When USSOCOM was established by the Nunn-Cohen Act in 1987, the Marine Corps declined to contribute forces to the new joint entity. There were a number of reasons, including the Marine Corps’ belief that becoming involved in SOCOM, or even running it (it had been suggested that SOCOM be placed under Marine Corps command), would interfere with the Marine Corps’ flexibility and maritime capability. There was also a good deal of distrust toward Special Operations at the time, with the debacle at Desert One still in everyone’s mind.
This did not mean that the Marine Corps was uninterested in Special Operations. In 1983 Secretary of Defense Weinberger issued a memo, in which he directed the comprehensive review and improvement in the organization of Special Operations Forces. The memo went out to each service, instructing them to “assign special operations forces and related activities sufficient resource allocation priority.” In other words, “Let’s get a little more concentration on this area.” In accordance with Secretary Weinberger’s instructions, on September 14, 1984, Commandant Kelley assigned Lt. Gen. Al Gray (later to become Commandant himself) to conduct a study of Marine special operations capabilities, and to come up with suggestions to improve them.
The review went at II MAF (Marine Amphibious Force) Headquarters at Camp Lejeune, NC, from November 19th to December 17th of that year. The end result was a document entitled “Examination of Marine Corps Special Operations Enhancements.”
The review went over the Marine Corps’ history with Special Operations, both as a whole, in specific units, and as individuals. There is a considerable history of Marines conducting what would be considered Special Operations missions, even outside of the Marine Raiders and Marine Parachutists. (Both units were disbanded before the end of WWII, though their successors in the Amphibious Recon Companies continued on.) Marines had regularly conducted amphibious raids and rescue missions of civilians and prisoners.
Going by the new, more specific DoD definition of “Special Operations,” the study group developed a list of three types of Special Operations:
“Type A. The capability to conduct special operations tasks such as special purpose raids. This capability required unique skills, highly specialized equipment, and training far beyond that normally provided conventional forces. The forces involved were small and were to be used in operations of short duration.
Type B. The capability to conduct amphibious raids and support other special operations missions with conventionally organized forces (normally a unit of company-size) which have been designated, intensively trained, and equipped for special operations.
Type C. The capability to conduct amphibious raids, NEO (Noncombatant Extraction Operations) operations, and support of other special operations missions with a large, conventionally organized and equipped combined arms force.”
The group found that while many Marine units had Type C and even Type B capability, the spread of that capability was neither uniform nor organized. They developed four possible courses of action, seen as how the group’s mission was to develop and improve the Marine Corps SOF capabilities. The first was to maintain matters as they were, only tasking one raid company per amphibious unit to achieve a uniform Type C capability. The second, more time-intensive and expensive option, was to bring the entire MAU up to Type C capability, and have a raid company with Type B capability. This would, it was estimated, require a “quantum jump in capability and cost,” but was seen to have Fleet-wide benefits. The third option was to add a 275 man Type A unit, based CONUS rather than forward-deployed, in addition to option two. Option four was the same, only the Type A unit was to be larger, roughly 1000 men with dedicated aviation support of a squadron of CH-53E helicopters and C-130s.
When Lt. Gen. Gray went to present the group’s findings to Gen. Kelley, he brought detailed courses of action for each option. The group had largely favored option four; while the most radical (and the most costly), it presented the most advance in capability across the board. While the 1000 man unit would be a huge step to take right out of the gate, Lt. Gen. Gray had a plan for a smaller test unit, at about 289 men.
Failing the test unit plan, Gray offered up a plan to improve the structure that was already in place. This was the plan that Gen. Kelley approved.
Out of this plan came the modifications to the then-named Marine Amphibious Units. Three for each coast were on a constant rotation. One would be at sea, one in workup, the other reorganizing after returning from deployment. Training plans were expanded, aiming at increasing the overall skills level to bring the MAUs to a Type C capability at minimum.
Kelley approved the new plan, coining the term MAU (SOC) for Marine Amphibious Unit (Special Operations Capable). Over the next couple of years, the MAU (SOC)s were built up. The CONUS-based Direct Action unit was built, from the Special Operations Training Group and 2nd Force Reconnaissance Company. It became known as the “CINC’s In-Extremis Force.”
In 1988, General Gray, now the Commandant of the Marine Corps, redesignated the MAU (SOC)s to MEU (SOC)s–Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable). The heart of the (SOC) part of the MEU was the Maritime Special Purpose Force.
The MSPF consisted of a Command Element, a Security Element, an Assault Element, a Reconnaissance and Surveillance Element, and a Support Element. The Command Element included the Commander, a Comm detachment, a Human Exploitation Team, a Medical Section, and an Intel section from the MEU. Security was a rifle platoon from the Battalion Landing Team.
The Assault Element was the heart of the MSPF, consisting of a Force Reconnaissance Platoon. The Platoon was capable of special insertion, explosive breaching, assault, VBSS (Visit, Board, Search, Seizure), sniping, and providing its own internal security. The training was grueling, with workups often lasting a year, after a six-month schools phase following the previous deployment.
The Reconnaissance and Surveillance Element consisted of a platoon from one of the Recon Battalions. These were made up of younger, more junior Recon Marines, though often the Platoon Sergeants would have come from one of the Force Companies. They were regularly augmented by Radio Recon and sometimes one of the Scout/Sniper teams from the BLT. The R&S Element’s job would generally be to insert ahead of an operation and report any and all useful information back to the Command Element.
The Support Element generally consisted of other elements of the MEU, to include Scout/Sniper teams, HET, Comm, and aviation assets.
The MSPF had a set standard for planning–six hours from the Commander’s order dropping to wheels-up on insert. It was a demanding standard, but it was trained hard until it could be met, every time.
The MEU (SOC)s saw a great deal of action during the 1990s. While it was the entire 4th Marine Expeditionary Brigade that was involved, the MEU (SOC) style of operations was evident in the evacuation of the US Embassy in Mogadishu in January, 1991, during Operation Eastern Exit. In 1993, during the US involvement in Somalia, nearly every MEU (SOC) got some opportunity to operate, with the MSPF aboard the 24th MEU (SOC) managing to conduct almost the entire spectrum of maritime special operations missions in only 48 days. The Marines conducted amphibious boat and heliborne raids, coalition support operations, recovery of aircraft and personnel, and even one direct action raid. In 1994, the 24th MEU (SOC) rescued Capt. Scott O’Grady from behind enemy lines in Bosnia.
During most of this time, the Marine Corps conducted a fair amount of joint cooperation with SOCOM, however, by 1996, the relationship between the Marine Corps and SOCOM was cooling. The SOCOM/USMC board, intended to facilitate joint cooperation, had effectively ceased to be by ’96. While individual Marines still filled billets with USSOCOM, and did well, institutionally, there was little to no contact.
September 11, 2001 would change that.