A Strategy for What Winning Looks Like

>Capt Carraway is a MAGTF Intelligence Officer with eight years of experience. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Peace, War, and Defense as well as History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a Master of Science in Strategic Intelligence from the National Intelligence University in Bethesda, MD.


The Marine Special Operations Forces (MARSOF) 2030 strategy for the future states that the future operating environment will be characterized primarily by regional competition and instability.1 In Lawrence Freedman’s analysis on the curiously consistent failure in predicting future conflict, he sums up the current mood with:

“a common theme of those reflecting on the state of the military art was of the blurring of boundaries—between peace and war, the military and the civilian, the conventional and unconventional, the regular and the irregular, the domestic and the international, and the state and the non-state, the legitimate and the criminal.”2

A future potentiality for the geopolitical world and likely operating environment for 2040 indicates the United States will face less operational freedom and maneuver in the physical and virtual spaces compared to today. Revisionist powers in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Russian Federation, and the Islamic Republic of Iran present pivot points that seek to persistently degrade the current liberal international order. Moreover, the PRC’s integrated effort to blunt the current order and build its own alternative will create a perennial undertone of strategic or great-power competition (GPC).Such priority mission requirements will be punctuated by emergent flashpoints requiring resolution by the United States as the world’s most responsible and involved stakeholder. The MARSOF 2030 strategy goes on to say that “the US response to these revisionist bids will, in many cases, be the employment of SOF to define the problem, achieve ends, and demonstrate resolve without unnecessarily escalating them into open conflict … [to] buy decision space for senior leaders to observe and orient on the problem.”Such a turbulent and complex future with an eroded U.S. strategic advantage begs the question of what winning looks like (WWLL) both for U.S. special operations forces (USSOF) in general and MARSOF in particular.

Defining What Winning Looks Like for USSOF and MARSOF
As Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), GEN Bryan Fenton characterized USSOF as “uniquely positioned to draw upon [its] joint, global, full-spectrum, all-domain capabilities to provide asymmetric options for our nation and create dilemmas for competitors, allowing our Joint Force to gain warfighting advantage and close warfighting vulnerabilities.”Under current efforts to develop a co-authored Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict-USSOCOM future operating concept, GEN Fenton lists winning to “succeed for the nation” as one of his three priorities.USSOF may win “with a range of options to deter aggression and counter coercion … [supporting] Joint Force deterrence, including by bolstering Allies’ and partners’ resilience and resistance, ensuring precision access, countering misinformation, and mitigating risk.”While the current mission and requirements are not guaranteed to last for another fifteen-plus years—against a backdrop of instability—the previous statements can be taken to derive WWLL for USSOF.

A concept for WWLL for MARSOF must be nested within the USSOF vision. Practically, this should translate each of the aforementioned requirements for MARSOF by adding the qualifier in the littorals and geographically focusing on the application of MARSOF resources in that liminal domain. Forming a MARSOF WWLL statement could look like the following:
MARSOF wins by providing a range of asymmetric options to create dilemmas for adversaries and competitors by deterring aggression, countering coercion and misinformation, and building partner capacity with precision access, while persistently mitigating risk in the littoral domain.

More conceptually, WWLL for MARSOF is creating an organizational competitive advantage with the most proficient skillset at the application of full-spectrum special operations in the littorals to support the Joint Force but, more importantly, with the ability to provide the preeminent military option bolstering a whole of government approach. Supporting the long-term MARSOF development for WWLL, the requirements for progression can be broken down into four categories to improve the current MARSOF 2030 core pathways: experimentation campaigning, operationalizing assessments, global placement and access expansion, and malign actor illumination.

MARSOF Initiatives to Posture for WWLL: Experimentation, Assessments, Expansion, and Illumination
Experimentation directly affects the posture and access capabilities of MARSOF. Experimentation extends throughout the formation and across requisite warfighting functions, foremost among them being sustainment, intelligence, information, fires, and command and control.Marine Special Operations Command (MARSOC) is already addressing some of the experimentation gaps here by providing an overarching concept in Strategic Shaping and Reconnaissance. Experimentation in future development must identify a flexible employment model that provides scalable units of action apart from a Marine special operations company (MSOC) that supports small footprint and low visibility operations. Acknowledging that it is a current effort for the formation, it is hard to envision a future where MARSOC has a single solution for every global and complex problem. Experimentation would support adjustments to the MARSOF 2030 pathways of MARSOF as a connector, combined arms for the connected arena, and the cognitive raider.

