The Definition of Advisor: Comprehending the Mission to Advise Foreign Security Forces
Edward E. Brown
Military writing requires that the bottom line be stated up front. Here is the bottom line: an advisor is a person lawfully tasked and employed to provide expert advice and counsel to Foreign Security Force officials, representatives, and influencers; through the establishment or continuance of interpersonal relationships founded on mutual trust and respect.” For some reading this, that definition may seem obvious; for others it may seem almost counterintuitive. Our considerably diverse comprehension of what an advisor actually is was my motivation for writing this article.
The mission to advise has existed for many years. In fact, some could argue that the United States owes its existence at least in part to an advisor named , a Prussian military expert employed by the fledgling Continental Army to train military maneuver.7 However, for this discussion I am focusing on the contemporary character of the mission in the era of the Wars on Terror (2001-present 2018).
I have already provided the bottom line, so now I need to explain how I got there. To do that, I will first reflect on a cold war era method of defining duty by exploring what it is that we expect our advisors Be, Know, and Do. I will then discuss briefly, the sources of my bottom line conclusion including a discussion on the impact of this topic. And then, I will conclude the paper by exploring what needs to be done in the interest of our sustained national security.
What the Advisor Must Be
Be, Know and Do were oft-repeated concepts applied to defining leaders and leadership in the 1980s and 1990s. We have since adjusted how we envision leaders to be more flexible and adaptive than the comparatively rigid terms of the cold war. Still, perceiving a person's role or duty in these simple terms can be helpful to understanding it; and as I will reveal, how we perceive the advising mission greatly impacts the lives of the people we send to perform the mission and the families that support them. Current U.S. military doctrine identifies twenty-six personality traits that are desirable in advisors. The list is not all inclusive, but a pattern is evident. Here are my top five from the list of what advisors must be:
Empathetic - The single most important trait of those tasked to advise foreign security forces is empathy, the ability to sense, predict, and adjust to the feelings, ideas, and motivations of the people that they are tasked to interact with in the performance of their duties. Notice, I did not limit this trait to interaction with the foreign security force counterpart. No, empathy is a trait that enables the advisor to productively interact not only with the foreign force, but also others that have an impact on the advisor’s mission. All the other traits depend on the advisor’s capacity for empathy to leverage them; which is why I selected it as my number one, most critical “Be” of advising.
Humble – This is a very tough trait for military members, especially those tasked with leading formations of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, or Marines. I recall being taught to never show deference or meekness in any form. It is not unreasonable; people need to see confidence and resolve in those that lead them. The trait of audacity is actually highly regarded and desired in maneuver officers because it is often needed to seize and exploit opportunities in battle. For the advisor, overt audacity can become a barrier to gaining the trust and respect of the foreign security force, especially when working with members of the FSF or foreign government that may be senior in age or rank to the advisor. Here’s the twist - effective advisors perceive interpersonal interactions like maneuver commander’s perceive terrain. The traits that enable success as a leader in battle are all leveraged by the advisor, the difference is that the advising role is different. The advisor is not the “leader” and so he (quite deliberately) differs to his counterpart to be the audacious and influential leader. This may occur on the actual battlefield, or in a meeting with other influencers in which the counterpart needs to be assertive. In any case, the advisor tempers his passion and routinely sacrifices personal glory for the edification of the counterpart. I have to stress that being humble is not just occasional. The advisor must train it into their personality so that it can be used when needed and suppressed when necessary.
Visionary – In many cases, the advisor is working with the Foreign Security Force to build their capacity to perform their jobs. The advisor has to be able to visualize success rather than focus on apparent limitations. This trait is also essential in working with interagency or multinational partners. Many times, the advisor’s vision may be the only guide available achieve unity of effort and purpose between the foreign security force, the U.S., and the supporting coalition partners.
Diplomatic – Most military members did not sign up to be diplomats. At least not in the “let’s get to know each other” sense; however, this is exactly what an effective advisor has to be. Like it or not, our advisors are de facto diplomats, representing the U.S. to the foreign forces that they work with, booth coalition and host nation. The advising mission can be particularly challenging in this regard. Careful consideration must always be given to the perceptions of all those involved in the collective effort to build the capacity of the host nation security forces. The trait of empathy enables and enhances effective diplomatic behavior. I told you empathy was important.
Self-Aware – In some ways, being advisor calls for an individual to many things to many people. It is all too easy to become lost in the effort. Am I doing this right, did I do that right, what do they think of me, can become overwhelming if not checked by the advisor’s sense of self; and confidence in their purpose and actions. As previously mentioned, displaying humility and having confidence are not mutually exclusive traits. But to do them, you have to be very comfortable in your own skin. Know you mission, know your job, own them. These guides help the advisor maintain awareness during the mission and withstand the inevitable highs and lows of advising.
