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MARSOC 2009-2010

Manning the “Three Chessboards”

Now four years since stand-up, nearly all of which has been in combat, the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) has reached about half its authorized strength and joined its three older service cousins as a command component within the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM).

A major factor in MARSOC’s rapid development within SOCOM is its central heritage as a Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF), according to Maj. Gen. Paul E. Lefebvre, who became MARSOC’s third commanding general in November 2009.

“When you look at us, it is important to note we inherently, by organization and mindset, are a MAGTF, which is a little different than other SOF forces, in that they bring snap-on pieces, but our mindset is as an integrated force,” he said. “Before we became SOF, we were MAGTF by birth; our organization constructs are founded on SOF beliefs, but, operationally, designed around the MAGTF – and the ability to bring those capabilities very quickly to the game is important to us.”

That MAGTF heritage also was fundamental in the creation, in November 2009, of MARSOC’s first Special Operations Task Force (SOTF), following several months of formation and some augmentation from the big Marine Corps.

“We also received a lot of help from our brothers at USASOC [U.S. Army Special Operations Command] and used their battlelab at Fort Bragg [N.C.],” Lefebvre said. “This is the first time we’ve provided that level of command and control. We have tremendous experience in command and control at the battalion level, but not necessarily in managing large numbers of special operators, so we needed a little learning experience. But our performance so far is positive.”

The Marine Corps was the last of the four services to create a special ops command, making MARSOC the last to join USASOC, Naval Special Warfare (NSW) Command, and Air Force Special Operations Command as part of SOCOM. In that time, Lefebvre believes, MARSOC has more than proven itself – to its fellow SOF commands, to SOCOM, to the Marine Corps, and to those who initially did not believe the Marines needed a special operations command.

“The MAGTF has a toolkit that goes from surgical to big hammer. If you put MARSOC in that tool bag, we’re a faster, more surgical instrument, so we complement what the big Marine Corps and the Army do,” he said. “I can say the same thing about special operations in general – it is complementary capabilities designed around irregular warfare concepts achieving results on the battlefield.

“So it’s not about what so many thought was lacking, but rather developing those complementary capabilities. But if the Corps gives us money and equipment and some of their very best people, what’s their return on investment [ROI]? The ROI is we are working in some locations in small teams, operationalizing some things the Corps is thinking about for the future and providing feedback on a lot of equipment.”

MARSOC is scheduled to complete its programmed growth in 2014, when it will have slightly fewer than 3,000 Marines, Navy corpsmen, and civilians, and 48 operational teams – about twice what it can field today. While that may seem a slow evolution in time of war, MARSOC reports it is meeting its stated recruiting and retention goals – more than 90 percent for critical skills operators – while working closely with SOCOM to develop a total force concept that “right-sizes” the force, based on lessons learned in its first four years.

“We’re growing slowly, being very selective about who we bring in. We have some well-honed criteria we developed in our association with SOCOM, a combination of physical criteria and intelligence requirements to handle the complexities of the battlefields we’re on,” Lefebvre said. “We’re looking for fairly experienced Marines and don’t limit ourselves to just combined arms.

A U.S. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command Marine holds security around a humanitarian aid site in the Farah province, Afghanistan. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Nicholas Pilch.

“The mindset is the ability to think about three different ‘chessboards,’ to think critically and operations-wise. When you have an aviation mechanic who has a GT [general technical score] off the page and is very flexible, with the intellect to quickly digest the complexities of what we’re up against, he’s as valuable to us as the infantryman with three combat tours.”

He said MARSOC already has validated the concept for 48 teams, each with a core of 13 Marines and one corpsman and onto which they can add a communications, intelligence, or dog team, as is routinely done during both training and deployments.

“Compared to a SEAL or A-Team, the numbers are about the same. What we haven’t done is specify an individual development track. As we grow closer to our 48 teams, we will do that with an advanced skills course that goes above and beyond our existing ITC [individual training course] piece,” Lefebvre explained. “The issues now have to do with combat and combat services support, rightsizing our enablers, and determining what kinds of capabilities we need inside our regional headquarters to operate across all the operating systems.