In building a MARSOF 2040 strategy, it makes sense to take a page out of former CMC Gen David Berger’s Force Design 2030 that has rippled throughout the FMF, the DOD, and civilian national security circles to include famous Marine Corps alumni such as LtGen Paul Van Riper.9 Despite critics of the current path, few can argue the significant changes and ultimate impact of Force Design or the progression of it as a methodical process throughout the Force Development Enterprise captured in the CMC’s Force Design 2030 Annual Update. If nothing else, the deliberate action of providing “directed actions” and identifying “issues requiring further analysis” is a phenomenal starting point for driving the Marine Corps Campaign of Learning and the associated Service-Level Experimentation Campaign Plan.10

A MARSOC analog to the Marine Corps Campaign of Learning and Service-Level Experimentation Campaign Plan would be the highest payoff effort in contributing to WWLL for MARSOF 2040. Such an effort would increase the requirements at the O-6 and assistant chief-of-staff levels for management and assessment; however, due to the peculiarities associated with USSOF writ large, MARSOF will need to take a more deliberate approach to develop succeeding Raider generations. This is the only way to develop an effective approach to MARSOF force design as it will not be done through the Marine Corps Force Development Enterprise or USSOF acquisitions, technology, and logistics. There exists even more fertile ground with six parallel and progressive training cycles with three units simultaneously focused on either unit training programs I or II. With deliberate and centralized experimentation planning, (12) distinct events could be leveraged for discrete experimentation efforts or specified tasks to feed an annual experimentation campaign plan. Considering MARSOC now has its first official operating concept, conditions are set for such experimentation planning. Potential priority engagements could include any of the culminating annual exercises for each TSOC that provide temporal, functional, and geographic variety. While MARSOC may change the mechanics of its pre-deployment training plan in the future, especially if the units of action are adjusted to better satisfy global force management, there will be similar versions of a pre-deployment training plan. Additionally, MARSOC purposefully employs Marine special operations teams in an experimentation capacity; however, it does not do so with other critical elements such as its direct support teams. A successful MARSOF 2040 strategy will include experimentation requirements across all aspects of its formation from the critical skills operators and special operations capability specialists (SOCS) to combat service support including intelligence, communications, and logistics. This could be as simple as signals intelligence SOCS being given new platforms and equipment to test within extant collective training events as either blue or red forces and providing formal after-action reviews to appropriate component offices (e.g. G-24 intelligence systems). Such experimentation efforts would provide positive feedback loops with a component-driven operational assessment process.

MARSOF have maintained consistent deployments on a rotational basis to the same and similar locations for an extended period throughout the Global War on Terror and associated counter-violent extremist organization missions. MARSOC has yet to capitalize on its consolidated, co-located, and relatively flat command structure to leverage its Raider brain trust for effective campaign planning and assessments. Fully acknowledging that deploying MSOCs, or whatever future units of action are provided for global force management requirements, are subordinated with designated operational control under a higher headquarters organization within the Theater Special Operations Command (TSOC), a MARSOF 2040 strategy will require more. Due to the unique Service-like authorities of USSOCOM holding combatant command authority exercised over USSOF and TSOCs as a sub-unified command, it may be more reasonable and feasible to do so than any other force provider (apart from U.S. Cyber Command).11 Assessments would support adjustments to the MARSOF 2030 pathways of enterprise agility and the Cognitive Raider.

With the regional alignment for Marine Raider battalions matching the established alignment of Marine Raider support battalions, MARSOC is poised at the O6 level and below to operationalize the formation outside of its standing mission to man, train, equip, and deploy MARSOF. One significant change that will have to occur to support this requirement is an adjustment in the pre-deployment training plan methodology to adjust its historic countering-violent extremist organizations (CVEO) focus to a broader lens of GPC and instability with various aspects of irregular warfare included. Similar to the point regarding experimentation, this will increase headquarters requirements at the O5 and O6 levels; however, it may provide a unique opportunity for portions of the formation that must participate in the certification, verification, and validation program outlined in USSOCOM Directive 350-12.12 Assessments are something that the DOD historically struggles with, even more so with assessments on complex problem sets. Imbuing the current command structure within MARSOC with assessment responsibilities in support of its rotationally deploying units will establish and formalize this capability for larger MARSOF operations while providing additional support to traditional MSOC deployments. With high-demand/low-density capabilities such as cyberspace operations personnel, this may also be the best method to leverage finite subject-matter expertise more efficaciously requiring familiarity with the operational problem sets at the TSOCs.