There are two other traits that are essential but not on the doctrinal list: patient and faithful. Patience is essential for the advising mission because in many cases the goals that the advisor is working with the foreign security force to achieve will not be realized during the advisor’s time on the mission. The advisor must be patient enough to accept that they may not be there to see the fruits of their labors. In addition, the advisor will need patience to deal with the frustrations of the coalition when the commanders are unhappy with the foreign security force, and only has the advisor to vent their frustrations to.
Faithful – I am talking about believing in something bigger than yourself. It may be faithfulness in the U.S. or faithfulness in the military branch or organization that the advisor is a part of. It may, as in my case, be faith in God and in His purpose for placing me in the role of advising a foreign security force. Whatever the case, the advisor must have something to believe in and hold onto during the tumult of the advising mission. The advisor needs a social, spiritual, and emotional anchor. This is essential to their success.
What the Advisor Must Know
As of November 2018, despite two decades of advising missions in numerous locations around the world and hundreds of thousands of individuals deployed to advise or support advisors; there is still no advisor training integrated into professional military education for any branch of the military. There are a number of “schools” designed to provide just in time training for some, but not all advisors and there is no link between the training provided to Department of State personnel and Department of Defense personnel effectively working the same mission of building defense and security institutions within host nations. Why? We have approached advising as an ad hoc mission and not an enduring operational capacity requirement. However, I propose that is just what advising is. The skills needed to be an effective advisor are so distinct from conventional military training that they must be deliberately trained at all levels to maintain the capacity needed to achieve U.S. National Security strategic goals, but that is a topic for later. For now, here is what an advisor must know.
Advisors must know their military skill set. Advising as a task is providing expert advice and counsel to a foreign security force counterpart to help them make decisions. This can only be achieved if the advisor truly is a subject matter expert. Quality advisors have a passion for their jobs. They do it because they like it. They aren’t the guys complaining about the job around the water cooler, they are the ones going about their duties with an air of typically understated joy and enthusiasm. They are more likely to suppress their enthusiasm for a mission than to openly express it so that they do not inadvertently depress their co-workers that may be “mourning the moment”. The person possessing the traits of an advisor is more likely motivated by long-term outcomes more than "quick wins”. You may be able to relate to being able to do something very well, even though you don’t particularly enjoy it. Ideal advisors may not be the apparent best performers of a particular job, but they are likely among the most consistent and proficient at it. They may not always be the award winner; but they are always near if not at the top, and always reliable. Personnel that possess and demonstrate the traits of an advisor are often likely to enable or support the achievements of their team members over their own. They are also less likely to take credit for positive outcomes if they influenced or caused them; and more likely to take responsibility for deficiencies (regardless of fault) to protect the integrity and morale of their teams. As previously mentioned, faithfulness is a critical advisor trait.
Advisors have to be able to distinguish their job skill from the job of advising. Being a subject matter expert does not equate to being an effective advisor. There is a difference between being a maneuver commander and the act of coaching, teaching, or advising a maneuver commander. Advising is a separate and distinct skill from all other military specialties with the arguable exception of special operations. The trait of humility enables the advisor to recognize the need to acquire or improve the skills needed to advise while simultaneously sustaining military skill expertise. This requirement reveals a significant challenge in building a maintaining a population of skilled advisors, how to employ personnel as advisors while keeping them proficient in their military skills. Consider that an armor crewman spends approximately two thirds of the year training for either combat or replicated combat in a validation exercise; when would there be time to serve as an advisor and still be a proficient crewman? It can be done, but it requires a deliberate plan, supported by the branch of service or organization. Of course, this assumes that the advisor will be called on to build capacity relative to their military skill. In other words, infantry advisors will be employed to advise infantry operations; but this is an invalid assumption. In instances wherein the host nation’s current capacity is comparatively low; the advisor may instead be employed to advise basic operations rather than operations equivalent to their specific skill level or specialty.
