Marine Force Reconnaissance: Swift, Silent, Deadly

United States Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance (FORECON) is a Special Operations Capable (SOC) force which primarily provides intelligence support to the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) higher command.

The FORECON motto is “Swift, silent, deadly”, or “Celer, Silens, Mortalis” in Latin.

Their insignia is a gold parachutist badge and a black and white diver overlaid on a red circle with the captions “Force Reconnaissance” on the top, and the Marine Corps motto “Semper Fidelis” on the bottom.

Force Reconnaissance insignia
Force Reconnissance insignia

1. History of Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance

The history of Force Reconnaissance traces back to World War II, to begin with. Moreover, there are two Marine Corps units that heavily influence the modern amphibious reconnaissance profession. First, the Marine Corps Raider Battalion. Second, the Marine Corps Amphibious Reconnaissance Battalion.

1.1 United States Marine Corps Raider Battalion

Firstly, is the United States Marine Corps Raider Battalion. This unit is one of the first organised special operation units. Also, they are a precursor to Force Reconnaissance, as it stands today.

In 1942, following the start of World War II, the seventeenth Commandant of the Marine Corps, Major General Thomas Holcomb, raised up two Raider Battalions. In view of advancements in conventional war, this action was an attempt to match the success of British Royal Marine Commandos.   

Given that, Lieutenant Colonel Merritt Edson commanded the 1st Raider Battalion, nicknamed “Edson’s Raiders”. In like manner, Lt. Col. Evans Carlson commanded the 2nd Raider Battalion, nicknamed “Carlson’s Raiders.” (source)

On account of them being an amphibious force, Raiders had to be Marines of the highest calibre. For that reason, they received training in small unit tactics and guerrilla warfare.

1.1.1 In effect, this training prepared Marine Raiders for their three assigned mission tasks (source):

  1. Spearheading large-scale amphibious landings on beaches thought to be inaccessible.
  2. Conducting raids requiring surprise and high speed.
  3. Operating as guerilla units for lengthy periods of time behind enemy lines.

Additionally, Edson and Carlson had different organisational structures in their battalions. Edson maintained the traditional eight-man squad size common in infantry units. This includes one squad leader, two machine gunners, four riflemen, and one sniper. (source)

Different from Edson, Carlson’s Raiders took an unconventional approach to troop organisation. Specifically, Carlson’s design included ten-man squads with one squad leader and three three-man fire teams. In addition, they armed each team with a combination of small arms and machine guns.

1.1.2 Marine Raider Battalion weaponry includes:

  • Browning automatic rifle (BAR)
  • Thompson sub-machine gun
  • M-1 Garand semiautomatic rifle
  • M-1903 Springfield rifle

On the whole, throughout the course of two years, Marine Raiders took part in the Pacific Campaign with success. Moreover, they fought in battles such as Guadalcanal, the Solomon Islands, Makin Island, New Georgia, and Bougainville. In the end, the Marine Corps disbanded all Raider Battalion’s in 1944.   

Marine Raider's in Bougainville
Marine Raider’s in Bougainville (wikicommons)

1.2 Marine Corps Amphibious Reconnaissance Battalion

Secondly, there is the Amphibious Reconnaissance Battalion, also known as the “Observer Group”. By comparison to the Raider Battalion’s, this unit is an equally important precursor to Force Reconnaissance.

By and large, in 1940, the Marine Corps began developing amphibious reconnaissance doctrine. To this effect, the Observer Group formed two years later.

In January 1942, Captain James Logan received the command designation for the new unit. Following its creation, the unit headquarters were in Quantico, Virginia. (source) In addition, Marines in the group shared common lineage with the First Marine Division.

Balanced against the branch’s history, the two officers and twenty enlisted Marines within the unit are among the first of their kind in the Marine Corps. Even though Amphibious reconnaissance doctrine existed in various forms prior to the Observer Group, it was not in a refined form. In time, Observer Group Marines became prototypes for modern reconnaissance professionals.

After the Marine Corps constructed all administrative and logistical scaffolding, Observer Group training began on the East Coast. Particularly along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, Virginia. During this training, Marines practiced using unconventional equipment and maritime craft. Most importantly, stealth was a key aspect of the unit’s mission.

