The number and role of small Marine Corps units working alongside members of U.S. special operations forces will likely increase as combat personnel begin to withdraw from ongoing operations in Afghanistan, a senior service officer said yesterday.

The anticipated increase of small-unit engagement with special operations forces falls in line with a lighter, faster and more lethal Marine Corps that service leaders envision for a post Afghanistan combat environment, Lt. Gen. Dennis Hejlik, commander of Marine Corps Forces Command, Fleet Marine Force Atlantic, said during a Defense Writer’s Group breakfast in Washington yesterday.

In March, the service released the findings of the Marine Corps Force Structure Review Group, which called for a 15,000-troop reduction across the total force, partially offset by plus-ups in intelligence, cyberwarfare and special operations capabilities over the next several years.

Designed to coincide with the Marine Corps progressive withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, coupled with completed force reductions in Iraq, the service plans to have that overall force drawdown complete by 2015.

That said, Hejlik was adamant that the service must retain and build upon the counterinsurgency skills gained by Marine Corps forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, noting that the erosion of those capabilities in the service in the years after Vietnam cannot be repeated this time around. “Those days are long gone,” the three-star general added.

One way the Marine Corps will maintain those critical warfighting skills with a total force of 186,000 troops is to increase its operational engagements with special operations forces, Hejlik said.

Those small Marine Corps-special operations teams would work a number of missions, ranging from partner nation engagement and training to kinetic counterterrorism operations. However, Hejlik noted that while conventional and special operations personnel would be in the same small unit, their responsibilities would still be delineated between conventional and covert-types of missions.

Conventional Marine Corps units, as well as elements from Marine Corps Special Operations Command–which Hejlik commanded during the initial years of MARSOC’s existence–have partnered in the past with small detachments from Army Special Forces, Navy SEALs and Air Force Special Operations Command.

MARSOC units in Afghanistan have also been heavily engaged in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations in the northern and western part of the country, as well as in Regional Command-South, where the majority of the Marine Corps contingent is stationed.

But as the service and the Pentagon begin to turn their focus onto other hot spots across the globe, the changing rules of engagement, specifically those tied to cooperating with partner nation forces, will undoubtedly require a boost in those types of partnerships between conventional and special operations forces, Hejlik noted.

These partnerships will become even more critical as U.S. military forces increasingly engage in areas where foreign governments are unwilling or unable to support a large American military footprint. In most instances, those governments “won’t let a battalion of Marines in there,” Hejlik said.

However, the former MARSOC chief pointed out, those same governments would be more accepting of small teams consisting of conventional and special operations forces, adding that “small team” approach would likely become the hallmark of most American military operations after Afghanistan.

To that end, the Senate Armed Services Committee included language in its version of the fiscal year 2012 defense authorization bill requiring the services and U.S. Special Operations Command to synchronize their efforts, via a memorandum of agreement.

“The committee notes that USSOCOM and the services, most notably the Army, have begun discussions with regard to the need to better align [general purpose forces]…with [special operations forces] requirements,” according to a report accompanying the SASC bill. “However…ongoing and planned reductions of [conventional forces] in Iraq and Afghanistan create additional urgency…for ensuring adequate GPF enabling support to deployed SOF.”