The Marine Corps, for two decades the only service that was not part of U.S. Special Operations Command, plans to establish a SOCom unit to deploy alongside Navy SEALs, Army Special Forces and Air Force Special Tactics units for commando missions.
While the makeup of the Marine Corps’ SOCom component, or MarSOC, is still in the works, Marine officials say roughly 2,700 leathernecks will be assigned to the command.
The component will be led by Brig. Gen. Dennis Hejlik, currently the deputy commander of I Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton, Calif.
“We’ve been working with SOCom on coming up with ideas on how the Marine Corps could better support” the command, said Lt. Gen. Jan Huly, head of plans, policies and operations at Marine headquarters. “We finally came to the realization that unless we were a full partner in U.S. Special Operations Command, we probably weren’t making maximum use of the Marine Corps’ capabilities.”
The decision comes nearly three years after the Corps selected and trained an 86-man “dream team” of Marine Force Reconnaissance troops, intelligence analysts, fire-support experts and corpsmen to serve as a test unit that would help SOCom officials determine if the Corps could plug into the commando world.
By all accounts, the team, dubbed Marine Special Operations Detachment 1, was a success, with SOCom officials and analysts suggesting that the Corps set up a larger team to be placed permanently under spec ops command.
The decision to create MarSOC comes after several years of effort on the part of SOCom, the Marine Corps and the Pentagon to build a Marine contribution to a community that has been heavily tasked since the war on terrorism began. The Marine Corps opted out of SOCom when the command was established by Congress in 1986, preferring to keep its small community of specialized units, such as Force Reconnaissance, for its own use.
Rumsfeld has been pushing for an expansion of special operations forces since the war on terrorism began, believing that using small, highly skilled teams is the best way to fight a worldwide insurgency. The Corps’ new spec ops component will significantly boost a commando cadre that has been deployed constantly since Sept. 11, 2001, defense officials say.
“For the first time, [a spec ops commander] will have a maritime capability that will be at sea, will be able to bring it in and bring it back with logistical support,” Hagee said during a Nov. 2 interview. “That is good for the United States, and to be quite honest, it’s good for the Marine Corps. We’re in the fight.”
LONG TIME COMING
The plan is the culmination of efforts by top SOCom and Marine Corps leaders to reinvigorate their relationship over the last several years.
In late 2001, then-Commandant Gen. James Jones signed an agreement with the SOCom commander at the time, Air Force Gen. Charles Holland, to boost Marine liaison officers at SOCom headquarters in Tampa, Fla., and to revive the languishing SOCom/USMC board — a biannual forum intended to discuss missions and support functions between the two entities.
That agreement led to the Corps’ first foray into the spec ops realm — Marine Corps Special Operations Detachment 1. The group — which included reconnaissance, intelligence and supporting-arms specialists — trained with Navy SEALs in California in 2003, then deployed to Iraq in 2004. There, the unit participated in several high-profile missions, including assisting Army Special Forces troops in the defense of besieged Iraqi government officials in Kut during a rebellion led by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Despite the fiscal and organizational hurdles, outside experts say the move to establish a Marine special operations unit is a long time coming.
“This is a realization that overall, we’re going to need to organize differently and to create task organizations for the global war on terrorism,” said retired Col. Gary Anderson, who commanded Marines in Somalia and now works as a Pentagon defense consultant. “This is just an evolution of the things the Marine Corps has done for a long time.”
Retired Marine Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper, a frequent Pentagon consultant and military strategist, said the Army and the Marine Corps both need more special operations-related skills.
Van Riper said he favors the latest plan for the 2,700-man force over others he has seen, including one that called for committing 4,000 Marines to SOCom.
“Frankly, I was concerned about some of the other plans that I’d seen,” Van Riper said.
The new MarSOC will be made up of three main organizations: foreign military training units; direct-action units dubbed Marine Expeditionary Unit Special Operations Groups, or MSOGs; and an intelligence and support group called the Marine Special Operations Support Unit.
The units are expected to begin integrating into SOCom within six months, possibly starting with the foreign military training units, Huly said.
The FMTU command recently was stood up and continues a recent Corps trend of helping train military units in the Republic of Georgia, Niger and Chad. The 400-man FMTU is headquartered at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and will eventually be made up of about two dozen teams of 11 Marines and corpsmen.
Officials with the unit hope to have three teams ready to deploy by January.
“The FMTU concept was a Marine Corps concept, and it was already on the way to establishment,” said Vice Adm. Eric Olson, deputy commander of SOCom.
“And as these discussions with SOCom occurred, the Marines agreed to provide the FMTU as part of this special operations component.”
The Marine Special Operations Support Unit also will be made up of about 400 Marines from a variety of specialties, including Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company Marines, intelligence analysts, interrogation specialists, explosive ordnance disposal teams and military working dog units. The support unit will be similar to Special Forces “B” teams that support the “A” team commandos with gear, communications assistance and intelligence analysis.
The heart of the MarSOC will be the MSOGs, which will be responsible for direct action and other high-speed spec ops missions. The MSOGs will be organized as a two-battalion regiment headquartered at Camp Lejeune, with one battalion based at Lejeune and one at Camp Pendleton, Calif.
The battalions will deploy company-sized groups similar to the current Maritime Special Purpose Force — made up of Force Reconnaissance operators, scout/snipers and regular infantry troops — which floats with a Marine Expeditionary Unit. The difference is they’ll be trained to commando standards and fall under the control of SOCom when deployed.
“The traditional notion of a MEU(SOC) will change somewhat in that the special operations element of a MEU will now be trained and certified as a special operations element by United States Special Operations Command and will deploy aboard a MEU,” Olson said.
FINDING THE PEOPLE
Huly said the Corps hopes to have a rudimentary MSOG cadre ready to serve under SOCom by May.
They’ll be trained and equipped to Marine Corps standards before they chop over to SOCom control, where they’ll undergo further training, such as free-fall parachute instruction and familiarization with spec ops communications and other gear, Olson said.
Some of the 2,700 Marines will be volunteers, others assigned, Huly added. About 1,100 of the spec ops Marines will be drawn from existing units, while 1,600 will be new, he said.
If you want to be a part of this new spec ops command, stay tuned: The Corps is still figuring out who it wants and how they’ll be assigned.
“I don’t know where we’ll get the structure for that right now,” Huly said. “I can say for certain that we’re going to want more of those [spec ops] capabilities, and we’ll find it somewhere.”
But once most of those leathernecks head to MarSOC, they should plan to say goodbye to the regular Corps for a while.
“We’re not going to put individuals into these units and move them out quickly. We need to get a return on the investment that an individual is going to receive by being here,” Huly said.
“We’re looking to create some stability for that individual and, on the other side, we’re going to balance that with their overall career pattern [and] what will make proper sense,” he said, adding that there may be a few Marines who could stay in MarSOC for their careers.
For nearly 20 years, however, the Corps has remained outside the spec ops world, working hard to avoid creating an elite cadre within a force that considers itself already elite.
But times have changed, Huly countered, and the Corps has grown up.
“I think we’re past that,” he said. “It’s been a maturation and a growing and a developmental process. The time is now right.
“This is a way in which we’re going to continue to do business in the future,” he added.
“If I were a foe of the United States, I would not want to see this happening.”