An exclusive interview with U.S. Navy SEAL Commander Mark Divine
A brand-new Marine Corps special operations force is a project that has been in the conception and experimental stages since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. It became an operational test unit following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and its official existence is now pending only the signature of U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
But few insiders are talking about it, and for a variety of reasons.
As I wrote in a 2003 article for National Review Online, "Special operations units in the Marines are not accorded the same respect [by the Marine leadership] as they are in other branches. The Marines view special operations as simply another realm of warfighting. Marines are Marines, and no individual Marine or Marine unit is considered more elite than the other." That's long been the Corps' approach to special operations, and one of the reasons the Marine Corps successfully resisted becoming a component part the U.S. Defense Department's Special Operations Command (SOCOM) when it was formed back in 1986.
Many within the special operations circles of the Army, Navy, and Air Force had no qualms about that: After all, a Special Operations Command without Marine participation only meant that Army, Navy, and Air Force turf was protected. Or was it?
The Marines have always had a hand in special operations, and have -- in many ways -- been innovators of the same. But until recently, they've not been part of SOCOM. As a result of the recent upsurge of special operations requirements in the war on terror, that may change: There may soon be a permanent force of Marine commandos attached to SOCOM.
It's still a bit hush-hush.
According to an interview in Marine Corps Times (July 27), Marine Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, commander of the I Marine Expeditionary Force and Marine Forces Central Command, said that he was skating "on one skate" for even discussing the Marine SOCOM Detachment. The sentiments of other senior officers are similar. Navy Commander Mark Divine, who has been directly involved in the development and observation of the new Marine team, is much more forthcoming.
A reserve SEAL officer with an extensive background in special operations, Divine was sent to Iraq last summer to observe and write a report -- MCSOCOM Proof of Concept Evaluation -- on the Marine unit's development and capabilities for SOCOM. Secretary Rumsfeld had previously directed that two independent studies be conducted: One by SOCOM (which became Commander Divine's report) and one from the Marine Corps (conducted by the Center for Naval Analysis). Both have been completed.
In his first interview since completing the report, Divine sat down with World Defense Review. He shared his observations and what he believes to be the future of the Marine Corps' involvement with SOCOM.
SMITH: When you were in Iraq, what were some of the joint-effort kinds of things going on that you observed between the Marines and the SEALs?
DIVINE: First off, there was significant integration, and the Marines did not like this. They were assigned to Naval Special Warfare Squadron One, and the commander of that squadron had some shortfalls. His job was to fight the war the best he could with the resources he had. The Marine Corps detachment was one of those resources. So, he used the Marine intelligence assets in his task group. Then he allowed the unit to operate as a subordinate task unit along the lines of the other SEAL task units [two SEAL platoons and a SEAL headquarters] that worked for him.
SMITH: Why did the Marines have a problem with that?
DIVINE: The Marine unit was a little over 100 people. This included 30 Reconnaissance Marines who were the main direct-action force. Then there was a 25- to 30-man logistical support unit. Then there was this huge intelligence group within the Marine detachment, and that was very valuable to the SEALs because we don't have that inherent capability. Also, Marine intelligence people understand ground combat. Contrast that with the Navy intelligence community, which was trained throughout the Cold War to identify Soviet ships, submarines, and aircraft. They really don't know how to hunt people, and we're just now really learning how to do that.
So the Marine intelligence people were parceled out to the other task units, and they did a great job. But the Marines wanted their 100-man detachment to operate as a stand-alone unit. We didn't allow that to happen. It truly was a joint Navy-Marine team. There were also several joint direct-action operations where the Marines supported the SEALs and vice versa.
SMITH: Where those direct-action operations raids against Al Qaeda forces?
DIVINE: Yes, raids against anti-coalition forces, really targeting some of the higher-level folks who had been identified in the insurgency.
SMITH: Were the raids effective?
DIVINE: There was certainly some good success. It took them a while to learn how to do business. For instance, their planning cycle was much longer than a typical SEAL planning cycle. But once they got their feet wet, they performed well. I think if you ask the Marines, they'll say they were held back by the SEALs. There wasn't anyone really holding anyone back. It was more like us basically needing them to do it the right way within the special operations environment. It was a lot of staff officer type stuff, and once they got up to speed on that - and working within the boundaries of the joint spec ops task force - they were off to the races.
SMITH: You once mentioned to me that there exists a philosophical difference between the Navy and Marine Corps wherein some military planners fear something of a SOCOM coup by the Marine leadership if the Marines ever became part of SOCOM.
DIVINE: I think it's nothing more than the way the Marines do business. They approach everything - from the way they do business in Washington to how they approach a peacetime program objective -- like it's a combat operation, and it's one of the reasons they are so darned successful. I have great admiration for them because of this. Marine officers are very accomplished in terms of decision planning and project initiative -- such as what we are talking about here today -- so it's no mystery as to why they've gotten as far as they have just through the efforts of a few special ops oriented Marines who have long-wanted to be part of the special operations community.
