United States Special Operations Command:  How Marine Corps
Participation Could Enhance Current Special Operations Capabilities
CSC 1993
SUBJECT AREA - Operations
                         EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
Author:  Major Charles M. Sellers, United States Army
Thesis:  Now, over 5 years later, congressional intent is as yet
unrealized, in that Marine Corps forces earmarked for special
operations missions remain outside the purview of the United
States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), resulting in
duplication of effort and waste of resources.  This problem can
be rectified by assignment of the force reconnaissance direct
action platoons to USSOCOM.
Background:  Special operations (SO) are different from
conventional operations, both in the skills and the equipment
required to accomplish assigned tasks.  The requirements of
counterterrorist missions include the highest degree of pistol
and assault rifle marksmanship, applied in the fluid and
confusing environment of close quarter battle.  These skills
demand many hours of training, in an extensive variety of
simulated combat situations, to reach the level of proficiency
required of the SO soldier.  Unification of SO has been achieved
only with great difficulty.  Critical review of the Iran rescue
attempt in 1980 identified command and control as a major
contributor to failure of the operation.  The invasion of Grenada
reinforced this finding, further increasing congressional
pressure for reform of the military approach to SO.  The National
Defense Authorization Act of 1987 finally cleared the way for
unification of special operations forces under a single command.
The United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) was
activated on 16 April 1987, with responsibility for doctrine,
training, and budgeting for all United States special operations
forces.  Army, Navy, and Air Force so units were eventually
consolidated wider the new command.  The Marine Corps
successfully argued for retention of its force reconnaissance
elements, claiming that it had no special operations forces,
though it soon created the Marine expeditionary unit (special
operations capable), or MEU(SOC).  In 1989, the Marine Corps
added direct action platoons to its existing deep reconnaissance
platoons, with the mission of conducting, among numerous other
tasks, in-extremis hostage rescue, requiring high levels of
proficiency in close quarter battle skills.  With the formation
of the direct action platoons, the Marine Corps, for all
practical purposes, entered the realm of SO.
Recommendation:   That Marine Corps force reconnaissance direct
action platoons be assigned to USSOCOM, thereby reducing
duplication of effort and waste of resources.
Thesis:  Now, over 5 years later, congressional intent is as yet
unrealized, in that Marine Corps forces earmarked for special
operations missions remain outside the purview of the United
States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), resulting in
duplication of effort and waste of resources.  This problem can
be rectified by assignment of the force reconnaissance direct
action platoons to USSOCOM.
I.   Characteristics of Special Operations
     A.   Definition
     B.   Categories
          1.   Counterterrorism
          2.   Direct Action
               a.   Hostage Rescue
               b.   Special Skills
                    1)   Weapons Proficiency
                    2)   Close Quarter Battle
II.  Steps Toward Unification
     A.   Catalysts of Change
          1.   Iran Rescue
               a.   Operation Overview
               b.   Holloway Commission
               c.   Special Operations Advisory Panel
          2.   Grenada
               a.   Continued Congressional Pressure
               b.   Joint Special Operations Agency
     B.   National Defense Authorization Act of 1987
          1.   Authorization for Unified Command
          2.   Focus on Support to Warfighting CINC
          3.   Emphasis on Unity of Command
     A.   Responsibilities
          1.   Doctrine
          2.   Training
          3.   Budget
     B.   Service Participation
          1.   Army
          2.   Navy
          3.   Air Force
IV.  Marine Corps Special Operations
     A.   MEU(SOC)
          1.   Mission
          2.   Capabilities
     B.   Force Reconnaissance
          1.   Deep Reconnaissance Platoons
          2.   Direct Action Platoons
V.   Advantages of Consolidation
     A.   Centralized Direction
     B.   Enhanced Commonality
          1.   Philosophy
          2.   Doctrine
          3.   Training
          4.   Budget
     C.   Reduced Duplication
                                        Charles M. Sellers
                                        MAJ, SF       CG 2
     On October 14, 1986, the National Defense Authorization Act
of Fiscal Year 1987 was passed.  This act included a proviso
amending the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense
Reorganization Act of 1986, calling for creation of a "unified
combatant command for special operations forces."  (3:144)  The
new law clearly showed congressional intent to unify special
operations forces under a single command.  Now, over 5 years
later, congressional intent is as yet unrealized, in that Marine
Corps forces earmarked for special operations missions remain
outside the purview of the United States Special Operations
Command (USSOCOM), resulting in duplication of effort and waste
of resources.  This problem can be rectified by assignment of the
force reconnaissance direct action platoons to USSOCOM.
