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Reshaping the force: shift to special operations will not 'gut' the Marine Corps, general says.

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C.--Taking shape here at this sprawling military installation on the coast of North Carolina is the first major Marine Corps component ever to join the U.S. Special Operations Command.

The Marine Special Operations Command, which was officially inaugurated Feb. 24, will see its ranks grow to 2,600 during the next five years. Two MARSOC battalions--one based here and one at Camp Pendleton, Calif.--will be made up largely of Marines selected from the Corps' force reconnaissance units.

"Force recon" Marines are infantry troops with specialized skills such as conducting covert operations and small-unit raids, designating targets for close-air support and ground or naval artillery, and rescuing hostages or prisoners of war.

The two combat battalions will be made up of nine companies--four at Lejeune and five at Pendleton. Each company will have 97 to 118 Marines, 40 of whom will be "force recon" troops, explained Brig. Gen. Dennis J. Hejlik, MARSOC commander. He recently was nominated for promotion to major general.

Another component of MARSOC will be highly specialized support units whose skills are in such high demand today that it may, take years for the command to fill them. These include specialists in human and signals intelligence, explosives ordnance disposal and military police.

These are the "high demand, low density" units, which will be hard to fill, Hejlik told reporters at the Pentagon. MARSOC will have no trouble, however, recruiting enough force recon Marines.

"I get flooded with emails" from young officers and senior enlisted Marines who want to come to MARSOC, he said. "If we had the capability to stand up the 2,600 right now--with money and resources--I could do it right now."

MARSOC also has a foreign military training unit (FMTU) that will provide basic military schooling and advisors for the troops of friendly nations. It will supplement trainers from Army Special Forces--also known as Green Berets. The FMTU was activated in October 2005, and already has three teams of 12 Marines each who will be deploying in 2006 and 2007, Hejlik said. By 2008, the FMTU is expected to have 24 teams.

Marines will serve at MARSOC for periods of three to five years, and will rotate back to the conventional force, Hejlik said.

That's good news for Marine commanders who may be concerned about losing their skilled force recon troops to MARSOC, he noted, although he admitted that it is not clear to what extent this reorganization will affect the capabilities of conventional Marine expeditionary units.

MARSOC does not expect to "gut" the force recon ranks in the Marine Corps, Hejlik added. But he acknowledged that Marine leaders, above his level, might have to consider restructuring conventional forces in the future to accommodate the loss of force recon personnel. Many of the MARSOC recruits likely will be young officers, as well as staff and gunnery sergeants.

"Losing end-strength is always tough," especially at a time when the 175,000-strong Marine Corps is heavily deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan and other horspots.

Since the Special Operations Command was created in 1987, the Marine Corps had resisted being part of the organization, which includes elite Army, Navy and Air Force units.

Even today, there are critics who argue that the Corps should not give up its most proficient troops to SOCOM.

"If I were commandant, I'd say, 'damned if I'll give up my best-trained troops to SOCOM,'" said a retired Marine lieutenant colonel with extensive special-operations experience. He asked not to be identified because he now works for an intelligence agency.

"There's a price to be paid in facilities, infrastructure and manpower," Marine Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, commander of the I Marine Expeditionary Force, told reporters in Washington, D.C. "So I guess I'm asking for it both ways. You have to have more, but please don't take mine."

Hejlik said that resistance to change is understandable in tradition-bound organizations such as the military services.

"There's always parochialism on both sides of the fence," he said.

The reality is that the United States now needs to boost the ranks of special operators, who have the required skills to fight unconventional conflicts such as Iraq.

"MARSOC is filling a complementary gap that's out there because SOCOM is so heavily engaged," Hejlik said. "Irregular warfare is here to stay ... If we don't start going that way, to where the force is more joint and more capable across the spectrum, it's not a good thing."

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld assigned SOCOM the lead role in worldwide antiterrorist operations. The command, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., has been hard pressed to meet its commitments. It currently has about 51,000 personnel.

The negotiations between SOCOM and the Marine Corps were slow and painful, leading up to the creation of MARSOC. In 2003, the Corps assigned an experimental 86-man unit known as Marine Detachment One to work with SEALs at the Naval Amphibious Base in Coronado, Calif.

Det One, as the unit was known, was disestablished in 2004, according to SOCOM spokesman Ken McGraw. The experiment, however, apparently was successful enough to help pave the way for the larger, permanent Marine command.

In any case, when 2,600 troops are assigned to MARSOC, the regular Corps will not shrink, officials noted. The 2005 Defense Authorization Act permits the service to add 3,000 troops over a three-year period. Since then, Congress upped that figure by 1,000, which will bring the total number of Marines to 179,000.

Another question troubling many Marines who may be assigned to MARSOC is what happens after they have completed their special ops assignment. "The big issue I hear nobody talking about is how well they are treated when they come back to the Marine Corps," said a retired leatherneck who spent considerable time in special ops.

Many Marines don't like the idea that special ops troops are considered "elite," he said. "Marines like to think they are all elite," he said. "They may not welcome back those Marines who have served in MARSOC and think that they are more 'special' than anybody else."

Because Marines assigned to MARSOC will want to be seen as remaining members of the Corps, rather than part of a separate, elite unit, the new command is not likely to adopt a beret as other SOCOM elements have done, Marines agree. Special Forces have their green berets. Rangers wear tan; Air force combat controllers, scarlet; combat weathermen, grey.

What about MARSOC? "Don't even go there," said one retired Marine special operator. The most likely headgear for Marine special operators, on deployments at least, is the Corps' standard field cap or perhaps the floppy-brimmed "boonie hat." Both come in the Corps' trademark desert and woodland digital camouflage, and they bear the Marines' globe-and-anchor emblem.
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Author:Kennedy, Harold
Publication:National Defense
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2006
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