By OTTO KREISHER
Otto Kreisher is a reporter for Copley News Service.
In a nondescript office at Camp Pendleton, Calif., Lt. Col. Robert Coates
and his staff are screening hundreds of applicants for what soon may be
considered a prime assignment for Marine Corps personnel.
The Corps is forming a new unit at Pendleton that could bridge the artificial
divide between the Marine Corps and the U.S. Special Operations Command
(SOCOM) that has existed for 16 years. SOCOM, founded in 1987, is composed
of specialized units from the nation's other armed services--except the
But that may soon change. With the global war on terrorism putting greater
demands on all of the armed services, the Marine Corps is working on ways
to lighten the much heavier load imposed on SOCOM since the 9/11 terrorist
attacks. One way, Corps officials say, is the formation of a Marine unit
that could be the first to deploy as an element of SOCOM. Coates, now
director of the Marine special operations training group at Pendleton,
will command the Corps' Special Operations Command Detachment of 81 Marines
and five Navy corpsmen.
"It's all about how we can best contribute ... complement, supplement"
the special operations forces, said Lt. Gen. Emil R. Bedard, the Corps'
assistant commandant for programs, policies, and operations.
A Bridge-Building MOA
The initiative to promote a much closer working relationship between
the Marine Corps and SOCOM is the result of a memorandum of agreement
(MOA) signed in November 2001 by then-Commandant Gen. James L. Jones and
Air Force Gen. Charles R. Holland, commander of the Special Operations
Command. "We need to move the Marine Corps and special operations
forces [SOF] closer together, to establish the framework for building
bridges between the two organizations," Jones said at a defense writers'
breakfast in November 2002.
The Pentagon's senior leadership wants more special operations forces,
Jones explained, "so we are looking for ways to use Marine forces
to go into what were previously SOF missions that we can do and were trained
There are "some cultural things to overcome" as well as certain
"institutional ties and confidence-building measures that we have
[to deal with]," Jones said. But, he quickly added, "I think
it is going to happen and I think it is going to be very capable and very
The Marines' interest in working much more closely with SOCOM comes at
a time when the SOCOM forces have been deploying at their highest operational
tempo since Vietnam. Special operations troops have been increasingly
in demand for use in unconventional conflicts since the end of the Cold
War. They currently are heavily engaged around the world in the global
war on terrorism, and played a crucial role in the U.S.-led victory over
the Taliban and al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan. Following that success,
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld gave SOCOM the authority to plan
and execute antiterrorism missions on its own initiative and to seek support
from regional combatant commanders if necessary.
The new focus on and respect for SOCOM is in sharp contrast to the years
following World War II, when unconventional warriors enjoyed only episodic
support from the nation's senior military leadership. The Marine Raider
battalions that conducted a number of daring strikes against the Japanese
during the early years of World War II, for example, were disbanded when
the Corps expanded to six divisions in preparation for the massive amphibious
assaults in the Pacific.
The largely unconventional conflict in Vietnam led to a proliferation
of elite units, including the Army's Green Berets, the Air Force's Air
Commandos, and the Navy's SEALs--who evolved from the underwater demolition
team "frogmen" of World War II and Korea. But those units were
cut back sharply after Vietnam.
In 1980, special forces of various types, hastily formed into a special
mission unit, were assigned to the fatally flawed attempt to rescue American
hostages in Iran. The 1983 Grenada operation is remembered in part for
the poorly planned missions assigned to the SEALs and the secret Delta
Force. Several U.S. military personnel died, partly because of equipment
failures, while attempting reconnaissance of the Point Salines airport.
In addition, an attempt to rescue an American thought to be held prisoner
in an old fort was thwarted by a hail of heavy gunfire.
In 1987, Congress stepped in to upgrade the status and improve the capabilities
of the nation's special forces by creating the Special Operations Command,
giving it its own budget and four-star commander.
The command today has about 46,000 personnel in its active and reserve
units. It includes Army Special Forces (the Green Berets), Rangers, and
the 160th Special Aviation Regiment; Navy SEALs, special warfare boat
units, and SEAL delivery units; and Air Force Special Operations airlift
units, AC-130 gunships, and special tactics teams. The Army, Air Force,
and Navy special operations commands are components of SOCOM.
The Bush administration's fiscal year 2004 defense budget proposes to
increase SOCOM funding to $4.5 billion, a 50 percent increase over the
amount appropriated for FY 2003. The command's end strength would increase
by 1,890 personnel, primarily to expand the 160th Special Aviation Regiment.
The Marine Corps has never assigned any of its units to SOCOM, but hundreds
of individual Marines have served with special operations forces on exchange
duty. There currently are 105 Marines in the elite force--serving as helicopter
pilots, as intelligence officers, and in other specialized duties.
