Larger Special Operations Role Being Urged on Marines

By Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 8, 2005

With conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan tying up many U.S. Special Operations forces, the Pentagon has found itself short of the elite teams it typically deploys around the world for specialized combat missions and for training foreign militaries, defense officials say.

To help fill the gap, the Marine Corps has stepped forward with a decision to establish a standing force of "foreign military training units" by this autumn. The units -- 24 teams, each with 13 members -- will be given special instruction in foreign languages and cultural awareness and tailored for assignments in one of four regions: the Middle East, Europe, the Pacific or Latin America.

That is the easy part.

The hard part comes in another move under consideration that would have Marines play an even greater role in special operations beyond "low-end" overseas training missions. This would involve using more Marines in "high-end" anti-terrorist actions and other combat operations requiring exceptional skills.

The sticking point is whether to compel the Marines to cede their specialized units to the Special Operations Command (SOCOM), something the fiercely self-reliant Corps -- unlike the Army, the Navy and the Air Force -- has long refused to do.

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. The Marines, by contrast, have preferred to retain control of their specialized teams and lend them to SOCOM only as needed.

That kind of time-sharing arrangement may no longer be tenable for SOCOM. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the command's role has expanded to include responsibility for managing the war on terrorism -- and with that has come a need for more troops under its direct management. While SOCOM plans to increase its ranks by 2,300 troops over the next four years, up to a new total of about 52,000, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has made clear he also wants the Marines more involved with the Special Command.

A meeting in February involving Rumsfeld, Marine Corps Commandant Michael W. Hagee and Army Gen. Bryan D. Brown, the head of SOCOM, resulted in no deal. The two generals are scheduled to present a new proposal to Rumsfeld later this month.

Although the Marines see themselves as a general-purpose force, they have developed some capacity to conduct special operations, ranging from the emergency evacuation of noncombatants to the stealthy capture of enemy fighters. These capabilities are frequently included in the expeditionary units the Marines regularly deploy.

In recent years, to relieve some of the strain on SOCOM, the Marines have taken on several missions outside the traditional scope of the sea-based service. For instance, they have led a task force in the Horn of Africa, set up in late 2001 to hunt down al Qaeda cells and other terrorists and now focused on providing security assistance and other training to countries in that volatile area. For the invasion of Iraq, the Marines lent SOCOM a Special Operations group known as Detachment 1, a year-long experiment that has become a prototype for the more permanent integration now under discussion.

Still, the idea of a marriage continues to stir some resistance on both sides.

"The Special Operations folks say the Marines had a chance to join SOCOM years ago and didn't, and now they are only after SOCOM's funding and, besides, they are too hard to work with," said one senior Marine officer who has been involved in the issue. "The Marine naysayers, on the other hand, say we're a general-purpose force. They worry that if we do this with SOCOM, we're going to diminish our forces and end up only a shadow of our former selves in a few years."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company