MARSOC: Leaning Forward

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http://www.defensemedianetwork.com/stories/marsoc-leaning-forward/

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Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command (MARSOC) prepared for its fourth change of command, a new sergeant major, and, possibly, a name change as it celebrated its eighth anniversary as the newest special operations force in USSOCOM.

“I think one thing that has been helpful is, even though you have different people coming into various staff positions, we have been consistent with our vision and mission,” said Maj. Gen. Mark Clark, MARSOC’s fourth commander, who is transitioning (a term he prefers to “retiring”) from the Marine Corps in mid-2014. “Our priorities remain the same – supporting the current fight and global SOF [special operations forces] network while, in many ways, getting into our regionalization effort and Preservation of the Force and Family initiative. And, of course, our response to resourcing.”

MARSOC units began operating in Afghanistan and Iraq only six months after it was created as a major command within the Marine Corps and a co-equal component of the U.S. Special Operations Command alongside Army, Air Force, and Navy SOF commands. Since then, it has grown steadily in size, capability, missions, and leadership roles within SOCOM.

During Clark’s two years as commander, special operations also has become an official career path for enlisted personnel; now he hopes to see something similar for the officer corps.

“We have a closed-loop MOS for enlisted, but not for our officers. So we’re working with SOCOM and the Marine Corps to determine what is the right path for them, one that maintains credibility in the SOF community, but also credibility and promotability in the big Corps,” he said. “One thing I think will come out of our current staff talks will be a proposed career path that will provide our officers with some kind of predictability, but also predictability for SOCOM, so they have a path to follow when they leave MARSOC and should they return later. That also will be a career path that is considered promotable at the same rate as their big Corps peers, even though each may not have been in his primary MOS for part of that time.”

While he does not see any devastating effects on MARSOC from ongoing budget cuts and sequestration, Clark does acknowledge they have suspended the command’s growth. As funding grew tighter in 2013, he “adjusted the concept of building the MARSOC force to building the ‘right’ force,” which now will be smaller than was anticipated as late as early 2013.

“The commandant has been very supportive of MARSOC and, although we have not grown to what was originally programmed, I think we have reached a good number, given what is going on – 2,742 is the magic number to have what we need. Where we have taken some loss in not realizing full growth is in some of our combat support,” he said. “But working with the Corps, they are leaning forward in how they can help fill some of those gaps – not necessarily permanently, but at the time of deployment. So I’ve been pretty happy.

“It has caused us to relook at our organization and adjust to the environment, which we’ve done a good job at, aligning our support battalions with our operations battalions, which has helped us deal with some of the areas we did not grow in. That said, we certainly have plans in place, if we are ever able to realize any additional growth, to flesh out those areas where we have gaps now. We’re not counting on it, but will be able to take full advantage of it should the opportunity arise.”

One such relook was the creation of a new at-sea component to work with Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs) afloat. That does not mean MARSOC is returning to one of the original concepts of putting full MARSOC teams on ships as part of the Pacific pivot.

“We addressed that in last year’s SOCOM-Corps war games. We determined it was best to allow SOCOM and MARSOC to provide assistance to general purpose forces, but also figure out how to tie together the MAGTFs [Marine Air-Ground Task Forces] and special purpose Corps units with SOF,” Clark said.

“So we came up with the concept of the SOF Liaison Element – SOFLE – where we take an O5 [lieutenant colonel] and build a team behind him that represents the SOF community. They provide the capability for the local commanders to tap into the SOF network, whether in predeployment training or actual deployment. You have this small group on the ship with them that ties them into the SOF network and TSOC [Theater Special Operations Command]. So if there are exercises or crisis response, they can use the SOFLE to do that.”

A SOFLE deployed with the Corps’ West Coast MEU in spring 2014 and another to the East Coast MEU.

“This will be proof-of-concept; we believe they will be value-added to the MEUs as they go out. A SOFLE is a six-man team, headed by an O5. The first is from MARSOC, but could be from another SOF organization. We’re still sorting out which organization is the best to head up a SOFLE. The members do not have to be naval; you have a menu of options to tap into the entire SOF capability, with a USASOC individual or AFSOC or Navy SEAL providing specific expertise,” he explained.

“There will be no standing MARSOC team on ships unless a specific mission requires it. That works out for us, because there may be something else required of that team, such as persistent engagement on the ground. That also relieves some of the pressure on the MEUs; every time you add something on the ship, something else has to come off.”

