Marines with the 1st Marine Special Operations Battalion breach a cargo container as others rappel from a CH-47 helicopter onto the deck of a mock cargo ship during visit, board, search and seizure training with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment near Camp Pendleton, Calif., on Dec. 11. (Cpl. Kyle McNally / Marine Corps)
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CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — The Marine Corps' elite special operations force is preparing for life after Afghanistan, shifting its emphasis for the future to maritime missions it could take on across the globe, said its two-star commander.
Top officers in Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command will meet with officials from Marine Corps headquarters and U.S. Special Operations Command this April to sharpen MARSOC's focus, said Maj. Gen. Mark Clark. The Employment Course of Action Wargame at SOCOM headquarters in Tampa, Fla., will give MARSOC a chance to demonstrate its maritime special operations capabilities, Marine officials said.
"With Afghanistan and everything, everyone has been kind of in a landlocked area for a while," Clark said in a Feb. 13 interview here at MARSOC headquarters. "What we're trying to get ourselves prepared for is getting back to being a maritime SOF component. We think that's the niche and the value that we bring to the SOF community, and to the geographic combatant commander and to our service, the Marine Corps."
The move isn't the only one coming for the command, which celebrates its seventh anniversary this month. MARSOC also is preparing to realign its three special operations battalions regionally and develop a career path for its special operations officers, Clark said. One battalion each will be focused on operations in U.S. Central Command, U.S. Pacific Command and U.S. Africa Command, with the transition occurring based on world events, including the drawdown in Afghanistan.
"One of our big investments is the culture and the language, and you just can't turn the switch on overnight and say, ‘You know, I guess we're going to go to South America tomorrow and learn Portuguese,'" Clark said. "It takes time, it takes investment and it takes planning. … Each MSOB will have an area it is responsible for."
These shifts come as Adm. William McRaven, the head of SOCOM, calls for a global special operations force network in which he'd have more control of special operators after they deploy. As it stands, SOF troops deploy to a geographic combatant command, and then report to the four-star officer overseeing it.
Last year, McRaven proposed a controversial plan that would empower each Theater Special Operations Command to act more independently. The admiral would be able to oversee his forces, including MARSOC units, around the globe more directly and help its operators share intelligence about terrorist and criminal organizations they face.
The combatant commanders and the State Department have so far blocked McRaven's plan, in part due to fears about SOCOM having too much influence in a given region. However, McRaven has continued to push for it publicly, while stressing that the combatant commanders will be in charge.
"Simply put, the TSOCs are the center of gravity for SOF in theater," he said at the National Defense Industrial Association Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict symposium last month in Washington. "And if we want to adequately address current and emerging challenges with a SOF solution, we need to increase their capability."
MARSOC appears to be falling in line with McRaven's vision. Clark referenced the admiral's call for a "global SOF network" directly, saying Marine special operators should work to develop long-standing relationships in other countries that can prevent conflict or prove helpful if military action is needed.
"It's that investment now that can be used later," he said. "We can still do the direct-action piece and we can do it very well, but a lot of the investment we want to do now is getting in front of that."
Clark acknowledged it isn't yet clear what specific roles MARSOC will take in maritime operations, but said it is working with Naval Special Warfare Command to make sure it complements that of the Navy SEALs, rather than duplicating it.
The command also will develop a plan this summer to formalize a career path for special operations officers. Currently, Marines can stay in the command for the rest of their careers once they become critical skills operators, but officers return to the fleet, making it difficult for MARSOC to track them when it has officer billets to fill. Clark said the command is looking at a model with similarities to how the Army handles its Ranger community, with officers returning to MARSOC after filling other assignments.
"To keep them within this community would be probably a little too incestuous," he said. "It might be unhealthy. It would separate us from the bigger Marine Corps. So what's the right balance? Maybe they do their tour here, and then they go to a Marine Corps school. Or maybe they go to the right billet within the Marine Corps or the SOF community where they are the expert on Marine special operations."
Staff writer email@example.com?subject=Question from MarineCorpsTimes.com.com reader">Paul McLeary contributed to this report.