CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — The 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit recently returned from a seven-month deployment with the first ever Special Operations Forces Liaison Element, which leaders describe as an invaluable asset that made Marines a better partner to the special operations community.
The MEU deployed with a six-man Special Operations Forces Liaison Element, or SOFLE. The team included five enlisted special operators from across the services led by a Marine lieutenant colonel.
The liaison team helped spec ops commanders in the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East, where the MEU was operating, determine how they could use Marines to support their missions. The SOFLE will also serve as a model for future deployments as the Marine Corps works to improve interoperability with U.S. Special Operations Command.
"We were as plugged into each other's activities as much as we possibly could be," said Col. Matthew Trollinger, commanding officer of the 11th MEU during a roundtable event here Monday. "I don't think I could have had better access to what was going on in their headquarters as they were working a plan and determine how we could support their plan."
During the deployment, a company of reconnaissance Marines took on some of the special operations force's obligations in the region.
"The SOFLE did a lot of work identifying, then actually, planning, coordinating different activities that my reconnaissance Marines were able to so with a lot of SOF entities," Trollinger said.
That helped build a rapport between the MEU and special operators, Trollinger said. That way if a crisis broke out while underway, they had already developed a rapport and strong working relationship.
The liaison element started training with the MEU and working with SOF commanders early in the predeployment work-up cycle, Trollinger said. They met at various special operations headquarters overseas, explained the MEU's capabilities, and detailed the skills of the Marine recon detachment.
Throughout the deployment, the SOFLE communicated regularly with leaders from SOCOM and the MEU. The team also helped with the planning, preparation, coordination and execution of missions, Trollinger said.
Lt. Gen David Berger, I Marine Expeditionary Force's commanding general, said SOFLEs will go a long way in improving the coordination between U.S. Special Operations Command and the entire Marine Corps.
"They needs things from us that they don't have. We need things from them that we don't have," he said. "We have really complementary capabilities and it works out perfect."
Building a stronger relationship with SOCOM is a top priority for Marine leaders. Expeditionary Force 21, a blueprint for the Corps' future released in April 2014, stresses the importance of SOFLEs to deploy not only with MEUs, but any forward-deployed Marine air-ground task force.
"We must seek every opportunity to collaborate, plan, exercise and experiment with Special Operations Forces in order to achieve operational synergy during steady-state, crisis response and contingency operations," the plan states.
Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford re-emphasized the complementary nature of the Marine Corps and SOF in his recently-released planning guidance.
The North Carolina-based 24th MEU is currently underway with a SOFLE embarked. Trollinger said he's also speaking with other commanders about lessons he learned over the 11th MEU's seven-month deployment, which could lead to some changes when SOFLEs deploy with other units.
"The SOFLE concept will stick around. It may not look exactly like what I had," he said.
Berger said the SOFLEs can ultimately help combatant commanders make quicker decisions in the event of a crisis when there's little time to act.
"They make it a more capable force. And that's what's important to us, to give the combatant commander on the other end the best force, the most capable force, we can," Berger said.