MARSOC’s Failing Standards
Developed in 2006, Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) continues to develop as a unique operational force for Special Operations Command (SOCOM). The elements of MARSOC are the Marine special operations battalions and the Marine special operations company (MSOC). For the purposes of this article, the focus will be on the MSOC. Around 100 Marines comprise an MSOC. Approximately half are critical skills operators (CSOs), and the other half are special operations capabilities specialists (SOCSs). CSOs are trained in a variety of special operations capabilities. Each SOCS possesses a specific capability in one of the following areas: communication, air/fires control, EOD, dog handling, or intelligence. This article will specifically focus on the communicators (SOCS-Cs); however, the following ideas should be applied to all SOCSs. The irreplaceable capability MARSOC provides SOCOM is the fully integrated company with CSOs and SOCSs. The CSOs are recruited and assessed, and selected individuals are those who successfully complete a six-week assessment and selection (A&S), a nine-month training pipeline, and the individual training course (ITC). The prerequisites to become a CSO are: volunteer, complete A&S, a 105 GT (general technical) score, a 225 PFT, medically cleared to dive, and a secret clearance.1 SOCSs, and more specifically the SOCS-Cs, a complementary asset to the CSO, simply receive orders to MARSOC with no formalized screening or assessment. To receive orders, a communications Marine must meet the following prerequisites: obtain a GT score per their MOS, pass a Marine PFT, be eligible for jump school, be eligible for an SCI (sensitive compartmented information) clearance, and be a lance corporal with a minimum of 36 months of service.2 This disparity between the recruiting of these two complementary and equally important groups will ultimately hinder the growth and development of Marine special operations. MARSOC needs to establish more accurate standards for the SOCS-Cs and establish a recruiting, screening, and assessing process to ensure qualified applicants are being selected for the unique mission.
MARSOC should first focus on reviewing and enhancing the SOCS-Cs GT score requirements. GT scores are designed to “Measure general trainability … to screen personnel for entry into specific skill training courses.”3 There are a variety of MOSs that comprise the SOCS-Cs and the two largest feeder MOSs are 0621 (radio operators) and 0651 (cyber network operator). Radio operators do not have a GT requirement but instead have an electrical score requirement of 105.4 This score does not easily equate to a GT score. The network operator MOS requires a GT score of 110.5 To receive the SOCS-C MOS, a Marine must complete MARSOC network operators course (MNOC), special operations training course (STC), as well as the survival, evasion, resistance, and escape (SERE) course. During MNOC, the most academically demanding course, students are expected to master data network operations and radio wave propagation theory. Essentially, the course combines the 0621 and 0651 MOSs, creating a more comprehensive communicator and making an individual interchangeable between the specialties. This requires the Marines to be exceptionally intelligent and capable. In the last three years, MNOC has dropped six Marines from the course because of external issues related to poor decision making and failure to master the curriculum.6 Since there is virtually no attrition at MNOC based on aptitude, it could be argued that the current MARSOC requirements for basic level MOS GT requirements are adequate. However, looking at a variety of after-action reports provided by forward deployed personnel, many SOCS-Cs are lacking basic technical skills that have detrimentally affected the mission. These issues occurred due to an incomplete understanding of radio wave propagation or basic network fundamentals. Additionally, poor planning by the team communicators caused gaps in capabilities required for the mission. This leads to two conclusions. First, the communications requirement baseline needs to be established at a GT score of 110, equal to that of a baseline score of a data Marine. This will ensure the Marines have the aptitude to master data networking. Secondly, better training needs to be conducted prior to a deployment to ensure communications personnel are prepared for all requirements in a fluid operating environment. If the GT score is not standardized and raised to 110, training becomes irrelevant because basic aptitude will prevent the Marines from mastering all communications capabilities. An increase in intelligence must be mirrored by a growth in physical fitness requirements.
MARSOC must revise the physical fitness requirements for a communications Marine to receive orders to the command. To pass a PFT in the Marine Corps, a Marine in the 17- to 26-year age range needs a score of 135. This includes—at a minimum—3 pull-ups, 50 crunches, and 3 miles in less than 28 minutes.7 To juxtapose a passing PFT against a CSO minimum PFT requirement of 225, there is a 90-point increase, which equates to a much more physically fit Marine. Based on multiple testimonials from team leadership and company executive officers, this disparity between levels of physical fitness not only adversely affects the team’s ability to operate but also unit camaraderie.8 Capt Ian Dunlap, who served as a team leader and MSOC XO stated, “The ideal communicator should be able to integrate completely with the team. An out of shape or incapable individual is not going to be integrated with the team. Either would be a liability in the battlespace.”9 The majority of missions conducted by MSOC require a higher level of physical fitness, and if teams are not comfortable with the communicator’s level of physical fitness, the team will not allow them to execute difficult missions. Not only does this limit the team’s potential employment of a communicator this will create a rift between the team and the communicator. Compare this to the conventional Marine Corps infantry platoon. While the MSOCs and infantry platoons have drastically different missions, both are small maneuver elements. This would be similar to the platoon commander establishing different physical fitness requirements for his radio operator than the rest of his platoon. By raising the baseline physical fitness standard for the SOCS-C to 225, the entire team will be able to better integrate, and it will allow leadership to maximize interoperability. These more physically fit and intelligent SOCS-Cs just need to have the maturity to meet the demands of a special operations environment.
