Although the youngest and smallest of USSOCOM’s service components, the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) also is perhaps the fastest evolving of the four special operations forces (SOF) units. Those changes are internal to MARSOC as well as related to its role within the larger Marine Corps and SOCOM itself.
Maj. Gen. Dan Yoo assumed command of MARSOC only a few months after the March 2018 release of MARSOF 2030, the command’s developmental guidebook to evolving the best unit compositions, training, equipment, concept of operations, and tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) for any deployments or conflicts it may face through the next decade.
He reviewed MARSOC’s 14-year history, current status and future plans in an interview with Special Operations Outlook senior writer J.R. Wilson.
Special Operations Outlook: What have been the highlights for MARSOC in the past year?
Maj. Gen. Daniel D. Yoo: We’ve been consistently deployed to three combatant command AORs – Pacific Command [PACOM], Central Command [CENTCOM] and Africa Command [AFRICOM] – with roughly 400 Raiders deployed in 16 or 17 countries. From an operational perspective, we’ve had an O-6 Headquarters leading the combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Iraq headquarters, as well as a persistent O-5 headquarters. One of the most significant events was a KIA – killed in action – in support of OIR [Operation Inherent Resolve] in August 2019; that was Gunnery Sgt. Scott Koppenhafer.
We’ve also had some internal initiatives related to the comprehensive review, in conjunction with SOCOM, the Corps, and the other SOF components, taking a deep look at ourselves based on direction of the NDAA [National Defense Authorization Act] and our congressional and civilian leadership in OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense].
How would you assess the current status of the command?
The command is very healthy. Manning is very high; retention is above and beyond what the Marine Corps is experiencing. From a SOF perspective, our recruitment and retention are higher than our counterparts, as well.
From a capabilities perspective, we’ve gotten some new equipment that’s been distributed down to the tactical level, to include some additional capabilities, like improvements on the Stalker Group 2 UAS [unmanned aerial system]. From a perspective of unit cohesion, the additional manning we received was part of the program 2019 growth.
Could you expand a bit on retention and recruitment?
We continue at a steady state based on the structure the Marine Corps and SOCOM agreed to, which is roughly 3,500 people in the command – active duty, reservist, Navy, Army, and civilians.
On recruiting, we run three assessment and selection courses a year, with approximately 200 candidates each. We’re looking to garner about 60 people per assessment selection course, as well as our two Individual Training Courses, which have a capacity of about 80 per class.
Through 2019, we were able to maximize our throughput in all three to get new special operations officers and critical skill operators. The special operations capability specialist has been a little more challenging because we didn’t have the structure spaces. And across the services, certainly from the Marine Corps, there are shortfalls in some high-demand, low-density MOSes – Intel, in particular, as well as EOD [explosive ordnance disposal] and others. But we’ve done very well on recruitment.
On first-term retention, people who came in for four years and stayed, the service average for FY19 was 24 percent, with MARSOC at 36 percent. For more experienced people – second term re-enlistments – the service averaged 59 percent and we’re at 80. So when you look at special operations officers – especially CSOs, who are the pacing item – we’re over 80 percent for the enlisted force this year, which is pretty good.
Last year, you had three women scheduled to go through assessment and selection. What happened with those?
One of them got deferred. One female made it through both phase one and phase two, but she was not selected based on not meeting standards, as were many men. We had a new assessment and selection class in January, with one enlisted female and one officer. The enlisted female did not meet the swim standard and a couple of other physical categories, so she was dropped before we went to phase two.
Of the 28 officers we took there, we ended up selecting 18, but the second female was not one of those. She was the first female officer to make it through both phase one and phase two, but she was among 31 officers and enlisted who did not meet the standards. Altogether, we selected 73 – 18 Marine officers and 55 enlisted – in this selection class of 194 – 33 Marine officers and 161 Marine enlisted.
What are MARSOC’s current and upcoming deployments?
We’re on a six-month rotation in PACOM, CENTCOM, and AFRICOM, going into the same locations. There may be a couple of episodic rotations where we go into EUCOM [European Command] in support of their efforts, and in SOCEUR [Special Operations Command Europe].
We’ve supported efforts in the Philippines, but with the visiting forces agreement that’s being negotiated, I’m not sure what that’s going to hold in the future. We’ve also been going persistently into Africa, but that may change based on the baseline review discussions between [AFRICOM commander Gen. Stephen] Townsend, the SECDEF and the Congressional leadership. But wherever the Theater Special Operations Command and the geographic combatant commanders need resources, that’s where we’ll go.
What’s happening with the Raider Training Center (RTC)?
