capability, whether SEAL DevGrp, or Delta, or some other unit be tasked with a certain mission? This question, I understant, is asked in a vacuum. Ideally, the vast majority of missions should go unknown to us, only known to the tight knit community of the Special Forces Operators.