Editor’s note: This article was originally published on March 5, 2020 by SOFREP. With the recent 15th anniversary of Marine Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC), the latest addition to U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), it is important to remember how it all came to be a reality. Much has been discussed about the success of MARSOC, but less is known about why it was formed — and what actually paved the way for its existence.
As 1st Force Reconnaissance Company and 2nd Force Reconnaissance Company rotated to and from Iraq on six-month combat deployments from January 2003 until Jan 2006, many of the officers who served their time in tactical assignments as Force Reconnaissance platoon commanders became severely wounded, injured, killed in action, or left the Marine Corps for civilian opportunities prior to their promotion to the rank of major. When Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld ordered the Marine Corps to create MARSOC in the fall of 2005, the resistant and reluctant Marine Corps ultimately complied with the defense chief’s mandate after they had delayed carrying the order out for years. The Marine Corps was not the only organization resistant to the idea of Marines joining the SOF community; many within SOCOM were very clearly against it as well, albeit for different reasons.
Donald Rumsfeld observed frequent complaints from SOCOM about not having enough resources in support of the early stages of the Global War on Terror (GWOT), and he realized that Force Recon was SOF-like, but was not being employed as such. Rumsfeld was specifically tired of hearing the complaints about not having enough “SOF guys” to do special reconnaissance (SR), which Force Reconnaissance excels at. Rumsfeld also knew that Force Recon could do SR and direct action (DA) for SOCOM, and he wanted to know why they weren’t being utilized.
In late January 2002, a plan was presented to the Marine-SOCOM board. Against strong opposition, it was argued that the Marine Corps already had these capabilities (DA, SR, coalition support, and Foreign Internal Defense) and that with the war being primarily SOF-focused, sooner or later, SOCOM was going to run out of manpower to cover all missions that came up. The Marine Corps’ contribution was offered as a complementary force to keep things moving, fill in the holes, and take up the slack where the SEALs, Rangers, and SF got spread too thin.
In a half-hearted attempt to comply, on December 4, 2002, Marine Corps Bulletin 5400 formally announced the formation of the Marine Corps Special Operations Command Detachment as a two-year test program called MCSOCOM Det One.
SOFREP spoke with a Marine officer who wished to remain anonymous but was assigned to SOCOM headquarters at the time MARSOC was ordered to be activated. He had this to say about the resistance MARSOC encountered within the SOF community:
“The average age of a Force Recon Marine at the time was 27. The Special Forces guys, while very good at what they do, are generally much older and have many responsibilities outside of SR and Direct Action. Force Recon was capable of so much more than SOCOM — with ranks at the time mostly filled with Army personnel — wanted to give them credit for. The “experiment” of Det One was officially called a “study” to see if Marines were capable of integrating into SOF, which was a waste of time because of course they were capable. It was meant to be a delaying tactic, or “slow-rolling” on the part of the Marine Corps and SOCOM until Rumsfeld left office. The problem for them was that Rumsfeld ended up staying in office!
Rumsfeld had given an ultimatum, which was essentially ignored, and made the Secretary of Defense question why SOCOM was screwing around with Det One instead of starting MARSOC like he asked. It is not to say that the men of Det One were not high-quality, but the limited size and capacity of Det One was in conflict with the order that Rumsfeld had initially given. The fact that he asked for MARSOC and was presented with Det One is proof of “slow-rolling” on the part of SOCOM and the Marine Corps. MARSOC simply wasn’t welcome. I literally heard General Bryan D. Brown, the SOCOM commander in 2005, say “Marines are Johnny come lately for SOF”. It became pretty clear that MARSOC would have a tough time being successful with the lack of support that they would encounter. Ironically, when the Secretary of Defense says that women are to be allowed in SOF, SOCOM and the various military branches are all too eager to comply, but utilize Force recon? Well, they couldn’t do that without a fight.”
Once Det One had folded and MARSOC was ordered to be stood up (again), Marine Corps leadership decided that they would provide deployable units similar to the Maritime Special Purpose Force (MSPF) structure that had been organized and successfully deployed with the Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs) since 1987. This construct consisted of a Force Reconnaissance platoon serving as a reconnaissance and assault element, an infantry platoon serving as a security element, and an all-source intelligence element — all to be organized into a Marine special operations company (MSOC) commanded by a Marine infantry officer of the rank of major. This unit would initially deploy aboard amphibious ships and be tactically controlled by the MEU, and be operationally controlled by the theater special operations commands or a joint special operations task force. This working for two separate masters in both the conventional and special operations communities created infighting and control problems from the start.
After three years of ongoing and intense combat operations in Iraq, attrition had impacted the ranks of qualified infantry officers with Force Reconnaissance experience who were at the rank of major. As MARSOC was created, the 2nd Force Reconnaissance Company was deployed to Iraq with one of its two majors, the remain-behind major was Major Ukeiley, who as an intelligence officer was assigned as the remain-behind element (RBE) officer in charge (OIC). He had remained behind from combat operations in Iraq for two consecutive deployments and additionally had not deployed overseas for nearly a decade. This was unheard of in 2006 since the War on Terror’s start in 2001 and the overseas manpower requirements had taxed most officers with numerous deployments at that time.
The leaders who had formed the initial MARSOC leadership team met to design the generic organization of the first MSOC as well as the specific names of each individual who would be selected within the organization. The lack of available infantry officers with Force Recon experience in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina led the MARSOC G-3 and chief of staff to search for global sourcing for the assignment of the first MSOC commander. This search was narrowed down to a small list that eventually led to the selection of Major Galvin, who served as a platoon commander at 1st Force Reconnaissance Company in Camp Pendleton, California until being transferred to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina to serve as the commanding officer of the first MSOC.
For more on what happened next, you can read this in-depth series.