MARSOC will be working closely with the Corps and SOCOM to develop the new at-sea liaison, especially as part of exercises.

“There will be a lot of discovery and learning on the SOFLE concept. The SOFLE attached to the West Coast MEU recently did an exercise that worked out pretty well,” Clark added. “So now we’re looking at Alligator, Dawn Blitz, and other bigger exercises to see how to best integrate SOF and general purpose forces that take advantage of what SOF can provide, whether it is special reconnaissance, direct action, preparation of environment, etc. – and how do we write that into some of our doctrine out there.”

A naval aviator who flew USMC CH-53E Super Stallions and V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft as well as the MH-53J Pave Low while an exchange pilot with the Air Force 20th Special Operations Squadron, Clark has spent the bulk of his career since 9/11 in special ops – first as current operations officer with the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force (K-Bar) in Afghanistan, then Joint Operations Center chief for the Combined Joint Force Special Operations Command in Qatar and, just prior to assuming command of MARSOC, as director of operations and then acting deputy director of SOCOM.

He was the first MARSOC commander with operational, command, and multi-service SOF experience, something he said has served him well and also should be considered in the selection of future MARSOC leaders at all levels (his successor had not yet been named at press time).

“In any organization, whether the Marine Corps or the SOF community, a lot of strong relationships start when you’re a captain and build as you advance in rank. Such relationships and understanding of the community do help you with each new command or level of responsibility in which you find yourself. As we develop the [MARSOC] career model – for which we’re looking at the [Army] Ranger model – you start in the Corps, then do a tour in MARSOC, then back to the Corps and so on,” Clark said.

“So you have an officer who not only understands special operations, but also understands his service and has relationships and experience in both, which also is important. And you have officers who can provide SOF expertise to the Corps and Corps expertise to MARSOC. I’m very proud of this organization and what they’ve done. There are a lot of talented people here with passion and perseverance, and each of them, in their own way, but also collectively, has made a difference.”

As with other SOCOM special operators, MARSOC Marines receive a variety of advanced training beyond that of their comrades in the big Corps. That includes the MARSOC Advanced Linguist Course, lasting from nine to 12 months (depending on languages taught); the Special Operations Training Course, a three-week extension of standard warfighting and combat operational capabilities that includes culture and civil affairs, enhanced field medical training, and various communications and weapons packages; an Advanced Sniper Course that incorporates SOCOM standards for sniper uniformity across all four components; and special SOF training in capability development, force readiness and force employment projection, as well as unit collective training and leader development to prepare for joint/combined warfighting with both regular and other SOF units, all of which reflect where MARSOC is headed in the near-term.

“On regionalization, we’ve put a lot of effort in leaning forward and how to support the TSOCs and our enable capability – expeditionary and naval, that our companies and teams bring to a TSOC – and helping the TSOCs understand what they are actually getting,” Clark explained. “We’ve also focused on the littorals. A lot of the think tanks, especially the Naval Postgraduate School, have all identified the littorals as being an evolving problem area. But nobody in the SOF community has really focused on that. As an expeditionary-from-the-sea organization at our roots, it made sense to focus on that and how we could bring our capability to the TSOCs in the littorals – not exclusively, but increasingly.

“We deployed our first company to Guam this year in support of SOCPAC [Special Operations Command-Pacific], which has highlighted the partnership we have built with NSW [Naval Special Warfare]. We’re also getting good support from the Corps there. We will have a persistent company on Guam, with teams deploying to various other parts of the Pacific to do partnership training and other ops for TSOC, as well as crisis response.”

In 2014, in addition to PACOM (U.S. Pacific Command), MARSOC will provide a persistent company in support of AFRICOM (U.S. Africa Command) and later in support of CENTCOM (U.S. Central Command, which includes Iraq and Afghanistan).

“We’re doing an equal slice across the board. We’ve assigned one battalion to support SOCPAC, SOCAF [Special Operations Command-Africa], and SOCCENT [Special Operations Command-Central]. The teams and companies falling under that will be based on what we have to give,” Clark said. “We have a great relationship with SOCAF and are supporting them through staff augmentation, sending one of our O6s [colonel] there, and MARSOC teams. I think that is progressing very nicely and MARSOC certainly is value-added there. A good part of what we’re doing is training and partner nation capability-building.”