Finally, the advisor must know how to teach.10 Transferring knowledge is indeed a separate skill, one that dedicated educators spend years perfecting. In most cases, the advisor will not have time to become a professional educator, but the basics of facilitating human learning can be developed. Each branch of service has an established program for training institutional faculty in formal training development. Knowledge of these processes can be invaluable to advisors as they work to transfer not only their personal knowledge, but the knowledge of other subject matter experts to the foreign security force. By now you might be thinking that this sounds absurd. Are we really expecting advisors to develop not one or two, but three (or more) distinct skills; just to do the apparently thankless job of advising? Yes. That is exactly what I am saying. Let me share what this looks like for the seemingly hapless advisor: the advisor assesses that the foreign security force needs to acquire a capacity that it doesn’t have and is not within the advisor's field of expertise. The advisor researches possible solutions, references books, consults with other SMEs, conducts meetings and working groups, etc.; all to understand the problem well enough to offer valid solutions and advice. If a skilled trainer or teacher is not available to teach and coach the skill on behalf of the advisor, the advisor must learn and master the skill themselves, well enough to teach it to the counterparts. Finally, the advisor must evaluate the change in capacity by observing the counterpart execute or implement the new skill. And by the way, the advisor often is required to do this discretely, without appearing to tell the sometimes more senior counterpart “how to do something” as that might be insulting (see empathy and humility above). If done skillfully, knowledge can be effectively transferred without compromising the relationship, in fact, it usually improves the relationship by building trust in the advisors expertise by the counterpart. However, no one will ever know the extensive work that was put into planning and executing the transfer of knowledge.
What the Advisor Must Do
This next part comes straight from the book, which I personally think is pretty well-written.1 Advisors have a number of roles, but some are more common than others. The first thing an advisor must do is…advise.
Advising is providing expert advice and counsel to help in decision making, but how? Typically, by coaching and teaching the foreign security force. Coaching usually means providing constructive feedback to improve performance. Teaching, as discussed involves transferring and assessing knowledge. This may sound a lot like training, but they are not synonymous. No relationship is required for training. As a recruit at Fort Knox, Kentucky in the Armor school, in 1992, I remember the instructor that first taught me how to hold and fire a pistol. His name was Sergeant First Class (SFC) Brownlee. He taught with infectious exuberance. He succeeded in capturing and keeping the attention of hundreds of recruits every day and teaching them how to effectively fire the M9 9mm Berretta pistol; but I am fairly certain that SFC Brownlee would not know me from any of my fellow recruits then or now. There was no interpersonal relationship built on trust. It was just a day on the range. Highly effective training and transfer of knowledge, yes; advising, no. Training happens now and is then over. Advising is lasting and persistent. It is enduring. Advisors are almost inevitably required to be trainers, but trainers are not necessarily advisors. I scored expert in my pistol class, by the way. I arrived at the range having never held a weapon before. I left a qualified expert marksman. That is effective training.
The U.S. Army Civil Affairs community categorizes operational environments as either permissive, uncertain, or hostile. This template works well for expressing the roles that advisors often perform, depending on the environment that they are working in. The advisor’s role often shifts based on the environment; that is, how capable the foreign security force is and how secure the host nation is. (see figure). For permissive environments, the advisor’s primary role is essentially liaison between the foreign security force and the U.S. The advisor will likely provide relatively little, if any support to the foreign security force of a legitimate governing authority that is capable of securing the local population. However, the ability to advise remains a significant aspect of the mission. Often in permissive environments, advisors work in very small teams or even alone, and possess subject matter expertise suitable to the host nation security force. In some cases, the advisor is principally facilitating security assistance programs or working as part of a combined DoD / DoS effort supporting the country team or embassy.
Figure 1: Advisor Roles by Operational Environment Type
For Uncertain environments the advisor is often working to stabilize the host nation against growing regional or internal threats. In these environments; advising, coaching, and teaching are essential to increasing the capacity of the host nation to overcome threats and retain legitimacy. There may also be concerns of threats to human rights or other concerns sufficient to merit intervention by non-government organizations. Advisors are relied upon to provide current and accurate assessments of the foreign security force to strategic decision makers to help prevent further instability in the host nation.
Hostile environments often occur when a state is severely challenged to maintain governance over the population or to secure it from threats. Security forces may be non-existent or lack sufficient capacity to be a creditable fighting force. In these environments, advising is critical to building capacity, but security concerns have to be addressed first. To do this, advisors provide a direct link between the foreign security force and the war fighting capacity of the U.S. and/or coalition in the area. The U.S. and/or coalition provides combat power to ensure there enough security to regain or maintain legitimacy of the host nation government and to build the foreign security force capacity enough for it to match or overmatch the threat.
