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MARSOC Year in Review

U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command (MARSOC), celebrated its fifth anniversary in February 2011 and received a rare present from a budget-strapped Pentagon: Not only will it remain fully funded, it has been approved for a 44 percent increase in authorized manpower when it achieves full operational capability (FOC) in 2014.

U.S. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James F. Amos described MARSOC’s development – and his plans for its future – in his 2011 Force Structure Report to Congress in March.

“MARSOC is currently conducting an internal reorganization into three mirrored battalions. Upon completion of this reorganization in FY 14, Marine Special Operations Command will have one regiment consisting of three battalions, 12 companies, and 48 Marine Special Operations Teams,” he told lawmakers. “Since December 2009, MARSOC has maintained an enduring battalion-level Special Operations Task Force headquarters and two companies in Afghanistan, along with persistent Marine Special Operations Team engagements in other high-priority regions.

“In the near term, MARSOC will have 2,678 personnel. Our force structure review recently evaluated ways to increase the number of Combat Support and Combat Service Support Marines [e.g., logisticians, intelligence personnel, etc.] enabling MARSOC’s operations. I intend to add 1,001 Marines to MARSOC, which will increase its capacity by 44 percent. These Marines, who are above and beyond the planned FY 14 personnel increase, will better enable it for effective special operations.”

Special operators were among the first into Afghanistan at the start of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) only weeks after 9/11 and have played a vital role both there and in Iraq in the ensuing decade of constant conflict. The decision to increase the size of MARSOC – even as the big Corps faces a reduction in force of about 15,000 personnel – is part of an overall commitment to a larger overall special operations forces capability.

Marines with Individual Training Course, Marine Special Operations School, Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command, slowly work through tall grass during a fire and maneuver exercise Sept. 24, 2010, aboard Camp Lejeune, N.C. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Thomas W. Provost

“No matter what clime or place, we have realized that the nature of irregular warfare has become one for which special operations forces are well suited. And 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,” Maj. Gen. Paul E. Lefebvre, MARSOC’s third commanding general, told The Year in Special Operations. “Marines as a whole thrive in irregular warfare and uncertainty – and this is no different in the future generation of our MARSOC warriors.

“We can certainly fight on a kinetic level, but we must also use finesse 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 the preparation, deployment, and redeployment of our forces to and from combat, specifically in support of OEF-Afghanistan. This includes developing the Special Operations Task Force and preparing for its employment, as well as maintaining our two-MSOC presence [two of MARSOC’s 10 current Special Operations Companies in theater at all times].”

MARSOC began life with only a small staff and the Marine Corps Foreign Military Training Unit (FMTU), which had been formed to support foreign internal defense. Under the new special operations forces (SOF) command, FMTU was redesignated as the Marine Special Operations Advisor Group (MSOAG).

Also in those early months, the structure and personnel of the 1st and 2nd Force Reconnaissance Companies were transferred to MARSOC, 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, the 3rd MSOB incorporating structure and personnel from MSOAG’s former companies.

By its February 2011 milestone, MARSOC was on track for its original full-strength authorization, with about 2,200 personnel in place. The Marine Special Operations Schoolhouse (MSOS) was running the initial batch of MARSOC Marines through specialized courses, drawing heavily on the first-hand experiences of officer and senior non-commissioned officer (NCO) special operators who had completed one or more combat tours in Southwest Asia.

In addition, meeting with MARSOC leaders in January, Amos indicated that approval for a long-awaited primary special operator military occupational specialty (MOS) may be part of the command’s growth plan. Special operations Marines currently serve up to five years in MARSOC, then rotate back to the big Corps for at least one tour before they can return to MARSOC for a second five-year posting. This revolving door approach was intended to keep MARSOC Marines up to speed on big Corps equipment, training, and missions, while bringing to the other 98-plus percent of the Corps a better understanding of MARSOC.

Marines with Special Operations Training Group (SOTG) fastrope from an HH-60S helicopter during a Realistic Urban Training Exercise (RUTEX) rehearsal at the landing zone pavilion, April 6, 2011. SOTG and the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) were working together to ensure a successful RUTEX. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Michael A. Bianco

With the creation of a SOF-specific MOS, however, MARSOC officers and NCOs would be able to remain with and compete for career promotions within MARSOC. According to command spokesman Maj. Jeff Landis, the change would be a significant boon to MARSOC, “an important part of our continued growth in terms of capacity and the ability to attract and keep well-qualified and competent Marines.”

Because of the small size and historic cohesion of the Corps, making SOF a career track would include new ways to keep MARSOC and big Corps Marines fully aware of each other and exchanging information, lessons learned, and equipment, as appropriate. In some ways, it could be seen as a modification of the old Corps mantra “every Marine a rifleman,” regardless of MOS, in this case making it “every Marine a rifleman and special operator.”

