A New Breed of Advisory Team: Security Force Assistance Brigades to Collaborate With Special Operations Forces
In 2016, the U.S. Army assigned the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, to advise and assist the Iraqi Army in its efforts to retake Mosul. Adding to the complexity of the mission, the brigade was headquartered out of a Kurdish peshmerga-controlled base. The brigade had to bridge the gap between the two rival religious sects and ethnic factions to retake the city. Formerly enemies, the two forces were armed, living on the same base and planning combined offensive operations to combat Islamic State fighters in Mosul. The U.S. soldiers did not take the lead—they trained, advised and assisted the Iraqis and Kurds to plan and conduct their own counterinsurgency mission. This is an example of future warfare for the U.S. Army: an indigenous force enabled, and providing indigenous solutions.
Despite the brigade’s success, a bigger task loomed: resetting its operational readiness by retraining the brigade on its core competency—decisive action in ground combat. This process will delay the U.S. Army’s ability to utilize the brigade combat team as a warfighting formation. Clearly, the Army needs a dedicated element to build a partner-nation institutional defense capability without interfering with America’s ability to defeat adversaries in armed conflict.
In response to that need, the chief of staff of the Army intends to build a dedicated team of advisers who will be assigned to security force assistance brigades (SFABs).
In today’s hyperconnected world, where a person on a laptop, tablet or smart device has the ability to shape perceptions and create a paradigm-shifting narrative, the U.S. Army must adapt its warfighting capability to address such challenges. The Army’s decision to focus on security force assistance to build, organize, train and advise indigenous forces is a move in the right direction. The ability to enable indigenous solutions to indigenous problems, while preserving the most dominant and lethal maneuver ground force, better postures the Army to respond to threats across the globe. The collaborative effort of SFABs and special operations forces (SOF) is key to winning in a complex world.
While the nature of war remains unchanged—a clash of contested wills—the character of war is changing. Examples of change are apparent with events like the Arab Spring, the spread of al-Qaida and the Islamic State’s narrative, and the ability to hyperconnect, motivate and inspire common-minded people with a simple keystroke. The changing character of war presents a propensity for future conflicts to be irregular in nature. A recent RAND Corp. study suggests this change is due to two reasons: the U.S. overmatch in conventional and nuclear capability, and because state and nonstate actors can often achieve their ends using lower-cost means. As retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales suggests in Scales on War: The Future of America’s Military at Risk, we are entering a shift in classical centers of gravity from the will of governments and armies to the perceptions of populations. In today’s complex environment, adversaries thrive in pockets of instability and uncertainty. Security force assistance, through persistent engagements—shaping theaters in Phase 0 through Phase 2—remains a viable solution to maintaining a pulse on emerging challenges.
No matter the platform—social media, forums, blogs—the human domain remains a key common denominator for future engagements. SFABs, in concept, will deploy to the same region and build relationships and trust with foreign military partners. As Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster wrote in 2015, the cultural, social, economic, religious and historical considerations that comprise the human aspects of war must inform wartime planning, as well as our preparation for future armed conflict. The Army invests wisely in the cultural, language, tactical and technical expertise for SOF to advise and train indigenous forces. While special operators are not optimized to build armies, they are designed to optimize indigenous solutions. SFABs provide an opportunity for conventional and special operations forces to increase collaborative efforts achieved during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The U.S. can use SFABs and SOF to shape outcomes of competition prior to full-scale conflict. Containment, mitigation, formal negotiated settlements, informal power-sharing, or elections and constitutional charters are all outcomes that may be sought without waging war. SFABs and SOF will work with geographical combatant commands and theater special operations commands to provide a tactical perspective of the human domain, which could yield enduring strategic effects.
Strength in Collaboration
The U.S. cannot degrade its warfighting capability. Recent trends of China’s military expansion, an increasingly unpredictable North Korea, Russia’s attempt to re-emerge as a Soviet-era superpower, Iran’s influence in much of the Middle East, and the role of nonstate actors limit traditional forms of deterrence due to their hybrid employment of conflict short of war. The U.S. must retain a dominating and lethal joint combined arms maneuver capability worldwide to deter or defeat potential adversaries. Creating SFABs will adequately preserve that capability as a readily available asset unencumbered by alternative missions. Composed of staff sergeants and above, the current plan for SFABs seeks to keep brigade combat teams intact, maximizing training and readiness levels in their core competencies. SFABs and SOF can and will contribute to dominating in Phase 3, if traditional conflict becomes necessary.
The human networks that SOF create and enable during persistent engagements, coupled with the regional and cultural experience of the embedded SFABs, will enhance warfighting capabilities. SFABs can assist with shaping the battlefield for victory, or potentially possess the capability to fight and win, independent of brigade combat teams when operational conditions allow.
Special operations forces succeed by their ability to adapt and survive in alien cultures. They are specially selected and highly trained to operate and compete in environments of uncertainty and ambiguity. While advising indigenous forces, special operators constantly plan for contingencies, build human infrastructure, increase senior leaders’ situational understanding of the environment, and remain poised to conduct a change of mission. SOF formations accomplish their tasks through deep knowledge and understanding of the local environment and the ability to solve problems through an indigenous approach.
