Three years after it was created, when most new commands would be filling their final billets, the U.S. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) is undergoing a major reorganization, both internally and with respect to its role as the Marine component of the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM).
MARSOC – with about 80 percent of its planned Full Mission Capability (FMC) – deployed to Southwest Asia on the first of four missions less than six months after its official activation at Camp Lejeune, N.C., on Feb. 24, 2006. The deployment rate rose to 15 missions in 2007 and 32 in 16 countries in 2008, with 40 deployments now on the schedule for 2009 and even more anticipated for 2010.
“The primary focus of those deployments was in support of OEF [Operation Enduring Freedom], building partnerships with partner nation forces and emphasizing relationships with those partners,” noted Col. K.T. Wooley, MARSOC assistant chief of staff-operations (G3). “The areas we have deployed to have emphasized the importance of building capacity within partner nation militaries.”
However, the nature of MARSOC deployments is evolving and changing.
“When we first came into SOCOM, we were used where they most needed somebody. As we have matured, SOCOM’s desire has been to
more geographically and regionally focus our efforts,” Maj. Gen. Mastin M. Robeson, MARSOC’s second commanding general, said. “So we expect, in the next couple of years, probably starting in FY 2010, gradually to be more associated with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the littorals of Africa and Southeast Asia, although that should not be considered an order of priority.”
MARSOC achieved full operational capability (FOC) in October 2008 with six deployable companies, three each in the 1st and 2nd Marine Special Operations Battalions (MSOBs) and 16 fully operational Marine Special Operations Teams (MSOTs) in the Marine Special Operations Advisor Group (MSOAG). Each MSOB contains nine MSOTs (three per company), although both rate four companies and 12 teams.
The original MSOAG design did not have battalions; it had two companies, comprising personnel from the Marine Foreign Military Training Unit, which was moved entirely to MARSOC. Each company had 15 teams, intended to handle MARSOC’s foreign internal defense (FID) mission.
In addition, the three Marine Special Operations Companies (MSOCs) from each MSOB were assigned to a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) – one East Coast, one West – to give the MEU a special operations capability. At any given time, one company would be deployed, one preparing for deployment, and one recovering from deployment.
“So MEU plus MSOC equals MEUSOC. But the war has changed that. SOCOM requirements have changed that,” Robeson continued, “although we haven’t jettisoned that concept. We don’t want to disassociate ourselves from the MEUs or distance ourselves from the Corps MAGTF [Marine Air-Ground Task Force].”
The change came as the MSOCs grew in importance to the success of the counterinsurgency (COIN) mission in Southwest Asia – even at the expense the MEUs. Even though the MSOCs were deploying with the MEUs, they were under the operational and tactical control of the theater Special Operations Command. As the MEU sailed into Central Command’s (CENTCOM’s) area of responsibility, the Special Operations Command-Central Command (SOCCENT) wanted the MSOC pulled off the ship for assignment to Afghanistan. But leaving them afloat to and from the region created about a three-month gap between MSOCs on the ground in Afghanistan.
“SOCOM needed two MSOCs heel-to-toe, without a 90-day gap, so they could have two MSOCs in Afghanistan at all times, doing different missions in different parts of the country,” Robeson said. In January 2009, the secretary of defense approved transporting the MSOCs directly to Afghanistan by air rather than by ship with the MEUs.
“That was a fairly major dynamic because SOCOM needs that capability in Afghanistan, but the Marine Corps at the same time was being tasked with providing a MEUSOC for X number of days to PACOM [Pacific Command] off the West Coast and EUCOM [European Command] and AFRICOM [African Command] coming off the East Coast. So meeting the CENTCOM requirement in Afghanistan meant a reduction in what the other COCOMs [combatant commands] had requested and the commandant of the Marine Corps had been tasked with providing.”
Essentially retasking the majority of MARSOC’s assets to a single command and theater of operations was not the only change for the still-new Marine special operators, most of whom came into MARSOC as combat veterans, many from force reconnaissance units.
“In 2009, we are being asked by SOCOM to provide C2 [command and control] capability, which reflects the changing and matured relationship between MARSOC and SOCOM,” Robeson said. “SOCOM has far more confidence in our ability to do the mission, the Marine Corps has a greater understanding of what they are providing in terms of value to the nation, and MARSOC has a much greater understanding of how carefully we have to plan out our training so we have no wasted days, because there is such a high demand for us to provide deployment capability to SOCOM.
“We have increased the number of JCETs [joint combined exchange training] and CNTs [counter-narcotics training] and MSOCs to Afghanistan. Now we’re being asked to deploy our first SOTF [special operations task force], which may lead to augmenting other JMD [joint manning document] type C2 capability out there and even provide the leadership for them.”