Marine Brig. Gen. Dennis J. Hejlik is the Special Operations Command's
chief of staff, and Marine Maj. Gen. John F. Satler is commanding Task
Force Horn of Africa, which includes a large contingent of SOCOM warriors
searching for terrorists in that volatile region.
In February, Master Gunnery Sgt. Joseph G. Settelen received the Special
Operations/Low Intensity Conflict Achievement Award, presented by the
National Defense Industrial Association, for service that included classified
duties around the world with an unnamed Defense Department unit.
When SOCOM was being formed in 1987, however, the Corps refused to assign
any Marine units to it, arguing that it had no fighters to spare.
Instead, the Corps began to train its Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs)
to conduct 23 particularly difficult types of missions--several of which,
Bedard said, "fall into the lower end of the special ops [operations]
spectrum." Certification to perform those missions, which include
noncombatant evacuation operations (NEOs) and the tactical recovery of
downed aircraft and personnel (TRAP), earns an MEU the designation "special
operations capable," or SOC.
Rescues and Evacuations
Marine units already have conducted real-world NEOs in Somalia, Liberia,
and elsewhere. The Corps' most famous TRAP mission was the daring rescue
of Air Force Capt. Scott O'Grady after he was shot down over Bosnia in
1995. The Marines also have relieved SOCOM of certain burdens, replacing
special-forces personnel who were training troops in the Republic of Georgia,
and sharing SOCOM's training and advisory missions in the Philippines.
When a Marine brigade became the first sizable U.S. conventional force
in Afghanistan, it worked closely with the special operations units already
on the ground in-country.
"In Afghanistan, we did everything," Bedard said. "Everything"
included the transport of special operations troops, the evacuation of
casualties, providing fire support, the refueling of special operations
helicopters, and cooperating in various intelligence efforts. Those kinds
of shared missions, he said, "are all the more reason we should work
Each MEU also has a number of highly trained reconnaissance Marines,
who work very closely with the SEAL teams that deploy with the Corps'expeditionary
The MOA signed in November 2001 was in large part, Bedard said, an outgrowth
of: (1) the close cooperation developed between the Marine Corps and SOCOM
in the political and budgetary fight to save the threatened V-22 Osprey
tiltrotor aircraft program; and (2) the joint combat missions the two
elite organizations teamed up for in Afghanistan.
The Marines have been the leading advocates of the Osprey, but the Air
Force Special Operations Command also urgently wants 50 or more Ospreys
to replace its current helicopter fleet.
The MOA led to the formation of eight Marine-SOCOM working groups, Bedard
said, to address such issues as doctrine, equipment, tactics, techniques,
and joint training.
The Marine unit intended for eventual assignment to SOCOM is expected
to include a 22-person headquarters element, 30 reconnaissance Marines,
28 intelligence specialists, and a six-man team to coordinate fire support.
The recon element will include four six-man teams led by staff sergeants
and a command staff led by a captain. The intelligence section, led by
a major, will include teams to handle signals intelligence, human intelligence
exploitation, radio recon, and an "all-source" fusion team to
assemble information from various sources, then analyze and distribute
it to all who need it.
The fire support unit--composed of three ANGLICO (Air Naval Gunfire Liaison
Company) Marines, three radio operators, and a forward air controller--will
be led by a field artillery major. The detachment is expected to start
training on its own this June, and to join the SEAL squadron in October
for joint training in Coronado (Calif.). If the concept is validated and
the unit demonstrates its readiness, Marine officials said, the detachment
probably would deploy for the first time in April 2004.
The detachment will focus on four types of missions: special reconnaissance,
short-duration combat strikes, the internal defense of foreign nations,
and the support of international coalitions--the training and advisory
role Marines already are playing in Georgia and in the Philippines, for
If the two-year trial is successful, the Pendleton unit could be expanded
or duplicated elsewhere, Marine officials said.
Jones said in November that creation of the special operations unit stems
from his earlier decision to make force reconnaissance a career MOS (military
occupational specialty) for Marines. "That gives you ... [a] higher-end
specialty that becomes attractive to Special Operations Command,"
The Marines are confident that their proposed new unit will be successful,
but a SOCOM spokesman emphasized that the concept is still being studied.
"There has been no determination of what we are going to do,"
said Army Col. William Darley. "We are looking at the interoperability
of having the Marines ... [assigned] as a detachment to the Naval Special
Operations Command. But no final decision has been made," he said.
Jay Farrar, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and
International Studies, said the proposed integration of Marine units with
SOCOM would benefit both organizations. "They [the Marines] can take
advantage of the cutting-edge training ideas the Special Ops Command is
always discovering," said Farrar, a retired Marine officer. "And
SOCOM can take advantage of what the Marines are doing in small-unit operations."