A Marine attending MARSOC's Individual Training Course patrols during Exercise Raider Spirit at Camp Lejeune, N.C. To help lower the command's historically high attrition rate, officials have eased some of ITC's physical and critical-thinking requirements. (Lance Cpl. Thomas W. Provost / Marine Corps)
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A joint terminal attack controller with MARSOC speaks with a Navy MH-60S helicopter crew during training at Naval Air Station Fallon, Nev. The command is adding three new battalions of support personnel, a move that will allow Marine spec ops teams to function more like Marine air-ground task forces. (Cpl. Kyle McNally / Marine Corps)
Numbers to know
625 critical skills operators
844 critical skills operators
3 new support battalions scheduled to activate this year
1,800 Approximate number of Marines who will fill these units by 2016, among them:
220 intelligence Marines
CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command is entering its next phase of development, adding new support battalions and putting greater emphasis on recruiting corporals and sergeants to help fill additional companies of special operators.
The shift comes as MARSOC, based here at Stone Bay, prepares for continued operations in Afghanistan and missions in southeast Asia, Africa and other remote locations, said Maj. Gen. Paul Lefebvre, the force's departing commanding general. Even as the U.S. withdraws thousands of conventional forces from the war zone, he said, MARSOC's work there will remain steady and similar.
"Before those forces got there, we were there," Lefebvre said during an Aug. 14 interview at MARSOC headquarters. "We've been down that road before. We've enjoyed the kind of support that comes with having a lot of conventional forces around the last few years, but we're prepared to go the other way."
MARSOC will grow steadily over the next few years, eventually reaching 12 companies consisting of 48 teams, Lefebvre said. Each team will have 14 to 20 men and likely will be led by a captain and master sergeant serving as a team leader and team chief, respectively. The force currently has about 625 critical skills operators organized into three battalions, nine companies and 32 teams. The expansion will continue until 2016, when the command is expected to have 844 operators, Marine officials said.
The bulk of MARSOC's remaining growth, however, will come in support roles. Early this year, Commandant Gen. Jim Amos authorized MARSOC to add 821 Marines in jobs such as intelligence, explosive ordnance disposal and joint tactical air support. It's fewer than the 1,135 personnel U.S. Special Operations Command had approved for MARSOC, but in light of the Corps' planned drawdown from 202,100 active-duty Marines to 182,100, MARSOC leadership is pleased.
Amos has been forthright in his support for MARSOC. Shortly after becoming the Corps' top officer in 2010, he released guidance saying the service would "fully embrace MARSOC and capitalize on its unique capabilities," setting the tone for changes to come. The Corps established its 0372 primary military occupational specialty for critical skills operator last year, a long-awaited step for those within the command eager for stability and a career path.
Lefebvre, who retired Aug. 24, conceded not everyone in the service was happy when Amos ordered the Corps to embrace MARSOC, but he said it gave the force a foothold for success.
"There wasn't a parade over that, but it gave us a fighting chance everywhere in the Marine Corps to show that we were worthy of consideration and not a bunch of cowboys," Lefebvre said. "When he said that, all of a sudden doors opened for us that had not been open. We had been having real trouble with policy. We began to be able to develop that in a collaborative way, and with that came the 0372 MOS.
"Up until that point in time, we had guys who were fighting and dying here, and with no MOS," he said. "They couldn't go home and tell their wives what their futures held."
Becoming an operator
With Marines able to build a career in MARSOC, the command has shifted its recruiting efforts to focus almost exclusively on seasoned corporals and sergeants, Lefebvre said. They will fill out the special operations teams, with more senior positions going to Marines who have deployed with MARSOC.
"There's still a gunnery sergeant or staff sergeant selected occasionally, but that has been a change in the last six months," the general said. "Bringing in more senior people now would disrupt the lineal list for promotion."
The selection and training process for joining MARSOC continues to evolve. Two years ago, the force added the Assessment and Selection Preparatory and Orientation Course to aid and mentor Marines before they go through the selection process. Candidates are cut temporary additional-duty orders to report to MARSOC and spend three weeks working on everything from physical training to critical-thinking skills while learning what's expected of CSOs.
An average class includes about 160 Marines. Those men are whittled down to about 110 before the grueling 19-day Assessment and Selection process, with about 75 or 80 making it through, the general said. Marines most commonly leave MARSOC vetting during ASPOC, an expected step that has resulted in fewer Marines going through additional screening only to leave later in the process.
