Pirates Beware: Force Recon Has Your Number

By Captain Alexander Martin, U.S. Marine Corps

I'm not really sure what Ms. Houreld wanted me to take away from her piece, but I think it had something to do with the Swedish Navy being a lot of fun. It described video-game centers, crew-life antics, traditions, the quality of the daily fresh-baked breads and pastries, saunas, and massages provided by Swedish nurses. It all just seems so ridiculous.

This doesn't have much to do with my introduction here to the future of our own pirate chasing, but everything to do with my position that no matter what we end up doing out there, it will not involve saunas, massages, or pastries. If I have anything to do with it, though, it will include some Swedish pop music. At this very moment, I'm downloading singing sensation Hanne Soovag on my I-tunes.

Hunting pirates with the U.S. Navy is what the 15th MEU—a wide array of ships and aircraft and even more Marines and Sailors—has just set sail to do.

The 15th MEU is a distinctive and historic Marine air-ground task force. This armada steams toward Africa more capable and ready for maritime contingency operations than any MEU in a number of years. It has among its numerous traditional capabilities and missions a trained, validated, capable, and lethal instrument now called the unit's Maritime Raid Force Capability (MRFC), a fully integrated Navy-Marine Corps team with the capacity to conduct visit-board-search-seizure (VBSS), kinetic strikes on non-compliant targets, maritime infrastructure seizure and reinforcement, host-nation training, and other maritime raid and interdiction operations as directed.

Its execution packages come complete with supporting air, medical and trauma units, sniper teams, shadowing ships, Navy VBSS and ship-control teams, small-boat units, and a direct-action assault unit with an integrated infantry trailer platoon for support. That second-to-last part—the assault unit—is our piece of the pie.

What I originally wanted to do here was describe our platoon's ship-takedown tactics. But the truth about tactics is, (a.) they are not very interesting to you, and (b.) they are very interesting to our opposition. Instead of going on about how we shoot, move, and communicate it is better to describe who are actually doing these things.

So, who are we ? The long answer is that the platoon is composed of reconnaissance men assigned to the Force Recon company attached to the 15th MEU, tasked with (among other things) serving as the MRFC's assault force in the ongoing fight against piracy. We are also prepared to execute a number of other operations as directed throughout our deployment in support of overseas contingency operations.

I Marine Expeditionary Force's Force (I MEF) Reconnaissance Company (formerly 1st Force Reconnaissance Company) was reactivated last year to provide the I MEF commander with a special-operations-capable unit for deep reconnaissance, limited-scale raids, special insertion and extraction, and battlespace shaping.

The bread and butter of these platoons (and truly what every member of the reconnaissance community takes most pride in) are what we call "greenside" operations. Here, the objective is reconnaissance and surveillance of the enemy, if necessary deep behind enemy lines, to provide the main operational commander with the intelligence he needs to plan and execute his mission. Simply put, our principal job is to support.

This is an important cultural distinction in the reconnaissance community from other special units. The difference is that reconnaissance isn't a special unit at all, but rather a small band of sharply trained professionals who see their trade as an art form. They see their work as special, not themselves.

At first glance, being the assault team on an anti-piracy task force has nothing to do with reconnaissance. Hitting a ship falls into the realm of "blackside" operations, or direct-action missions. But there's a cultural consequence here. The reconnaissance greenside ethos is infused institutionally as "quiet professionalism" and seems to exist at an atomic level in the reconnaissance man. This philosophy manifests itself into a warfighting style reflecting a belief that doing the basics well is what matters. This then reflects in the tactical actions and habits of execution during any mission, blackside or greenside. And the art remains. So really, reconnaissance has everything to do with being the assault force on an anti-piracy task force.

All that being said, the skills of the Force Recon platoon are many and are being put to the test around the world. Currently, one such platoon is in Afghanistan, another is attached to the MEU (ours), a third is in its work-up to soon attach to the next outgoing MEU, and a fourth is forming. I have the great privilege of being the skipper of the Force Platoon attached to a MEU that is going off to fight pirates.

Our task organization varies by mission, but usually we work in four teams, operating in two supporting elements. And while I'm this platoon's skipper, the leaders of those subordinate teams and elements are the true leaders. Illustrative of this point is a little story about boats and leadership. One day recently while we were doing small-boat work, I yelled, jokingly, to the coxswain, Sergeant Dirt, to get out us to calmer waters because "I'm in charge!" (Really, I just wanted a break from the surf zone.) Dirt yelled back: "Well, sir, ya know there's a big difference between being in charge and knowing what the hell's going on." How true. Leadership is definitely a daily exercise.

So all of this is the long answer to who we are. The short answer is that we're a Force Recon platoon that is a small part of a larger team of Sailors and Marines heading out to hunt pirates.

The first thing everyone should know about hunting pirates is that it is not as sexy as it sounds. And I say this having never actually hunted pirates. But we have been training to kill pirates for an entire year, which is also not as sexy as it sounds. It's plain hard. We executed months of surgical shooting, combat conditioning, diving, high-altitude low-opening (HALO) and high-altitude high-opening (HAHO) parachute operations, and training that included rappelling, fast-roping, climbing, hand-to-hand combat, communications, knife fighting, combat trauma, explosives, and intelligence-gathering to prepare us for real-world maritime raid operations. The training was phenomenal, aggressive, and (in a different-from-Swedish sense of the word) fun.

The second thing readers should know about hunting pirates is that tactics are tactics, an objective is an objective, and a raid is a raid is a raid. The real story is in the men doing the hunting. Over the course of this deployment I hope to develop profiles of these Marines and provide a collection of stories on contemporary pirate hunting. I'll try to strike a balance between the fact that there's nothing funny about hunting pirates and telling the real story of the men who do the chasing.

If one day we do get the green light to take down a non-compliant ship, with greater than 25 feet of freeboard, controlled by hostile pirates somewhere off the coast of Africa, the real story won't be how we took her down. The real story will be how much fun Sergeant Dirt made of me once back on our own ship for falling off the fast rope on insert.

Before his current position, Captain Martin served as an infantry and reconnaissance platoon commander after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy. He lives in La Jolla, California.

Before his current position, Captain Martin served as an infantry and reconnaissance platoon commander after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy. He lives in La Jolla, California.

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