A SOTF is a battalion-level C2, commanded by a lieutenant colonel. Its size depends on the mission, which in this case is substantial. MARSOC is being asked to provide command and control over all SOCOM assets and missions within a specified region and coordinate their operational functions. To do that, the first SOTF is expected to comprise about 180 to 200 personnel, including about 40 drawn from other services.
“We think 200 might be a little big, but they will be opening a new region and building new forward and advanced operations bases, so it will need a heavier logistics piece. Long term, we’d like to be able to do this kind of mission with 150 to 180 personnel,” Robeson said.
Meeting those new requirements, he added, was the biggest growth issue the command, SOCOM, and the Marine Corps had to work out in 2008 and early 2009. It also meant accepting a disconnect from the original MSOC commitment to the MEUs for at least the next few years.
“I can’t go back to providing both until I reach FMC, which we’re saying will be the end of FY 11, beginning of FY 12, but one of the advantages of building and operating the force at the same time is you can significantly accelerate getting it right. Which makes FMC a bit of a moving target. More than a year ago, we realized the MSOAG, 1st MSOB, 2nd MSOB, and support group in the original design wasn’t right, so we can make the adjustments now rather than waiting a couple of years to modify and adjust.
“We had the original mission differentiations because we built MARSOC by picking up two existing battalions with guys who were very
experienced and good at direct action and special reconnaissance, then recruited people to flesh out the MSOAG, and added training for FID, JCET, and CNT type engagement missions. But down the road, the ITC [Individual Training Course] will bring a common Marine special operator who can do any of those.”
With the first class of 49 new Marine special operators graduating from a six-month ITC in April, MARSOC is in the process of a significant change from the plan developed by the Corps and SOCOM before Marines became the last service in the joint command.
One element of that change is the increasing importance to the overall mission of a component unique to MARSOC among the service special operations forces – the Marine Special Operations Support Group (MSOSG). It is MSOSG that provides the enablers – human intelligence (HUMINT), signals intelligence (SIGINT), fire support, intelligence analysts, logistics support, etc. – Robeson considers vital to a fully operational company-level capability.
According to MSOSG Commander Col. Mark Aycock, the support group is a conglomeration of capability sets that are provided to other MARSOC units as needed, either through individual augmentation assignments or multi-member detachments. If a specific need cannot be met from within MSOSG, Aycock will go out to the larger Marine Corps or SOCOM to find the personnel he needs to execute the mission.
“I have five subordinate commands – an intelligence company with all my resident intel capability; a support component with a fire control platoon, security platoon, and communications platoon; a logistics component, with a motor transport section, vehicles, equipment, and engineers doing generator, fueling support, and a very small combat engineer capability. I also have, on the East Coast, a headquarters company that takes care of people assigned to MARSOC headquarters,” Aycock said.
“The fifth command I have is Detachment West at Camp Pendleton [Calif.], which is a microcosm of the support group, with some intel, comm, motor transport, and supply capability, although it does not have everything I have on the East Coast. Its primary function is to support, almost exclusively, the 1st MSOB at Pendleton. If necessary, I can reach out to them to satisfy a mission, but I prefer to let them stay there, supporting the West Coast.”
As with the rest of MARSOC, the MSOSG operations tempo has increased steadily since it was formed in 2007. At any given moment, about half the 450-member unit (about 80 percent of FMC) is deployed, not only to Afghanistan but to all of the geographic COCOMs as well as training centers and exercises, such as the ITC final exercise. It also is adding capabilities and changing some aspects of its mission, including the 2009 addition of six military working dogs.
“The Marine Corps has been utilizing military working dogs since World War I, so that is nothing new, but getting dogs so we have our own and can support our own operations was extremely important,” Aycock said. “We knew there were advantages to that and saw the successes the Army Special Operations Command was having, so it just seemed a natural fit and, to be honest, the deploying units were badgering us for dogs. We spent a considerable amount of energy and effort in 2007 and 2008 to get that program up and running, so having them now deployed is a big highlight.”
MSOSG also saw its profile significantly increased when its intelligence unit was nominated for the prestigious National Security Agency (NSA) Director’s Trophy.
“That is a huge honor for us, considering the intel company was only eligible for the award for the first time in 2008 and there is a lot of competition for this recognition, with three other Marine Corps units eligible. So to get that nomination the first year we were eligible was huge,” Aycock said, noting nomination is tantamount to becoming the recipient. “The NSA Director’s Trophy is presented to a unit in each of the four services, based on the best tactical SIGINT support contribution for the previous calendar year.”
While he does not see any major changes in the support group’s future, Aycock is confident MSOSG will continue to play a significant role in MARSOC for many years to come.
“I would go out on a limb and say I don’t see the support group going away in the foreseeable future. There are advantages to having high demand, low density support sets within a unit such as ours,” he said, but added he still must deal with changing demands for specific capabilities.
