The Marine Corps is injecting its Marine expeditionary units with a small special operations detachment to facilitate greater cooperation between SOF and Marine forces.
The first deployment of a Special Operations Force Liaison Element with a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) wrapped up this February after successful operations in the Asia-Pacific and Middle East, said Lt. Col. Andy Christian, the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command officer who led the SOFLE.
Before the establishment of SOFLE units, there were no formal channels for the commanders of an amphibious ready group or Marine expeditionary unit to communicate with special operations forces, Christian said. Amphibious Ready Group (ARG)/MEU commanders would have to seek out relevant SOF personnel and vice versa.
“It was ad hoc at best,” he said. “Now what we’ve done is formalize the relationship and dedicate a team that their whole purpose in life is to be the connective tissue between two organizations.”
The SOFLE’s deployment with the USS Makin Island (LHD-8) ARG was the first of a two-part proof of concept meant to evaluate the benefits of having a unit network between special operators and Marines, he said. SOCOM commander Army Gen. Joseph Votel has not yet formalized it as a program of record, but there are plans to deploy SOFLE units with MEUs over the next two years.
Having access to special operators can make a critical difference to a MEU that is rapidly deployed to a crisis, and may not fully understand the background, locale or culture, said Col. Matthew Trollinger, the commander of the 11th MEU that teamed with the SOFLE.
“We have to get up to speed very quickly,” he said. “In this case, I have a [SOF] team that is pulling everything that they have and giving it to me, and I now am much smarter and better informed as we go into that crisis.”
The SOFLE unit conducted 31 engagements with special operations forces, including training and some real world operations. “We filled a lot of gaps where SOF couldn’t meet the demand signal because they were just too committed, and the MEU/ARG has all this great capability,” Christian said.
The six-man SOFLE team consisted of two operators—Christian and a senior enlisted adviser from the Navy SEALS—as well as two intelligence specialists and two communications specialists.
They brought with them a highly sophisticated communications suite called the “shipboard carry on/carry off super high frequency system,” which can easily be installed in or taken off a vessel. Special operators use it to conduct unclassified, classified and top secret communications. It is equipped with a system called Giant that allows them to talk with other special operations units and also has an additional capability to talk to coalition and NATO partners.
The SOFLE concept was originally dreamed up by former SOCOM Adm. William McRaven and former Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos, Christian said. For the second proof of concept, a Navy SEAL will take the leadership role that was held by Christian. SOCOM might tweak the mix of the team later on to include more or less communications or intelligence specialists, but will probably stick with a six-man group, he said.
Although leaders in SOCOM and the Marine Corps are supportive of establishing SOFLE as a permanent part of operations, it will be an uphill battle in this budgetary environment to get the funding to set it up.
“It would cost some money,” Christian acknowledged. “I think they’re trying to figure out how much of that do you need.”
Christian and Trollinger made their remarks at an event sponsored by the Potomac Institute.