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The State of MARSOC

Interview with Maj. Gen. Paul E. Lefebvre

Midway through the ongoing war in Southwest Asia, the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) stood up as the first special operations force (SOF) in the Corps and the last service component to join the joint Special Operations Command (SOCOM). Unlike most new commands, MARSOC almost immediately deployed into combat.

Those first units were comprised largely of force reconnaissance and direct-action Marines, drawing on the Corps’ “small wars” experience and the Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) Special Operations Capable [MEU(SOC)] concept, created in 1987, not as a SOF element but as a capability within the Marine Air/Ground Task Force (MAGTF). And it is the MAGTF, more than anything else, that is considered the heart and soul of MARSOC, the foundation upon which it is built and around which it was designed, operationally, while still incorporating SOF concepts.

Maj. Gen. Paul E. Lefebvre, who became MARSOC’s third commanding general in November 2009, will guide the organization toward its full strength in 2014. He also will be working to enhance interoperability with SOCOM’s three other service components – the U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), Naval Special Warfare (NSW) Command, and Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) – and, perhaps most important, lock down MARSOC’s relationship to the big Marine Corps.

In mid-August, Lefebvre agreed to a “State of MARSOC” Q&A session with Marine Corps Outlook senior writer J.R. Wilson:

J.R. Wilson: Looking forward to MARSOC achieving full authorized strength, what changes do you see in how it may be utilized or organized?

Maj. Gen. Paul E. Lefebvre: There’s a lot inside that question. Today, we are probably at about 50 percent of our growth, which is a relative term. Most capabilities we have established we’re now deploying worldwide. We’re not able to mass produce this capability, and getting to our full 48 teams is not in the forefront of my mind day to day. My concern is building to SOCOM and building depth-to-the-ditch.

We are in our early stages, still adding capabilities inside these teams that allow us to thicken the lines, make us more capable. So a 14-man team, with a lot of emphasis on integrated enablers and more and more skills inside, can handle more problems faster. Having 30 really experienced teams rather than 48 less experienced teams, putting out fully trained teams with depth, has led me to focus less on growing additional teams and more on ensuring standardization, quality training, and a robust feedback mechanism on what we’re learning downstream to all our multidimensional operators.

It will take us a few years to get to that full growth, but our focus today is to bring full capabilities to the mission set SOCOM has given us.

We’re not on a quest for more missions, just making sure what Adm. [Eric] Olson [commander-SOCOM] gives us to do we can do to the best of our abilities, establishing a baseline for us on how to execute those kinds of missions.

Will having the full 48 teams mean MARSOC will be drawing more missions – or enable its members to spend less time on deployment and more time in training and with their families?

We live with SOCOM dwell policies and we’re doing fine with that. Even though we are not at full operational capability, we are, like the big Marine Corps, probably at about a 2:1 dwell to deployment ratio. Looking at the health of the force, that’s adequate. But getting to full 48-team capability probably will get us above a 2:1 ratio, which will allow us to really make an investment in language capability. Some of that is a yearlong effort, such as Arabic, which is a staple for us now. Our ability to do that now is limited by the dwell.

What changes do you believe having a Special Ops Task Force (SOTF) capability will bring for MARSOC?

There are a couple of things. If we are going to be a full partner in SOCOM, we have to be able to provide command and control [C2] on the battlefield, not just Marines, but all aspects of joint SOF, wherever that may be. And that’s what we have built. The maturation of an organization like that has lieutenant colonels in SOTFs that will one day allow them to become senior leaders in SOCOM. They are in positions to understand, in stressful, highly kinetic and non-kinetic situations, how to apply all the tools in the bag.

The feedback is helping our companies and our teams. Having a Marine SOTF out there allows us to operate two levels above, giving us a say in strategies and tactics and their redesign.

There are other really important things for Marines to understand about this. If we had a Marine Corps without a MEU headquarters, you would just have a battalion running around providing some kind of help to a COCOM. You put that command element on top of a MEU or MEF, and the Marine C2 element is one of the most robust in the service. So with a SOTF, we bring to bear all we have learned, not just executing SOF tasks, but a mindset built around MAGTF concepts.

