WASHINGTON — Taking a page from the Army’s special forces playbook, the Marine Corps is creating a unit designed to train local militaries in hot spots around the world, according to the commandant.

“We’re now in the process of standing up a training unit within the Marine Corps,” Gen. Mike Hagee told a gathering of reporters Thursday in Washington.

Tentatively dubbed the Foreign Military Training Unit, the new organization will come in the wake of several training missions the Corps has taken on in recent years in far-flung locations such as Niger, Chad and the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

“It’s a capability that we’ve had, we’ve just never had a unit devoted to this,” said Hagee.

The FMTUs will be built in partnership with the Army special forces and the joint U.S. Special Operations Training Command. Indeed, FMTUs will be treading into one of special forces’ core missions — gunfighters with intensive language training and culture savvy, capable of quickly inserting into a trouble spot to train up local forces.

“One of the things we don’t have that the Green Berets have are all these language skills,” said Hagee. “So, this is going to be a joint effort, especially initially when we’re going to be looking for help from them on some of the language skills and some of the cultural understanding.”

Hagee said the unit will be manned with about 400 Marines and will probably be based on the East Coast. Plans call for the unit to be fully operational by the end of the year.

The FMTUs will fall under another new Security Cooperation Education Training Center based at Quantico, Va., according to a Marine spokesman.

Meanwhile, Hagee said he was discussing with Special Operations Command chief Army Gen. Ryan Brown the creation of a Marine Corps special operations headquarters to fit under Brown’s command.

Currently, the Marine Corps is the only service to not have a “component command” under SOCOM.

“I have to be honest,” said Hagee. “I don’t like headquarters upon headquarters upon headquarters. But sometimes there’s a purpose for a headquarters, and that’s what we’re looking at right now.”

Both initiatives come as the service looks to add 3,000 Marines to active rolls this year. If approved by Congress, that would bring the Corps’ strength to 178,000 troops.

The manpower infusion will allow the Marines also to create two new infantry battalions and add more Light Armored Vehicle units.

Hagee said the first infantry battalion will be based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., under the II Marine Expeditionary Force by the end of the year.

He said it was still unclear where the second infantry battalion would go.

The biggest hurdle in standing the new units up, he said, was not finding enough Marines to fill the battalions but having adequate facilities for them to live and work.

Funds earmarked in the Bush administration’s $80 billion supplemental funding request now being considered by Congress will build new barracks and support buildings, he said.

Hagee: No plans to alter combat tour lengths

The commandant of the Marine Corps says he’s open to changing the lengths of combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, but for now there are no plans to do so.

“We’re obviously open to that, but all the indications that we have is that this is working really quite well for us — it’s working well for the individual Marine and it’s working well for the families,” Gen. Mike Hagee said Thursday.

Currently, battalions and squadrons rotate through the combat zones on seven-month tours while commanders and staffs at regimental headquarters and above deploy for yearlong tours.

The Army, on the other hand, rotates nearly all of its formations through for one-year tours.

Talking to families, said Hagee, “I’ve actually asked them, what do you prefer? What they came back with, without hesitation is, ‘Seven months. Even though we know they may go back again, that’s what we prefer.’”

— Jon R. Anderson

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