1.2.1 Experimental equipment included:

  • Rubber boats
  • Folding canvas boats
  • Kayaks
  • Outboard motors
  • Light-weight radio equipment
  • Signal lights

In due time, the Observer Group moved to San Diego. Moreover, a more solidified amphibious doctrine passed down the training pipeline. In return, the Marine Corps amphibious reconnaissance community gained a structured mission.

1.2.2 Specific intelligence missions included (source):

  • To determine characteristics of beaches available for landing and report the same to the commander at sea.
  • To report landmarks that assist in the location of landing beaches.
  • To mark beaches and landing points during landing.
  • To determine the composition of troops in the landing area.
  • To take and hold in concealment a prisoner or prisoners and be prepared to turn them over to Headquarters Landing Force.
  • To spot observers to report enemy activity by radio or by a panel.
  • To be prepared to meet and guide elements of a landing force.
  • To determine the practicability of terrain for air landings.

1.2.3 Specific non-intelligence missions included:

  • To create a diversion from the proposed landing point.
  • Small-scale night attacks.
  • To assist a landing by executing light demolitions.
  • To disrupt enemy communications by wire cutting and jamming radios.
  • To set flares for naval gunfire at night, or to smoke a beach in order to screen a landing wave, or to otherwise mislead the enemy.

In the long run, the Observer Group went through various stages of change throughout the course of the Pacific Campaign. In accordance, the unit’s name was eventually switched to the Amphibious Reconnaissance Company. Later, they later changed it to the Amphibious Reconnaissance Battalion.

In the end, the unit took part in many of the major battles in the Pacific. Consequently, it proved to be a valuable asset for fleet commanders.

Immediately following the end of WWII, the Marine Corps disbanded the Amphibious Reconnaissance Battalion.

1.3 Marine Corps Test Unit 1

Despite the disbandment of WWII reconnaissance units, a revolution of reconnaissance doctrine and experimentation continued to take place in the post-war Marine Corps. Moreover, Marine Test Unit 1 is at the apex of this generational shift. In essence, it is the next link in the chain leading to Force Reconnaissance.

For context, nuclear arms permanently altered military doctrine. As a result, the idea of a “nuclear battlefield” became a present issue that required planning-level attention. This new type of tactical environment was unprecedented in history. (source)

In response to the emerging Cold War threat, Marine Test Unit 1 was formed in 1954 at Camp Pendleton, California. For this reason, by order of Commandant Lemuel C. Shepherd Jr., the unit experimented with new tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs). Under those circumstances, the caveat was the TTPs needed to work in a nuclear environment.  

Commandant Lemuel C. Shepherd Jr

1.3.1 The original composition of the unit includes (source):

  • Regimental Headquarters and Service Company
  • Infantry battalion
  • 75mm anti-tank platoon
  • Mortar platoon
  • Howitzer Battery

In spite of its obvious utility, a reconnaissance element did not fit within the unit’s initial framework. However, in 1955, that changed.

Captain Joseph Z. Taylor received orders to command the Marine Test Unit 1 reconnaissance platoon. Overall, the reconnaissance addition was in response to the higher command’s list of questions the Test Unit existed to answer. To that end, there was now a clear need to address reconnaissance issues in a nuclear environment.

In due time, the Marine Test Unit 1 reconnaissance platoon embarked on a rigorous training pipeline. Likewise, Marines in the unit upheld high standards of fitness and intellectual capability.

1.3.2 Notable training includes:

  • Airborne training
  • Pathfinder training
  • Helicopter operations familiarity

Following the conclusion of its mission, Marine Test Unit 1 disbanded on the 30th of June 1957. On the other hand, the 1st Force Reconnaissance Company formed with Marines from the test unit platoon.

1.4 Modern Force Reconnaissance

On the 19th of June 1957, the Marine Corps raised up the 1st Amphibious Reconnaissance Company.

The unit’s headquarters were in Camp Pendleton, CA. In addition, Major Bruce F. Meyers held the position of commanding officer.

1.4.1 The original unit structure included three platoons:

  • Amphibious reconnaissance platoon
  • Parachute reconnaissance platoon
  • Pathfinder reconnaissance platoon

Afterwards, in 1958, the company split in half to form the 2nd Force Reconnaissance Company. In addition, the 2nd Force moved to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Also, Captain Joe Taylor stepped in as the commanding officer.

