Thursday, July 16, 2020

When first asked if I would volunteer to join a security force assistance brigade, my answer was a hard “no,” but after serving in one for nearly 24 months, I can say I am glad I ended up saying “yes.” Everything I thought I knew about these brigades was wrong, built on preconceived notions and scar tissue from previous experiences with the Army’s attempts at advising.

Security force assistance brigades (SFABs) have solved the staffing, training and equipping challenges that plagued the Army’s early advising efforts. Much has changed in the world since America declared its independence from the British in 1776, but one thing that has not changed is the necessity to shape the ever-changing and complex operational environment in our favor. In the era of multidomain operations, this is more important than ever.

SFABs are conventional units charged with advising foreign security forces. Many, including myself at one point, have asked: Isn’t this the job of Special Forces? It is one of 12 core activities of Special Forces, but the fact is there was/is too much advising demand and not enough Special Forces advisers, especially when it comes to advising conventional foreign security forces. This is what led then-Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Mark Milley, a former Special Forces operator himself, to establish the framework for SFABs.

In May, I finished a tour of duty with the 4th Battalion (Field Artillery), 2nd Security Force Assistance Brigade, headquartered at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. We got back from deployment to Afghanistan and Iraq at the end of 2019. I was selected to transition from Afghanistan to Iraq early in our deployment to stand up, and command, an ad hoc adviser task force supporting Operation Inherent Resolve, built exclusively of 2nd SFAB advisers.

I was against SFABs before joining one because I, like many of my peers, had a negative view of the effectiveness of early advising efforts during the global war on terror. I personally witnessed issues with military transition teams, known as MiTTs, and security force assistance teams.

Flaws in the Concept

I am in no way knocking former MiTT advisers who, against all odds, did what they could to foster the mission they were given, but I do look critically at how the teams were staffed, trained (or rather, not trained), equipped and deployed at that time. There were numerous flaws in the MiTT concept as the Army tried to roll out an advising effort in Iraq and Afghanistan to fill an identified gap.

When it came to staffing, MiTTs seemed to be a mix of active duty, reserve component and a pickup team of “borrowed manpower” from the tactical units on the ground. I experienced this firsthand when my fire support NCO was tasked to help fill a staffing shortfall on a MiTT during a deployment to Iraq in 2005–06. Keep in mind, this NCO had never met the great Americans on his MiTT before we dropped him off at their small combat outpost in Mosul in the spring of 2006.

MiTT advisers typically did not volunteer for the assignment, nor was there any clear continuity regarding the command and support relationships of these teams. We often had to ask them, “Who do you work for?” or “What, exactly, is your mission?” Before the establishment of adviser training at Fort Riley, Kansas, and Fort Polk, Louisiana, the training regimen for adviser teams was sketchy at best, with some not receiving any training. When it came to equipment, MiTTs relied primarily on theater-provided equipment or equipment from organic units in theater at the time.


Soldiers of the 2nd Security Force Assistance Brigade train at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
(Credit: U.S. Army/Maj. Jonathan Camire)

Revamp Rolled Out

After a spotty track record with MiTTs, the Army revamped the concept and rolled out security force assistance teams and an interesting program called Afghanistan-Pakistan Hands, or AfPak Hands. The assistance teams included individual augmentees and teams in varying sizes, and around 2011, they attempted to convert entire brigade combat teams into advise and assist brigades by forming a number of small security force assistance teams from the same unit. Just as with the MiTT concept, this proved challenging. It tackled a lot of the staffing and training issues along with some of the equipment issues of its predecessor, MiTTs; however, advise and assist brigades created their own challenges and/or problems.

For instance, advise and assist brigades and security force assistance teams were built primarily by leveraging all the senior NCOs and officers within a brigade combat team, stripping the leadership to deploy while leaving the soldiers and junior NCOs/officers in the rear to train. This led to a feeling of “haves and have-nots” and to disciplinary and training issues in the rear.

Not only that, but advise and assist brigades were still pulling personnel from across the Army to fill staffing gaps. While I was an observer coach/trainer at Fort Polk, one of my good friends got pulled from his observer coach/trainer job to quickly train up and form a security force assistance team scheduled to deploy with one of the brigade combat teams that had been converted to an advise and assist brigade.

This brings us to where we are now with SFABs. Early on, during the rollout of these new units, I received a call from the field artillery branch asking if I would volunteer to be part of one of these units. I said no. Then, I got a recruiting call from the 2nd SFAB commander.

