As he prepares for change of command in August, Maj. Gen. Carl E. Mundy III reflected on his two years as commander of Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) and the legacy of change he is leaving behind. Key to it is the publication of “MARSOF 2030,” which details how MARSOC needs to evolve in the next decade to face a new set of threats and adversaries. (MARSOF – Marine Special Operations Forces – refers generically to the operational force; MARSOC is the Marine Corps’ service component to U.S. Special Operations Command [USSOCOM]; Raiders are what individual members of MARSOC are called since the formal deactivation of Marine Special Operations Battalions and reactivation of the Marine Raider Battalions that took place on June 19, 2015.)
Key to MARSOC’s evolution is taking a hard, realistic view of the future and avoiding “fighting the last war.”
“We are heavily invested in the current conflict, so our forces have an aggressive operations and deployment tempo. The challenge is having enough time and capacity – human resources – to be able to focus on getting ready for the next threat while dealing with the current,” he told Special Operations Outlook. “That’s the current impediment.
“The key success is we were able to focus on the future and come up with a vision that will help us develop more specific innovation pathways or roadmaps to help implement that vision. There is a lot of hard work that needs to go into implementing a vision, but I think we’ve taken a huge step. We have just published the core document, so we are beginning the next step, which is to develop a deliberate implementation plan. From that, we will develop more specific pathways that will put flesh on the bone for each of the four pillars.”
Mundy was referring to his four priority areas for MARSOC:
- Provision of integrated full-spectrum special operations forces (SOF);
- Capabilities integration between SOF and Marine Air Ground Task Forces (MAGTF);
- Future force development; and
- Preservation of the Force and Families.
“We are heavily invested in the current conflict, so our forces have an aggressive operations and deployment tempo. The challenge is having enough time and capacity – human resources – to be able to focus on getting ready for the next threat while dealing with the current.”
“Providing our force begins with the recruitment process and continues through our assessment, selection, and individual training pipeline. We are focused on recruiting the best individuals from across the Marine Corps,” he told the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities on April 11. “Our training is progressive. As individuals earn new special operations specialties, they are moved to teams or special skills training environments. The culminating exercise for Marine Special Operations Companies (MSOCs) and Marine Special Operations Teams (MSOTs) is Exercise Raven. MARSOC created Raven to assess and certify MSOCs and MSOTs for deployment. Held six times each year, the exercise emphasizes realistic decision-making for company and team commanders and provides a venue to practice the full planning, decision, execution, and assessment cycle.
“This training continues until deployment and covers everything from individual skill sets to high-end, advanced, complex unit collective training. The training environments we create are dynamic. Not only do they prepare our Raiders for the current operational challenge, but they also evolve based on emerging threats and our expected participation in support of standing operational plans. Another benefit of the Raven exercise is its utility as a venue for integrating conventional Marine Corps resources into what is otherwise a SOF-centric exercise.”
“Throughout our internal wargame series, four discrete concepts or themes consistently emerged. Each theme describes a distinct aspect of a vision for MARSOC, but at the same time each built upon the others, such that the four are interconnected and mutually supporting,” said Mundy. “Together, they provide a strong conceptual basis for a future MARSOC force that outpaces changes in the operating environment and remains a reliable force across warfighting and Title X functions.”
Collectively, these themes have come together to form Mundy’s “four core pathways of innovation”:
- MARSOF as a Connector – capturing MARSOC’s facility in building cohesive, task-organized teams to become the ideal integrator and synchronizer of U.S. capabilities with USSOCOM and partner-nation actions
- Combined Arms for the Connected Arena – recognizing the need to “sense” and “make sense of” what is happening in diverse and multidimensional environments, using cyber and information domains as potential venues for conflict now and in the future and becoming as comfortable operating in those virtual domains as in the physical
- The Cognitive Operator – touching all other pathways and priorities, the future “requires a SOF operator with an equal amount of brains to match brawn, foresight in addition to fortitude,” presiding over expanded capabilities that include influencing allies and partners; understanding complex problems; applying a broad set of national, theater, and interagency capabilities to those problems; and fighting as adeptly in the virtual space as the physical
- Enterprise Level Agility – leveraging MARSOC’s small size as an advantage; having its own component headquarters, for example, allows the command to rapidly reorient to confront new challenges as they emerge, an organizational dexterity that can provide USSOCOM with an agile, adaptable force to meet unexpected or rapidly changing requirements
“The training environments we create are dynamic. Not only do they prepare our Raiders for the current operational challenge, but they also evolve based on emerging threats and our expected participation in support of standing operational plans.”
The second priority is providing a bridge for routine capabilities integration with SOF and the deployed MAGTF to fully maximize the complementary capabilities of each formation, especially in light of near-peer/emerging competitors.
