The SOCOM Dilemma
Defense Secretary Rumsfeld wants more Marine involvement in the command,
but there is a deep divide over how that will be accomplished
By SUE A. LACKEY, Associate Editor
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld is pressuring the Marine Corps
and U.S. Special Operations Command [SOCOM] to reach a consensus on an
expanded role for the Corps, and the possible formation of a Marine special
operations component within the command.
Gen. Michael W. Hagee, Marine Corps commandant, and Army Gen. Bryan
D. Brown, SOCOM commander, met with Rumsfeld Feb. 4 with recommendations,
but reportedly were told their solutions did not go far enough toward
incorporating the Marine Corps in a role it has resisted since the formation
of SOCOM in 1986.
There is much at stake, possibly including Marine Corps control over
aviation units that are specially trained for close air support and integral
to Marine ground operations. Every service branch except the Marine Corps
provides special operations units to SOCOM, and that is a situation the
Rumsfeld intends to change.
At the February meeting, Hagee proposed increasing the number of Marine
officer billets at SOCOM, and has expressed a willingness to assign specialized
units as needed, an arrangement welcomed by Brown. Hagee has also stated
his intention to increase the capabilities of the Corps to perform counterinsurgency
operations, which would reinforce the SOCOM mission without relinquishing
control of Marine assets. It was this proposal that Rumsfeld viewed as
insufficient, according to sources knowledgeable about the meeting.
The secretary of defense “has told all involved to go back and
work it until they come up with a suitable-sized Marine Corps contribution,” said
a Marine special operations officer close to the program. “I don’t
think we or SOCOM will have much say in this.”
At the center of the interservice struggle is DoD’s planned transformation
of the military, the operational strain on the Army and SOCOM’s
growing clout within the U.S. military hierarchy.
SOCOM was created to provide an acquisitions channel for specialized
weapons and equipment and a ready force of specially trained warriors
in support of joint and regional commands. But SOCOM’s purpose
was enlarged in the aftermath of 9/11 and the advent of the global war
on terrorism, and the Pentagon’s increased emphasis on covert and
specialized unit tactics.
Rumsfeld designated SOCOM, which is largely comprised of Army units,
as the lead joint command for planning the ongoing war. The resulting
strain on those Army units, and the increasing need for additional special
operations forces, are cited as the reasons he wants to push the Corps
into the SOCOM fold.
The expertise in small units tactics with the firepower and integrated
command and control the Marine Corps has organically throughout its force
structure make it a natural for integration into SOCOM. The Corps has
always had special operations units, and assigns Marines to SOCOM as
Former Commandant James L. Jones, now head of the European Command,
has pushed for inclusion in SOCOM in order to provide a career path for
the Corps’ highly specialized units, such as Air Naval Gunfire
Liaison Company and Force Reconnaissance. Jones also saw the command
as a path to acquisition of new weaponry and technology coming out of
the lucrative SOCOM budget.
But Gen. Wallace Gregson, commander, Marine Forces Pacific, believes
that can be accomplished without relinquishing control over the Corps’ elite
“The best thing is to allow us to create the capability, and if
the capability is desired by the Spec Ops community then we will give
them [operational or tactical control] of our task organized detachments
for whatever mission they have at hand,” Gregson said. “We
can train them up, and if SOCOM wants to employ them, we can assign the
unit to SOCOM so we can achieve all those benefits of cohesion, esprit
de corps, familiarity with each other — and then bring them back,
reconstitute it, retrain them and provide it back …
“We would see an enriching of capabilities across the Marine Corps
this way. We would also have a way to grow colonels for this community,
because we really top out with majors now. … That provides the
full spectrum service we want to give the operational commanders, and
enables us to best manage our talent base within the Marine Corps. But
this issue has quickly gone beyond the staff level and is being worked
at the highest levels.”
Gregson’s command includes Marine Corps Special Operations Detachment
1, an experimental special operations unit used in Operation Iraqi Freedom
to explore integration between the Marine Corps and SOCOM, and which
may ultimately serve as a prototype for a Marine special operations component
“They brought a unique task organization over there, and they
showed how, in all aspects of organization, very highly selected and
very highly trained units like that can be of great value,” Gregson
said. “That’s a mirror to the Marine Corps’ approach
to warfare in general. Only the services have the ability to provide
the forces trained and equipped. We don’t do the business of the
unified command, and I don’t think the unified command would want
to pull away from what they do so well and start doing recruiting duty
and drill instructor duty, etc. Tell us what capabilities you want, what
kind of unit you want, and we’ll provide.”
The evolution of small unit warfare and special operations forces has
ignited a wider politicized debate within the Pentagon that makes many
in the Marine Corps leery. Rumsfeld and Chief of Staff of the Army Peter
Schoomaker, himself a Special Forces veteran, have announced their intentions
to transform the Army into a lighter, more maneuverable force with an
emphasis on small unit tactics.
Rumsfeld has pushed the services to develop joint programs of acquisition
and development. One of those programs — the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor
aircraft — will be used heavily by the Marine Corps and SOCOM,
which some see as one more indication the Corps is destined to join the
As more money is directed toward the Army, Air Force and Navy budgets
are being scrutinized and cut which, coupled with Rumsfeld’s insistence
that the Marine Corps be incorporated into SOCOM, has intensified interservice
“There is a high degree of emotion on all sides of this issue,
and an awful lot of pettiness here [in Washington], too,” Gregson
A special operations officer agrees. “This has nothing to do with
tactics, it has nothing to do with strategies or abilities; it has everything
to do with politics and the Army’s desire to maintain control because
there is a faction that doesn’t want to give up their large formations
and get lighter to fight small unit engagements,” the officer said.
“SOCOM was born in DoD politics, and it survives in DoD politics.
The head of SOCOM is not just an area commander, he has the entire world.
Once forces go to him, in effect they no longer belong to the Corps.
We can also potentially lose control over Marine aviation.
“Our specially trained close air support can be covering SOCOM
when it’s needed by conventional Marine ground forces. We just
don’t have enough assets to go around. If the Corps doesn’t
watch its [back], it will get piecemealed to everyone,” the officer
With Hagee and Brown sent back to the drawing board, experts on both
sides agree the question will not be if there is Marine Corps involvement
in SOCOM, but how many troops will be committed and whether it will be
a formal agreement. Until then, officials are noncommittal.
“It would be inappropriate to speculate on further Marine Corps
participation in SOCOM because the issue is still being studied at this
time,” a DoD spokesman said. “By discussing it in the press,
the good decision-making process becomes influenced in a way it shouldn’t
be. We try and make the decisions based on what is good for DoD.”