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Making Marine Recon More Like Special Forces

Before a bunch of Marines get upset, the title is derived from an article about the Recon Battalions.

Via Seamus, here's an article from Sea Power Magazine that discusses the evolution of Marine Recon in Iraq to include more training  to work with the local populace - something that (US Army) Special Forces excel at...The Marines had some brief (weeks) cultural training before the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (remember the mustaches growing on many Marines?), but this is more about fighting an insurgency.

  Out in the Open
Specialists in clandestine warfare, Marine reconnaissance units take a lead role in Iraq and adapt to missions long done by Army Special Forces

By SUE A. LACKEY, Associate Editor

FALLUJAH, Iraq - The nature of the urban insurgency being waged in Iraq has forced Marine Corps Reconnaissance Battalions to rethink their missions and change their methods of operation.

Because of their high levels of training and ability to operate clandestinely, Reconnaissance Battalions are fast becoming a higher-priority asset within the Marine Corps. While extended duty in reconnaissance was once considered a "career killer," the Corps now plans to add three new Battalion Reconnaissance companies, and is actively recruiting qualified Marines for Battalion Reconnaissance and Force Reconnaissance company duties.

Reconnaissance Battalions operating in Iraq have found themselves in the unlikely position of becoming highly visible, interacting with the population and functioning, in effect, as a police force. In Yemen, reconnaissance companies have been utilized with great success, training and assisting the forces in that country. These are considered classic foreign internal defense missions that Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Michael W. Hagee would like to enhance. But in Iraq, reconnaissance has taken a leading role in a counterinsurgency war. 

The classic mission of Battalion Reconnaissance is in support of the Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF), conducting clandestine surveillance and battlefield intelligence missions to assist the MAGTF commander in the protection and position of his ground combat element. Force Reconnaissance units differ in that they literally are a Force asset, operating at the Marine Expeditionary Force level and utilized as a strategic asset of the theater command.

Reconnaissance is considered an intelligence collection asset. But because of their extensive training and ability to operate clandestinely in small units, Reconnaissance Marines take the lead in raids, in extremis and hostage rescue, and other designated special operations.

Operation Iraqi Freedom has forced Marine reconnaissance units to change much of that mission, principally because their primary ability - to remain in place clandestinely over extended periods of time - is compromised by the nature of the operational area.

"We didn't do any of the recon we were trained to do; that just didn't apply," said Maj. Travis Homiak, operations officer for 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion in Fallujah. "Our whole mindset on recon shifted and became less oriented on terrain and more oriented on people. What we're doing right now is specific to this conflict. Fighting a counterinsurgency the way we're doing it here is because the culture is so utterly foreign to what we're used to; it's so utterly inaccessible. The close-knit nature of the communities bred this type of response from us.

"Every mission gets evaluated on its own merits, and we found ourselves in the unfamiliar role of actually owning battlespace, having to do things to maintain that battlespace and operating in the capacity of a light infantry battalion," Homiak said.

The inability to blend in has caused area commanders to rethink the role and training of reconnaissance units for this theater, which may impact long-term training.

"One of the things we need is an urban reconnaissance capability," said Col. Mark Gurganus, commander of Regional Combat Team-8 in Fallujah. "We rely almost entirely on HUMINT (human intelligence) and overhead intelligence assets. Maybe this is a mission impossible - getting human eyes in position for long periods of time [in this environment].

"We don't have a true urban sniper potential. We still focus a lot of our training on stalking, and we don't necessarily do that in this environment. Not all of our snipers get high-angle shooting instruction," he said.

Snipers constrained by locations in tall buildings or crowded urban areas must utilize high-angle shooting skills, Gurganus said. Marine Corps schools do offer high-angle shooting, but there are not enough billets to train all the personnel deploying to Iraq.

Reconnaissance trainers also see the danger in focusing too heavily on changing training and tactics for one theater.

"Lately, everyone has been focused on the Middle East. We're trying not to get sucked into one area of operations and make all of our Tactical Training Program [centered] on this, because other things happen in other countries," said a reconnaissance gunnery sergeant who is also a member of the Special Operations Training Group (SOTG). "Obviously, it is harder here than in South America. There, you're in the jungle, Vietnam-style, where you could actually operate like the old typical sniper - insert, have the enemy lose you in jungle and come out at the location where you actually shoot.

"Even in built-up urban areas like Bosnia you could still get in buildings and establish a hide to observe and not be noticed. Here, we have the same problems we have in other Third World countries like Somalia: every time you go somewhere you're compromised by little kids, dogs, family networks."

Once outside of Fallujah, Ramadi and other urban centers of the insurgency, Iraq spreads out into miles of rural areas, some under cultivation, some semi-arid. Reconnaissance Marines assigned to these areas face the same problems of high visibility coupled with the frustration of highly trained special operations troops without a special mission.

"With Reconnaissance Marines, we gravitate more to direct action types of missions," said Lt. Col. Daniel R. Masur, commander of 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion. One of the frustrations that accompanies the revised mission focus is that "there's no immediate results from what you've done," he said.

"You may go out for five to seven days, and have taken a couple mortar rounds and one of your teammates has gotten injured, and a couple areas you went into didn't produce the results you were looking for. But you've got to keep in mind that every time you're going out, you're filling in more of that puzzle and adding to the big picture. By not finding anybody at your location, you're helping someone form a bigger assessment. You can't train to that mindset."

Reconnaissance specialists see the need for additional specialized training.

"The one thing that we need is the SASO (Security and Stabilization Operations) piece," said the SOTG gunnery sergeant, who takes part in evaluating reconnaissance training and performance. "We're going in and showing the people that we're here to help them. If we don't win the hearts and minds of these people, they will continue to harbor these terrorists and insurgents.

"What we don't train on, and what we're learning here, [is that] we're doing more of an [Army Special Forces] role. We need more training in that process of interviewing people, in building relationships in the role that [special forces] does. Based on our predeployment training, I think the Marine Corps is going in that direction," he said.

Homiak agrees, adding, "As far as the qualities we're trying to imbue in Recon Marines, being able to think on your own, being able to, at an NCO (noncommissioned officer) level, produce effects that are almost three levels up - the training still does that. Basically, we were the only battalion in [the area of operations] that was constantly doing asymmetrical counterinsurgency operations. We operated more like the insurgents did than any other unit.

"Our ability to pick up in one area of our battlespace, go to another area and disrupt there, go to another area disrupt there - we had an effect that was greatly out of proportion to the number of Marines that we could ever put in the zone."

What do you think?