The Raider Training Center continues to evolve. One of the big initiatives in 2019 was approval of consolidation, moving our West Coast units – the 1st Raider Battalion and 1st Raider Support Battalion – to Camp Lejeune [North Carolina].
When MARSOC stood up in 2006, we were an amalgamation of existing units, some on the West Coast. It was all part of the initial concept of employment, which was to go out on the Marine Expeditionary Units as part of the deployment methodology. At the height of what was going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, it came down to presence-for-a-purpose and protecting dwell; the original deployment and employment option no longer was valid.
As a result, we have this footprint on the West Coast, and infrastructure associated with it, that is really not efficient. With the NDS [National Defense Strategy], as we’re looking for enterprise agility and reform, it is much more efficient from a cost and a manning perspective to consolidate the force at Camp Lejeune.
Getting back to your question about the Raider Training Center, that will allow us a better rotation of instructors, going from operational units with relevant experience and TTPs to the RTC, without having to PCS [Permanent Change of duty Station] people.
We’ve also enhanced our team commander’s course and we stood up a team chief’s course. We want to further professionalize those two touchpoints, which we think are critical to the success and cohesion of the team, not just from an ethical perspective, but from a developmental and a leadership perspective.
Have you made or are you planning any changes to training?
Our seminal event is part of the certification, which we do at our level and then it gets verified by the TSOC, the Theater Special Operations Command they’re going to, then validated by the SOCOM commander before they deploy.
RAVEN URX [Unit Rehearsal Exercise] is the culminating event where we certify our companies before they go forward. In those scenarios, instead of just limiting them to the CT/VEO [counterterrorism/violent extremist organization] fight, we try to expand it with the great power competition in mind and in a more denied, more contested environment. We’ve not only done it from a unilateral perspective, but we’ve expanded to make it a joint coalition, meaning we may have both conventional and other SOF organizations participating, along with interagency and allies, [especially] Canadians and Brits.
As we continue to evolve that certification process, we’ve also tried to use locations where we can do subterranean training. And we’ve done it from a live, virtual constructive, where we have units here at Camp Lejeune participating and constructive scenarios set up where you could have adjacent units trying to replicate what you’ll see down range. We also have training going on at the same time frame from a distance perspective. So we could have a unit doing a DFT [deployment for training] out in Bridgeport [California] that’s tied into the scenario, as well.
What new equipment are you anticipating in the next five years?
All of our innovation and R&D is tied into SOCOM and the other components. We’ve been chartered to take the lead on the Group 2 UAS; that’s the Stalker we were working on. We’ve been working on an all-weather organic precision strike we can do from an individual carrying it on his back to a mobile platform.
We’re also working on increased lethality from a lightweight medium machine gun. It’s going to cut the weight by 10 pounds and double the range and accuracy. We’re also doing some subterranean reconnaissance kits, using unmanned ground vehicles [UGVs] and the ability to put some sensors on the ground so you can see before you enter the tunnel.
What progress have you made toward something you mentioned last year – acquiring a more expeditionary and long-range unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that doesn’t need a runway?
We’ve been working on a VSTOL [vertical/short takeoff and landing] variant of what we’re trying to do right now. We’ve been testing it and it’s got a lot of promise; the Corps is doing the same thing. We’re looking for a vertical takeoff and landing capability for the Group 2 UAS, along with longer battery or fuel cell life to keep it airborne for long duration. That’s still in the testing and evaluation stage; we’re looking to get something here in the next two years.
What about autonomous ground vehicles for resupply, medevac, weapons carrying, etc.?
We’re interested in terms of both air and ground vehicles to support forward-deployed forces. We’re not pursuing any autonomous ground vehicles for medevac or resupply at this time, but are closely watching the Marine Corps’ efforts to develop those particular capabilities. We are using the UGV to provide us with a subterranean ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] capability.
What is MARSOC’s evolving role within SOCOM?
It gets back to what we’re doing in MARSOF 2030, with the Army and the Navy in particular. We provide full-spectrum SOF from both a ground and a maritime perspective. When you talk about direct and indirect competition, the most dangerous long-range threat is from China. Certainly the most dangerous short-term threat is Russia, then the asymmetric challenges we’re facing with both Iran and, potentially, North Korea, being forward deployed in the contact zone.
In the competition space, it’s being able to counter China’s unrestricted warfare approach or how Russia is using psychological warfare and the [military] proxies we’re seeing right now in Africa. [Remember], MARSOC is only 5 percent of SOCOM’s structure and 2 percent of the budget, while providing up to 10 percent of the missions. In the Corps, we are less than 2 percent of the force and less than half a percent of the budget.
The CT fight is the primary responsibility given to SOCOM in the NDS, but I think it’s the whole joint/coalition/interagency force that will be needed in both competition and conflict against great powers. So when you say our evolving role in SOCOM, it’s the relevancy not just for CT but for great power competition.