“When we reach our full potential, we’d like to offer a Combined Joint Special Ops Task Force [CJSOTF] capability, which controls SOF forces regionally – the upper level of command and control within special operations. With our natural growth and maturation, we think we can play an even more important role when we can establish a CJSOTF.”

Once selected for MARSOC based on past experience, intelligence, physical fitness, and the ability to learn and lead, Marine special operators embark on a still-evolving course of additional training unlike any the Corps has used in the past.

“This year has been a watershed for us. Our schoolhouse stood up a year ago and we have now graduated our first two ITC classes – 90 students – and our third is under way. Based on our mission taskings from SOCOM, we now are producing a critical skills operator founded in direct action, internal defense, and special reconnaissance,” Lefebvre said.

“Any great institution is a direct reflection of the quality of its schools. Because of our experience, we now are bringing our very best into the schoolhouse as mentors and instructors, which we hope and expect will have dramatic results.”

He defines “the very best” as MARSOC Marines with three or four deployments, the most senior special operators who have been with the organization from the beginning. As a result, they bring a solid background in applying SOF tools in a synergistic way, battlefield-validated subject matter experts who significantly heighten the bona fides of the schoolhouse’s seven-month curriculum. The result, he added, is a significant improvement in the quality, level, and method of instruction provided to students.

A helicopter comes in for a landing in order to evacuate a simulated casualty, as fellow Marines and sailors carry the Marine on a stretcher. A company from 2nd Marine Special Operations Battalion, U.S. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command participated in a Full Mission Profile exercise at Fallon, Nev.  U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Stephen C. Benson.

“In addition to the operators, we recently established a commanders course, and have attempted to leverage the Special Operations University, as well as provide our company commanders, team leaders and, very importantly, our team chiefs, with a standardized look at complex planning and employment of enablers, in particular combat support enablers,” Lefebvre said.

“We are looking to level the playing field with a standard for rapid expeditionary planning and deployment of our assets, whatever theater we go to. We believe the commanders piece is fundamental to our ability to operate under the guidance of the COCOMs [combatant commanders] as we execute around the world.”

This effort to develop a multidimensional operator is where the concept of three chessboards at different levels comes into play.

“The tactical chessboard reflects the direct actions that take the enemy off the battlefield. That requires a modicum of SOF skills and some basic language. Our ITC course provides that,” he explained. “The second chessboard is a little more complicated. This is where we are developing strong partnerships and influencing populations with strong applications of IO [information operations], which requires advanced skills. Our schoolhouse provides that in our advanced language courses and our cultural immersion program. The commanders’ course sets the base for the third chessboard, the most advanced and important of the three.

“On this level, we capitalize on our experiences in Afghanistan, on our language capabilities, and our interagency relationships in what we call the ungoverned spaces. It acknowledges you can’t kill your way out of the problem, but must integrate fully and wholly with militia and other local forces, applying special capabilities to identify and separate reconcilables from irreconcilables. There are a number of those fighting, especially in Afghanistan, who want a better solution. As we engage with and understand them, we have brought large numbers of Taliban to our side or at least neutral or willing to support legitimate governments in some locations. That is a huge bang for the buck with a small team.”

Embracing the three chessboard concept brings something unique to military thinking and operations, he added, enabling operators to think two levels above and support two levels below. It is a capability MARSOC looks to provide on a sustained basis as it continues to grow.

With limited funds to pursue its own programs, the Marine Corps has long relied on its sister services, especially the Army, to develop and begin production on much of the equipment it uses. MARSOC, in like manner, relies on the Corps, SOCOM, and its sister SOF components for most of its equipment. And, as Lefebvre noted, it has benefited from being a field-test agent for equipment the big Corps is considering.

“Six years in Iraq allowed for a lot of individual improvements in equipment across SOF, and we’ve been able to harvest the best of ideas from our SOF brothers, as well as the Marine Corps. We’re lighter and trying to get even lighter with personal gear, a route the big Corps also is following,” he said. “We’ve been very consistent, weapons-wise, with big improvements in optics. We’ve also fielded, in our active users, UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] at the tactical level, blending both SOF and big Corps capabilities there.

