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Giving Advising its Due
Almost every conflict the United States has fought since Korea has involved advising foreign forces. In Vietnam, advising was how we got into and out of that war. In Bosnia, Kosovo, and Haiti, Americans have trained foreign units at the tactical level. In Iraq (the second time around) and Afghanistan, enabling foreign militaries to assume security responsibilities on their own has been a key part of the operational and strategic goals.
The special operations forces doing this mission, such as the US Army Special Forces and the Marine Foreign Military Training Unit, are well-resourced and given wide freedom of action. However, those units do not perform the preponderance of training and advising foreign forces in major theaters, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan. That has been the job of an assortment of conventional troops given this extraordinary mission.
The final success in those campaigns does not rest upon the battlefield victories of large American units. It rests in the abilities of host nation security forces. Good advisors, increasing the capabilities of host nations, are worth many times their numbers in line units.
In spite of this fact, the selection, training, and employment of advisors does not reflect either the stated or actual importance of the mission.
For example, most of advisor team leaders assigned to advise Afghan commanders of battalion-level or higher are greatly different from those assigned to command American battalions. An American battalion commander is board selected, once to be a lieutenant colonel and again to be a commander. After he completes his tour as a commander, he will likely attend a top level school, be it the Army War College or the Marine Corps War College, followed by another tour in a high-level staff before being promoted to colonel.
By comparison, the advisor to a host nation commander may as well be randomly selected. He could be an officer just finishing a tour at an operational unit, waiting for the three years he needs to move. He could be an officer passed-over for promotion. He could be basically anyone.
The rest of his advisor team was likely also grabbed from units for any number of similar reasons. His officers were those who, at best, happened to be between assignments, and at worst, were those who were unneeded or unwanted at their home units, be that for them getting out of the military or for being on a commander’s excrement list. His enlisted were also likely not in key billets or crucial to their home units.
In addition, save for a few select billets, such as logistics or communications, most advisors are not working within their specialties, so they are losing credibility within their community every day they are on the job. Advisor duty is not seen as a career-enhancing or broadening billet.
As currently designed, advisor duty is not going to attract the sort of individual that the military institution values. Nor does it promote those individuals within the institution afterwards. That shows the priority associated with it, and that the grand words given honoring the importance of host nation security forces are just that. Words. Making an effort to professionalize advisor duty will greatly increase its effectiveness.
Several steps can be taken to professionalize advisors within the conventional forces of the US military. Those start by holding the duty in high esteem. Typically, advisor teams are organized one grade below the unit they are advising—teams led by majors advise battalion-level elements, those led by lieutenant colonels advise regimental-level elements, and so on. Lieutenant colonels advising large units should be selected for advisor duty by a formal board, just as lieutenant colonels are selected for battalion command. Only those lieutenant colonels who have previously served as advisors should be considered to lead advisor teams at the regimental-level or higher. Upon completing a tour leading a regimental-level advisor team, they should be eligible for top level schools and considered for colonel alongside their line commander counterparts. Over time, having an additional track for assession to the senior ranks will encourage top officers to volunteer for advisor duty.
At lower levels, advisor duty should not be viewed as just a way to finish out a three or four-year tour. It should count as equivalent to any other tour outside of a line unit. This should include precepts given to promotion boards directing them to consider the importance and unique challenges of this work. For enlisted, being an advisor should be regarded as highly as working on the drill field or recruiting. For officers, an advisor tour should be regarded as equivalent to attending career or intermediate-level school, or to an instructor tour in one’s specialty. Advisor duty is as relevant to warfighting as any other job—it teaches the skills modern warfare requires, including tactical proficiency, cross-cultural skills, and appreciation for the operational and strategic levels of conflict.
Increasing the rewards, and in turn the respect, given advisors will serve to make it a desired billet, increasing the caliber of those assigned. Furthermore, by increasing the promotability of those with advisor experience, the military will better institutionalize both the lessons and importance of advising.