They also will maintain a force presence in Afghanistan – currently comprising battalion-level command and control and company teams – although Clark declined to comment on MARSOC’s final role in the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. With specific regard to the Department of Defense’s “Pacific pivot,” he said MARSOC is working on a number of approaches there.

“One of the unique things about SOF is being regionally savvy and effective in terms of language, culture, and so on. So we have a battalion in each area that is focused on those, but we are not giving any particular AOR [area of responsibility] more attention than another, unless there is an immediate need,” he said.

“We can shift forces immediately, even if we don’t have all the regional expertise, but we would mix those that do with the surge capability that may not have that because they were focused on a different AOR before the shift. We’re focused on a particular AOR, but not limited there.”

Clark also is proud of MARSOC’s continued focus on the health and welfare of its members and their families.

“We beefed up our Preservation Force and Family effort this past year, putting an O6 in charge and launching related entities within the command under that to make it one-stop shopping for the force and families, so they can go there for any issue they may have,” he said. “Health services, family readiness, Corps community service, chaplains – everything related to mind-body-spirit – as well as physical resiliency and the transition piece. So as our Marines and sailors get ready to transition out of the Corps or Navy, we provide assistance, helping them with that transition.”

A final item on the agenda – that may or may not be resolved before MARSOC’s change of command – is a proposal the commandant turned down once before: changing the special operations command’s name to Raiders. The Marine Corps has long maintained that the 1st and 2nd Marine Raider Battalions were the “first U.S. special operations forces to form and see combat in World War II.”

He was the first MARSOC commander with operational, command, and multi-service SOF experience, something he said has served him well and also should be considered in the selection of future MARSOC leaders at all levels (his successor had not yet been named at press time).

“In any organization, whether the Marine Corps or the SOF community, a lot of strong relationships start when you’re a captain and build as you advance in rank. Such relationships and understanding of the community do help you with each new command or level of responsibility in which you find yourself. As we develop the [MARSOC] career model – for which we’re looking at the [Army] Ranger model – you start in the Corps, then do a tour in MARSOC, then back to the Corps and so on,” Clark said.

“So you have an officer who not only understands special operations, but also understands his service and has relationships and experience in both, which also is important. And you have officers who can provide SOF expertise to the Corps and Corps expertise to MARSOC. I’m very proud of this organization and what they’ve done. There are a lot of talented people here with passion and perseverance, and each of them, in their own way, but also collectively, has made a difference.”

As with other SOCOM special operators, MARSOC Marines receive a variety of advanced training beyond that of their comrades in the big Corps. That includes the MARSOC Advanced Linguist Course, lasting from nine to 12 months (depending on languages taught); the Special Operations Training Course, a three-week extension of standard warfighting and combat operational capabilities that includes culture and civil affairs, enhanced field medical training, and various communications and weapons packages; an Advanced Sniper Course that incorporates SOCOM standards for sniper uniformity across all four components; and special SOF training in capability development, force readiness and force employment projection, as well as unit collective training and leader development to prepare for joint/combined warfighting with both regular and other SOF units, all of which reflect where MARSOC is headed in the near-term.

“On regionalization, we’ve put a lot of effort in leaning forward and how to support the TSOCs and our enable capability – expeditionary and naval, that our companies and teams bring to a TSOC – and helping the TSOCs understand what they are actually getting,” Clark explained. “We’ve also focused on the littorals. A lot of the think tanks, especially the Naval Postgraduate School, have all identified the littorals as being an evolving problem area. But nobody in the SOF community has really focused on that. As an expeditionary-from-the-sea organization at our roots, it made sense to focus on that and how we could bring our capability to the TSOCs in the littorals – not exclusively, but increasingly.

“We deployed our first company to Guam this year in support of SOCPAC [Special Operations Command-Pacific], which has highlighted the partnership we have built with NSW [Naval Special Warfare]. We’re also getting good support from the Corps there. We will have a persistent company on Guam, with teams deploying to various other parts of the Pacific to do partnership training and other ops for TSOC, as well as crisis response.”

In 2014, in addition to PACOM (U.S. Pacific Command), MARSOC will provide a persistent company in support of AFRICOM (U.S. Africa Command) and later in support of CENTCOM (U.S. Central Command, which includes Iraq and Afghanistan).

