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Corps grapples with sea-based roles for Force Recon, MARSOC

Jun. 21, 2013 - 01:19PM   |  
MARSOC conducts VBSS training with 160th SOAR
Marines with the 1st Marine Special Operations Battalion, U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command 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 (VBSS) training on Dec. 11 with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment near Camp Pendleton, Calif. (Cpl. Kyle McNally / Marines)
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Force Reconnaissance Marines recently played a key role in searching for an insurgent leader off the coast of Yemen, working in an unconventional arrangement from the destroyer Jason Dunham for more than 30 days, according to Marine commanders.

The Marines did not find the “high-value individual,” but their ability to perform a mission from a class of ship the Corps rarely uses shows their utility and value, said Col. Scott Campbell, commanding officer of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, to whom the Force Recon Marines were assigned. In particular, the MEU’s maritime raid force targeted a number of dhows, small boats that can be used to smuggle weapons and other contraband, Campbell said.

The missions are relevant as senior U.S. officials consider the future of shipboard raids and other complicated missions at sea. Among others, the Marine Corps’ commandant, Gen. Jim Amos, and the head of U.S. Special Operations Command, Adm. William McRaven, are considering how to better incorporate special operators, including members of Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, with conventional amphibious forces. At the same time, the Corps still has a capable Force Reconnaissance community that has handled complicated missions at sea in the past, notably in a September 2010 shipboard raid in which they took back the German shipping vessel Magellan Star from Somali pirates.

Campbell, speaking June 10 at a Washington-area think tank, said his Force Recon Marines were capable of anything other than hostage rescue. That includes beach reconnaissance, a mission once handled primarily by special operators.

But retired Gen. Al Gray, the Corps’ 29th commandant, said during the same event that it is “stupid” that each MEU doesn’t already have forces embarked that can handle hostage rescue. MEUs once had forces that could perform the sensitive mission, and should again, he said.

“It’s not rocket science,” Gray said. “Hostage rescue, we were well-trained to do it. Our friends in the FBI worked with us. If a U.S. ship or U.S. Marines are anywhere in the world and something goes down and special forces can’t get there or whatever ... the nation expects us to do something about it.”

The debate is complicated by history. Force Recon missions were put on hiatus in 2006 when the Corps established MARSOC as its own special operations force, drawing heavily from Force Recon’s direct action platoons to fill its ranks. Force Recon was brought back in 2008, however, as Marine commanders acknowledged they needed their own elite forces to carry out high-end missions while MARSOC conducted missions for SOCOM.

In 2011, the commandant established the Ellis Group to examine how the Corps should conduct amphibious operations in the future, including special operations at sea. Col. Jerome Driscoll, director of the group, told Marine Corps Times in March that one of the commandant’s concerns is making room for special operators at sea.

“We need to consider and look real hard at how we bring that capability back aboard ships, and how best to do that,” Driscoll said. “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 in terms of mission sets that will be required. I don’t think that anyone should worry about losing their jobs.”

So far, the Corps has acknowledged that it will send small elements of MARSOC to train this fall with the 11th MEU off the coast of California. The mission will serve as a prototype to prepare the force for a closer relationship with MEUs and their Navy counterparts, Amos said May 29 at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

MEU commanders, however, are uncertain whether they’ll end up deploying with MARSOC operators embarked for an entire deployment. Instead, it seems likely MARSOC liaison officers will work with the MEUs, but will be called in only for specific missions when they are considered necessary. That means Force Recon will still have a major role, and needs to keep training for high-end missions, Campbell said.

In that arrangement, one concern for MEU commanders will be ensuring that the Force Recon Marines embarking with their unit are still proficient in skills they’ll need while deployed, Campbell said. Missions such as Visit Board Search Seizure, in which forces board a ship held by individuals with potentially hostile intentions, all require intensive training, some of which involves helicopters.

“We’re using repetitions [on special operators] that limit what proficiency I can get to when I’m using flight hours on my helicopters on guys who aren’t going forward with me,” Campbell said of special operators training with MEUs. “That’s a big deal. That’s a really big deal.”

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