“I’m not satisfied. There is more out there. There are ways to be better. There are ways to be more efficient. There are ways to be more lethal. And there are better ways to accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish.”
— Col. John Lynch, MARSOC deputy commander
We know about the US Army Rangers and the illustrious Green Berets.
Elite special forces, who have seen action throughout Southeast Asia, the Middle-East and other theatres of war. They are legendary.
And then we have the famous US Navy SEALs, the guys who got Bin Laden, and, of course the top of the pyramid, the secretive Delta Force.
Britain’s renowned SAS as well — who might actually be the best of the bunch — Russia’s deadly Spetsnaz, and, Canada’s small but effective JTF2.
Elite warfighters that are highly trained and thoroughly tested, experts in weapons and combat, counterterrorism, direct action (small raids and ambushes), reconnaissance, aerial and marine infiltration, hostage rescue and recovery, covert missions and more.
Not to be outdone, the US Marine Corps Special Operations Command (MARSOC) is now pushing its elite squadron, the Marine Raiders — the best of the best of the famed “leathernecks” — with its “Cognitive Raider” initiative.
Much like Britain’s specialized “Increment” unit within the Special Air Service (SAS), Marines sent into future special ops environments “must be able to understand them and then adapt their approaches across an expanded range of solutions,” Scott R. Gourley of National Defense reported.
We’re not talking about a group of jar-heads, sent to defend a beach, hold it at all costs and take heavy casualties. This is normally what the Marines do.
Rather, according to the Marine Corps Special Operations Forces (MARSOF) 2030 strategic vision outlining the Cognitive Raider innovation pathway:
“While tough, close-in, violent actions will remain a feature of future warfare, MARSOF must increasingly integrate tactical capabilities and partnered operations with evolving national, theater and interagency capabilities across all operational domains, to include those of information and cyber.”
To facilitate that understanding and adaptation, MARSOC has implemented an annual event called the Cognitive Raider Symposium, also known as CRS.
Co-hosted with the Naval Postgraduate School’s Defense Analysis Department, the multi-day gatherings provide myriad learning venues designed to hone the Marine Raiders’ “tactical edges,” Gourley reported.
And I don’t think this means going without sleep for a week, sitting in cold ocean water, or carrying a heavy “tree of woe” for hours on end, as Navy SEALs must do.
The symposium not only addresses the Cognitive Raider pathway, but also illustrates MARSOF as a true connector of ideas and concepts.
Opening the third iteration of the symposium, Col. John Lynch, MARSOC deputy commander, identified several key traits: “It starts with being a problem solver, one that never becomes complacent but instead remains adaptable and forward thinking.”
He described an “edge” where the Marine Raider asserts, “I’m not satisfied. There is more out there. There are ways to be better. There are ways to be more efficient. There are ways to be more lethal. And there are better ways to accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish.
“I cannot pick a single period of time in my career … where we have been challenged to evolve at the pace we’re being challenged to evolve right now,” he added.
“It is remarkable how fast we have to do it.”
Douglas Borer, chair of the Defense Analysis Department at the Naval Postgraduate School, noted the conference’s focus on “frontier technologies,” offering both low-tech and high-tech examples while discussing how the technologies might alter strategic realities in great power competition with China and Russia.
“When I asked what frontier technologies a Cognitive Raider mostly followed, the list included things like automation, AI, advanced manufacturing, biotech, quantum computing, 5G, next-gen hardware robotics and space,” said Matt Stafford, a State Department representative.
“These largely follow State’s concerns. I know we both have much longer lists that we’re also paying attention to, but it’s good to hear that we share these worries.
“We also share some of your background worries about how these things will get used, or combined with each other, or just combined with existing technologies.”
One example of that was provided by Chief Master Sgt. John Bentivegna, senior enlisted leader for Space Operations Command.
Bentivegna emphasized the criticality of space domain awareness at a time when “space is becoming congested.”
In the evolving era of great power competition, he expressed the command’s desire to explore partnering with MARSOC and Special Operations Command, observing:
“China has a satellite in space with a grappling arm. And Russia has anti-satellite weapons in orbit that could kinetically kill satellites. It’s all in that grey area. What is an act of war in space and where is space going in the future?”
Dr. Ryan Maness, assistant professor in the school’s Defense Analysis Department and director of the DoD Information Strategy Research Center, asserted that China is indeed the biggest threat, Gourley reported.
But, he also cautioned that the US government might be “over-hyping” that threat, citing some early evidence indicated that China “might be hitting a wall.”
While he characterized Russia as “outmatched in the conventional domain but punching above their weight in the cyber and information domains,” he noted of Chinese efforts to obtain rather than develop critical technologies, “It’s difficult to innovate when you’re cheating.”
SOCOM has come a long way, since its inception in 2006 — a reaction to the 9/11 attacks in New York. Reportedly, was created to fill what the Pentagon prudently saw as a future gap in special-operations forces.
“The early years were tough. In the beginning, we didn’t have jack shit. No weapons, no ammo, no ranges, no mission, no nothing. Both the Corps and SOCOM shunned us, while the SEALs [Naval Special Warfare Command] wanted to control us. We were the red-headed stepchild,” a former Marine Raider told Business Insider.
“What we did have, however, was a solid bunch of guys, about 100 operators and support Marines. All of them were as solid as they come because the leadership had handpicked them. We’re talking senior Recon men with years of experience and numerous deployments under their belts.
“Same goes for the support and intel guys. Top-notch Marines on their respective fields who could probably outperform grunts on basic infantry skills because they went through much of our training,” the former Raider added.
During the Global War on Terror, MARSOC contributed to the fight, but as the wars concluded or drew down, Marine Raiders have found themselves competing for missions and funds with units such as US Army Rangers or the SEAL Teams.
Since MARSOC is the new kid on the block, it tends to be relegated to less active areas of operations — ironically, however, these regions can get quite busy, and Marine Raiders have participated in some important operations, such the response to al-Shabab’s attack on the Kenyan military base at Manda Bay in January 2020.
Meanwhile, Marine Raiders recently completed RAVEN unit readiness exercises alongside Marines from across the Fleet Marine Force as well as US Army Special Forces, earlier this spring.
RAVEN is MARSOC’s pre-deployment unit readiness exercise, designed to evaluate Marine Special Ops Teams as well as provide valuable training and experience.
“This exercise has evolved over time to encompass a broad range of military operations,” said a Marine special opes commander. “It stresses interoperability with partner nation forces, other services, and government agencies and departments.”
Going forward, symposium attendees explored how the MARSOF 2030 vision links to a focus on an operating concept identified as Strategic Shaping and Reconnaissance, or SSR.
The concept — the focus for future iterations of the Cognitive Raider Symposium — includes a wide array of skills and equipment to provide shaping and influence effects to be achieved through a hybrid approach utilizing selected special operations core activities and programs applied through intelligence operations, direct and indirect actions, and persistent development of ally and partner relations.
If you’re puzzled by all those big fancy military terms, so am I.
Essentially, I think it means “a thinking man’s” Marine Raiders.
“Semper Fi” with an added sting.
Yes, they may still take that beachhead and hold it, but they just might have some surprises up their sleeve.
Sources: National Defense, Business Insider, Marine Corps.