Defense Media Network

Marine Special Operations Forces Evolution

“Send in the Marines!”

As had been true for more than two centuries, that was one of the first actions taken by President George W. Bush in response to 9/11. Only three weeks after al Qaeda hijackers committed the worst act of terrorism ever on U.S. soil, Marines and sailors from the 15th MEU(SOC) (Marine Expeditionary Unit-Special Operations Capable) were setting up a forward operating air base in Pakistan.

And on Nov. 25, 2001, the 15th redefined “amphibious assault,” launching from Navy ships in the North Arabian Sea to a point more than 400 miles inland, the longest and largest movement of a MEU from its sea-base in history. Seizing a remote airfield some 90 miles southwest of Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second largest city, the Marines set up the first American forward operating base in that nation – Camp Rhino. That “assault from the sea” deep into a landlocked nation of deserts and mountains also marked the first significant U.S. conventional ground presence in Afghanistan.

“Conventional,” however, is not entirely accurate. Although not yet a member of the joint Special Operations Command (SOCOM) – the Marine Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) would not stand up until 2006 – the MEU(SOC)s and Force Reconnaissance Marines were the Corps’ early contribution to the extensive special operations requirements of a new kind of war.

About the same time SOCOM was created in the 1980s, seven Marine Amphibious Units were given additional special operations training and redesignated as MEU(SOC)s. And for the first five years of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom, the MEU(SOC)s, Force Recon and Marine Corps Special Operations Command Detachment One – created in 2004 as the first Marine unit specifically assigned to work with SOCOM – helped build a new kind of Marine Corps.

Soon joined in Afghanistan by the 26th MEU(SOC) and teamed with sailors from two Navy Amphibious Readiness Groups as Marine Corps Task Force 58, the 15th and its brothers raised the SOF bar that Det One, then MARSOC, would later have to meet. At the time, however, the only goal was the immediate deployment of Marines with SOF training and a SOF mindset.

Predicting the war in Afghanistan would be more “marathon” than “sprint,” TF-58 commander Brig. Gen. James N. Mattis set out in November 2001 to “create chaos, denying the enemy their sense of security” through a series of small, fast raids against targets in southern Afghanistan. He also kept the two MEU(SOC)s under his command intact and mutually supportive; as one executed a mission, the other planned its follow-up.

MARSOC Klepper canoe exercise

Marines from 3rd Marine Special Operations Battalion, U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command, paddle a Klepper folding canoe as part of a maritime mobility exercise aboard Camp Lejeune, N.C., Nov 18, 2010. The maritime mobility exercise was used by the 3rd MSOB commander to assess his battalion and quickly communicate his expectations of the command. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Edmund Hatch

SOCOM and its Army, Navy and Air Force components emerged from the shadows as their missions grew in number and importance in Southwest Asia. Not being part of that command, the Marine Corps contribution in the first five years generally was perceived by the public as Marine standard, without a real SOF connection. The reality was far more complex.

As the Corps expanded to more than 200,000 warfighters, including Force Recon and MEU(SOC) Marines ultimately incorporated into MARSOC, the special operations training of every Marine – and a growing interaction with the SOF-dedicated components of SOCOM – forever changed the conventional force.

Col. Roy Osborn, now with USMC Aviation Headquarters at the Pentagon, commanded the 15th MEU from December 2008 to March 2011 – after it lost its SOC designation with the stand-up of MARSOC. To Osborn, the creation of a true Marine special operations command as a component of SOCOM led to short-term changes that, in the long-term, proved more semantic than operational. While no longer SOC-certified, today’s MEUs are at least as SOF-ready as their MEU(SOC) predecessors, as is Force Recon, he told Defense Media Network.

“We are still doing the MEU(SOC) integration piece, but without the SOC certification,” Osborn says. “When MARSOC stood up, we stripped Force Recon down to parade rest. Today we are rebuilding that, split between deep reconnaissance and supporting the MEUs for their deployments. The shooting package for Force Recon and everything else that goes on with the Ground Combat Element is the same we used before and, in some ways, greater, especially with strategic reconnaissance as a focus.”

SOCOM and its components are on a growth path – including a 44 percent increase in MARSOC – even as their parent services are scheduled for reductions. Their efforts in SW Asia – and those of SOF-trained pre-MARSOC Marines – combined with new enemy tactics to create a major increase in COCOM requirements for dedicated special operators, but also for conventional forces able to handle the overload.

“There has been a tremendous growth in the appetite for SOF throughout the world, doing a lot more of what we would call the high-end white and black missions. The low-end white, which initially only SOCOM did, has now migrated to conventional forces because SOCOM just doesn’t have enough resources,” Osborn concludes.

“The requirement for SOF around the world has become a growth industry based on lessons learned out of OEF, OIF, Pakistan, the Horn of Africa and so on, where conventional forces are doing a lot more than we ever did before. Because of the wars, we have been able to recruit truly the best and brightest, so we have a much greater pool of talent in the force now – not just the Corps, but the Army and others – and so are able to get involved in a lot more.”

As a result, when the call goes out to “send in the Marines” – and the Army, Navy and Air Force – COCOMs know that, in addition to an increasingly professional, highly trained and well-equipped SOCOM, they can depend on a better trained and equipped conventional force with enhanced capabilities previously reserved to SOF. That is the legacy of the MEU(SOC) and Force Recon Marines who answered the nation’s call in the Fall of 2001.


J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...