Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld yesterday announced creation of a force of about 2,600 highly specialized Marines intended to address a shortage of elite troops available for counterterrorist operations and other missions requiring exceptional skills.
But in a marked departure for the fiercely self-reliant Corps, the new contingent will report not to the Marine leadership but to the multi-service command responsible for other Special Operations troops.
The move follows months of difficult negotiations between the Marines and Special Operations community. For years, the Marine Corps has resisted joining the Army, Navy and Air Force in ceding permanent control of a segment of its forces to Special Operations Command, known as Socom.
Rumsfeld has pushed the Marines to set aside their traditional sense of separateness and help Socom expand the number of troops under its direct management. After rejecting previous proposals that fell short of a full integration of the Marines into Socom, Rumsfeld approved the new structure at a meeting Friday that included Marine Corps Commandant Michael W. Hagee and Army Gen. Bryan D. Brown, the head of Socom.
A senior Marine officer, in an interview yesterday, attributed his service's change of mind to a recognition that the new arrangement could afford a larger role for Marines in U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
"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's capability," said Lt. Gen. Jan C. Huly, deputy Marine commandant for plans, policies and operations. He added that Rumsfeld's interest in the issue "has certainly brought us along."
Under the agreement, the new Marine component will consist of three elements.
The largest element, made up of two battalions and a regimental headquarters, will serve as the operational force. A second element of about 400 Marines will be responsible for support functions and will include intelligence analysts, logistics specialists, dog handlers, interrogators and interpreters. A third element, also about 400 strong, will provide small teams for training foreign militaries.
The bulk of the new force will be based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and one battalion will be located at Camp Pendleton, Calif. The force will be led initially by Marine Brig. Gen. Dennis J. Hejlik.
Socom was established in 1986 to end the practice of creating and using Special Forces on an ad hoc basis. The command today oversees the organizing, training and equipping of such highly skilled troops as the Army Rangers and Green Berets, the Navy SEALs and the Air Force AC-130 gunship fleet.
By contrast, the Marines have tended to see themselves as a general-purpose force. But they have developed some capacity to conduct special operations, ranging from the emergency evacuation of noncombatants to the stealthy capture of enemy fighters. Teams with these capabilities have typically been included in the Marine Expeditionary Units, or MEUs, that regularly deploy around the world.
The new agreement calls for such teams to be provided in the future by Socom. The Marines will supply Socom with forces that are trained to "Marine standards," and Socom will provide additional training and equipment relevant to special operations.
After a MEU deployment ends, the Marine Special Operations teams will return to Socom, rather than dispersing across the rest of the Marine Corps, which has been the practice. That means many Marines assigned to the new teams will end up spending much of their military careers there.
"We're not going to put individuals into these units and then move them out quickly," Huly said. "We need to get a return on the investment that an individual is going to receive."
Yesterday's announcement represented the most significant breakthrough in a relationship between the Marines and Socom that began changing shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In November 2001, the Corps agreed to boost liaison officers at Socom. A year later, the Marines lent Socom an 86-man unit known as Detachment 1 that deployed to Iraq in late 2003 and early 2004, working with other Special Operations forces.
Entering talks with Socom last fall about expanding such missions, the Corps had hoped not to give up permanent control of its specialized units and offered instead to continue lending them on an as-needed basis. But Socom pressed for direct management.
Even with the addition of the Marine contingent, Socom says more Special Operations forces will be needed. It received earlier authorization to increase its ranks another 2,300 troops over four years, to 52,000.
"These 2,600 Marines will not answer the total growth requirement of Special Operations Command over the next several years," said Vice Adm. Eric T. Olson, Socom's deputy commander. "But they're an immediate boost that will be employable in the near- and mid-term in important ways."
Rumsfeld has made no secret of his frustration at how long it has taken to negotiate the entry of the Marines into Socom. After a visit to Socom headquarters on Oct. 11, he said the talks had gone "painfully" slowly. "Forever, it's taken," he told troops at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. "I will be 85 before it's finished, I'm afraid."