How is MARSOC relating to the big Marine Corps these days?
I think it’s great. In the last year or two, we’ve had significant changes, internal to SOCOM, in particular, and to the Marine Corps. Gen. [David] Berger, after becoming commandant last summer, said MARSOC is here to stay and [SOCOM commander Gen. Richard] Clarke, at MARSOC’s 14th anniversary last week, reiterated the importance of the organization, which I think is pretty significant. As the SECDEF is looking to recapitalize resources for reinvestment in other areas, our value proposition is pretty good.
Where do you see MARSOC going in the next five to 10 years?
There may be a potential for growth. One of the things the commandant is looking for under his force design is making the Marine Corps more MARSOC-like. That means smaller teams based on the concepts of expeditionary advanced basing, potentially to counter what’s going on with our adversaries, both in competition and potentially in conflict.
MARSOC is not a platform-centric organization; our strength is the individual Raider and the cohesive unit we put out there. That’s a cross-functional team which can plug in, not just from a DOD perspective, but with interagency and international partners, both the sovereign country we may be there to assist or the collective coalition applied to a challenge we may find in theater.
How are you progressing on MARSOF 2030?
From an organizational perspective, we’ve created an innovation directorate, making a better linkage between our strategy and planning section and our resources and requirements section. We’ve also started the Griffith Group, a federated group of talent within MARSOC selected from some of the brightest we have, both from experience level as well as intellectual, regardless of grade or rank. We’ve also tied into academia and the larger services.
It’s really our internal think tank. It’s not designed to replace the staff nor to be a standing OPT [operational planning team], but to help identify, characterize, and assess implications of the evolving world we live in – emergent issues, challenges, and opportunities and the potential impact, not just on MARSOC, but on SOCOM and DOD.
We’ve also stood up the Cognitive Raider Symposium, bringing academia, primarily based out of the Naval Postgraduate School, to help us develop the future. We’ve looked at teaming with DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] and other national labs to work on some of the science out there, between neurostimulation and neuro-modulation, in order to increase and finetune cognitive skills to systematically increase the abilities of our operators going forward. We’re also looking into SOCOM’s role in space and how we can leverage that from the perspective of future capabilities.
Could you expand on that?
As the Space Force develops, what is SOCOM’s role? We’ve looked at all the functional commands out there, between SOCOM, STRATCOM [U.S. Strategic Command], SPACECOM [U.S. Space Command] and CYBERCOM [U.S. Cyber Command]. As the “Cognitive Raider” continues to evolve and we have technology supporting the individual operator on the battlefield, maybe some of the specializations we have now may not be necessary, maybe the Cognitive Raider has those capabilities.
The new generation is much more technologically attuned than we are, and some of the things we think are a specialization are really a general capability the force may have. Space provides an opportunity for SOCOM to support that effort.
And you think MARSOC has a role there, as well?
I think all of SOCOM does. We’ve got a pretty good relationship with our component, MARFORCYBER [Marine Corps Forces Cyberspace Command], and we’ve expanded that into Cyber Command itself. We also have a very strong relationship with JTF-ARES, which is their tactical formation command element that supports all the geographic combatant commands. You don’t necessarily have to own it, but you should be able to be integrated, to leverage other capabilities.
Last year you said one goal was to make every Raider a cyberspecialist; how’s that coming along?
We’ve got some cyber structure coming in – 11 billets that will come in here in the future. At the same time, part of our force generation process is exposing our operators to the capabilities of Cyber Command and what they can do to facilitate their employment, as well as developing their own awareness of exactly what that virtual domain has.
Maybe not today, but in the future, all our operators will be able to use some of the cyber tools out there directly instead of just being supported by them. We’re creating structure in terms of the command for cyber expertise, by the specific specialty, as well as exposure and knowledge on how to support those efforts while they’re forward deployed.
Anything more you’d like to add?
When you talk about lethality, you talk about enabling partners – not just foreign partners, but our integration in interagency and intergovernmental leads, certainly from the diplomatic perspective, to enterprise reform and consolidation. As we continue to develop what that means on the four MARSOF 2030 Pathways – Cognitive Raider, Enterprise Agility, MARSOC as a Connector and Combined- Arms for the Connected Arena – there’s decisive value transforming our force design.
The future Cognitive Raider is going to be a blend of elite commando, intelligence operator, information officer, information operations officer, and understanding and integrating into a foreign service officer. It will be a blend of all those things, being able to leverage technology, both directly and indirectly, to get the effects we need in support of the larger joint force.
This article originally appears in the following edition of Special Operations Outlook: