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MARSOC: Thriving in an Era of Uncertainity

Although the U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command celebrated its fifth anniversary in February, MARSOC traces its modern heritage to the Marine Raiders of World War II and Force Reconnaissance Marines, established in 1957, and from which the initial MARSOC units were created in 2006. And while “special operations forces” is a relatively modern term, the Marine Corps has created special capabilities units, on an as-needed basis, from its beginning in 1775.

But it is the Raiders with which MARSOC most closely identifies – a highly trained, lightly armed force that made initial amphibious landings on beaches considered inaccessible by a larger force, conducted surprise raids where swiftness and stealth were critical, and functioned as a guerrilla force behind enemy lines.

“Edson’s Raiders of the 1st Marine Raider Battalion and Carlson’s Raiders of the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion are said to be the first U.S. special operations forces to form and see combat in World War II,” Capt. Waiann W. Mai, Headquarters Battalion adjutant, said during MARSOC’s anniversary celebration.

The capabilities developed for and by the Raiders were carried to a new level in 1954 with the creation of Marine Test Unit 1, which gave the Corps an airborne capability with the still-new helicopter. Mai added, “This unit developed and performed innovative clandestine insertion methods before the Navy SEALs and the Army’s Green Berets [U.S. Army Special Forces].”

The Corps moved closer to today’s construct when Test Unit 1 and the Amphibious Reconnaissance Battalion were merged to create the first Force Recon companies, deployed to Vietnam in 1965 to conduct independent operations behind enemy lines, as well as deep reconnaissance and direct action through both helicopter and water – primarily riverine – insertions and extractions.

MARSOC Pre-deployment Exercise

Marines with U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command, provide security during a medical engagement as part of a pre-deployment exercise at the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, Calif., May 15, 2011. The three-week exercise is designed to prepare MARSOC Marines for deployment to combat operations in Afghanistan by immersing them in an environment as realistic and comprehensive as possible. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Kyle McNally

“An agreement between the Marine Corps and U.S. Special Operations Command [SOCOM] led to the activation of Marine Corps Special Operations Command Detachment 1 on June 19, 2003,” Mai continued. “As the Global War on Terrorism drew more and more heavily on special operations units, it was decided to formally incorporate a Marine special operations force element into SOCOM to ensure success in the long war ahead.”

In the first few weeks, MARSOC comprised a small staff and the Foreign Military Training Unit (FMTU), previously formed to provide foreign internal defense assistance. Under MARSOC, FMTU was redesignated as the Marine Special Operations Advisor Group (MSOAG). A few months later, the 1st and 2nd Force Recon companies were transferred to the new command, forming the 1st and 2nd Marine Special Operations Battalions (MSOBs). In April 2009, MSOAG was redesignated as the Marine Special Operations Regiment (MSOR), with the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd MSOBs as subordinate units.

“MSOR provides the primary command structure, oversight, advisement, and standardization for MARSOC’s three MSOBs. It also provides tailored military combat skills training and advisor support for identified foreign forces in order to enhance their tactical capabilities and prepare the environment as directed by SOCOM,” MSOR Commanding Officer Col. Edward Jeffries explained.

“MSOR Marines and sailors train, advise, and assist friendly host nation forces – including naval and maritime military and paramilitary forces – to enable them to support their governments’ internal security and stability, to counter subversion, and to reduce the risk of violence from internal and external threats.”

MSOB standardization is one of MSOR’s top responsibilities, enabling SOCOM to call on any available unit at any time and know exactly what to expect in terms of training, equipment, tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs), command structure, and capabilities. It also facilitates a smooth transition between rotating teams and no interruption to host nation assistance.

“MSOR’s top priority is the preparation, deployment, and redeployment of our forces to and from combat, specifically in support of Operation Enduring Freedom-Afghanistan, as well as our other persistent presence missions in support of OEF,” he added. “This includes developing the SOTF [Special Operations Task Force] and preparing for its employment, as well as maintaining MARSOC’s two-company presence.

“We need to ensure that we maintain persistent presence in our nations of focus so we can better facilitate long-term relationships and trust. Only then can we hope to help host nations develop the capability, capacity, and vision necessary to achieve our common goals. The lessons learned from ongoing operations have enabled MSOR to adapt its structure, training, and operational cycle to improve force capabilities.”

MARSOC Pre-deployment Exercise

Marines with U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command, walk through a village with Afghan role players during a pre-deployment exercise at the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, Calif. May 15, 2011. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Kyle McNally

Giving MARSOC a SOTF capability early in its existence was a primary goal of MARSOC commanders and Corps commandants, setting the Marine special operations forces (SOF) up to become the core command and control entity for a joint SOTF. Having done that more quickly than many had expected, MARSOC SOTFs have provided command, control, coordination, and support to multiple SOF elements from both MARSOC and the Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) throughout CENTCOM’s Regional Commands West, Southwest, and North. Acting as a JSOTF, MARSOC would provide command and control for multiple SOTFs.

MARSOC’s current structure also includes the Marine Special Operations Support Group (MSOSG), which provides SOF units with combat and combat service support, and the Marine Special Operations School (MSOS), which screens SOF applicants, provides training and certification of special operators, and develops doctrine.

“We provide the ‘all other’ capabilities, everything from truck drivers and supply Marines all the way up to high-end SIGINT [signals intelligence] and HUMINT [human intelligence], Joint Terminal Attack Control [JTAC], and multipurpose canines,” MSOSG Commanding Officer Col. Richard Anders said. “The concept is not unique; the other services call them enablers. We don’t like to use that term because it builds a wall between operators and enablers and my job is to destroy that wall. So we do our support capability very differently, deploying a task-oriented group around a company, for example, and ensuring they are very highly trained tactically, with more of a holistic capability, and very much a part of the organization, not just an attachment.

“We take the first level of basic tactical training for general purpose Marines, which dovetails well with the need, for two months, to put them through enough fairly high intensity SOF-specific training to get them to where they can begin unit integration 210 days prior to deployment. During that time, they also have to get advanced MOS [military occupational specialty] training; pushing capabilities so far down to the team and element level, for most MOSs, it is not something you see in the general purpose force.”

From individual critical skill operators (CSOs) to 48 authorized 14-man Marine Special Operations Teams (MSOTs), 12 Marine Special Operations Companies (MSOCs), and three MSOBs, the Corps’ special operators spend nearly every minute not in combat training for combat. It is a regimen that ranges from MSOSG’s provision of specially trained warfighters, to the MSOBs and MSOR’s ability to train and support allied command and tactical capabilities, to the spiritus invictus (unconquerable spirit) goal of the Performance and Resiliency (PERRES) program.

“With the PERRES program, we are successfully integrating a holistic approach capable of rehabilitating and enhancing physical, mental, and spiritual performance, while maintaining overall resilience,” MARSOC’s commander, Maj. Gen. Paul E. Lefebvre, said. “That is, the individual and unit’s capacity to withstand stress and hardship and remain functionally and holistically able to group and self-renew.”

Training becomes especially intense in the months leading up to deployment, despite the rapid cycle and short dwell time between deployments MARSOC units have experienced from day one.

Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command

A U.S. Marine pulls security near a poppy field in Peyo as Marines assigned to Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command, and Afghan soldiers patrol through the village in the Bala Baluk district in Afghanistan’s Farah province, March 29, 2010. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Nicholas Pilch

In May, for example, the 2nd and 3rd MSOBs went through an intensive two-week immersion exercise at the Fort Irwin National Training Center in California’s High Mojave Desert – what one training evaluator termed “the backbone of counterinsurgency.”

Operating in “Potemkin villages” populated with largely Middle Eastern volunteers portraying all elements of Afghan society – including Taliban and al Qaeda insurgents – the Marines sought to enhance, while being graded on, their language and cultural skills. They also had to demonstrate an understanding of and ability to deal with what is considered SOCOM’s top counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan – foreign internal defense using village stability operations (VSO).

“This exercise provides MARSOC’s commander the opportunity to certify his deploying forces,” one command officer explained. “It also provides the opportunity for the exercise force to assemble all of its special operations combat support and combat service support personnel, and to work out their procedures and command relationships.”

The goal was to connect the villages to the Afghan district and provisional governments while simultaneously eliminating and preventing insurgent operations. Because MARSOC Marines in-country are tasked with determining which villages are suitable as VSO sites, the exercise provides a foundation on which the success or failure of the MSOBs’ real-world mission rests.

“That’s why it’s crucial that they know how to interact with the locals – that’s where this familiarization training comes into play,” the training evaluator added. “We try to replicate as closely as possible the dynamics they will find in the villages and also the interaction they will encounter when working with higher headquarters.”

The exercise also brought in other U.S. agencies MARSOC Marines typically encounter in Afghanistan, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration, State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Navy Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), and the FBI. How each encounter evolves varies from exercise to exercise, which typically are conducted three or four times a year.

“Each cycle, the component is able to determine where they can improve, support, or provide additional capability. In turn, the lessons learned are fed back into our training pipeline, all the way back to the Individual Training Course, the direct support courses, all of the communications courses, and the Special Operations Training Course,” another MARSOC observer noted.

“This exercise is the cauldron for which that can be done. The program requires considerable support and effort from the entire MARSOC component and the respective commands. But the shared responsibility ensures that our forces are as ready as possible for deployment to combat operations.”

Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC)

A joint terminal attack controller (JTAC) with U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command communicates with a Navy MH-60S helicopter during takeoff as part of Carrier Airwing Training conducted by the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center aboard Naval Air Station Fallon, Nev., April 7, 2011. During the exercise, MARSOC JTACs practiced their critical skills and renewed their currencies and qualifications. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Kyle McNally

MARSOC Marines also participate in sister service exercises, especially the Navy’s, where specific unit or individual skills can be tested, evaluated, and improved before being called on in combat. An example in April was the participation of 10 MSOT JTACs in the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center’s carrier air wing training exercise at Naval Air Station Fallon, Nev.

In general, JTACs direct the actions of aircraft involved in close air support (CAS) and other air-to-surface operations. In MARSOC, however, the JTAC provides his 14-member team with a full range of expertise in every facet of aviation support. That includes planning, briefing, and executing almost any aviation-related mission, from Army Assault Support helicopters to Navy EA-6B electronic attack and Air Force C-130 aerial resupply. Because MSOTs operate almost entirely cut off from other friendly forces and logistics chains, the JTAC provides crucial mission capabilities.

Each service providing air support has slightly different TTPs the MARSOC JTACs must know. Added to rapidly changing equipment (including the enemy’s), JTAC skills are considered especially perishable. As a result, they are required to conduct at least six controls every six months, complete an academic package each year, and pass an intense evaluation every 18 months.

In their role of “bringing fire from the sky,” as one JTAC put it, they must successfully integrate complex shoot-move-communicate scenarios while maintaining positive control of all aircraft overhead, deconflicting the routes of both manned and unmanned aircraft, and integrating fires on the objective – all to achieve his commander’s intent while ensuring the safety of his team and reducing negative collateral effects of the attack he has designed.

As the Department of Defense tries to meet major cuts in its budget, a new Marine Corps Force Structure Review has called for an overall reduction of 15,000 Marines. MARSOC, however, along with the special operations community in general, will grow larger, primarily in combat support and combat service support.

According to Lefebvre, the planned 44 percent increase in his command is part of an effort to “right size” both the big Corps and its special ops component. It also reflects the growing demand for SOF capabilities, not only in Afghanistan, but in more than 15 other nations where MARSOC has conducted missions, many of those joint training exercises with the host nation, but also counter-narcoterrorism, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief.

“The commander of SOCOM has assigned MARSOC focus areas that have allowed us to tailor the pre-deployment training for MARSOC operators in order to maximize our capabilities in languages and become more culturally attuned to the areas we believe are key today and for the future,” Lefebvre said. “Because we are deployed around the globe with a variety of mission sets, the Leaders Course instructors [returning from deployment] bring a breadth of experience and valuable lessons learned to capitalize on for the new MSOR leadership about to gain teams and companies.

“This ensures the team and company leadership are receiving the most relevant and important training prior to deployment. These Marines are also gaining valuable professional development by having to produce the course content, period of instruction, and interaction amongst superiors, peers, and subordinates alike.”

High Altitude, High Opening (HAHO)

A Marine with 3rd Marine Special Operations Battalion, U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command, conducts a high altitude, high opening (HAHO) jump at dusk as part of a double-bag static-line parachute course in Wendover, Utah April 9-21. The course was taught by personnel from the 2nd MSOB paraloft and the Airborne Mobile Training Team (AMTT), designed to give Marines a basic understanding of HAHO operations. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Kyle McNally

Overall, the MARSOC commanding general is pleased with what has been accomplished to date in standing up a major new command in the midst of war, creating and employing multiple training sets and organizing and reorganizing various components in response to changing requirements and lessons learned.

“We have made great progress in our contributions to SOCOM in the last five years. We have and currently are consistently deploying to a number of priority locations in support of our nation’s security objectives,” Lefebvre said. “We have established great relationships with a host of individuals and established superb rapport with a number of host and partner nation militaries. Our language and cultural exposure and appreciation have risen substantially, which will better serve us in the future in various regions throughout the world.”

MSOR and MSOSG are critical to that rapid evolution, a role that will become even more important – and difficult to maintain – in the uncertainties of a post-OEF environment.

“There is no indication the world will soon revert to a place where large armies fight across open fields or even to a place where the enemy can be easily identified. Marines as a whole thrive in irregular warfare and uncertainty and this is no different in the future generation of our MARSOC warriors,” Jeffries observed. “We can certainly fight on a kinetic level, but we must also use finesse, tactical patience, and understand the non-kinetic fight.

“We are very adaptive and flexible – and still very capable of knocking down doors. As such, we are more capable today than ever. A top priority for us [is and will continue to be] the preparation, deployment, and redeployment of our forces to and from combat.”

For MSOSG, Anders added, it has meant becoming an organization with a “laser beam-like focus” on giving highly capable volunteers from throughout the Marine Corps both the advanced tactics and basic SOF capabilities they will require on the battlefield and advanced MOS training needed to support Marine special operators.

“A critical element in the future MSOSG is our evolution into the MARSOC Total Force, building significant capacity and capability where little exists today, such as creating and sustaining a true expeditionary Combat Service Support capability, deepening our employment of intelligence to support every MSOT on the battlefield, providing JTACs and multipurpose canines to every MSOT as needed, and preparing these capabilities sets to support MARSOC missions outside of the OEF construct,” he said.

“That’s our vision – to have a holistic MARSOC concept of employment, where all SOF Marines are very much a part of the fight, both support group and the critical skills community. We’re most of the way there and I think when my command ends in July this year [2011], my successor will be able to achieve that dream.”

As with its more recent specialized sister command – Marine Forces Cyber Command (MARFORCYBER) – MARSOC stands apart from the “big Corps” with respect to its chain of command (both report to joint commands), training, equipment, and task. But both also are imbued with the central theme of the Corps – “every Marine a rifleman” – as described by MARSOC’s motto: “Marines are who we are, special operations are what we do.”

At the same time, Lefebvre does not downplay the value and significance of a special operations component in a service that has always considered itself the nation’s special ops contingent.

“Although we are relatively young, we bring 235 years of ethos that has thrived in chaos and friction and is comfortable in the uncertainty of combat,” he concluded. “Our goal will never be to merely participate, it will be to lead the effort. We will never be happy with the status quo – we are fixers and innovators and we must keep pressure on the system.”

This article first appeared in Marine Corps Outlook: 2011-2012 Edition.


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