Recently, elements of MARSOC have taken to the sea, getting back to their amphibious roots, if you will. A handful of MSOTs (Marine Special Operations Team) have taken on the kind of training typical of a Force Recon Platoon, conducting a pre-deployment workup for an MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit). This development has many speculating what this will mean for MARSOC and Force Recon.
For those not familiar with the functions of an MEU, it’s a floating quick reaction force, poised to respond to any global crisis. It is the hallmark of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF). Equipped with a reinforced infantry battalion and air assets, the MEU can strike fast and sustain itself until a larger force can support its efforts. Enhancing the MEU’s Ground Combat Element is a reconnaissance section. Within the reconnaissance section is a Force Recon platoon. Their primary duties are Direct Action (DA), Special Reconnaissance (SR) and maritime interdiction missions, referred to as VBSS (Visit, Board, Search and Seizure).
The most puzzling aspect of this new development is the fact that Force Recon has proven itself more than capable of handling the type of missions for which MARSOC is now training.
The concept of employing Force Recon aboard the MEU was validated in a very public way in the Fall of 2010. When Somali pirates decided to hijack the German shipping vessel, the Magellan Star, they were unaware of the American commandos’ nearby presence.
At the time of the hijacking, the 15th MEU was underway toward the Red Sea, in order to conduct training with Jordanian troops. When the pirates seized the German container ship, the 15th MEU was redirected to assist with potential rescue efforts. Within twenty-four hours of the ship’s capture, the authorization for action came down from the highest levels of government. In the early morning hours of September 9th, members of 1st Force Recon Co, 2nd Platoon departed the USS Dubuque in two rigid-hull inflatable boats (RHIB), and initiated a daring amphibious raid on the besieged vessel. Without a single shot being fired, the men of First Force retook the hijacked ship and liberated the imprisoned crew.
Following the success of the Magellan Star rescue operation, the 15th MEU was called upon to wade into the murky waters of unconventional warfare. The Force Recon element assisted in the search for a high value target in Yemen. The insurgent leader wasn’t located, but the mission highlighted Force Recon’s ability to integrate with unconventional forces, in a non-permissive environment, a role usually reserved for SOF.
Considering the proven capabilities of Force Reconnaissance Marines aboard the MEUs, what can MARSOC offer that Force Recon can’t?
Former commanding officer of the 15th MEU, Col. Scott D. Campbell, addressed this question on June 10th of this year, at a conference in Washington DC. According to Col. Campbell, his Force Recon Marines are capable of everything except hostage rescue missions. However, his assessment was not shared by Al Gray, 29th Commandant of the Marine Corps. Gray, who was also at the DC conference. Gray criticized the perceived operational shortcoming as “stupid” and went on to describe his experience with Force Reconnaissance and hostage rescue training,”It’s not rocket science. Hostage rescue, we were well-trained to do it. Our friends in the FBI worked with us.”
To the skeptical eye, it appears that MARSOC isn’t bringing any advanced capabilities to the MEU. The need to put MARSOC back in the water seems to have originated with the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Amos.
To better explore the concept of integrating MARSOC into the MEU structure, the Commandant established The Ellis Group. Director of the group, Col. Jerome Driscoll, revealed to the Marine Corps Times that Gen. Amos intends to make room for CSOs aboard ships. Although, it appears a foregone conclusion, The Ellis Group is still charged with figuring out, “how we bring that capability back aboard ships, and how best to do that.” He goes on to comment on the consequences of combining SOF with Force Recon. “We don’t know yet if that capability is going to displace other capabilities like Force Recon, but I think there is room enough for everybody… I don’t think that anyone should worry about losing their jobs.”
The decision hasn’t been made just yet. The elements of 1st MSOB (Marine Special Operations Battalion) set to train with the 11th MEU, this Fall, is being labeled an experiment, for now. However, the writing is on the wall and it seems a safe bet that CSOs will someday find themselves deploying with the MEU. How they plan to integrate with the Marines and Sailors of Force Reconnaissance is unknown.
The success of Force Recon aboard the MEUs leads some to believe the inclusion of MARSOC is less about capabilities and more about securing gainful employment in the post-Afghanistan climate. After spending the better part of eight years devoted to the operational requirements in Afghanistan, MARSOC is now forced to justify its existence. While the more seasoned and experienced entities of SOCOM return to their pre-war roots, the youngest element of the USSOF community must now solidify its identity.
Whether it’s on land or on ship, I predict fair winds and following seas as MARSOC builds its reputation outside of Afghanistan.
(Featured Image Courtesy: MARSOC)