     The operational methods and equipment employed by special
operations forces differ significantly from those of general
purpose units.  The Joint Staff Officer's Guide, AFSC Pub 1,
defines special operations (SO) as, "Operations conducted by
specially trained, equipped, and organized DOD forces against
strategic or tactical targets in pursuit of national objectives."
(4:I-32)  FM 100-25 further describes SO, stating:
     Politico-military considerations frequently shape SO,
     requiring clandestine, covert, or low-visibility techniques
     and oversight at the national level.  SO usually differ from
     conventional operations in their degree of risk, operational
     techniques, mode of employment, independence from friendly
     support, and dependence upon operational intelligence and
     indigenous assets.  (2:2-1)
     Public Law (10 USC 167) identifies numerous categories of
either primary missions or collateral activities with direct
relation to the conduct of SO.  Direct action and counter-
terrorism are among the categories specified.  (2:3-1)  Direct
action missions include those designed to capture or recover
designated personnel or materiel.  Hostage rescue, often directly
linked to the counterterrorism arena, is by nature a direct
action mission.
     Hostage rescue is unique among SO categories, in that it
often requires more highly specialized tactics and procedures for
successful mission accomplishment.  Necessary skills include
highly surgical close quarter battle techniques, specialized
breaching procedures, and intimate familiarity with the complete
range of improvised explosive devices.  The numerous tasks in
each skill area are highly perishable, requiring focused,
continuous training on a wide variety of sub-tasks, ranging from
the highest degree of handgun proficiency to total familiarity
with the latest in international, civilian-manufactured
     Mastery of the weapons used in SO missions is perhaps the
most difficult and most perishable of the many skills that the
special operator must acquire.  From the beginning, he is trained
to be unquestionably capable of what, in special operations
terminology, is called the "5 per cent shot."  This term refers
to the amount of body area, usually a head or shoulder, exposed
by an armed opponent holding a hostage as a shield in front of
him.  Many consecutive hours of training are necessary before an
operator can achieve the confidence level necessary to take such
a shot.  Any miscalculation or lack of ability on his part could
result in serious injury or death for the hostage, failure of the
mission, and serious political consequences.
     How does the special operator attain such a high degree of
weapons proficiency?  The answer lies in a thorough, well-
grounded training program, a key ingredient of which is the
controlled repetition of proper shooting techniques.  The
operator candidate begins his weapons training with concurrent
programs of pistol, rifle, and assault rifle marksmanship.  He is
thoroughly indoctrinated into the basic principles governing the
employment of each class of weapon through a progressive training
program based on the building-block technique.  The training
objectives in each line of instruction build on the preceding
objectives, ultimately producing an individual firmly confident
in his marksmanship abilities, regardless of the difficulty of
the tactical situation.
     Pistol marksmanship, not widely taught in basic training, is
perhaps the subject area with which most candidates are initially
unfamiliar.  Beginning with dry fire training, using an unloaded
weapon, the student learns the correct grip, stance, breathing,
and body control necessary to attain the high standards of
accuracy which will be required of him.  He learns the proper
techniques of the firing stroke, or the sequence in which the
pistol is drawn from the holster, aimed, and fired.  The student
learns, through seemingly endless periods of repetition, the
instinctive acquisition of proper sight picture and alignment.
Many hours are spent in dry fire training before a round is fired
on the range.
     Pistol marksmanship training progresses systematically
through an extensive series of training simulations, each of
which is aimed at programming correct techniques into muscle
memory through repetition.  The drill sequences, by design,
address a wide range of possible combat situations.  Single and
multiple targets are engaged from a variety of shooting
positions: while stationary, while turning and firing, and while
walking or running.  Strong-hand and weak-hand shooting are
practiced to prepare the student for wounds received in combat,
preventing the use of both hands on the weapon.  Reload drills
are emphasized until they become second nature.  Throughout the
program, silhouettes representing hostages are placed
progressively closer to those representing terrorists, so as to
increase the need for accuracy while engaging the threat.  From
the beginning, the student is under considerable pressure,
knowing that hitting a hostage equates to mission failure.