Expansion of Placement and Access
MARSOF participates in major TSOC engagements globally to a lesser extent compared with other elements of USSOCOM mainly due to the tight nature of the current supply and demand of deployable MARSOF units. In addressing a more scalable unit of action outside of a comprehensive MSOC, such as experimental Marine special operations teams or direct support teams, MARSOC may look to expand its participation globally enhancing its placement and access physically, logically, conceptually, and cognitively. Potential priority engagements could choose one exercise within SOCCENT.13 While all of these exercises are modern-day events and have no guarantees to last over the next two decades, MARSOC may deliberately look to expand its global placement and access, provide varying opportunities outside of its persistent CVEO mission, and begin to look at developing key partnerships that are crucial to supporting effective GPC. Separate from major TSOC exercises, current programs that will provide long-term benefits to MARSOF capabilities, build connective tissue with other elements of USSOCOM, and reinforce global connectivity would be participation in the USSOCOM-managed Integrated Survey Program. Expansion of placement and access would support adjustments to the MARSOF 2030 pathways of MARSOF as a connector and the Cognitive Raider. The three activities and investments would thus enable effective operations for malign actor illumination.

Malign Actor Illumination
The indelible mark left by the 11 September 2001 attacks has been codified, reimagined, and perpetuated in every subsequent National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy. Prior to 9/11, President George W. Bush’s administration prioritized both the PRC and Russia as its major foreign policy challenges requiring the attention of American grand strategy.14 In the presidential administration’s struggle to de-emphasize and rebalance from Global War on Terror, the United States, the DOD, and USSOF find themselves reimagining a form of GPC in a menagerie of terms: integrated deterrence, strategic competition, near-peer competition, and GPC. The re-entrance of USSOF to GPC in medias res creates a mission requirement that will likely persist until the middle of the 21st century with the second Chinese Communist Party centenary goal of 2049 for “national rejuvenation” and achieving “world-class” armed forces.15 The Russian problem may not persist to the same extent since a large part of the current Russian system is based around President Vladimir Putin’s cult of personality; however, this could prove false with his “program of political, economic, and military rebuilding” and essential appointment as “president for life.”16 Nevertheless, both present complex problem sets that require credible capabilities to address now, even if the Russian threat presents more like a “hurricane” and the PRC more like “climate change.”17 Illumination would support adjustments to the MARSOF 2030 pathways of MARSOF as a connector, enterprise agility, and Cognitive Raider.

MARSOF will have the ability to actively demonstrate WWLL with persistent and precise malign actor illumination. At the strategic level, MARSOF counter-PRC efforts must address “conceptual envelopment” which would generally require a greater use of a whole-of-government approach and the interagency process.18 Any counter-Russia efforts must address “liminal warfare” or better known as grey-zone warfare, sometimes referred to as hybrid warfare.19 MARSOF 2040 must build more proficiency and alacrity in leveraging unique authorities for nontraditional USSOF mission sets as counter-threat finance provides a potential asymmetric option that supports both counter strategies.20 By way of implementing MARSOC assessments to support rotational forces and expanding global placement and access with the previously discussed opportunities, a more federated approach to GPC may be the best way MARSOF supports counter-PRC and counter-Russia efforts. Supporting the USSOF enterprise, but more importantly strategic requirements from both the Defense Intelligence Enterprise and greater intelligence community within the littoral domain, could be the biggest benefit across each MARSOF pathway. Undergirded by an expansion of capabilities through a dedicated and deliberate MARSOF campaign of learning and component-level experimentation campaign plan—MARSOF 2040 can provide an overarching strategic advantage to the U.S. government, which is what winning looks like, tantamount to victory.

Conclusion: Innovating During Our Interwar Period
Characteristics of an Interwar Period. With the intentional effort to divest of the CVEO fight in light of GPC requirements, success in the future mission of 2030, 2035, or 2040 will ultimately be contingent on MARSOC’s willingness to innovate during this “interwar” period. Against the backdrop of CVEO’s transition to GPC, MARSOC may further be required to prepare for a war 1) that will occur at some indeterminate point in the future, 2) against an opponent who may not yet be identified, 3) in political conditions that one cannot accurately predict, and 4) in an arena of brutality and violence which one cannot replicate.21

Despite this explicit uncertainty, we must contend with the fact that “military cultures in particular seek to bring order and linearity to a world governed by chaotic complexity.”22 Furthermore, MARSOC may choose to accept risk here in identifying a viable adversary to plan against, much like CMC Gen Berger and the greater FMF. The MARSOC initiatives discussed provide a path for “evolutionary innovation” contingent on “organizational focus over a sustained period of time rather than on one particular individual’s capacity to guide the path of innovation for a short period of time.”23 For a successful MARSOF 2040 strategy, there is no other choice than a “long, complex process involving organizational cultures, strategic requirements, the international situation, and the capacity to learn realistic, honest lessons from past as well as present military experience.”24 MARSOC organizational culture will play a decided role in effective innovation for a winning MARSOF 2040, characterized by the “intellectual, professional, and traditional values” of its Raider culture.25 The initiatives may mold a MARSOC that can bolster the requirement for creativity, establish a culture of experimentation, operationalize the formation to support assessments, and ultimately cultivate a global mindset. Additional requirements of the Cognitive Raider will necessitate “upgrading [their] strategic education” to “win in an age of durable disorder if we understand the new rules [of war].”26 The changes are a continuation of the strategic drift in the U.S. national security enterprise since the end of President Barack Obama’s administration and the inflection point within President Donald Trump’s made most explicit in the 2018 National Defense Strategy. Christian Brose described the decision making and dialogue during this period with, “It is not just what America is prepared to fight for that must change but also how the US military plans to fight.”27 While MARSOF has no control of the former, it is unequivocally responsible for facilitating the latter.

