In late August 2012, Maj. Gen. Mark A. Clark became the fourth commander of the U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command (MARSOC) since it stood up in 2006. Assuming command from retiring Maj. Gen. Paul E. Lefebvre, Clark is the first MARSOC leader to come directly from the joint U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), where he had been director of operations from June 2009 until May 2011, when he was promoted to SOCOM chief of staff.
Having been designated a naval aviator in 1983, flying the CH-53 Super Stallion, Clark deployed to the Persian Gulf in 1990 in support of Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm. His first direct involvement with special operations came in 1992, when he was assigned as the first MH-53J Pave Low exchange pilot with the 20th Special Operations Squadron, eventually becoming assistant director of operations and supporting the Green Hornets’ operations in Bosnia and Haiti.
After receiving his master’s in military science from the Command and Staff College in Quantico, Va., Clark served as operations officer for Marine Aircraft Group 26, then executive officer, and eventually commander of HMH-461 (the Ironhorses). In November 2001, he was assigned temporary duty with SOCOM Central in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and, the following year, became Joint Operations Center chief for the Combined Joint Force Special Operations Command in Qatar.
His graduation from the Army War College in June 2003 was followed by assignment to the Center for Special Operations in the J5 Plans and J35 Future Plans Divisions, responsible for Global War on Terrorism plans as part of SOCOM. In July 2006, Clark assumed command of Marine Medium Tiltrotor Training Squadron 204, which is responsible for transitioning Corps medium-lift squadrons to the MV-22 Osprey. For two years prior to going back to SOCOM, he served as the director-Strategy and Plans Division at Marine Corps Headquarters.
Shortly before assuming command of MARSOC, Clark responded to questions about the command’s status and future from Faircount senior writer J.R. Wilson.
J.R. Wilson: How do you believe your experience on the SOCOM staff will help you as MARSOC’s new commander?
Maj. Gen. Mark A. Clark: I was very fortunate to be part of the SOCOM staff prior to arriving at MARSOC, from both the J3 and chief of staff perspective, which have two distinctly different aspects to them – one operationally and the other service, like Title 10. This helped in many ways.
One, it helped continue building upon the relationships I have with the SOF [special operation forces] community, which helps in the “speed of trust” when working issues with the higher headquarters staff.
Two, it provided me the ability to look at issues through the SOCOM lens, which I will continue to do when at MARSOC.
Three, it also provided me the unique view of MARSOC through the SOF community lens – which, by the way, is a very favorable view.
What effect did your previous assignments with both Marine Corps and SOCOM plans, future plans, strategy, etc. have on you?
My previous assignment at SOCOM really immersed me in the world of combating terrorism and in the development of plans to defeat the terrorist networks. I was educated in the world of the Joint Staff, the interagency, and the SOF community at a much higher level than my previous SOF assignments.
A person may be fortunate to not be stationed in the Washington, D.C., area, but you certainly cannot ignore what goes on up in the Beltway. That is where the decisions are made, and you need to understand and be involved in that environment. It also continued to build on the relationships in all of those communities which I touched on in the previous question.
My assignment at HQMC in PPO/Plans and Strategy taught me a lot on how Headquarters Marine Corps works, and the Joint Staff, in relation to the different services. That assignment as well built a lot of new relationships and continued building on existing ones. I found that both of those assignments helped me in my latest assignment at SOCOM and am confident it will help in my upcoming assignment with the MARSOC team.
What are your top priorities as MARSOC’s new commanding general?
It is probably premature and unfair to my soon-to-be-staff to provide my priorities to you prior to discussing with them. I can, however, say that the success thus far for MARSOC has been staying the course during the tenure of the previous three MARSOC commanders and previous and current SOCOM commanders. We plan to continue maintaining that course with the team while focusing on the commander SOCOM’s [Adm. William McRaven] four main lines of operation.
Given your unique perspective as part of the SOCOM command structure, how well do you believe MARSOC has integrated into the joint command?
MARSOC has integrated well in the Joint SOF community, mainly because they came into the arena to play team ball with the rest of the SOCOM components. They did not pretend to have all the answers and took advantage of the experience and SOF education of the other SOF communities. Service parochialism was checked at the door. From the perspective I saw at SOCOM, MARSOC has worked well with SOCOM and the component HQ staffs and extremely well operationally at the tactical unit level.