It turned out to be a great call. I felt like I was being recruited for an NFL team. But as the call wound down, I prepared to give the commander my no. As I started to say “Thanks for the call,” he cut me off and basically stated, “It’s either yes or no, Dan. I need people like you on my team. Are you in or not?”

There are moments in life when you have to take a chance, and for me, this was one of those moments. I replied with a simple, “Yes, sir, I’m in!” He finished the call with, “Congratulations, Dan, welcome to the team. You made the right choice!” I remember hanging up the phone and wondering if I had.

Lessons Learned  

After nearly 24 months in the 2nd SFAB, to include a combat adviser deployment to Afghanistan and Iraq, I know I made the right choice that day. Every preconceived notion I had regarding the Army’s attempts at advising have been proven wrong with my experience in the 2nd SFAB. Sure, there is room for improvement, but for the most part, I believe the Army has finally gotten the adviser enterprise right. SFABs truly have solved the staffing, training and equipping problems of MiTTs, security force assistance teams and advise and assist brigades.

Here are some of the things the Army has gotten right with SFABs:

Staffing: The staffing problems of early advising efforts have been mitigated because SFABs are Modified Tables of Organization and Equipment-authorized, purpose-built organizations whose primary mission is to advise conventional foreign security forces. I love the fact that they are all-volunteer, and everyone goes through some type of assessment and selection process. Everywhere I turned in the 2nd SFAB, I ran into advisers who were the No. 1 soldier in their previous unit. It was humbling to be among such a distinct group of professionals. From a “Big Army” perspective, we no longer have to tear apart brigade combat teams to form hybrid adviser units, which in the past caused readiness issues across the board.

Training: SFABs have solved the training problem with standardized adviser training and have expanded the ability for advisers to get specialty schools and unique training opportunities. When I was charged to stand up an ad hoc adviser task force in Iraq with 2nd SFAB advisers, I could rest easy knowing everyone in my unit, regardless of what 2nd SFAB battalion they came from, had the same baseline adviser skills and training. This proved invaluable and allowed us to hit the ground running.

Equipping: SFAB Modified Tables of Organization and Equipment are built with the latest weaponry and communications equipment. In addition, SFABs have personnel on staff whose job it is to streamline procurement and issue additional equipment deemed necessary to accomplish distributed adviser missions.

Threlkeld Chopper.jpg

A member of the 2nd Security Force Assistance Brigade during the unit’s 2019 Afghanistan deployment.
(Credit: U.S. Army/Maj. Jonathan Camire)

Room for Improvement   

Where do we go from here? My experience in the Army has taught me that you need to think critically about how to improve yourself and your organization. As I depart the 2nd SFAB after an amazing ride, here are some recommendations to continue to improve the Army’s fledgling adviser enterprise:

• Rapid Modified Tables of Organization and Equipment changes: SFABs must be able to rapidly change their Modified Tables of Organization and Equipment regarding both equipment and personnel. Since I have been in the 2nd SFAB, there have been multiple attempts to change the tables, and some have been successful, though only after significant wrangling. SFABs need the flexibility to rapidly adjust their formations (personnel and equipment) to the ever-changing environment.

• SFAB assessment and selection: Everyone needs to attend an in-person assessment and selection program. Not everyone can be an adviser, and that is OK, but we need to see that up front. In the current construct, all potential SFAB advisers are interviewed before being accepted into an SFAB, but only pre-key developmental officers and NCOs are required to attend an in-person assessment and selection program.

• Better integration and/or communication with Special Forces and other government agencies: The SFAB enterprise is pretty good at this, but it must continue to build relationships with the Special Forces community and other government agencies as SFABs start to support geographic combatant commanders with small distributed adviser operations around the globe.

• Attached infantry/security force: SFABs are deliberately lean on personnel and have limited ability to secure themselves. Attached infantry is the current method to solve this problem. As the Army’s adviser enterprise expands, it is worth seeing whether the Army could make the SFAB and its attached infantry more of a habitual relationship. This could be done through aligning the same active-duty or National Guard unit with an SFAB for deployment support and training. Having the same organization tie in for periodic training events would build the relationship and codify employment techniques when their soldiers provide support to adviser teams during operational and/or combat deployments. The 2nd SFAB’s attached infantry battalion tied into our training plan early, which was beneficial. One thing to note is that not all SFAB deployments require attached infantry, but the option is always needed.

The Army has gotten it right with SFABs. Like everything, there are areas to improve, but SFABs have helped solve the challenges of early adviser efforts. If you are skeptical, like I once was, maybe you should give SFABs a second look and take a chance. It will only make you better.