At the risk of being non-politically correct, if you were to stack Marine senior and general officers against the Army, they'd eat their lunch. I think that's where the fear comes from, because the Army, with its size, has essentially controlled SOCOM from the beginning. Now, there is a fear that the Marines will come in and - not so much that they will take-over SOCOM - but that they will tip the balance of power, and that they could easily have equal or greater influence than the Army which has had the most influence in SOCOM since the late 1980s.
SMITH: Why did the Marine Corps not become part of SOCOM initially? Was that a decision based on the personal wishes of Gen. Kelley [Gen. Paul X. Kelley, then-Commandant of the Marine Corps]?
DIVINE: Well, he was representing a large block of Marines who believed that Marines should support Marines, and that if they chopped-up their Recon community and sent some of them to SOCOM, they would be supporting and financing a large special operations component that was not going to be directly supporting the Marines.
SMITH: What about the Navy?
DIVINE: Believe it or not, we [the Navy] resisted as well. But the Navy finally let go of the SEALs and our support for the Navy has been strong ever since. In fact, whenever anyone says, 'hey, what's the Navy doing in this war on terror,' the Navy says, 'hey, we've got our SEALs,' and they point to us as being the crown jewel.
SMITH: Wasn't it just specific SEAL teams that went to SOCOM while the majority remained under total Navy control?
DIVINE: All SEALs were essentially chopped over to SOCOM. The only ties to the Navy were the fact that we wore the Navy uniform and we were paid by the Navy. And we did support Naval operations.
SMITH: How does the Marine unit differ from other special operations units. In other words, what unique elements or strengths does the Corps bring to the special operations table?
DIVINE: I think early on, the SEALs -- myself included -- were looking at this 100-man Marine Corps Detachment to see how well they could act like SEALs or how well they could act like Army Special Forces. As we got into it, it dawned on us that's just a lens to look through, because they are not SEALs and they are not Green Berets. They are Marines, first and foremost. Now, if they end up bringing a full component of 2,500 people, it will be a Marine Air-Ground Task Force or a special ops MAGTF. There will be an air component, logistical component, intelligence component, and then your shooters who are your Recon Marines.
Whenever we go into SOCOM, we SEALs have to get our air from the Army or the Air Force. Our intelligence comes from the 'big' Navy, though it should probably come from SOCOM. So we have to piece together our team, whereas the Marines can come with a fully integrated, battle-ready unit.
Also, every Marine is a shooter first, including their logistics guys and their intelligence guys. So if you have to have a pick-up, quick-reaction force, your logistics guys can be that. In fact, I actually witnessed their logistics guys - who are in charge of beans, bullets, and band-aids - actually jock-up and go out and conduct battle drills. I thought that was unique, because you'd be really hard-pressed to pull together a team of our logistics people and expect them to even shoot straight, except for the SeaBees. They are trained for that.
All Marines are trained to fight, so it really makes them a unique team. Marines also have a much more conventional mindset than SEALs and Green Berets, and we don't necessarily want to change that. The same is true of Army Rangers, they are first and foremost a conventional shock-troop unit.
SMITH: True, Rangers are basically a very good light infantry force.
DIVINE: Yes, and Marines are kind of like Rangers, except they have their own Marine air and intel. Marines also are Marines first, and they bring with them that culture, that drive, that loyalty, and everything that goes with being a Marine.
SMITH: What about rivalry and overlap?
DIVINE: You know we can't look at it as 'oh yeah, we've got Marines and they're going to take over the SEALs' role,' and it's the old Army-Navy and Navy-Marine Corps competition. It's just not true. There's plenty of work for everyone, and no one is going to touch the SEALs in certain areas we've mastered like subsurface warfare and direct action and some of those things that we're moving strong into.
Marines will have a certain role. They will be able to standup a special ops MAGTF and hit the ground running.
SMITH: What about perceptions? I know the Marines have had concerns, and I see in your report where some Navy officers and chief petty officers have voiced less-than enthusiastic opinions about the project.
DIVINE: Though there have been a politics in this - and those on both the Navy and Marine Corps side of the house hoping it would fail - the SEAL position has always been, the Marines deserve a seat at the table, but we don't want them to build it on our backs. It is too costly in terms of management, time, and energy. Also, there are those who are not thrilled at a personal level, but they recognize the importance of doing the right thing for the country.
Editor's conclusions: Will this Marine Corps unit become a reality? A few military leaders - primarily those from within the Corps - still have concerns, but according to Divine and others, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is leaning heavily towards it. Divine adds, the Marine SOCOM Detachment is still in the developmental stages, and though the unit will probably become a reality, no absolute decision has yet been made in that regard. Rumsfeld's signature is still pending.
Commander Divine's websites are NavySEALs.com and USTactical.com.
A former U.S. Marine infantry leader and paratrooper, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues and has covered conflict in the Balkans and on the West Bank. He is the author of four books, and his articles have appeared in USA Today, George, U.S. News & World Report, BusinessWeek, and National Review Online.
W. Thomas Smith Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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