At this point, Force Reconnaissance began its formal development. As a result, from Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, and the Global War on Terror, the Marine Corps reconnaissance field faced various changes in TTPs.

Force Reconnaissance Marines conducting live-fire training
Force Reconnaissance Marines conducting live-fire sustainment training aboard the USS San Diego (DVIDS, photo by Gunnery Sgt. Rome M. Lazarus)

1.5 Detachment One and the Evolution into MARSOC

Also, it is worth noting the impact Force Reconnaissance had on the Marine Special Operations Command (MARSOC).

Prior to 2006, the Marine Corps did not possess a unit within the United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM). Because of this, and by the direction of the Department of Defense, the Marine Corps developed a pilot program for its own SOCOM addition. This experimental unit is Detachment One (Det One). ln sum, the program lasted from 2003 to 2006. At its conclusion, MARSOC officially formed and joined SOCOM. (source)

The bulk of Det One Marines came from the Force Reconnaissance community. They deployed to Iraq to support Operation Iraqi Freedom and performed with precision and strength. (source)

Upon disbanding, a large portion of Force Reconnaissance Marines transferred to what is now MARSOC, or “Marine Raiders” in tribute to the original Raider Battalion.

Det One insignia
Det One insignia (wikicommons)

2. Structure of Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance

The structure of Force Reconnaissance results from the creation of MARSOC. 1st and 2nd Force Reconnaissance Company deactivated in 2006 and joined the special operations command. As a result, the remaining Marines folded into the Force Reconnaissance Company.

2.1 A basic organisational breakdown is:

  • Force Reconnaissance Company
    • 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division (MCB Camp Pendleton, CA)
    • 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion, 2nd Marine Division (MCB Camp Lejeune, NC)
    • 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, 3rd Marine Division (Camp Schwab, Okinawa)

2.2 In addition, there are two Force Reconnaissance reserve units:

  • 3rd Force Reconnaissance Company
  • 4th Force Reconnaissance Company

2.3 The structure of a Force Reconnaissance company is (source):

  • Company Headquarters
    • Commanding Officer (CO)
    • Executive Officer (XO)
    • Sergeant Major
  • Support
    • S1 Shop (Administration)
    • S2 Shop (Intelligence)
    • S3 Shop (Operations)
    • S4 Shop (Logistics and Supply)
    • S6 Shop (Communications)
  • Force Reconnaissance Platoons
    • 5-6 platoons

2.4 The structure of a Force Reconnaissance Platoon is (source):

  • Platoon Commander
  • Platoon Sergeant
  • Platoon Radio Operator
  • Navy Special Amphibious Reconnaissance Corpsman (SARC)
  • Platoon Equipment NCO
  • 3 x 6-man reconnaissance teams

2.5 The breakdown of a standard Force Reconnaissance team is (source):

  • 1 Team Leader
  • 1 Assistant Team Leader
  • 1 Radio Operator
  • 1 Assistant Radio Operator
  • 1 Slack-man
  • 1 Point-man

3. Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs)

Before evaluating the tactics, techniques, and procedures, it is worth noting the difference between Force Reconnaissance and Battalion Reconnaissance. In sum, the difference lies within the tactical area of responsibility.

To clarify, Battalion Reconnaissance is an asset for a battalion commander. Consequently, Force Reconnaissance is an asset for a Fleet Marine Force (FMF) commander. Both are Special Operations Capable (SOC), although the latter conduct deep reconnaissance and other specialized missions outside the scope of their counterparts’ capability.

3.1 Reconnaissance Training Pipeline

All prospective Reconnaissance Marines must meet a series of basic minimum requirements before beginning the selection process.

3.1.1 Those requirements include:

  • Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) General Technical (GT) score of 105 or higher
  • First-class Combat Water Survival (CWS) qualification
  • 225 or higher score on the Marine Corps Physical Fitness Test (PFT)
  • Normal color vision
  • In possession of or eligible for a Secret Security Clearance

Provided that they meet those criteria, Marines must complete the Basic Reconnaissance Course (BRC) at Camp Pendleton, California. Prior to beginning the school, all recon prospects take part in the Reconnaissance Training and Assessment Program (RTAP). In summary, this five-week program prepares Marines for the rigorous demands of BRC.

