Magazine article National Defense

Reshaping the Force

Magazine article National Defense

Reshaping the Force

Article excerpt

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, aldiough 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 hotspots.

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. …

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