Marine special operators are using fiction to envision the future

Short stories by Marine Raiders are driving discussions about the evolution of MARSOC through 2040, its commander writes.

Out in the Indian Ocean, the maritime militia’s unmanned craft approached the Marine-led international task force, and a young sergeant deployed his own small submersibles to meet the threat. While the Marines’ new systems used artificial intelligence to synchronize a response to enemy drone swarms, their operator still faced the timeless challenge of the sea. He struggled to control his drones as they spread out under the crashing ocean waves. This cat-and-mouse game of reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance still relied on principles honed since WWII: a combination of technical and human-centric skillsets that would enable a cross-functional team of Marines, Marine Raiders, and allied partners to prevail.  

This vignette, although based in the technological advancements of today, is set in the late 2030s. It’s part of our effort at Marine Forces Special Operations Command to use fiction to peer into the future.

Fictional intelligence, or FICINT, stories, as defined by Ghost Fleet and Burn-In authors Peter Singer and August Cole, represent a way to envision future scenarios with operationally-informed fiction writing. Our command worked with both authors—known for galvanizing discussions about change within the Defense Department—to mentor current Marine Raiders in publishing three FICINT stories that have already helped drive discussion on the evolution of MARSOC into 2040.

In this current decade, we have been working to implement the vision and strategy laid out in 2018’s “MARSOF 2030” and its supporting operating concept of 2021, planning for our future capabilities and employment with our colleagues across Special Operations, the Marine Corps, and the Joint Force. These documents laid out the challenges: our nation’s adversaries and their proxies are unceasing in their use of cyber attacks, disinformation campaigns, geopolitical incursions, disruption of commercial maritime trade, and financing of malicious actors to gain strategic advantage. Marine Special Operations Command recognized the need to illuminate, contextualize and counter these efforts while creating effects-based dilemmas at a tempo adversaries cannot match. They also defined the capabilities our forces need to prevail, described the environments in which they will operate, and sought to align MARSOC as a connecting file between U.S. SOCOM’s modernization efforts and the Marine Corps’ future operating concepts. 

Our conceptual framework is rapidly becoming a reality. Deployed Marine Special Operations Forces gain persistent placement and access to politically sensitive environments and develop enduring relationships with our allies’ and partners’ military leaders. As Marines, we are especially suited to operate in littoral regions—where the majority of the world’s population centers are located, and the preponderance of economic activity occurs. We are providing our Marine Raiders with the advanced training, tactics, and technologies that underpin our operating concept. Raiders are strengthening and enabling allies and partners, illuminating, and deterring malign activities, and enabling the speed and precision of a Joint Force response if we must escalate from competition to crisis and conflict.  

But even as we provide solutions for today’s challenges, our Marine Raiders continue to evolve from the strategic vision laid out in MARSOF 2030 towards the ever-increasing strategic and operational challenges anticipated in the following decade. It is for this reason that we turned to FICINT writing. We built upon the operational concepts that globally distributed Marine Raiders execute daily, while challenging ourselves to internalize a future operating environment with the types of multi-functional challenges highlighted by U.S. SOCOM’s 2040 conceptual framework.   

Our short stories center around practical applications and lethal and non-lethal effects in strategic competition and crisis, and help us envision the types of people, capabilities, dependencies, and interactions that will be required of future Raider formations. To that end we incorporated several themes that transcended any one vignette: using new digital capabilities to achieve greater effects with our partners and allies; rapidly adapting to changes in environmental conditions and adversary strategic objectives; and finally, staying true to our Marine Corps heritage and the foundation it provides to enable us to achieve decisive effects for our nation.

Raider 40: “Imbedded.” The overarching purpose is to highlight interagency-enabled activities like counter-threat finance operations that hold increasing relevance not only for enduring counter-terrorism missions but also in strategic competition. This story emphasizes the importance of tracing state-sponsored activities to non-state malign influence, underscoring the significance of a robust liaison network and the necessity for a reliable redundant support system. As the digital landscape continues to expand, the narrative contrasts non-lethal and lethal activities.

Raider 40: “Arctic Urgency.” The story focuses on the application of information and non-lethal effects in strategic competition. Arctic Urgency delves into the intricacies of partnered operations, human-machine teaming, spectrum management, and communication within denied environments. It underscores that human adaptation will remain a pivotal element in competition and conflict. 

Raider 40: “Uncharted.” Conceptualizing the convergence of MARSOF elements and future Marine Air-Ground Task Forces (MAGTFs), “Uncharted” examines how MARSOC’s operational approach integrates with the Marine Corps Force Design concepts. As the story develops, the employment of uncrewed autonomous systems and use of human cultural nuances with partner forces becomes a focal point.

MARSOF 2030 started our transformation from a needs-based counterterrorism-focused force to one composed of force elements and command-and-control nodes that can sense, fuse, and manipulate data at unprecedented scope, speed, and understanding to gain decisional advantage and provide operational commanders effects-based options inside the adversary’s decision cycle. Our MARSOF 2040 vision will make us stronger by challenging the current force to iteratively analyze, anticipate, and predict what will be needed. FICINT is one useful tool to frame the conversation. As we strive to sustain MARSOC’s high-performing contribution as part of the joint force in 2040, we need our formation to think critically, adapt effectively, and execute boldly to achieve that outcome.  

Encouraged by the creativity of our authors, I have published their stories on our website. A wider discussion will occur in May 2024 at Global SOF Week Conference in Tampa, Florida. I look forward to the discussions stemming from our efforts to envision and embrace the future operating environment in which our Marine Raiders will thrive.

Maj. Gen. Matthew Trollinger is the commander of Marine Forces Special Operations Command. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense or Special Operations Command.