The final standard MARSOC needs to update is the minimum rank requirement. The current standard, lance corporal with 36 months on contract, allows for very junior Marines to receive orders to MARSOC. Their lack of experience is detrimental to MARSOC and the Marines’ potential careers. Specifically, the standard currently allows for many Marines to report directly from their MOS producing school. This is problematic in two ways: first, the Marine has no conventional experience and secondly, junior Marines are generally young and immature. If a Marine’s first tour is with MARSOC, it warps his perspective on how operations are conducted within the Marine Corps. While the Marine fundamentals and core values stay constant, the funding, the communications missions, and even the maintenance cycle are different. Maturity is the second issue. Younger individuals have much less life experience, and this can lead to poor decision making. The vast majority of MNOC attrition is based on poor decision making, and this type of attrition is not isolated to MNOC. For example, 1st Special Operations Support Battalion lost 12 SOCS-Cs in 2 years based on poor decision making. Individuals in special operations have a higher degree of autonomy; therefore, there is a higher expectation that they make good decisions. MARSOC needs to modify the policy to corporals with at least 36 months on contract. This will ensure the Marines are arriving at MARSOC with at least one conventional Marine Corps fleet tour and with enough maturity to make them more valuable to the command. Updating and enhancing standards is only part of the process of receiving the correct people.
MARSOC must also implement a recruiting, screening, and assessing process for SOCS to ensure the most qualified applicants are being selected for the unique mission. Many communications Marines will meet the above standards but would not be ready for the complexities of a special operations unit. By adding a screening and assessing process to the enhanced standards, MARSOC can ensure that the individuals coming to the command are right for the mission. The assessment could take place over a single week and cover both MOS credibility and basic physical requirements for SOCOM missions. The benefit to the Marine Corps is a reduced attrition rate at MARSOC. This ensures that Marines arriving at the command serve a successful five-year tour and transition back to the Marine Corps with a unique set of skills to enhance the interoperability of the conventional Marine Corps and SOCOM. It is also directly in line with the Commandant’s planning guidance.10 MARSOC benefits by having qualified individuals who are ready to meet demanding deployment timelines, and it eliminates the strain on the Marine Special Operations School trying to compensate for attrition with additional throughput. This screening process would require additional MARSOC resources at the forefront; however, the long-term dividends it would yield would far exceed the cost up front. The MARSOC resources that would be necessary to run a screening would be the basic recruitment efforts, funding for travel and food, and personnel to run the event. The total cost of the event could easily be kept under $10,000 if military resources are utilized effectively. The long-term dividends would include a higher state of readiness, reduced strain on deployable personnel, and smaller cost associated with training.
One of the biggest arguments against enhancing the standards and instituting a screening would revolve around the talent pool in the Marine Corps not being able to meet these requirements. Assuming that the argument is true, it does not absolve MARSOC of its responsibility of identifying its mission requirements. The talent pool currently exists within the Marine Corps, and MARSOC’s recruiting efforts need to be modified to encompass more individuals than just CSOs. In November 2013, the west coast MARSOC units sent an intelligence SNCO on a recruiting trip with the MARSOC recruiters. Although the SNCO was primarily looking for Marines within the intelligence community, he found four qualified Marine communicators. With a more robust marketing campaign oriented specifically at Marine communications, the communications talent pool would become apparent.
This is a crucial time for the development of MARSOC and the future of the Marine Corps within special operations. The standards for MARSOC communicators need to be increased to a GT score of 110, a PFT score of 225, and the rank of corporal with 36 months on contract. These refined standards will ensure the Marines are intelligent enough to master data networking, physically fit enough to maneuver in the battlespace with the CSOs, and mature enough to handle the special operations mission. Additionally, MARSOC needs to focus on developing a recruiting, screening, and assessment process of SOCSs to ensure they have the correct people for these difficult missions. By raising the standards, MARSOC will be better able to meet its advertised capability of a fully integrated company of CSOs and SOCSs. If MARSOC continues to neglect the recruiting for the other half of its personnel, it may cease to be a unique force provider within SOCOM.
1. Commandant of the Marine Corps, Marine Special Operations Command (MARSOC) Training and Readiness (T&R) Manual, NAVMC 3500.97A, (1 July 2013), 7-3.
2. Ibid., 9-3.
3. Shiela Nataraj Kirby and Harry J. Thie, Enlisted Personnel Management: A Historical Perspective, (Washington, DC: Rand, 1996), 63.
4. Commandant of the Marine Corps, Military Occupational Specialty Manual, MCO 1200.17E, (8 August 2013), 3-91.
5. Ibid., 3-108.
6. Tracy Coyle, e-mail message to the author, 10 March 2015.
7. Commandant of the Marine Corps, Marine Corps Physical Fitness Program, MCO 6100.13, (1 August 2008), 2-5.
8. Ian Dunlap, interview by Graham Hill, 3 December 2014; interview by Graham Hill, 7 February 2015.
9. Ian Dunlap, interview by Graham Hill, 3 December 2014.
10. Headquarters Marine Corps, 36th Commandant’s Planning Guidance, (Washington, DC: 2015).