A key task for the SOTF is integration. On the battlefield we’re on, with the other government agencies operating there – State Department, Afghan government and military, our partners from other nations – the SOTF integrates all those capabilities. SOTF means taking a Marine with a good understanding of counterinsurgency doctrine and putting him into the nebulous condition of ungoverned stations, where you want to understand human terrain. Marines are uniquely experienced in doing that from our OIF [Operation Iraqi Freedom] and OEF [Operation Enduring Freedom] operations. And that is the essence of what that SOTF is doing.

When do you expect to reach a point where all MARSOC personnel have completed ITC (Initial Training Course)?

That is the goal. In our beginning stages, we did not send everyone through ITC, relying instead on our Marine experience to get us going. But our goal for ITC today is to make it part of our world-class schoolhouse, which also includes subject-matter expertise, such as taking a critical skills operator and make him a communicator, enable him to understand data systems, give him engineer capability and advanced medical training, make him a foreign weapons expert, with unique driving skills and language capability.

All of those are part of the SOF schoolhouse, so if you look at ITC as the 100 and 200 levels in college, the rest are the 300 and 400 level. We have organized our school to create that spread of graduated classes, so the SOF operator comes in here, then goes on deployment, then comes back. Which means he is fully established after 8 to 12 years in MARSOC.

Simply, we are of the mind now, based on the quality of ITC, to have every operator go through there, regardless of MOS (Military Occupational Specialty). The quality of our exercise program in there now is really good; our 20-day exercise at the end of ITC is now, in terms of quality, on a par with the Army’s. That is a blend of situations requiring kinetic and non-kinetic solutions, so the students come out with a pretty robust toolkit, albeit 100 and 200 level tools.

How will that change the command, its overall capabilities, its relationship to SOCOM and its relationship to the big Corps?

I’m not interested in building anything that is going to perform at less than an A-game level. I’m interested in quality. When they lock onto training at the team level, I take their brief; when they return from deployment, I take their brief. The brass ring is what kind of relationship did they establish with their partners, how much trust and how strong are those relationships, because that is critical. This is a “by, with, and through” organization for the most part, and if you are going to do that right, you need really experienced people, so when you show up, everyone knows you have the A-game and they have to work hard to stay up with you. And that goes back to quality.

That’s not because we work for SOCOM, but because we are Marines, fundamentally. We just have the latitude of money for training and the commandant has given us some of the best people in the Corps to do this job. So we can execute the SOCOM piece in good order based on big missions, tremendous men and adequate resources.

To the big Marine Corps, the challenge for us is the ROI. We’re still growing, with a few years to get to there and probably 8 to 12 years to get to develop a fully mature operator, even given a guy with a couple of years in the Corps before he comes to us. So that is a guy with 15 years – and what does that bring to the big Corps? An ops chief who has had the advantage of being here, playing with our technology tempo.

But our operators are not here for a career; they rotate back to the big Corps after a few years. So we already are giving back, putting intel guys back into the Corps who have been able to work with the best of the best.

I think a lot of people get a target fixation on the operator as the essence of all this. And the operator is key, but it takes all the enablers to facilitate that. And our enablers also are MARSOC, whether our dogs or our medical capability or our data communicators; to me, that’s tooth, because it allows you to understand the nature of the problem, the human terrain piece in an integrated fashion a lot of others don’t have.

The Corps has been looking at the notion of distributed ops for a long time, with small teams operating independently on the battlefield with solid communications and firepower and logistics. And that’s us; we’re doing that, we are the manifestation of distributed ops. We work for long periods, in ungoverned spaces, in a significant combat situation. So, conceptually, we also give back by the big Corps watching what we’re doing as they work to implement the Marine Corps vision of distributed ops. We’ve had almost every three star in the Marine Corps down here, looking at our capabilities, technology, people, concepts.

With respect to your “three chessboard” concept (see The Year in Special Operations: 2010-2011), when do you believe it will be fully implemented and how has that evolved?

Somehow you have to find a way of laying out this skilled progression piece. For example, what does a lance corporal in a rifle company or a Recon Marine or a MARSOC guy learn in a skills way as he moves along? When you get to the 8- or 10-year point, what a MARSOC [Marine] has learned and is doing is significant, but that doesn’t always resonate within the bigger Marine Corps.

It really comes down to your ability to solve complex problems. That first chessboard, a tactical chessboard, is based around recon and direct action. It’s tactical in nature, the basics of finding, fixing, and finishing. That can have strategic effects, but is a tactical skill. A guy who goes through ITC is focused on those things.