“Given the threats present on contemporary battlefields and considering those we expect to face in the future, it has become increasingly important for SOF to be able to integrate ‘seamlessly’ with the conventional forces and vice versa,” he told lawmakers. “Conventional forces offer capabilities and a capacity that simply do not exist in our small formations. In today’s complex operating environment, the extent to which we, across the joint force, are able to leverage one another’s strengths, and thereby offset our vulnerabilities, could determine the difference between success and failure.”
Capabilities MARSOC and its sister SOF service components partially rely on conventional forces to provide include cyber- and space-based capabilities, intelligence exploitation, mobility, fire support, logistics, and medical support, especially in scenarios involving high-intensity combat.
“As the operating environment evolves and more complex threats emerge, MARSOC must adapt its force to meet these new challenges. Constant and deliberate innovation and evolution [are] critical to our success,” he testified. “Our concept for development is based on both a bottom-up-driven process that incorporates immediate battlefield feedback into our training curricula, equipment research, testing, [and] procurement, and a top-down approach that combines more traditional capability acquisition processes with longer-term future concept and wargaming efforts.”
He continued, “We have already taken steps to bring our vision to fruition with regard to capability development in particular technology areas. These include freeze-dried plasma, semi-autonomous seeing and sensing capability, organic precision fires, counter-UAS [unmanned aerial systems] rapid self-defense, unmanned cargo UAS and ground systems, rapid fusion of big data analytics and machine assisted learning, broadband tactical edge communications, and specialized insertion capabilities. As we research and improve our warfighting capabilities, we must keep in mind that our near-peer/emerging competitors are also making similar advances and investing in emerging technology. It is critical that we ensure the technological capabilities we opt for are able to operate, communicate, and self-heal in a signals-degraded environment.”
The fourth priority – Preservation of the Force and Families [POTFF] – reflects what Mundy calls the “SOF Truth that people are more important than hardware.” MARSOC’s force and families program provides Raiders and their families with access to resources promoting personal resiliency to increase longevity in service.
“Although listed as my fourth priority, preservation of the force and families is equally as important as the previous three priorities because people are at the heart of all we do. Currently, MARSOF special operators average 1 day overseas for every 1.9 days at home. Our capability specialists that enable communications, intelligence, air support [and] explosive ordnance disposal and our canine handlers vary by occupational specialty, but average between 1 to 1.7 and 1 to 1.2 days deployed as opposed to days spent at home station,” he told Special Operations Outlook.
“Because of this high operational tempo, POTFF has become an integral tool for maintaining the overall health of our force through programs that are focused on improving human performance, providing resources for behavioral health, developing spiritual fitness, and offering other family-oriented opportunities that are designed to strengthen the family unit.”
Mundy said the biggest event of the past year for MARSOC was winning approval of and beginning to move forward, in the Future Years Defense Program, with finally completing the build-out of the command after several years of falling short of its original proposed size.
“Although listed as my fourth priority, preservation of the force and families is equally as important as the previous three priorities because people are at the heart of all we do.”
“In 2011, it was decided that 3,100 was the right number for MARSOC, so we were constrained, as was everyone else, by budget constraints and sequestration. We feel there were some artificial constraints, especially in our combat services support capacity, so the major event this year is we have been approved to grow,” he noted, adding they would start filling 368 frozen billets in October (the start of FY19) and hope to complete that build by 2022, “the vast majority of that within the first three years.”
Mundy said there are a number of goals he hoped to complete – or at least make a strong start on – before his tour with MARSOC ends. Asked to identify the top three of those, he replied:
“We are evaluating our deployment model. Our base unit is a Marine Special Operations Company, and we’re looking at what the optimum size of our deployment model should be. So I would like to make a decision on whether we remain at our company level or deploy as a battalion.
“Putting the ‘A’ in MAGTF into MARSOC has not changed, and, while there has been no decision, I think there will be an effort at the service level to consider increasing the availability of aviation for MARSOC. That doesn’t necessarily mean we are pursuing owning our own aircraft – we’re too small for that – but there may be ways to get direct support. We see several interim steps to get to that and think it’s feasible, so I’m now pushing it up to the ‘Big Corps.’
“A third effort is we now have the first three Stalker UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] systems, which is a demonstration of how quickly SOF can move. We got funding for 10 systems of that Group 2 platform and it is being deployed now; the remaining seven should be delivered by the end of this summer. We think the distributed small unit focus we have can take advantage of systems that are much smaller than an armed Predator. [For example], there are lots of different ground-mounted systems that could be employed. We’re pursuing it the same way we pursued Stalker last year, and I hope to see advances in that before I leave.”
With its new special operations career path in place, MARSOC has a higher-than-usual retention rate, but still needs to recruit new special operators and support personnel to replace those who do transfer or retire and to fill new billets. The command has created three courses designed to do that and to expand knowledge about MARSOC to the Big Corps and other services.
