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MARSOC and recon: Does the Corps need both?

With competition for manpower and missions, elite organizations angle to define their niche

Feb. 3, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Enduring Freedom
As cost cutting spreads to nearly all corners of the military, redundancy is a liability. With many similarities between MARSOC and Marine reconnaissance, a question has emerged: Does the Corps need both? Here, members of 2nd Reconnaissance Platoon, Battalion Landing Team, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, practice insertion and extraction while in Djibouti in 2010. Below, members of 2nd Marine Special Operations Battalion conduct dive training at Mile Hammock Bay near Camp Lejeune, N.C. (Sgt. Alex C. Sauceda / Marine Corps)
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Elite training. Small teams. Covert missions. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command offers qualified Marines all of these things — along with generous monetary incentives to those who make the cut.

Elite training. Small teams. Covert missions. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command offers qualified Marines all of these things — along with generous monetary incentives to those who make the cut.

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Elite training.

Small teams.

Covert missions.

Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command offers qualified Marines all of these things — along with generous monetary incentives to those who make the cut. So does the service’s reconnaissance community.

But since MARSOC’s creation in 2006, recon units have faced stiff competition for personnel of the caliber both communities require. And now, as operations in Afghanistan dry up and attention shifts to the Asia-Pacific region, the two may find themselves vying for similar missions.

With ample resources, eye-catching recruiting campaigns and influential advocates, including Gen. Jim Amos, who upon becoming commandant in 2010 implored commanders to “embrace” the Marine Corps’ fledgling spec ops organization, MARSOC has established itself as the service’s premier force for special missions in far-flung locales. And although recon units continue to undertake vital, sensitive assignments with top-tier Marines, some worry recon’s unique value gets overlooked — and undersold.

The Pentagon’s budget crisis only compounds this anxiety. As cost cutting spreads to nearly all corners of the military, and the Marine Corps eliminates infantry battalions to square with fewer personnel and a renewed focus on rapid crisis response, redundancy is a liability. With so much similarity between these organizations, some are asking: Does the Marine Corps need MARSOC and recon?

A give-and-take relationship

The advent of MARSOC meant a drain for recon. When the Corps activated its special operations command eight years ago, the first personnel came from 1st and 2nd Force Reconnaissance companies, who were the recon community’s most highly trained men. Its capabilities depleted, Force Recon was placed on hiatus for nearly two years. (Division Recon, which falls under the Corps’ infantry divisions and undertakes a narrower set of missions, never went away.)

When Force Recon was reborn in 2008, three companies were organized within each of the Corps’ Marine expeditionary forces. The move was designed to equip MEF commanders in North Carolina, California and Okinawa with specialized Marine Corps assets who are at their direct disposal, unlike MARSOC, which carries out missions assigned by U.S. Special Operations Command.

The timing of these changes is also significant: Force Recon’s return came as the Marine Corps was growing to accommodate a grueling operational tempo in support of two wars. The need for additional manpower played a role in its revival.

Today, recon has been rebuilt, but its units struggle to keep billets filled as many 0321 reconnaissance men continue to be lured away by MARSOC. To help address that, the Marine Corps offers ample incentive to experienced recon Marines who re-enlist and to those who join from other military occupational specialties — up to $50,500, depending on rank and time in service.

MARSOC doesn’t take on brand-new Marines, but also offers up to $50,500 in bonus cash to those who successfully move into the 0372 critical skills operator MOS. This dedicated career path allows Marines to go MARSOC and stay MARSOC — meaning once guys leave recon, they’re likely gone for good.

In an interview last year, Maj. Gen. Frederick Padilla, the Corps’ operations director, acknowledged that MARSOC’s rise has complicated recon’s efforts to maintain its desired manning and experience levels. “It’s a challenge,” he said, “because a lot of reconnaissance Marines are exactly what MARSOC is looking for, but we still have a requirement for reconnaissance Marines. So we have to make more of them, and it’s not easy to make reconnaissance Marines. You don’t do it overnight.”

Retention is the greatest difficulty, Padilla added, noting the tendency of many recon Marines to transfer after their first term of service. That has contributed to recon’s shortage of gunnery sergeants and master sergeants, the seasoned enlisted leaders who are essential to the smooth operation of any unit. According to Marine Corps data, just 15 percent of the Corps’ 1,000 0321s hold those two ranks.

When MARSOC debuted its dedicated 0372 MOS in late 2011, 374 Marines in the recon MOS, mostly staff sergeants and above, immediately transferred out. And rebuilding that deficit has been a slow process. For fiscal 2013, Marine officials said, second-term retention rates stood at 85 percent for 0321s, which represents a downward trend over the past two years as Afghanistan deployments have slowed.

“What the numbers ultimately say is that we’re retaining first-term enlistments but not hitting the mark fully on second- and third-term recon Marines,” said Capt. Eric Flanagan, a Marine Corps spokesman.

Marine Corps Times first examined this dynamic in a 2012 cover story highlighting a host of challenges confronting the reconnaissance community. Beyond the manning shortfall, some units were infected with poor morale, fallout from being made to walk patrols or pull security in Afghanistan — missions some deemed beneath them. In response, Marine officials at the Pentagon put forth a detailed plan to help recon find its groove again, including more education aimed at familiarizing commanders with how recon units can be used to obtain specific results.

Another variable for recon is the Marine Corps’ active-duty drawdown, which is projected to take the service to 174,000 personnel by 2017. Recon will restructure as part of that, losing about 230 billets, or about 20 percent of the 0321 community. Officials expect this will help balance out the shortage of more senior enlisted personnel, but it could be another four to six years before that’s fully realized.