After a tour or two overseas, you put him into language school for a year, add the cultural immersion piece on the second chessboard, and that’s where he gets that brass ring to relate to, gain the trust of, and command the force integration team. If we are building competence and the will and skill to fight, then we have been successful on the second chessboard level.

The third board is for the sophisticated operator. No action sets by itself tactically, which brings us to notions such as village security operations in Afghanistan, where we are applying our unique enablers to support non-kinetic missions – building government and developing infrastructure – with interagency partners. There is a sophistication and understanding that come with that of how those things interface that requires a well-developed sense of how to play those interagency parts and put things together.

We’ve been forced to move to the third chessboard very quickly, to come up with these 300 and 400 level classes based on our experiences on the battlefield, to get these senior commanders where they need to be. And that third chessboard is the business of the SOTF.

MARSOC really is playing on all three chessboards at the same time, especially in theater. So when we talk about a world-class schoolhouse, we mean trying to find experts on the third chessboard who already have demonstrated these capabilities. We could have taken some of our more experienced operators and created those 48 teams quickly, but our emphasis is on quality coming out of that schoolhouse in the concept of the three chessboards.

What percentage of MARSOC operators are likely to actually go through all three levels?

That’s hard to say. Originally, MARSOC was a five-year stay; now it’s eight. But getting to that third chessboard is a difficult and long-term proposition. What does eight years do to build out our senior staff and command population? Having the MOS, closed-loop system may be the way to go, but right now we’re just studying the policy change of going from five years in MARSOC to eight and see where that takes us.

There are a high number of really smart Marines in several MOSs, such as the air wing, who won’t make the jump to MARSOC because they potentially could lose their MOS expertise. It’s one thing for an infantry guy to spend eight years here and go back, because he’s doing what he was doing. But a hydraulics guy comes back [to the big Corps] as a more experienced NCO – and then what?

Do you expect MARSOC to become a full-fledged career track within the Marine Corps?

We’re really working to define that with Manpower & Reserve Affairs.

How do you do that? Can you do it with a secondary MOS or a primary? What policies do you need? That’s what we’re working through right now.

The commandant has allowed Marines to reenlist to stay in MARSOC, so we have a little more time to work through and study this issue.

What is your personal opinion?

It’s an issue of the head and an issue of the heart; I get paid to make decisions with my head. I want my Marines to be able to get to that third chessboard, to be able to go home and explain to their families what they are doing. You may not need to have an MOS, as long as you have the right personnel policies.

Then again, if you bring a CSS [combat service support] guy or helicopter guy with any technical background into MARSOC and he’s out [of the big Corps] for eight years, how do you put him back? And if you just trained him on the third chessboard, what kind of ROI do you get if he goes back to being a helicopter mechanic?

If MARSOC does become a career track, when might that occur – would it change the command’s relationship to the big Corps, recruitment and retention?

We have a ticker of $25,000 when you graduate from ITC. Re-enlistment in MARSOC also comes with a pretty good amount of money, so the institution is making an effort. What Marines now want to know is how long can they stay; now that that has gone to eight years, our retention rates are high.

No one is walking around here looking for more missions – we’ve got plenty of missions. And the kinds of things they are into are extremely complex, from really quality training to really quality missions, so if you look around, this is a pretty good place to be. Our facilities and training, thanks to SOCOM, are world-class.

Do you now believe the original idea of rotating Marines in and out of MARSOC should be dropped, whether it becomes an official career track or not – and why?

I don’t know. The Marine Corps has a force structure review going on now, trying to chart their way, and we are part of that dialog. And I think an answer to that may come out of this review.

Any final thoughts?

Today’s MARSOC special operators can stand shoulder to shoulder with anyone in this business, do anything SOCOM asks us to do. There is a level here you couldn’t cut with a knife, it’s so thick, in terms of what these guys feel about MARSOC. We belong to SOCOM and get our tasking from SOCOM and work with our other SOF brothers, but we fight like Marines.

Looking out my office window, I see a wall with nine names etched in marble and know there are hundreds more who have been wounded. But those names also are etched into the hearts of all the Marines here. These guys come to give all they’ve got, first for love of country, but also because they’re Marines. And that’s what it all comes down to – every Marine a rifleman, every operator a Marine.

This article was first published in Marine Corps Outlook: 2010-2011 Edition.


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