Key to advancing the skill sets of MARSOC personnel – with or without an MOS – is the schoolhouse, which has been growing in size, quality, courses, and relevance to the SOF mission, in some cases creating specialized training “on the fly” to meet requirements coming in daily from the combat zones of Southwest Asia.

In the past year or two, MSOS has improved on its basic focus with the additions of a new MARSOF Breacher Course, Technical Surveillance Course, Advanced Sniper Course, and Close Quarter Battle Leaders Course, all designed to give experienced special operators advanced skills that will help them build or expand individual and team capability. In addition, the Marine Network Operators Course and Enhanced Network Operators Course provide advanced skills training on communications planning, equipment, and procedures. Another addition has been the Assessment and Selection Preparation and Orientation Course.

“This course allows MARSOC to aid candidates in their preparation for the rigors of A&S [assessment and selection], as well as mentor candidates on the profession they are attempting to enter,” Lefebvre explained. “MSOS has also enjoyed the use of its new multi-classroom academic facility and continued growth in experienced MARSOC operators joining its ranks as instructors as they complete their initial tours in the operational teams, which in turn facilitates improvements to the curriculum.”

Headquartered at Camp Lejeune, N.C., MARSOC’s command structure today is topped by the schoolhouse and two operations subordinate commands, each headed by a colonel reporting directly to Lefebvre: the Marine Special Operations Regiment (MSOR), commanded by Col. Edward M. Jeffries Jr., and the Marine Special Operations Support Group (MSOSG), commanded by Col. Richard Anders.

The 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Marine Special Operations Battalions (MSOBs) within MSOR are tasked with direct action, special reconnaissance, counterterrorism, information operations, foreign internal defense, and unconventional warfare. All but the 1st MSOB, at Camp Pendleton, Calif., are co-located at Camp Lejeune. At FOC, each MSOB will consist of four or five Marine Special Operations Companies (MSOCs), each of those, in turn, containing four Marine Special Operations Teams (MSOTs).

“The MSOT operates with a 14-man team, complete with critical skills operators, communications specialists, Corpsmen, intelligence support, and other support personnel,” Jeffries said, noting its similarities to and differences from the Green Berets and SEALs. “The Army’s ODA [Operational Detachment Alpha, aka ‘A-Team’] operates from a 12-man team and the SEALs from a 17-man team. We are moving forward with getting the MSOCs fully manned and we’re continuing to refine the training pipeline to ensure we’re getting the right people in terms of both quantity and quality.”

That structure is designed to enable each team to operate independently, if necessary, or as part of a larger unit, such as an MSOC or Special Operations Task Force (SOTF). At this point, each component is short one sub-element, which will be part of the overall MARSOC growth in personnel.

While the MSOBs – indeed, MARSOC as a whole – initially were drawn from Force Reconnaissance Marines, recruiting now has spread to the entire Corps, especially with regard to certain highly specialized skills, such as cybersecurity, psychological warfare tactics, and working with host populations from a better understanding of their cultures and unique local concerns.

Marines from Special Operations Task Force-West, provided security during a combined presence patrol and key leader engagements in Zanghlav and Rabat-I-Sapcha villages, Guzarah district, Herat province, Afghanistan, Aug. 22, 2011. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Brian Kester

“MSOR provides tailored military combat skills training and adviser support for identified foreign forces in order to enhance their tactical capabilities and to prepare the environment as directed by SOCOM [Special Operations Command],” Jeffries said. “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.

“As a regimental headquarters for the three MSOBs, MSOR also fulfills an advisory role in the development of each battalion in terms of standardization and to become alike in their performance and capabilities in the kinetic and non-kinetic environment to perform the missions SOCOM directs. We need to ensure 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.”

MSOR currently stands at about 83 percent of its original FY 14 authorized manning level. While the 44 percent increase in MARSOC’s overall size will lower the percentage of the command allocated to MSOR, it also will provide additional Combat Support and Combat Service Support Marines within MARSOC that “will enable MSOR to deploy task-organized teams, companies, and SOTFs, much like a MAGTF [Marine Air/Ground Task Force], that are self-sufficient and retain the capability to train our forces to deploy,” he added.

“The MSOR, when tasked, would perform its role in this capacity as the nucleus or core command and control entity for a Joint Special Operations Task Force [JSOTF]. That would mean the commander and much of the primary staff, as well as the equipment required to fulfill that mission,” Jeffries explained. “Previously, deployed MARSOC SOTFs have provided command, control, coordination, and support to multiple SOF elements from both MARSOC and USASOC [U.S. Army Special Operations Command] throughout [Afghanistan’s] Regional Command West, Southwest, and North. In this case, the MSOR, acting as a JSOTF, would command and control multiple SOTFs.”