What do you see as MARSOC’s future role within SOCOM, including command responsibilities?
I believe MARSOC will continue to mature its niche capabilities within the SOF community – continue working to provide a unique capability that is not duplicative to what the other SOF components provide, both in the direct and indirect lines of effort. Part of that capability will be to take advantage of the expeditionary, scalable, sustainable, and responsive capability of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force concept that makes the Marine Corps unique.
We will be working hard with the Marine Corps and SOCOM in determining how to best take advantage of that capability to provide a light, responsive SOF force to the combatant commander/TSOCs [Theater Special Operations Commanders] for the direct line and finding those areas of persistent engagement on the indirect line where we can be value-added.
SOCOM has used MARSOC as a leader in the development and employment of advanced operating bases (AOBs), which might be described as “combat diplomacy.” How has that worked and what do you see for it in MARSOC’s future?
MARSOC has been able to deploy very capable company-sized forces that include, through task organization, inherent combat support and combat service support. These MSOCs have really demonstrated versatility and agility in theater. They can take on complex problem sets and direct the consolidated efforts of multiple, distributed SOF units through robust command and control.
For instance, our MSOCs in Afghanistan today are commanding, controlling, coordinating and supporting the actions of eight different units of action, including MSOTs [Marine Special Operations Teams], USASOC ODAs [U.S.Army Special Operations Command Operational Detachment A – Special Forces “A Team”], and SEAL platoons, across geographic areas over 40,000 square miles. That’s a very effective capability that significantly enhances the effectiveness of those small units and an employment concept that’s a bit different than the other SOCOM components.
Likewise, how beneficial have Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) exercises been?
Due to their size, MARSOC is focused on executing engagements in fewer countries, but on a more persistent basis, not only through JCETs but through a variety of engagement mechanisms. Through these persistent engagements, MARSOC has developed important enduring relationships with key forces in those countries. These focus areas also obviously drive MARSOC’s pre-deployment training and allow them to concentrate on developing tailored language and cultural expertise. The end result is a very experienced and prepared force, oriented on how to be successful in that specific engagement.
How have relations with the other three service special ops commands evolved – and what is yet to come in this decade?
The relationship has had a very positive trend. I use the following analogy to describe the relationship with MARSOC, SOCOM, the SOF community, and the Marine Corps. The decision to stand up MARSOC was equivalent to a blind date set-up. We kind of knew each other, but left the relationship as casual until the decision was made by the SecDef for SOCOM and the Marine Corps to figure out how to provide a Marine Corps element to special operations beyond the MEU (SOC) [Marine Expeditionary Unit, Special Operations Capable].
The SOF community watched to see how serious the Marine Corps was going to be about committing to the SOF mission and how service-parochial would they be about it. This evolved to the engagement stage – MARSOC was stood up, began its quick growth, reached out to the other SOF components for assistance and quickly began deploying Marine special operators on the battlefield. The operational success of the Marine special operators side by side with their other SOF teammates proved how committed they were to the mission.
I would say we are happily married now. The commandant, with his message that the Marine Corps would embrace MARSOC, was part of that wedding vow. This had a huge impact, not only on the Marine Corps, but on the SOCOM community. The commitment of assets in a resource-constrained environment and the designation of the career MOS [military occupational specialty] was part of the wedding present from the commandant.
The current and previous commanders of SOCOM have been extremely supportive of MARSOC, providing all of the support they needed from the MFP-11 [Major Force Program-11 funding for SOF] perspective and not pushing them too hard too soon operationally, to ensure they had their legs grounded before starting to run operationally. The relationships are extremely collegial, both operationally and at the headquarters staff level – probably the best I have seen anywhere, at least from the perch I had at SOCOM for the past three years. It will continue to get better and better because of the commitment of the people toward the mission and each other.
What do you see as the role MARSOC and its sister commands in SOCOM are likely to play in the future?
The role of MARSOC and the other SOF components will continue to be that of a responsive, networked global force that has exponential value for the size of the force, being a persistent-presence, indirect force in places that need it and being the small, surgical-like direct action force when required, and bringing with them the required tools to do both. This unique force will provide combatant commanders/TSOCs a force that has the regional and cultural tools required to be successful in the execution of their engagement and contingency plans.
This article was first published in Marine Corps Outlook: 2012-2013 Edition.