The plan is for all three active-duty reconnaissance battalions to lose their 101-man Charlie Companies, said Maj. Eric Tee, a reconnaissance advocate for Marine Corps Plans, Policies and Operations at the Pentagon. However, those cuts will be offset by the addition of one platoon for each Force Recon company.

MARSOC, by contrast, will be mostly insulated from force-shaping cuts as it continues to build toward its goal of 844 critical skills operators. Today, there are more than 700 CSOs spread across the command’s three special operations battalions, and while a mandate from the the Office of the Secretary of Defense has frozen the command at its current size for now, its authorization to reach 844 eventually remains unchanged.

Recon's PR problem

Recon’s greatest challenge may be its need for an influential advocate and a well-defined future mission that’s distinct from MARSOC. Retired Maj. Gen. Paul Lefebvre, MARSOC’s commanding general from 2009 to 2012, pointed out that recon has no public champion who can serve the community’s best interests and communicate its goals and capabilities.

For instance, “MEF commanders differ by experience and what they know about Force Recon,” he said, noting that as the head of MARSOC, part of his job was to be the command’s chief proponent. “I’m a two-star Marine officer in charge of MARSOC,” Lefebvre said. “Every issue comes to my desk.”

Lt. Col. Eric Thompson, commander of 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion in Okinawa, said recon units continue to conduct successful and highly specialized operations, but the work often doesn’t receive public attention.

“This is understandable,” Thompson said, “because the press, politicians and DoD leadership are absolutely enamored” with special operations forces. “Recon Marines get the same advanced training, possess many of the same skill sets and have the same real-world high operational tempo as SOF, without the fanfare,” he said.

In Afghanistan’s Helmand province, recon Marines executed key interdiction and infiltration operations throughout 2010 — reportedly earning the nickname “black diamonds” from spooked Taliban fighters, a reference to a diamond-shaped mount that recon Marines wear on their helmets. They’ve also been a crucial asset for Marine expeditionary unit commanders during recent shipboard deployments and in crisis-response efforts.

In a bloodless 2010 victory, a Force Recon platoon attached to the 15th MEU carried out a successful raid of the German ship Magellan Star, capturing nine Somali pirates who’d taken the crew hostage. More recently, members of 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion composed the initial ground combat unit for the high-profile crisis-response force created after a deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya. And when Super Typhoon Haiyan hit the Phillippines last fall, recon Marines within the 31st MEU’s Maritime Raid Force were present and at the ready, Thompson said.

“In my estimation,” he said, “recon is still gaining a lot of employment and is held in very high regard by our generals and commanders.”

MARSOC goes to sea

Since its return, Force Recon has put units on MEUs to provide capabilities such as amphibious raids and visit-board-search-seizure. But now MARSOC wants a piece of the action. As Marine Corps Times reported last year, its leaders are pushing for sea-based missions to coincide with the Marine Corps’ renewed emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region.

Within a broader SOCOM initiative, the command is providing six-man “special operations force liaison elements” to the MEUs and Navy amphibious ships who carry them. Led by a lieutenant colonel, these elements will join MEUs six months before they deploy to provide direct operational capability to a relevant theater special operations command. The first such team will deploy with the 11th MEU this summer, officials said. Marine officials said shipboard MARSOC units might undertake broader mission sets than ground reconnaissance units, including foreign internal defense, as well as direct action and special reconnaissance missions.

Thompson said he believes that MARSOC and Force Recon interoperability is positive, with enough work to go around. Yet it’s important to remember the two forces answer to different commanders, he said, and might be called to different missions in time of a major conflict.

“That MARSOC detachment that goes out on a MEU will still be working for that theater special operations commander,” Thompson said. “I support the commandant’s efforts to increase interoperability with SOF. But I still think that when a major war kicks off, that TSOC is going to pull back his SOF forces. That TSOC is going to conduct missions directed to him.”

That’s one reason why recon remains relevant — and why the Corps needs an organic specialized force, he added.

“When there’s not a big war going on, there’s always going to be competition between the services for that juicy mission,” Thompson said. “But if we do go in to combat or a major war starts up, which happens regularly throughout our history, there’s going to be plenty of work for both SOF and recon.”

A case for combining forces

Still another argument calls for integrating recon and MARSOC, forging a single, larger and ultimately stronger force. As MARSOC leans into crisis-prevention missions, working with foreign militaries and preparing its battalions for regionally oriented missions under global combatant commanders, there would be plenty of work for both organizations in what the Defense Department is calling “phase zero operations,” Lefebvre said.

“My thought at one time, and I don’t know if this would be acceptable, is for MARSOC to put its arms around the entire thing,” he said. “Why not share it all?”

That idea appears to have at least some traction within the recon community. An active-duty gunnery sergeant with a decade of recon experience echoed Lefebvre’s logic. He spoke to Marine Corps Times on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss internal affairs.

The experienced recon Marine said morale has suffered because commanders don’t always understand how to maximize 0321 capabilities. These Marines, he said, train for a variety of high-speed endeavors from raids and close-quarters combat to counter-sniper missions, various parachute operations and more. It’s a waste, he said, to use recon assets for jobs that Marine Security Forces and conventional infantry units perform perfectly well.

MARSOC could form a Force Reconnaissance battalion with the same table of organization inherent to a Force Recon company, only it’s composed of up to four companies, he said. His tenure in recon, and his interaction with others who share his views, reinforce his belief it’s time to combine forces.

“Why not put Marine Reconnaissance in SOCOM?” the recon Marine said. “SOCOM will understand how to properly employ and fund these warriors.”

With reporting by contributing writer Dan Lamothe.

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