     Pistol marksmanship closely parallel those in assault rifle
marksmanship.  The operator generally carries both pistol and
assault rifle, and either could be his primary weapon in a given
situation.  Learning to transition smoothly from assault rifle to
pistol, without losing the flow of the tactical situation, is
crucial, in that imprecise execution of the maneuver could cost
precious time, resulting in the death of the operator, the
hostage, or both.
     Weapons mastery is but one of the many skills required of
the special operator.  Tactical application of weapons skills
occurs during the conduct of close quarter battle (CQB).  The CQB
environment, in which the candidate must learn to apply the
shooting techniques he has learned, is fluid and often confusing,
requiring the ability to make immediate decisions, and act upon
them without hesitation.
     In the CQB environment, the operator acts as part of a
close-knit team, each member of which knows instinctively how his
teammates will react in tactical situations.  The extremely high
level of understanding between teammates is developed slowly
through long-term working relationships, common doctrine, and the
bonds formed through shared experiences.  The almost subconscious
level of cohesion among members of a team who have worked
together for extended periods of time, years in many cases,
cannot be duplicated in a six month training cycle.
Just as shooting and CQB skills are highly perishable,
requiring continuous training, evaluation, and retraining, so are
the skills necessary to successfully pursue reconnaissance as a
primary mission.  Both areas require dedication of extraordinary
amounts of time and effort to achieve and maintain required
proficiency levels.  Because of this, teams are normally assigned
a primary mission of either assault or reconnaissance, with the
other role assigned as an alternate.  Sufficient time is simply
not available to achieve adequate proficiency in both areas
simultaneously.  Any attempt to do so would be likely to degrade
proficiency in each.
     Just as the skill areas of the special operator are
different from those of the conventional soldier, so are the
types of equipment required for accomplishment of SO missions.
Peculiar mission requirements dictate the expenditure of large
amounts of money on both the research and development and the
purchase of many nonstandard items of equipment.  Unified
direction of budgetary programs and initiatives is necessary to
provide common doctrine, ensure interoperability, and eliminate
duplication of effort and waste of increasingly scarce resources.
     Unification of special operations forces has been achieved
only with great difficulty.  Arguably the single, most important
catalyst toward unification was the failure of the Iran rescue
operation on 24 April 1980.  Undertaken as a long-awaited
response to the seizure of the United States Embassy in Tehran on
4 November 1979, the operation pointedly underlined major
shortcomings in the United States military's approach to special
     The plan called for the rescue operation to be conducted in
three phases.  (7:120)  In Phase I, an Army special operations
assault force, led by Colonel Charles Beckwith, was to fly, via
intermediate staging bases in Germany and Egypt, to a secret base
in the Iranian desert, approximately 490 kilometers southeast of
Tehran.  At this location, codenamed Desert One, the C-130
aircraft carrying the assault force would meet 8 Navy RH-53D
helicopters, flown from the USS Nimitz in the Gulf of Oman by
Marine Corps pilots.  After refueling from the C-130s, the
helicopters would transport the assault force to another secret
landing zone in the vicinity of Tehran.  From this location, two
agents would lead the assault force to a hide site in a remote
wadi, in which they would wait for nightfall.  Meanwhile, the
helicopters would proceed to a separate hide site to await the
ground element's call for extraction.
     After nightfall, Phase II would begin with a route
reconnaissance by Colonel Beckwith and one of the agents.  The
other agent, with 12 driver/translators, would collect 6 Mercedes
trucks, in which the force would be transported to Tehran.  Once
in the city, the assault force would simultaneously rescue the
hostages in the embassy and Foreign Ministry compounds, then
recall the helicopters for airlift out of the city.
     In Phase III, the helicopters, with the assault force and
hostages, would rendezvous with C-141 aircraft at Mansarieh
airfield, approximately 56 kilometers south of Tehran.  The
airfield was to be seized by a contingent of Army Rangers during
Phase II, concurrent with the assaults on the hostage locations
in the capitol.  Abandoning all remaining helicopters at the
airfield, the entire force would be evacuated by C-141, with the
Rangers leaving last.
     Command and control for the operation was centralized at the
highest levels, with real-time communications links between the
National Command Authority and the joint task force (JTF) in the
theater of operations.   President Jimmy Carter and General David
Jones, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke directly
by satellite radio from Washington, DC to the JTF commander,
Major General James Vaught, at Wadi Kena airfield, in Egypt.