MSOSG, meanwhile, is tasked with providing highly trained logistics, intelligence, communications, multipurpose canine teams, joint terminal attack controllers, and combat service support Marines to sustain MARSOC’s global operations. Its cadre initially was drawn from the 4th Marine Expeditionary Brigade’s (MEB’s) manpower structure and table of equipment. In five years of growth and evolution, however, MSOSG has relied more heavily on the entire Marine Corps and SOCOM, to the point where Anders said, “The last vestiges of 4th MEB are now gone.”

While the raw numbers are small – 885 Marines, sailors, and other service members either administratively or operationally under the Support Group Command – MSOSG nonetheless accounts for about one-third of MARSOC’s total manpower. Of these, more than 200 are with the Headquarters staff, another 150 comprise a detachment at Camp Pendleton in direct support of 1st MSOB, and the remainder are located in intelligence, combat support, and combat service support units.

Those numbers are expected to increase substantially as MARSOC itself continues to grow.

“Based on the current requirement to provide task-organized expeditionary forces, we expect a significant increase over the next five years. For example, over twice the intelligence capability, an expeditionary logistics capability where none exists today, twice [or more] the fires capacity and over five times as many multipurpose canine teams. In aggregate terms, our end strength is approximately double its current structure,” Anders said.

A Marine from Special Operations Task Force-West speaks with another member of the patrol providing secuirty for key leader engagements in Zanghlav and Rabat-I-Sapcha villages, Guzarah district, Herat province, Afghanistan, Aug. 22, 2010. The Afghan National Police, assisted by coalition forces, conducted the meetings in order to increase base security and promote Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan governance in Herat province. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Brian Kester

MARSOC’s operational concept for force employment places a tremendous emphasis on the role of intelligence and effective command and control to enable Marine special operations.

“Additionally, the ability to operate in a distributed environment, from austere and remote locations, independently, requires full-spectrum capabilities within a task-organized unit. This has to include world-class intelligence collection and fusion, effective C2 [command and control] and enabling capabilities, such as our canine capability and the ability to employ operational fires, as well as expeditionary logistics,” he continued.

“The Support Group has really evolved into an organization that has a laser beam-like focus on taking highly capable volunteers from throughout the Marine Corps and training them both in the advanced tactics and basic SOF capabilities they will require on the battlefield and in advanced training within their MOS that they will require in support of Marine SOF. Ultimately, we intend to screen 100 percent of [MARSOC] inbound Marines to a standard that is similar to – but different than – the critical skill operator [CSO] population.”

For example, MSOSG places more emphasis on a Marine’s ability to perform in his primary MOS without any occupational field supervision or mentorship, as necessary in a distributed SOF environment, and slightly less emphasis on tactical skills, combat marksmanship, and so on.

“A critical element in the future MSOSG will be our evolution into the MARSOC total force, building significant capacity and capability where little exists today,” Anders said. “[That includes] creating and sustaining a true expeditionary combat service support capability, deepening our employment of intelligence to support every MSOT on the battlefield, providing joint terminal attack controllers and multipurpose canines to every MSOT as needed and preparing these capabilities sets to support MARSOC missions outside of the OEF construct.

“While our mission may be broadly similar to the other service components within USSOCOM [U.S. Special Operations Command], we see our structure, mission, and command philosophy as being very different than other SOF support elements. We see all of our Marines as operators or potential operators, not as enablers. We ensure that every Marine we deploy is capable of functioning at the team or element level. When the team is deployed, the team leader and chief should be able to rely 100 percent on his ‘support’ Marines, both tactically and within their occupational specialty. In the firefight, no one should be able to identify who is the CSO and who is the ‘support’ Marine – in fact, current operations are bearing this out.”

The five-year point is where most new commands achieve a level of organization and structure sufficient to begin limited in-theater operations and contributions. For MARSOC, it marks five years of deployments as it evolved on the fly. With its newly authorized plus-up and plans to significantly expand both training and operational elements, MARSOC now has embarked on another five years of continued evolution.

“In our ongoing efforts to build a command with long-term relevancy that USSOCOM can employ across the spectrum of SOF engagement methods, my top priority is to select and train Marines who will eventually be capable of conducting missions that can help shape the long-term strategic environment, using capabilities to separate reconcilables from irreconcilables,” Lefebvre concluded. “We must continue to develop our Marines and sailors into regional experts who can operate in an area and work by, with, and through the native population.

“U.S. special operators have been the cornerstone of our military operations since the beginning of the Global War on Terror. MARSOC will continue to expand its role in developing and deploying Marines and sailors with the critical skills that allow them to embrace irregular warfare and integrate all of their capabilities to achieve success on the unconventional battlefield.”

This article first appeared in The Year in Special Operations 2011-2012 Edition.


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