It is an ironic story in which the old guard was half right (that Marines should support Marines) and half wrong (that Marines should support only Marines). And it is one that proved in the end the strategic value of the Special Operations Capable MEU, or MEU (SOC).
One full platoon existed in the Force Reconnaissance Company when I joined it in spring 2009. Two more platoons were in the fielding stage. That first fully staffed platoon would later be tasked with augmenting the 1st Recon Battalion’s spring 2010 deployment to Afghanistan. Ours was to be the first since the disbandment of “old Force” to attach to the MEU.
Coming from the 1st Recon Battalion, I had been exposed to top-quality Marines. But the men I met at the company were the hardest-working, most capable Marines I have ever met. After our first months of rigorous “greenside” (reconnaissance and surveillance of the enemy) training, we agreed on Blue Collar as our call sign as it seemed to best fit the platoon’s prevailing culture of “you before me.”
Our definition of a blue-collar worker (and it’s important because it has everything to do with the Marines’ performance on the Magellan Star ) is someone who works with his hands, wears his name on his shirt, and breaks a good sweat in a hard job for little pay and less thanks.
We attached to the 15th MEU in fall 2009. Before then, we focused on team- and platoon-level training to build the capabilities needed to support the MEU commander. A Force Recon platoon’s workup traditionally consists of an individual-schools phase, a team phase, a platoon phase, and a unit phase.
The individual-schools phase included sniper school, military freefall, closed-circuit combatant divers course, advanced survival schools, and advanced medical and communications courses, to name a few.
In team training, the focus was on developing internal standard operating procedures. At Marine Corps Base Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, we worked on team-level reconnaissance-and-surveillance training and patrolling, executed a jump package, and conducted an extensive amphibious-operations exercise.
During platoon training, we conducted high-altitude high-opening and high-altitude low-opening advanced airborne training packages, combat trauma, live tissue, dive, man-tracking, fires, mountain-traverse and conditioning, and amphibious reconnaissance training packages. We also executed a long-range communications package, which facilitated the unit’s bread and butter, deep reconnaissance, or the ability to operate forward of other forces and provide intelligence to the MAGTF commander. We also attended multiple shooting courses and participated in two-month reconnaissance-and-surveillance training in Montana and the Sierra Nevada.
In unit training with the MEU, we primarily provided reconnaissance and surveillance to the supported commander. Throughout phase four we also participated in visit, board, search, and seizure (VBSS) training as the assault element of the MEU’s Maritime Raid Force. The 15th MEU was the Marine Corps’ “proof of concept” for future VBSS operations, and the final hurdle of our unit- training phase was to achieve certification from the Special Operations Training Group.
What Are Maritime Interdiction Operations?
Maritime interdiction operations (MIOs) are peacetime measures designed to enforce embargoes sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council, the National Command Authority, or other regional organizations as directed. Learning the concept was also part of the Special Operations Training Group curriculum.
Our current MIO orders define VBSS operations as those used to gain control of a vessel from the lawful master and crew when the master refuses to allow a cooperative boarding. Such missions may be conducted in support of peacetime law-enforcement operations, to enforce a naval blockade or quarantine during a low- or high-intensity conflict, as a preemptive or defensive measure to deny a potential or declared enemy from obtaining a hostile capability or conducting a hostile act, or to facilitate the recovery of selected personnel and material. Counter-piracy operations fall under the umbrella of MIO/VBSS, though they differ in legal implications and parameters.
Our VBSS training began at the unit level in concert with the shooting package at Camp Pendleton, California. There we integrated with the pilots who would support us on insert or with close-air-support, fires planners, snipers, and others.
Training for a ship takedown progressed, from individual surgical shooting with the M4 and MEU (SOC) .45, to team- and platoon-level day and night live-fire shooting events. This rigorous eight-week weapons-and-tactics lesson was taught by civilians, most former “old Force” guys who were top-shelf shooters. We then integrated with the infantry platoon assigned to be our security force and began taking classes on MIOs, specifically VBSS and counter-piracy operations.
In between shooting events, we re-familiarized ourselves with nautical terms and studied images of merchant ships. We then war-gamed how changes in the location or dimension of each affected our execution of a potential mission. In the process, we learned the five classifications of ships and developed scenarios in which each ship type required an opposed boarding and played out each to different conclusions.
We understood we might not have detailed schematics for the target ship but learned that most ships share certain design characteristics, especially with respect to spaces, including the bridge, the radio room, engineering, and aft steering. Each represents a different tactical challenge, and we could not take every space down at once. So we learned techniques to seize certain areas first then back-clear through the others.
Our post-shooting package training included working with the MEU’s helicopters, practicing how to flow the entire platoon onto small insert points first using buildings then Navy and merchant ships in San Diego and Long Beach, where we simulated actual assaults.
We also trained on 11-meter Navy Special Warfare rigid-hull inflatable boats as well as on the Marine Corps 10-meter variant. To achieve a true “bottom up” capability the task group employed Procinctu Group, whose staff of experts taught us VBSS skills that had since atrophied in the Marine Corps. That training proved a decisive advantage in the takedown of the Magellan Star six months later.
Key considerations for an assault of a ship include surprise, violence of action, and a plan for withdrawal. Three basic elements support execution: assault, support, and security. In the Maritime Raid Force, the Force Recon platoon is the assault element, an infantry platoon provides the security element, and support comes from the Navy’s VBSS team, ship’s control team, Naval Criminal Investigative Service, linguists, and other personnel.