"There are a number … who come here and when they hear, ‘This is what the life is like,' [they say], ‘Maybe it's not for me. Maybe it's not what I thought it was,'" Lefebvre said of ASPOC. "So some of them will leave. And for others, they're not really ready to take the test yet. Maybe the maturity isn't where it needs to be, or physically they aren't where they need to be and they don't have the time to put in the work. So through mutual agreement, they won't go to selection."
Once in A&S, Marines are subjected to physical fitness tests, long hikes, swimming and other challenges. Within the last year, however, MARSOC has removed some physical and critical-thinking requirements from the process, Lefebvre said.
"We used to have hard gates in there, where if you didn't make a certain requirement by a certain time, then we would drop you," the general said. "We don't do that anymore."
That decision was made after MARSOC spent two years grappling with high attrition in its selection process. Better screening, the introduction of ASPOC and the altered requirements at A&S have combined to reduce the washout rate from about 46 percent in 2010 to 25 percent today, Marine officials said.
Marines who make it through selection then attend the Individual Training Course, a seven-month effort that includes intensive training in marksmanship, intelligence and operating in small units. One of the past criticisms of MARSOC was that some instructors didn't have much spec ops experience, Lefebvre said, but "now almost 100 percent" of them have deployed as CSOs.
MARSOC also shifted the focus of ITC's graduation exercise, known as Operation Derna Bridge. It includes evaluation of critical thinking; communications; surveillance; and survival, evasion, resistance and escape principles, or SERE.
"We took our Derna Bridge graduation exercise and we focused it on irregular warfare and unconventional warfare, so the students are dealing with head-hurting problems," Lefebvre said. "Some of them are unsolvable. But they're the kind of problems you run into when you're with a partnered force and you're trying to build governance. It's two steps forward, one step back. One step forward, one step back. So when they come out of there, they do so with an appreciation for the complexities of things we're seeing. There's no cookie-cutter approach to this."
New units, deployments
MARSOC's expansion will lead to the development of three new battalions this year: a support battalion, a logistics battalion and a combat support battalion. The support battalion will be established in October, with the other two coming in November, said Maj. Jeff Landis, a MARSOC spokesman.
Combined, the new units will include about 1,800 Marines, Lefebvre said. That figure includes about 300 logisticians, 220 intel Marines and 220 communicators, with dog handlers, explosive ordnance disposal specialists, joint tactical air controllers and other Marines filling the remaining roles.
These Marines do not endure the same selection processes used for CSOs, although MARSOC enablers do receive extensive training in many spec ops skills. When deployed, they'll be used to assist the teams of operators something MARSOC didn't plan for when it was established, the general said, because the force was initially conceived to deploy from ships, getting support from Marine expeditionary units.
So far, MARSOC has recruited about 100 of the additional enablers it needs, Lefebvre said. This endeavor will allow spec ops teams to function as Marine air-ground task forces, like conventional forces, minus an aviation element.
"There has been a lot of talk about this aviation element, and quite frankly right now I'm not a proponent of that," Lefebvre said. "We need to be able to fly in everybody's helicopters, and I don't think our mission should be dependent on bringing our aviation unit forward. If you watch the countries we're in today, we're using a combination of conventional and special operations helicopters in numerous places. Down the road, might we pursue an aviation element? Maybe. But right now, it's not a requirement."
MARSOC teams will continue to deploy with little rest between tours. Currently, operators get slightly more than one month home for every month they're deployed, one of the most hectic ratios in the Corps. Most of those tours are to Afghanistan, but the force has operators in four geographic combatant commands: U.S. Central Command, U.S. Africa Command, U.S. Pacific Command and U.S. Southern Command.
"We are all over southeast Asia. We are all over Africa," Lefebvre said. "We're conducting counternarcotics missions that are very important." He declined to say where the counternarcotics missions occur.
MARSOC also is exploring how it can assist Marine forces in future amphibious operations. In one example, special operators participated this year in the exercise Operation Bold Alligator. They conducted reconnaissance and other preparatory "shaping" operations off the coast of North Carolina before conventional Marine forces launched an amphibious assault.
By opting to train and certify its teams as one integrated unit before they deploy, MARSOC has become attractive to combatant commanders, Lefebvre said.
"That's nothing new. That's the MAGTF concept," he said. "We've just taken that into the distributed operations role in Afghanistan and all the other locations we're in and will use it in our future maritime role."