Force Reconnaissance has long been at the tip of the Marine Corps’ spear. Performing what is considered “deep reconnaissance,” these Marines were traditionally the best-trained, most mature individuals from the reconnaissance community, and were entrusted with missions commensurate with those attributes.
Today, the Force Reconnaissance Companies have been integrated into the Reconnaissance Battalions’ fourth company. What happened to these units? Who is now performing their missions? Did MARSOC usurp the Force Reconnaissance mission? To understand the answers to these questions, a short analysis of the recent history of the reconnaissance community is needed.
No single event or individual is responsible for the integration of the Force Companies. Instead, the process has been a sequence of decisions that, while having the best of intentions, have created ripples that have shaken the reconnaissance community to its core. When MARSOC was created, and the proposed mission analyzed, there was only one pool of men to draw on, and they came from the recon community, with a heavy emphasis on Force Recon. This had the effect of essentially downsizing the Force Recon Company to a level that was barely sustainable. To combat this problem, new blood was needed. The Force Recon Company had long been the goal of any recon Marine who wished to stay in for more than an enlistment.
Being a member of Force Recon was virtually a requirement for holding the billets of platoon sergeant or operations chief within the reconnaissance community, and it provided valuable skillsets to the Marines who were still within the recon battalions. After the rush of personnel to stand up the MARSOC Battalions, some of the most experienced Marines from the Reconnaissance Battalions were pulled into the Force Recon Companies to bolster their numbers.
While this stabilized the Force Reconnaissance Companies, it had the effect of transferring a large percentage of the most experienced Marines out of their team leader and assistant team leader billets while the Recon Battalions’ deployment cycles were still quite high. This move, in turn, forced more junior Marines into leadership billets.
While this is not always a negative, to have so many move into those billets degraded the—until then—highly effective reconnaissance units in their subsequent deployments. The men of the Reconnaissance Battalions have always performed at a high level no matter what, but their effectiveness would have been greater had they been able to keep their experienced non-commissioned officers for another deployment.
With all three units stabilized, another problem began to arise. Reconnaissance Marines, never in great quantity, now began to feed not just the Force Recon Companies, but MARSOC as well. This had the net effect of further reducing the number of available, experienced Marines in the Reconnaissance Battalions and reducing the throughput to the Force Recon Companies, which became part of the basis for the re-integration of the Force Companies into the Recon Battalions.
Eventually, the Force Reconnaissance Companies were dissolved and their personnel re-allocated to the Recon Battalions. This proved a boon to the battalions, with a glut of experienced personnel now to draw on, but took the preeminent deep-reconnaissance force out of the Marine Corps. It was expected that MARSOC would make up for this void—an expectation which was never realized due to the specific mission sets tasked to them by SOCOM (Special Operations Command).
Several years after the dissolution of the Force Companies, the Marine Corps made the decision to bring them back. However, when the companies were dissolved, their equipment had been re-allocated to other units—mainly the Recon Battalions. While great strides were made in re-creating the Force Companies of old, their dependence upon the battalions for equipment and support personnel limited the manner in which they could organize and train.
In 2012, the Force Recon Companies were officially migrated under the administrative umbrella of the Reconnaissance Battalions. Currently, the Force Companies are continuing to rebuild, providing Marines to companies preparing for deployments with the Marine Expeditionary Units and providing trained Marines to participate in theater security cooperation missions around the globe.
The question must now be asked: Is MARSOC positioned to take over the old Force Recon missions? The answer is, “in part.” Being under SOCOM, MARSOC has long had a slightly different mission from that assigned to Recon or Force Recon, but the underlying requirements of their personnel have been morphing in tune with the changing operational environment.
From 2011 to the present day, the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have been winding down. With the cessation of the endless cycles of deployments, the requirement now is for small groups of highly skilled operators to be located regionally, ready to respond to threats, and for those same groups to be able to organize and train allied nations’ military forces to combat the growing tide of extremism.
In the military, there are several groups that meet this requirement including both Recon and MARSOC. Both units deploy in smaller units than most other groups in the Marine Corps, both have higher standards than the norm, both are communications-savvy, and both are cross-trained to conduct either reconnaissance and surveillance patrols (green side) or direct-action (black side) missions.
If this is the case, then what, you may ask, is the difference between the units? The answer lies in the chain of command. MARSOC reports to SOCOM while Recon reports to a specific division within the Marine Corps. The men are of similar skill and motivation, the gear is similar, and the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) are also similar. The reason for this is fairly simple. The term is “relevance.” As the units designated for the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns began rotating home, ending the seemingly never-ending cycle of deployments, many units found themselves, quite suddenly, without a job.
Most units in the Marine Corps will always maintain an obligation to support the Marine Expeditionary Units (MEU), but what about the Marines who aren’t aboard the ships? The SOF and “SOF-like” units in the military turned their eyes to the vast expanse of the world and staged themselves for operations. Initially, the division of these operations seemed to be based very much on skill sets, but this division of labor was not to last.
The problem, again, is relevance. With the Global-War-On-Terror money drying up, cutbacks in the military are already occurring. To avoid being downsized, SOF and SOF-like units began cross-training in skills that were not, traditionally, in their area of expertise in order to expand their operational relevance.
While this has not actually helped the budget and personnel problems, it has had the unique effect of giving the U.S. military several very diverse, experienced, and deadly units to deploy virtually anywhere on the globe instead of having to deploy one unit over another simply based on skill sets. There are seven continents in the world, five oceans, and approximately 180,000 islands on the Earth. Total area that we must be able to respond to: approximately 175-million square kilometers.
The demands upon the unique, highly versatile, and mobile teams that make up the Special Operations community are immense. Cross-training into areas which have been traditionally held by other units or services allows commands to have units within their spheres of influence capable of handling a wide variety of situations, rather than having to call out for assets which may be as far away as another continent.
In conclusion, while the formation of MARSOC may have contributed to the current state of Force Reconnaissance, the community has adapted admirably and continues to develop capabilities that the “old” Force Recon had. While some bemoan the dissolution of the independent unit, the influx of capabilities and experience into the Reconnaissance Battalions has proven invaluable. The Force Recon mission has not been usurped. It is being performed by those who best know how to perform it: the Marines currently in the Reconnaissance Battalions, and the former Reconnaissance Marines now holding leadership billets in MARSOC.