Similar communications links were established from Wadi Kena to
the on-scene commanders, Colonel Beckwith, commanding the ground
force, and Colonel James Kyle, commanding the Air Force operation
at Desert One.
     The overall plan was highly contingent on the helicopter
element accomplishing its assigned tasks.  Serious difficulties
arose early in the mission.  Unforeseen circumstances, long
distances, and unexpectedly severe weather conditions combined to
drop the number of operational helicopters to 5 - one below the
established abort criteria.  Colonel Beckwith, despite pressure
from the chain of command above him to continue, gave the order
to abort.  (7:125)  The mission ended in failure, even before the
disastrous collision between one of the RH-53Ds and an EC-130
during ground refueling, which left 8 aircraft crewmen dead on
the desert floor.
     The vivid images of burning aircraft and American dead
following the raid stunned the world, bringing painfully to light
the apparent inability of the world's greatest superpower to
successfully orchestrate a global, special operations response to
a blatant terrorist challenge.  The "Holloway Report," named
after the chairman of the committee formed to investigate the
conduct of the raid, Admiral J. L. Holloway III, USN (Ret),
studied 23 separate issues in depth, eventually identifying 11
major areas that had "identifiable influence on the rescue
outcome or that should receive the most careful consideration at
all levels in planning for any future special operation."  (5:iv)
Specifically, command and control was determined to be a major
cause of failure, with the report stating, "Command relationships
below the Commander, JTF, were not clearly emphasized. . .were
susceptible to misunderstandings under pressure."  (5:v)
     In response to the findings of the reporting committee, the
Department of Defense established an advisory panel of active and
retired officers, with career backgrounds in SO.  The high-
ranking officers assigned to the panel were to oversee and advise
the planning and conduct of future SO.  Creation of the panel was
an initial step toward consolidation of service special
operations forces under one command.
     The changes instituted as a result of the "Holloway Report"
resulted in significant political battles among the services,
with improvement in SO capabilities progressing slowly along
service lines.  A critical review of the Grenada operation, in
October 1983, identified, once again, poor command and control as
the basis for errors in execution.  Reacting to the lessons
learned from Grenada, the Army pushed for creation of a joint
structure under which to consolidate SO activities.  These
actions, along with continued Congressional pressure, eventually
resulted in the establishment of the Department of Defense Joint
Special Operations Agency in 1984.
     Unsatisfied with the level of cooperative effort within the
new agency, Congress, despite considerable service opposition,
demanded still greater efforts toward unification.  In a
bipartisan effort, SO proponents called for new legislation to
ensure the development of a common philosophy and support system.
Congressional initiatives focused on increased continuity and
professionalism among the services, with the aim of increasing
overall responsiveness to National Command Authority
requirements.  The sustained drive toward unification finally
resulted in the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act
of 1987.
     The new law paved the way for creation of a unified command
for SO.  Section 1311 stated, "Unless otherwise directed by the
Secretary of Defense, all active and reserve special operations
forces of all armed forces stationed in the United States shall
be assigned to the Special Operations Command."  (1:42)  The
United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) was formally
activated on 16 April 1987, at MacDill AFB, Florida.
     The primary responsibility of the new Commander in Chief,
Special Operations Command (CINCSOC), in keeping with the spirit
of Goldwater-Nichols, was to provide mission-ready special
operations forces for employment by the warfighting CINCs.  The
law gave him authority for the overall development of common SO
doctrine and tactics; training of assigned forces; and management
of the SO budget.  The intent of the law was to enhance overall
efficiency by establishing unity of command over all special
operations forces.
     Though interservice battles occurred over assignment of
forces to the new command, arbitration by the Secretary of
Defense eventually resulted in the successful consolidation of
Navy, Air Force, and Army special operations forces under
USSOCOM.  The Marine Corps successfully argued for retaining
control of its forces, insisting that its force reconnaissance
companies were not special operations units, but simply the deep
reconnaissance elements of the Marine air-ground task force
(MAGTF).  Congress upheld the Marine Corps' position that
reassignment of force reconnaissance assets to USSOCOM would
result in the loss of a human intelligence capability critical to
the MAGTF commander.  However, the Commandant was directed to
submit a report to Congress on Marine Corps SO capabilities.