3.1.2 BRC is 12-weeks long, and broken down into three distinct phases:

  • Phase 1 (four weeks): focuses on physical fitness, ocean swims, rucking, land navigation, helicopter rope suspension training (HRST), and communications systems.
  • Phase 2: (three weeks): focuses on small unit tactics and mission planning.
  • Phase 3: (two weeks): focuses on maritime missions, including boat operations and nautical navigation.

Finally, upon graduating BRC, Marines earn the Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) 0321. To this end, they are an official Reconnaissance Marine.

U.S. Marines with Basic Reconnaissance Course
U.S. Marines with Basic Reconnaissance Course run into the ocean during clandestine landing and withdraw training at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, California (Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Andrew Cortez)

At this point, Force Reconnaissance Marines begin the ascension pipeline. To illustrate, this pipeline varies based on the needs of the unit.

3.1.3 The basic pipeline includes:

  • Basic Airborne Course (United States Army school)
  • Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE)
  • Marine Corps Combatant Diver Course
  • Special Operations Training Group (SOTG) programs

3.1.4 In addition, Force Reconnaissance Marines can earn spots in an array of schools:

  • Army Ranger School
  • Military Free-fall School (HALO)
  • Marine Corps Scout Sniper Course
  • Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) Course
  • Army Pathfinder School
  • Marine Corps Mountain Leader Course (Summer or Winter variation)

Beyond that, FORECON Marines branch out into many specialized training courses at a unit level and beyond.  

Reconnaissance Marines with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit’s Force Reconnaissance Platoon prepare to jump during military free fall operations (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Alexis B. Betances)

3.2 Force Reconnaissance Tasks

Chiefly, FORECON Marines specialize in deep reconnaissance. With this intention, their training prepares them for operations far behind enemy lines. Not only that but often outside the support of force assets, such as naval gunfire and close air support.

In addition, missions are green or black. For instance, green missions focus on deep reconnaissance, while black missions focus on direct action.

3.2.1 Force Reconnaissance mission tasks include:

  • Search and Seizure of gas and oil platforms (GOPLAT)
  • Maritime Visit, Board, Search and Seizure (VBSS)
  • Long-range reconnaissance patrols
  • Battle Damage Assessments (BDA)
  • Forward observation
  • Direct action operations
  • Establishment of landing zones (LZ)
  • Emplacement of sensors and beacons
  • Battle-space shaping
  • Intelligence collection
U.S. Marines conducting a GOPLAT training exercise (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Anna Albrecht/Released)

3.3 Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance Weapons and Equipment

FORECON Marines use a diverse set of weapons and equipment to support their missions. Compared to other conventional units, this equipment is often specialized and custom tailored to the mission.

3.3.1 Weapons (source):

  • M4A1 Carbine
  • M9 Beretta semi-automatic 9mm pistol
  • M40A5 bolt action sniper rifle
  • M82A3 SASR .50 caliber sniper rifle
  • M110 SASS 7.62 semi-automatic sniper rifle
  • Heckler & Koch M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle
  • Mossberg Model 500 shotgun
  • Remington 870 shotgun

3.3.2 Observed kit:

  • Improved Load Bearing Equipment (ILBE)
  • Ops-Core Future Assault Shell Technology (FAST) Helmet
  • USMC Flame Resistant Organisational Gear (FROG)

3.3.3 Further equipment (source):

  • PEQ-16 laser
  • NT4 suppressor
  • Magpul PMAGs
  • Knight’s Armament RAS rail system
  • Vortex Razor HD optic
  • Aimpoint T2 optic
  • Eotech SU-231 optic
  • Parachutist Individual Equipment Kit (PIEK)
  • Defense Advanced GPS Receiver (DAGR)
  • LAR V Draeger closed circuit dive system
Force Reconnaissance Marine provides security while conducting an amphibious insertion onto a beach
Force Reconnaissance Marine provides security while conducting an amphibious insertion onto a beach (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Christopher Q. Stone, 26th MEU Combat Camera)

4. Summary

Force Reconnaissance finds itself in a strange position in the modern Marine Corps. The continuous success of the MARSOC leaves FORECON in a strange place.

In the end, the Force Reconnaissance mission remains unique to the Marine Corps as a whole. For this purpose, they can operate without influence from SOCOM or other branch commands. Without reservation, Force Reconnaissance Marines continue to train and operate to support the historic Marine Corps war-fighting machine.

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