“We continually review and assess the capabilities we have, the growth we are slated to get as part of the original plan, and asking ourselves if that plan is right. But it takes awhile to grow more intel or other specialists. And this is a zero sum game – if I need more people in one area, I have to figure out where I can afford to reduce manpower in another element. I think we need more intel, but being a support organization, the group really can’t figure out fully what it should look like until the other side of the house is right-sized and organized and so in a better position to say how much intel or logistics support or whatever they need as opposed to what they need now.”
That is a problem Robeson already has taken steps to address as he seeks to add enablers to meet MARSOC’s evolving mission. And his
short-term answer will mean a major restructuring.
“We realized the enablers we were deploying with the companies really were as much the reason for their success as the operators being deployed, but the enablers in the table of organization were not sufficient to support 10 to 12 companies. To stay within a 2,600-man force means asking how many teams I’m willing to off-ramp to build more enablers. The first decision I made was to off-ramp a battalion headquarters instead,” Robeson said.
“Starting this spring, we will have one special ops regiment and no MSOAG; we’ll probably redesignate the MSOAG as the special ops regiment, with all four MSOBs working for it. Then this fall we will shrink from four battalions to three, taking off one battalion headquarters’ worth of structure that can be used to build enablers. We won’t lose companies or teams, just the headquarters, so the companies and teams from that battalion will be spread out among the other three MSOBs, thus taking them to four companies and 12 teams each.
“The No. 1 priority for 2009 is getting this right. We don’t have the final answer yet, although by the end of this year I expect we will know what the end state MARSOC will look like, with a 2,600-man cap, by rightsizing and balancing the force. There is no doubt this is the hardest thing we’re doing right now, but you don’t want this to drag out over a period of years. The choices we have are for SOCOM to lower their expectations of what MARSOC can provide or for the Marine Corps to grow the high demand, low density assets we need to rightsize the force. Or raise the top line of 2,600.”
Other changes already have been implemented in the ITC, which originally was intended to be a nine-month course, including three months of intensive language and cultural training. That was deleted as the first ITC class got under way, cutting the course to six months, although all future classes will run at least seven months. The changing focus of which Robeson spoke already has had an impact in driving MARSOC language and culture training.
“Instead of having an ITC with all the skills plus a three-to-four month intense language and culture training pipeline, we’ve cut that out for the next couple of years to accelerate the number of Marine special operators we can develop,” he added. “Instead, I’m sending one member of each team into nine to 10 months of concentrated language training, so every team will have a strong speaker for each area in which they will operate. This is about balancing operational needs with stand-up needs and is a rather significant shift in how we will do things.
“I also have to increase the schoolhouse instructor cadre; I’m about 120 instructors short right now. We learned a lot from our first class and now will rework the program of instruction so the ITC is more refined. We need more amphibious capability in the package, for example, and a better refined emphasis on COIN and FID. The equipment-to-student and instructor-to-student ratio needs to be examined to ensure students are grasping what they are expected to do within the time limit – or grow the number of days. Those have to be worked out before we start our second course in July.”
Another change will be developing areas not addressed during MARSOC’s first three years, primarily how much cold weather/high altitude/mountain-arctic training Marine special operators should receive. While details have yet to be ironed out, Robeson said the command will be more aggressive in developing mountain leaders.
To accelerate reaching FMC, Robeson has set targets of at least 72 students for all future ITC classes and four classes each year, which also will require growing the number of instructors, classrooms, and equipment. Current MARSOC personnel will not be required to go through ITC, nor will experienced force recon Marines coming into MARSOC. The goal, however, is to have all other new special operators graduate from ITC in the future.
“It is a system, all of which starts with the recruiting campaign, maximizing the number of students we can push through ITC, right-sizing our organizational structure between command elements and operators, and right-sizing the organization between operators and enablers,” he explained. “And better focusing where we think we’re going to be used so we can better prepare from a language/cultures perspective to go on the ground and be successful.
“I think we can achieve that this year – it’s just a question of whether we can achieve it to the FMC level. You can grow capability on paper faster than you can grow a truly seasoned capability that can go anywhere in the world and be successful. So it is a function of the quality of the capability you want as much as the quantity. And that takes time; you can’t do this overnight.”
Robeson credits his predecessor, Maj. Gen. D.J. Hejlik, with providing both a solid framework and organizational flexibility he now can use to further mold MARSOC into as unique and effective a component of SOCOM as the Marine Corps has been for the U.S. military as a whole.
“The Marine Corps has been phenomenally supportive of MARSOC – much more so than I thought might be the case. And SOCOM has embraced MARSOC much earlier than I thought it would,” he concluded. “And that is the good news story for MARSOC from 2008-09 – that triangle of MARSOC-Corps-SOCOM is much tighter than ever before. And that will only get better in the coming months. I think 2009 will be the breakout year for MARSOC.”