Tactics might vary slightly based on the target, but a shooter’s continuing actions are unchanging. Questions typical of a raid include: Do we have blueprints? Do we have photographs? Do we have any visual reconnaissance platforms available to give us a real-time feed? What is the disposition of the enemy on target?
And some questions are more specific to the conduct of a raid at sea. What is the sea state? How are the winds, and from what direction are they blowing? What are the temperature, precipitation, and illumination conditions? What are the possible insertion points? What communications does the ship have? Does the ship have any self-defense capabilities? What cargo is she carrying? Any crew? Is there a manifest? What is their nationality? What are their intentions? What, if anything, distinguishes an unknown or a hostile from a friendly?
We knew it was possible that we’d be boarding a ship against the will of the lawful owner (if, say, this ship was smuggling arms from Africa to Iran), but it was also possible that the ship was pirated and taken from the control of the lawful owner, in which case we’d need as much intelligence as possible, on both the crew and the enemy.
Concept of Operations
A VBSS mission is conducted in five phases: isolation, seizure, support, consolidation, and extract. Each has dozens of considerations.
• Some phase I considerations might include the speed of the critical contact of interest, the sea state, potential insert points, and the target’s proximity to territorial waters.
• Phase II considerations include gaining a foothold and fighting in two stages: initial and detailed clears. Success in phase II depends on well-rehearsed standard operating procedures for how we move, break, flow, handle dead space, and security.
• Considerations for phase III include bringing aboard additional support, the location of the ship’s personnel, dealing with an apprehended or dead enemy, and transitioning into a crime-scene mentality.
• In phase IV we continue to conduct a detailed search and begin evidence collection and we address medical issues with the crew or suspected pirates themselves: We process our own numbers and prepare for extract.
• Phase V considerations include the continued treatment and evacuation of any casualties, as well as the potential for staying on board for a long duration. The minute we seize control of the vessel, we take ownership of it and are responsible for the safe return of that ship to port.
There are two ways to get aboard a target ship: from the top, down (sliding down a fastrope from a helicopter), or from the bottom, up (using a boat and a hook and ladder). These two methods can be combined for a simultaneous top-down/bottom-up boarding, or they can be phased for a sequential assault.
Many supporting elements facilitate the conduct of the raid, but typically these include snipers, aviation platforms, fires, a shadowing ship, communications, breachers, linguists, ship’s control team, search-and-rescue teams, and a medical-response team.
The Magellan Star Takedown
Two years after the return of Force Recon and a year after we attached to the 15th MEU, the Blue Collar Marines were rushing the superstructure of the pirated Magellan Star in the Gulf of Aiden.
The press release from Naval Forces Central Command that day read:
At approximately 5 a.m. Bahrain time, Sept. 9, 24 U.S. Marines assigned to the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s (MEU) Maritime Raid Force (MRF), boarded and seized control of Antigua- and Barbuda-flagged, German-owned vessel M/V Magellan Star from the pirates who had attacked and boarded the vessel early Sept. 8.
The mission secured the safety of the ship’s crew and returned control of the ship to the civilian mariners. No shots were fired, and no injuries or casualties were reported from the ship’s crew, U.S. Marines, or pirates. Nine suspected pirates were transferred from the Magellan Star to a Combined Task Force 151 vessel, where they remained pending decisions concerning their disposition.
What wasn’t mentioned in the press release was the courage displayed by the Marines in balancing the violence of action and discipline that is the hallmark of a true professional gunfighter, the herculean breaching effort the Marines carried out, which took three hours after the initial assault and truly reminded me why these men are called Blue Collar, and the final moments of the hostage rescue, when the crew was unwilling to come forward from the safety of their “citadel.” Sergeant Max Chesmore ripped an American flag from his shooter’s kit and held it through the hole. The crew broke into cheers and rushed out of hiding.
We returned to our ship that afternoon, went into isolation to conduct detailed debriefs and issue witness statements, cleaned our weapons, and later met as a platoon. The only thing said then was a word about our brothers in 1st Recon Battalion in Afghanistan. What we had done that day was exciting, and we were proud to be a part of it. But the real credit belonged to them and all the other Marines down-range that day, because condition 1, danger, and violence is their everyday norm. And as news reports were filed, we wished it was all for them, because if there is any credit deserved for a job well done and that needed to be heard by the American people, it is theirs.
More Deployment Successes
As of August 2010, Somali pirates were holding 18 ships and 379 crew for ransom with average settlements running around $4 million per vessel. There is no doubt that Task Force 151 and the MEU (SOC)’s Maritime Raid Force capability will continue to play a crucial role in curbing these numbers.
As for the 15th MEU (SOC), the Magellan Star was just one mission in a deployment full of successful events that included bilateral operations in Indonesia, East Timor, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia. The 15th MEU also trained Jordanians for a deployment to Afghanistan, rendered humanitarian assistance to flood victims in Pakistan, and dropped bombs in support of ground operations in Afghanistan.
This deployment thus proved that the Marine Expeditionary Unit is the most flexible, potent, and decisive quick-reaction force we can bring to bear. The old guard was, after all, half right: Marines do well to support Marines.