The SFAB concept has several commonalities with special operations forces, although it is clearly not intended to be a replacement or a duplicative effort. Along with advising allied forces, SFABs will provide partner armies institutional development, build partner capacity and enable local solutions to local challenges. These new brigades must be prepared to operate outside of the fully manned platoon, company and battalion formation. Inside the security cooperation umbrella, some security force assistance missions may be restricted to smaller teams advising partner forces, without a degradation in performance or security. Typical of a SOF formation, SFABs pre-positioned with local partners’ armies can maintain a pulse on emerging challenges and inform senior leaders during planning prior to Phase 3. The unique qualities of both the SFAB and SOF should encourage each formation to collaborate to maximize resources, training efforts and operational effectiveness.
Finally, in the event of an immediate need to expand force structure, the Army could rapidly add soldiers to SFABs and transition them to become a combat entity, much like a brigade combat team. This is not a small point. The U.S. Army force structure has fluctuated throughout history. Rapidly expanding the force does not come without cost because the talent required for complex operations necessitates years of practice, wisdom and experience. In the event of rapid growth, the SFAB would serve as a repository of senior talent that would mitigate the vulnerabilities of adding new formations.
The SFAB concept has the potential to be the optimal application of conventional forces and SOF interdependence, integration and interoperability. The U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence and the Special Operations Center of Excellence currently partner on several key initiatives that breathe life into the SFAB. In addition to the SFAB and the Military Advisor Training Academy training at Fort Benning, Ga., soldiers travel to Fort Bragg, N.C., to the Special Operations Center of Excellence for foreign weapons training. The program of instruction developers and trainers ensure best practices are replicated in the SFAB/Military Advisor Training Academy development. All centers of excellence, the U.S. Army Forces Command, the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, DoD, and the U.S. Army Human Resources Command are collaborating in planning efforts to stand up the SFAB and Military Advisor Training Academy.
Lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan demand more interdependence, integration and interoperability. The Special Operations Center of Excellence attached SOF liaisons to most Army centers of excellence to enhance SOF application across the Army enterprise and enable doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel and facilities integration. SOF cells are attached to Training and Doctrine Command and Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and are increasingly active in Army warfighter exercises. Conventional and special operations forces continue to train together at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., and the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., to enhance operational understanding while maintaining readiness.
Through effective planning efforts, SFABs and SOF will set the conditions to achieve habitual relationships. Sharing regional alignment allows synchronization of training objectives and for maximum collaboration. SFABs and SOF can focus mission analysis to understand power brokers and critical infrastructure during collective training, as each organization learns local grievances that challenge regional stability. SFABs and SOF will be the foundation of progressive training that integrates these organizations and executes true combined arms maneuver. Training management cycles and deployment schedules will be nested to maximize persistent engagements throughout regions. The Army’s ability to enable local solutions to local problems early is critical in today’s operational environment.
Investing in Human Capital
Perhaps the most important element of this new concept is the investment of the Army into each future SFAB soldier. These brigades will consist of staff sergeants and above from all branches, which will form the regionally focused advising battalions. The concept is intuitive—give senior NCOs, warrant officers and commissioned officers the skills necessary to train indigenous forces. Training includes language and culture, working with the U.S. Embassy, and foreign weapons. For example, take a gunnery sergeant artilleryman who has completed platoon time, and teach them language and culture at the Military Advisor Training Academy. Then allow that artilleryman to deploy to their region of expertise to advise an allied element on proper gunnery technique, emplacement of howitzers, etc. A SOF operator with experience within the same region can assist the artilleryman with methods that maximize advisory efforts, despite not having the howitzer expertise of the artilleryman. Additionally, with future security force assistance corps and divisions, the Army will have the ability to assist in allied partners’ visualization of operational art as well as ministerial-level development.
As highlighted in Scales on War, the U.S. Army’s strategic success will depend on its ability to create armies from “whole cloth.” We must select, promote and put into positions of power those who know how to build armies. Talent management is of utmost significance. Soldiers selected and trained must demonstrate empathy and cultural acuity for allied partners and understand the problem set from their partner’s perspective. With longevity and regional rotational employment, SFAB soldiers will backstop skills learned in a classroom with deep experiences, unlocking the full potential of the human domain through persistent engagements. Soldiers will gain the ability to move comfortably among indigenous cultures to establish trust and cement solid relationships to win on the battlefield.
The Army is also investing in SOF participation within the SFAB. Qualified Special Forces officers and NCOs have the ability to compete for brigade and battalion commands and command sergeants major as a second command opportunity. Additionally, SOF senior officers and NCOs are slated for key locations within the Military Advisor Training Academy and the Capabilities Management Directorate. Former advisers can shape and train future advisers.
SOF operators are deployed globally building partner capacity and enabling indigenous solutions to regional or transregional challenges. Each operator wakes up understanding that they must think critically through ambiguity. The SOF and SFAB soldier must remain ready to conduct key leader engagements, advise partner force leaders on the second and third order effects of their decisions and operations, and assist with humanitarian efforts, all while having a plan to fight for their lives. This is not a new concept, but rather a renewal of an old capability. The U.S. recognized the need for advisory training to prepare soldiers for Vietnam and started the process at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School in 1965–66. The U.S. has a long and able history of creating effective fighting forces in the Philippines, Greece, Korea, Vietnam, El Salvador and Colombia.
The complexity of the world today requires soldiers with empathy, wisdom and experience who can build trust and relationships with indigenous forces who will extend the United States’ operational and strategic reach.