“We have a tremendous communications capability from a data standpoint and provide extensive capability for connectivity and information flow. That requires not only standard communications, but a whole host of ‘data Marines’ who can understand and manipulate those systems in really harsh environments. We have specialized a number of critical skill operator/shooter Marines to give us the redundancy to apply those systems. We’ve also reached out and extended ourselves, with a lot of support from SOCOM, to get additional capabilities for a specialized captain in the field.”

In many cases, such as V-22 Osprey STOVL aircraft and helicopters, MARSOC relies on the big Corps, its fellow SOCOM components and field-level assistance from the other services and allies. Where it does field its own vehicles, such as a slightly modified version of the USASOC Ground Mobility Vehicle (GMV), MARSOC relies heavily on input from its operators in the field and what they see as the requirements of the theater in which they are deployed.

“We are just now developing our own focus in science and technology and blending that with SOCOM plans, so in the out years, we will begin to contribute to the dialogue on development of capability, based on our experience level,” Lefebvre said. “Our concept right now is to utilize our fellow services where we can. Our operational requirements to date have not required that, but I see no issue, when the time comes, for integration based on common tasks and purpose with the big Marine Corps.”

The post-9/11 war in Southwest Asia, especially in Afghanistan, largely has been an irregular, asymmetric environment, almost custom-made for what MARSOC – and SOCOM as a whole – bring to the fight. That will become even more important as the overall number of U.S. warfighters increases there this year.

Marines from the U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command (MARSOC) along with Afghan National Army (ANA) from the 2/2/207th Kandak and Italian Army Operational Mentoring Liaison Team conduct a combat reconnaissance patrol (CRP) in the Farah province, Afghanistan, Feb. 26. During the CRP the teams were led by the ANA. They dropped off supplies to a school and continued on through the mountains of Bagwa conducting route reconnaissance while getting eyes on the terrain. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Nicholas Kirch.

“It’s not about doing things right so much as doing the right things. You have to bring a SOF mindset with a lot of different tools, capabilities to disrupt as well as to develop strong relationships with local forces, strong initiatives to build the capability of local security forces, coordinate interagency efforts, and build on the gains,” Lefebvre said. “You have to bring an integrated civil affairs capability to do that, to become a natural quarterback to maintain and sustain the gains.

“But you have to be careful not to get bogged down in other-than-SOF tasks, because you are a force of aggregate utility – which means you can be asked to do the wrong thing. Blending conventional and SOF forces over there requires a good analysis of the problem set and applying SOF in a way that allows us to be decisive. SOF is a manifestation of and has embraced the irregular warfare paradigm. We understand the power of relationships and how to bring the unique tools of irregular warfare to the fight and integrate those, which is what our training is designed to do months before we deploy. Our exercises are mission rehearsals of the environment we are going to, including the level of actors involved, exercise of our language capabilities, and a full testing of all mission sets.

“Combined with a strong schoolhouse, mentors, and teachers – and this is important – is a responsive after-action system that allows us to harvest the best TTPs [tactics, techniques, and procedures] into the training cycle for the next guys going overseas. The problem set changes as leadership changes and no two dynamics are the same. As the Taliban become more capable as they fight, it is important for our decision cycle and capabilities to stay out in front of them. And that decision cycle is another integral piece – to make decisions ahead of what you’re seeing and not lag the problem.”

While the world’s attention has been largely focused on Southwest Asia, MARSOC also has been active in a number of other locations around the globe – creating a pattern of persistence that will shape the command and its training in the future. During 2009 alone, MARSOC executed 38 different missions in areas ranging from eastern Somalia and western Africa to Southeast Asia.

“We have operators preparing on a daily basis to deploy to those areas to conduct training with our partners, in some cases, conduct counter-narcotics missions – again, all based around small teams and strong relationships. So you have to be careful not to look through a soda straw; the overall value is not just in Afghanistan. SOF is important around the globe,” he said, but added it also is important not to stretch MARSOC too thinly. “We executed a lot of missions in 2008 and ’09, but the areas are now paring down, allowing us to get the language and cultural piece right, to understand the nature of the issues.