     Despite its claims of possessing no special operations
forces, the Marine Corps' interest in SO continued to increase.
Based on General Kelley's report to Congress, the Marine Corps
implemented a program for development of SO capabilities within
the Marine expeditionary unit.  The new Marine expeditionary unit
(special operations capable), or MEU(SOC), would be capable of
performing, among its other missions, in-extremis hostage rescue,
with its implied task of achieving high levels of proficiency in
nonstandard skills such as CQB,  specialized breaching, and
improvised explosive devices.
     In 1989, to better accommodate the expanded scope of
responsibility, the Marine Corps reorganized the force
reconnaissance companies to include five deep reconnaissance
platoons and five direct action platoons.  The direct action
platoons received the majority of the specialized training
necessary to accomplish the new missions.  With the formation of
direct action platoons, the Marine Corps, for all practical
purposes, entered the realm of SO.
     The duplication of effort resulting from Marine reluctance
to participate in the SO unified command can be eliminated by
assignment of the force reconnaissance direct action platoons to
USSOCOM,  The platoons could be consolidated in a force
reconnaissance direct action company, responsible to USSOCOM for
training and resourcing.  The company would retain responsibility
for support to the deployed MEU(SOC)s, in that it would assign a
platoon to a MEU at the beginning of the predeployment training
cycle.  The platoon would remain with that MEU(SOC) for the
duration of its deployment.
     Habitual relationships between MEUs and force reconnaissance
units would still be possible through parallel scheduling of
training cycles.  The overall system would insure common doctrine
and training for the forces involved, while allowing undiminished
support to the MEU(SOC).  Greater focus would be possible during
nondeployed training cycles on maintenance of the highly
specialized skills necessary for successful hostage rescue and
counterterrorist missions.  Additionally, common funding under
the USSOCOM umbrella would prevent duplication of effort and
waste of resources.
     USSOCOM has proven its ability to provide effective
oversight and guidance to the SO community as a whole.
Integration of Navy, Air Force, and Army special operations
forces wider a single command has markedly improved SO
capabilities, as was shown during Operation Just Cause and
Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.  Assignment of force
reconnaissance direct action platoons to USSOCOM would even
further improve these capabilities.  Support to deployed
MEU(SOC)s by force reconnaissance direct action assets would not
be diminished.  Indeed, the MEU(SOC)'s direct action capability
would increase, because of the added focus and concentration of
effort in training which consolidation would allow.  These fully
trained and resourced units, operating under a common doctrine
and set of procedures, would increase the level of
interoperability with other SO assets and enhance the credibility
of the MEU(SOC)'s response to in-extremis crisis situations.  As
long as the Marine Corps insists on retaining control of Marine
forces dedicated to the accomplishment of what are, by
definition, special operations, duplication of effort and waste
of resources will continue.
1. Boykin, Col. William G.  "Special Operations and Low-Intensity
   Conflict Legislation:  Why was it Passed and Have the Voids
   Been Filled?"  United States Army War College Military
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   Carlisle Barracks, PA, 12 April 1991.
2. Doctrine For Army Special Operations Forces (SF, Rangers, CA.
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   Department of the Army, Washington, DC, 12 December 1991.
3. Ellis, Lt. Col. John J.  "Command and Control of Special
   Operations:  A Historical Perspective, Volume II."
   Unpublished Research Report Submitted to the Commander-in-
   Chief, United States Special Operations Command in
   Fulfillment of a Research Requirement for the National War
   College.  National War College, National Defense University,
   May 1988.
4. Magness, Lt. Col. John E. (ed.).  The Joint Staff Officer's
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5. Rescue Mission Report.  Special Operations Review Group, Joint
   Chiefs of Staff, United States Department of Defense, (August
   1980), pp iv-v.
6. Rogish, Lt. Col. Joseph J., Jr.  "Do Marines Belong in
   USSOCOM?"  Marine Corps Gazette, Vol. 76, Number 7, (July
   1992), pp 58-59.
7. Walmer, Max.  An Illustrated Guide to Modern Elite Forces.
   New York:  Prentice Hall Press, 1986.
8. Western, Capt. T. F.  "Countering Terrorism with the MAU,"
   Marine Corps Gazette, Vol. 70, Number 3, (March 1986),
   pp 40-41.

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