The MARSOC Combat Support Orientation Course (MCSOC) is specifically designed to attract existing Marines and expose them to some of the command’s critical enabler skill sets, such as explosive ordnance technician. Unlike critical skills operators and special operations officers and their “closed-loop” career track, the Special Operations Capability Specialists typically are with MARSOC for 60-month tours before either returning to the Marine Corps or getting out of the service. Mundy said a larger number of Marines have signed up for each new iteration of MCSOC, a strong sign for the ranks of high-demand, specialized Marines on 60-month loan from the Corps.
“We’ve also hired an individual to help us track those who are interested in coming in as support Marines. And we’re looking at taking some of our best practices from the formal [assessment] and selection for operators and using those in MCSOC as part of the recruiting and screening to help us ascertain if we have the right Marine and if that Marine thinks he or she is a good fit for MARSOC,” he told Special Operations Outlook.
The other two courses – the Multi-Discipline Logistics Operations Course (MDLOC) and Multi-Discipline Intelligence Operators Course (MDIOC) – are open not only to all Marines, but also service members from sister service components. The goal there is to help identify problems and put solutions in place, improve exposure to MARSOC, and improve deployment interoperability.
“The MDLOC has run three courses, each modified, and will formally transition into the regular training center after a fourth run. We will apply for it to have its own Marine occupational specialty,” he added. “MDIOC is going exceptionally well, preparing our intel Marines exceedingly well for the challenges they will face.”
MARSOC’s recruitment efforts include women, under new Department of Defense (DOD) regulations opening all military billets to female warfighters. While there are 87 women in the command, “all of whom play critical roles and very important leadership staff positions,” none are special operators.
“We have had three female Marines apply for assessment and selection, but none of those were selected. However, we have a few more who have applied, but have not yet gone through the assessment and selection process,” Mundy said.
When asked what emerging technologies he felt are most important to pursue for MARSOC by 2030, Mundy quickly identified the growing evolution in the continuum from machine learning to adaptive to cognitive to artificial intelligence (AI).
“I’m enamored with machine learning and AI. We certainly see lots of special applications that are small, miniaturized for use in small capabilities. And also for analytics, to have machines take care of a lot of the mundane tasks and chores, especially when you don’t have that many people anyway. To get to a level of analysis much quicker, then have the higher level analysis done by a human, will advance the capabilities of our formations,” he said.
“As we begin to think of other areas of the world, we need to be able to operate in environments where our reliance on communications, which has been nearly without failure in the past decade and a half, will be challenged. [We need] technologies that allow us to bring all the force we can apply against threats that can impede our ability to communicate.”
Two other evolving technology areas of interest to MARSOC are wearable computing systems and ways to counter an adversary’s use of unmanned vehicle “swarms.”
“The advances already have been far-reaching for wearable computing devices, but like every new piece of kit, you have to train to it, and that involves time to make sure they are used the right way. All these applications, in a way, are part of the Internet of Things, and we have to make sure we have dealt with any vulnerabilities they might present,” Mundy said.
“We [MARSOC and SOCOM] are interested in defending against [unmanned] swarms. They represent lots of capability that is low cost-of-entry, and we’ve seen rather unsophisticated threats use it. SOCOM is especially interested in finding ways to defeat that, and we are following their lead. Right now, however, we are not pursuing a swarm capability of our own.”
“As we begin to think of other areas of the world, we need to be able to operate in environments where our reliance on communications, which has been nearly without failure in the past decade and a half, will be challenged.”
MARSOC is the youngest service component of SOCOM, the Marine Corps never having created a separate, specialized special ops command. It also is by far the smallest, comprising only 5 percent of SOCOM’s total personnel. Some have seen that as little more than a token gesture to SOCOM by the Marine Corps. However, MARSOC’s small size in many ways reflects that of the Big Corps, which is less than 15 percent of the total DOD active-duty force – and size has never been a measure of the value, utility, versatility, and rapid adaptability of the Marine Corps.
“One of the primary parts of MARSOF 2030 is turning the idea that small is not necessarily a good thing on its head. As we wrote that document, we thought about how to use our size to SOCOM’s advantage, rapidly turning the whole organization to that end. So instead of thinking of us as a fungible capability like the rest of SOF, taking the 5 percent of SOCOM we represent and applying it to a specific problem,” Mundy said.
“That’s our idea behind Enterprise Level Agility. I think we’ll move very deliberately to become that agile force that can be turned quickly to a specific problem and take a load off the SOCOM commander’s plate and help him regain a measure of operational flexibility. That’s where a smaller force could be very useful.”
This article was originally published in the 2018-2019 edition of Special Operations Outlook.