“Before, we were a mile wide and an inch deep and couldn’t bring the capabilities we needed to some locations – although just being a Marine can be significant, because of our reputation, which can open doors based on our history and legacy. But that’s not good enough; that just gets you in the door. Now, with fewer areas, we can focus certain parts of the force specifically to the right languages and cultures. Someone assigned to the Philippines, for example, may do six or eight deployments there in a career, developing relationships with the same people. You can measure impact when you have that kind of persistence.”

An early stated goal for MARSOC was to rotate special operators back through the big Marine Corps, to promote it as a choice for qualified Marines, share lessons learned with the Corps as a whole, and eventually, return to MARSOC and bring back a better understanding of the larger Corps and its view of special ops. But slow growth and the demands of war have delayed a large part of that plan.

“We’re only at about 50 percent of critical-skill growth, so we haven’t provided much back yet because we’re still growing. And the complexities of the battlefield have not allowed us to swap people out the way it was originally conceived,” Lefebvre said. “To truly develop a multidimensional operator is probably more of a career than an episodic period of five or six years, although we are looking to develop a capability to bring this back into the big Corps.

Marines and sailors with a company from 2nd Marine Special Operations Battalion, U.S. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, sight in on their targets as they conduct shooting drills as part of their Dynamic Assault package at the Washoe County Regional Shooting Facility in Reno, Nev. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Stephen C. Benson.

“One of our real strengths is development of team leaders and senior staff NCOs [non-commissioned officers] – an E-7 and E-8 with operational expertise you won’t see anywhere else. How we can provide that back to the big Corps down the road, once we reach full operational capability, will be interesting and useful. We already are sending our officers and company commanders and team leaders back after a period of time. They are, in some cases, becoming Marine Corps operations managers, so we are developing very capable decision-makers who have had to manage really complex problems on a couple of deployments.”

There is one other element of MARSOC that is, in many ways, unique, although being looked at by other SOCOM elements as well as the regular military services, targeting a concern as old as warfare itself: The ability of the warfighter to keep going – not the desire, but the physical and mental capacity. For Lefebvre, it is a carryover from what he saw as a young football coach at Penn State, before joining the Marines.

“You can get really caught up in discussions of tactical actions and how you measure the force, which is really important, but just as important is how you measure the health of the operator. And that gets to resiliency. Many of our guys had two to four combat deployments [before joining MARSOC], so it wasn’t as if they had never been there before,” he said. “But when you add another two to four on top of those, how do you know when and how to take a knee, because they want more and they want to go back. We have to measure how much gas is left in the tank.

“NSW did a lot of work on this, with some help from UCLA, looking at baselining the operator and measuring how he is doing after a number of deployments. So we have a performance and resiliency philosophy we are implementing centered around spirit, mind, and body, which are individual developments. It also has to do with marriage, religion, mental health – all fundamental to the operator. We are trying to combine capabilities so you can come into what looks like a gym, but also has an area for rehab, for a psychologist, for a chaplain – a holistic way of developing. We will implement this at ITC with the operator and make it a cradle-to-grave concept. This is something Division 1 athletes have been doing for awhile for optimal performance and mental health.

“We see this as being a very valuable program to us – not one run in an ancillary manner, but integral to our operations shop, with combat and resiliency training going hand in hand. In this, we are charting new waters, partnering with NSW and the University of North Carolina, which has done some work within their system on this. Our West Coast [MARSOC] battalion has adopted some of the resiliency and reintegration concepts NSW developed.”

The importance of judging the impact of repeated deployments into a special operations environment is only emphasized by the combat record of MARSOC special operators since the command was created. In four years, despite their small numbers, the command has lost seven Marines and one sailor – a Navy corpsman who died in Afghanistan while manning a machine gun in a firefight. The new MARSOC clinic at Camp Lejeune, N.C., was dedicated in his name. MARSOC members also have been awarded one Navy Cross, three Silver Stars, more than 60 Bronze Stars and Navy/Marine Corps commendations, and 98 Purple Hearts.

“There are debts you can repay and debts you can’t,” Lefebvre concluded. “The nation can probably never repay its debt to these guys in terms of what they are strapping on on a day-to-day basis.”

This article was first published in The Year in Special Operations: 2010-2011 Edition.


J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...