MARSOF conceptual gains that could take a decade or more to fully develop, codify, and transmit throughout the whole of USSOF may mirror the diffusion of amphibious operational expertise during the early years of World War II. With the dedicated Marine experiments throughout the interwar period, two Marine Corps major generals were selected by the Army-Navy Joint Board in 1941 to lead two Joint Training Force Headquarters beginning with four U.S. Army infantry divisions and ultimately transitioning into Atlantic and Pacific Fleet Amphibious Corps Headquarters.28 Such efforts reveal the benefit in the development of a Service strategic advantage that may then be translated to America’s fighting forces as a whole, culminating with this example in Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy on D-Day 6 June 1944—the largest amphibious operation in history. Strategic Shaping and Reconnaissance combined with a culture of progress may one day prove a similar contribution to WWLL for USSOF.


1. Marine Special Operations Command, MARSOF 2030, (Jacksonville: 2018).

2. Lawrence Freedman, The Future of War: A History (New York: Public Affairs, 2019).

3. Rush Doshi, The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021).

4. MARSOF 2030.

5. Statement for the Record, Before the Committee on Armed Services Subcommittee on Intelligence & Special Operations, 118th Cong. 1 (2023) (statement of the Honorable Christopher Maier, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict and General Bryan Fenton, Commander of United States Special Operations Command).

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. U.S. Department of Defense, Joint Publication 3-0 Joint Campaigns and Operations, (Washington, DC: 2022).

9. Paul Van Riper, “This is the Marine Corps Debate We Should Be Having,” Marine Corps Times, December 7, 2022, https://www.marinecorpstimes.com/opinion/2022/12/07/this-is-the-marine-corps-debate-we-should-be-having.

10. Headquarters Marine Corps, Force Design 2030 Annual Update, (Washington, DC: May 2022).

11. Andrew Feickert, U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF): Background and Issues for Congress, (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2022).

12. U.S. Government Accountability Office, GAO-23-105163, Special Operations Forces: Better Data Necessary to Improve Oversight and Address Command and Control, (Washington, DC: 2022).

13. United States Special Operations Command, Fact Book 2023, (Tampa Bay, FL: USSOCOM Office of Communication, 2023).

14. Melvyn Leffler, “9/11 in Retrospect: George W. Bush’s Grand Strategy, Reconsidered,” Foreign Affairs 90, No. 5 (2011).

15. State Council Information Office, China’s National Defense in the New Era (2019), Government of the People’s Republic of China (Beijing: 2019); and The Long Game.

16. David Kilcullen, The Dragon and the Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020); and Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber and Alexander Marrow, “Kremlin Calls Vote Allowing Putin to Rule Until 2036, a Triumph as Russians Ponder His Next Move,” Reuters, July 2, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-putin-vote/kremlin-calls-vote-allowing-putin-to-rule-until-2036-a-triumph-as-russians-ponder-his-next-move-idUSKBN2431TM.

17. Jean-Baptiste Jeangene Vilmer and Paul Charon, “Russia as a Hurricane, China as Climate Change: Different Ways of Information Warfare,” War on the Rocks, January 21, 2020, https://warontherocks.com/2020/01/russia-as-a-hurricane-china-as-climate-change-different-ways-of-information-warfare.

18. The Dragon and the Snakes.

19. Ibid.

20. U.S. Department of Defense, DOD Directive 5205.14 DOD Counter Threat Finance Policy, (Washington, DC: 2017).

21. Williamson Murray, “Innovation: Past and Future,” in Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, ed. Williamson Murray and Allen Millet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

22. “Innovation: Past and Future.”

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid.

25. Ibid.

26. Sean Mcfate, The New Rules of War: Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder (New York: William Morrow, 2019).

27. Christian Brose, The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare (New York: Hachette Books, 2020).

28. The Army-Navy Joint Board was an organizational precursor to the Combined Joint Chiefs of Staff. See also Allen Millet, “Assault from the Sea: The Development of Amphibious Warfare Between the Wars,” in Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, ed. Williamson Murray and Allen Millet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).