This is not a free ride. Advisors need to be given more rewards, but the expectations need to be greater as well, both in training, in theater, and afterward.
Outside of the special operations forces for whom foreign forces assistance is a way of life, the training given to most advisor teams varies widely. A variety of local and service schools fill the training requirements for advisors. The US military needs to face reality and realize that this is a requirement that is not going away. While there may be ups and downs in terms of immediate needs, there will be a continuing requirement for qualified advisors. A dedicated joint school needs to be established for conventional forces tasked with advising and training foreign forces, teaching the fundamentals of the trade. Additional modules can be established as add-on courses for individual theaters as necessary, but a permanent advisor course needs to be created.
If demand lulls for a period, individuals could still be sent to train and establish a qualified nucleus of potential advisors. If sufficient numbers of active duty troops are not available, then reservists can fill that gap. There are plenty of reservists looking for active duty assignments and deployments. During the periods of low demand, qualified active and reserve component troops could receive the baseline advisor training. Once a theater of interest is identified, all that would be required is for those individuals to attend follow-on culture, language, and tactical skills refresher training. This would enable advisors to enter the fight with a minimum of lead time.
While a better selection process and stronger training infrastructure are important, advisors truly earn their spurs in theater advising a foreign military unit. Often, their tours are only six or seven months. At higher echelons, this may be expanded to a year. Longer tours should become the norm for all. The first two months with a foreign unit are spent building relationships and credibility. The last month of any deployment is spent preparing for retrograde. A six month tour, then, only allows three months of actual advising. Year-long tours should be the standard.
At the completion of a year, advisors should be given an additional occupational specialty of advisor within their service’s personnel system. This would make that individual part of a permanent advisor cadre, eligible for further deployments as an advisor elsewhere, given the appropriate cultural and language training. For officers, it would also make that individual eligible for a lieutenant colonel-level advisor team command and an accompanying additional opportunity for higher commands and rank.
The selection and training of advisors are not the only things that need to change. If victory rests on the shoulders of host nation forces, then advisors need to be given the support they deserve.
In theater, advisors need to work for advisors. The advisors of a given host nation unit should report to the advisors of the next higher echelon unit whenever possible. Line units should be established as supporting, or, as appropriate, subordinate to, the advisor chain of command. While an advisor team lieutenant colonel may not have control of an adjacent American battalion, his commanding general should. If the US is unwilling to commit adequate forces to own a battlespace, it needs to acknowledge that the host nation has that responsibility. The advisors attached to that host nation unit are the tool by which American forces exert influence, and they deserve the full support of any American forces in the area to accomplish the mission. Command relationships are a prime means by which a military expresses what is important. If the host nation security forces are the center of gravity, then the Americans assisting those units need to be the focus of effort, and who is in charge needs to reflect that.
Furthermore, while most advisors are an eclectic blend of conventional troops, they are performing a special operations mission. They need to have a comparable freedom of action. They are bound by the same litany of rules and regulations as any line unit, such as the number and type of vehicles required in patrols and protective equipment requirements. For example, in OEF, American MRAPs and MATVs cannot keep up with Afghan vehicles, yet those are the only vehicles Americans are authorized to travel in. This means that advisors cannot stay with the host nation troops they are supporting. This shreds their credibility. All advisor teams need the freedom to work outside the constraints given line units, when necessary to accomplish the mission.
The words,”put up or shut up” come to mind when talking about the advisor mission. As in many things, the institutional leadership of the services exists to support the establishment they grew up in, one of line units organized in a traditional fashion. The conflicts of the future will anything but traditional. The leaders who will succeed in that environment will be those who are able to blend the conventional and the unconventional. Advisors are that bridge. Advising is not a unique one-off of a war we are leaving. It is likely the face of most conflicts we will face in the future, and it needs to be embraced. As the military shrinks, it needs to exploit every force multiplier it can, and advisors are a critical one.