“We have a great relationship with SOCAF and are supporting them through staff augmentation, sending one of our O6s [colonel] there, and MARSOC teams. I think that is progressing very nicely and MARSOC certainly is value-added there. A good part of what we’re doing is training and partner nation capability-building.”

“We’re doing an equal slice across the board. We’ve assigned one battalion to support SOCPAC, SOCAF [Special Operations Command-Africa], and SOCCENT [Special Operations Command-Central]. The teams and companies falling under that will be based on what we have to give,” Clark said. “We have a great relationship with SOCAF and are supporting them through staff augmentation, sending one of our O6s [colonel] there, and MARSOC teams. I think that is progressing very nicely and MARSOC certainly is value-added there. A good part of what we’re doing is training and partner nation capability-building.”

They also will maintain a force presence in Afghanistan – currently comprising battalion-level command and control and company teams – although Clark declined to comment on MARSOC’s final role in the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. With specific regard to the Department of Defense’s “Pacific pivot,” he said MARSOC is working on a number of approaches there.

“One of the unique things about SOF is being regionally savvy and effective in terms of language, culture, and so on. So we have a battalion in each area that is focused on those, but we are not giving any particular AOR [area of responsibility] more attention than another, unless there is an immediate need,” he said.
USNS John Ericsson (T-AO 194)

“We can shift forces immediately, even if we don’t have all the regional expertise, but we would mix those that do with the surge capability that may not have that because they were focused on a different AOR before the shift. We’re focused on a particular AOR, but not limited there.”

Clark also is proud of MARSOC’s continued focus on the health and welfare of its members and their families.

“We beefed up our Preservation Force and Family effort this past year, putting an O6 in charge and launching related entities within the command under that to make it one-stop shopping for the force and families, so they can go there for any issue they may have,” he said. “Health services, family readiness, Corps community service, chaplains – everything related to mind-body-spirit – as well as physical resiliency and the transition piece. So as our Marines and sailors get ready to transition out of the Corps or Navy, we provide assistance, helping them with that transition.”

A final item on the agenda – that may or may not be resolved before MARSOC’s change of command – is a proposal the commandant turned down once before: changing the special operations command’s name to Raiders. The Marine Corps has long maintained that the 1st and 2nd Marine Raider Battalions were the “first U.S. special operations forces to form and see combat in World War II.”

“That’s the tie-in [with MARSOC] – the Raiders were part of the Marine Corps. They just had a different mission and training requirements at the time, just like MARSOC today,” Clark said. “The commandant was a guest speaker at the Raider reunion last August, which prompted my approaching him again. I presented a proposal and he is considering it. I think we’ve laid out our thoughts clearly, but it is a decision that resides with him. Regardless of what we’re called, there will be Marine in our name somewhere and we will be a special operations organization. Marines are who we are, special ops is what we do. And that will not change.”

“That’s the tie-in [with MARSOC] – the Raiders were part of the Marine Corps. They just had a different mission and training requirements at the time, just like MARSOC today,” Clark said. “The commandant was a guest speaker at the Raider reunion last August, which prompted my approaching him again. I presented a proposal and he is considering it. I think we’ve laid out our thoughts clearly, but it is a decision that resides with him. Regardless of what we’re called, there will be Marine in our name somewhere and we will be a special operations organization. Marines are who we are, special ops is what we do. And that will not change.

“MARSOC continues to mature and relationships continue to grow, and I think we will figure out the right career path for our officers and the right path for our enabling capabilities. And I think the result will make MARSOC, the Marine Corps, and SOCOM much better because everyone will gain from that. The TSOCs will have a better understanding of what MARSOC provides them – as we say, ‘we do windows.’ They are our customer and if they need us to do something different, we will do our best to adjust to that and provide it.”

But as he prepares to leave MARSOC and the Marines, Clark concluded “the important things are the people, the mission, and the things that support that.”

“It’s been a great team effort and collaboration across a lot of different organizations that have helped MARSOC in the last eight years and will continue to do that. And I think the next commander and sergeant major will find MARSOC to be a very healthy organization – effective and in high demand. And I don’t think they will find another organization with such great people. It’s been a privilege and an honor to be part of that team the past few years. And if you’re going to transition out of something you’ve been doing a long time, I can’t think of a better place to transition from than MARSOC. It would be hard to match that anywhere else.”
 
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