In all environments, advisors provide liaison, access to U.S. assets for support, assessment of the foreign security force’s capacity and interoperability; and provide advice and counsel to foreign security force decision makers and influencers. But there are two other essential actions that an advisor must do: build teams and exert influence without authority. Competent advisors spend considerable energy teaching themselves new skills, but no one can know everything. Advisors leverage other subject matter experts to provide the depth of knowledge needed to build the capacity of the foreign security force. Often, the help needed is not a part of the advisor’s chain of command or even from the same branch or organization as the advisor. The advisor solicits the input experts and authorities from other-government organizations, non-government organization, the international community, the interagency, etc. In short, wherever the requisite information is, the advisor finds it and provides it to the foreign security force as needed. Again, the tenacity and audaciousness instilled during the advisor’s development as a warfighter enables him to visualize unconventional solutions and recruit the support of external enablers; perhaps even other countries. However, the advisor may leverage the trait of humility to gain commitment from enablers that the advisor has no authority over. Successful advisors build teams of experts that can meet the foreign security force’s developmental needs.
Who Says What an Advisor Is?
The Congress and President of the United States says so.5 There are numerous legislative directives that effectively create the advising mission; but perhaps the two most significant today is Title 10 U.S. Code for the Armed Services; Title 22 for Foreign Relations; and most recently, and the FY 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Collectively, this body of legislation authorizes and funds Security Cooperation; which in turn entails other programs and activities that necessitate sustained collaboration with foreign security forces. These are all “big picture” strategic documents. They discuss actions that include and effect the entire government and population, with strategic and international effects. The advising mission is the result of these and related directives. Although not specifically named or defined in these documents, they imply that someone will have to serve as the representative of U.S. interests in these matters with each foreign security force that we interact with.
Even though the mission to advise is not new, the doctrine that defines, relatively is. Prior to 2004, perhaps the only U.S. Army doctrine specifically devoted to advising was the Special Forces Advisor Guide. That document became the principal reference for operationalizing the mission to advise in the early years of the War on Terrorism. The SF Guide was referenced to determine what conventional forces tasked to advise would receive as part of their pre-deployment training. Essentially, it prescribed training in human behavior, rapport building, influencing, negotiations, cross-cultural competence; pre-supposing skills in training and occupational specialty expertise.
It is interesting to note that Security Cooperation, Security Assistance, Foreign Internal Defense, Building Partner Capacity, Institutional Capacity Building, etc. are all defined in their respective generating policies, laws, and documents; however the essential task that facilitates these activities is heretofore not formally defined in any DoD publication, thus the definition offered in this paper is intended to inform and enable the entire U.S. Security Cooperation community of interest to communicate the advising mission uniformly.
I would be remiss not to point out the distinction between the definition that I offer and those of notable authors and well-respected academics in the field of international security, specifically, the seminal academic work on advising outside of the DOD; “Strategic Advising in Foreign Assistance: A Practical Guide” by Dr. Nadia Gerspacher. To achieve U.S. strategic goals, advising must be executed at all levels of war and across all elements of both combat power and governance. Particularly in hostile and uncertain environments, development of partner nation capacity is needed below just the executive functions of the national government. Institutions well below the national level will often require some level of coaching, teaching, or advising to achieve viability. In short, effective advising is deliberate advising. Advisors always have a vision, if not a plan to guide their works with the security force. As I said, being visionary is essential to the advisor.
Who Cares How We Define “Advisor”?
Those who serve as advisors and their families care how we define advisor. This includes military and civilian members in all branches of the U.S. Government as well as contracted personnel serving as advisors under Title 10, 22, or other U.S. authorities. All of us are obligated to represent the U.S. and place the strategic objectives that mandated our employment first in our efforts to build partner nation capacity. Some environments are relatively stable, but often the work of the advisor is done in areas of considerable instability. As I write this, three U.S. military personnel have been killed working as advisors in Afghanistan in as many months. This is not an insignificant number by any means. These were not combatants engaged in decisive action force-on-force combat. These were people working for the sole purpose of increasing the capacity of a foreign country to protect first protect itself and optimally others from threats within their borders and region. The advisors weren’t aggressing or attacking. They weren’t maneuvering to suppress, kill, or destroy, or any of a number of other tactical mission tasks. They were advising. They were working to build and sustain interpersonal relationships with foreign security force counterparts to help them make decisions and build their competence, capacity, commitment, and confidence in defense of their country. It matters in the extreme that we thoroughly understand what their duty was and what it meant to undertake. We have to thoroughly communicate exactly what we are asking of those that serve as advisors and we must be able to well, consistently, truthfully, and accurately communicate that mission to the American people.
The American economy cares. Regardless of differing opinions on propriety and method, there is substantial revenue in U.S. sales to foreign militaries. Aside from the impact that advisors have on the economy, foreign military sales is also an integral part of the U.S. National Security Strategy. According to the U.S. State Department fact sheet, arms transfers increased 18% in 2018, contributing billions of dollars to the U.S. economy.9 Security Assistance programs like Foreign Military Sales (FMS) and International Military Education and Training (IMET) require networks of offices in the interagency to manage and implement. Often, it is the advisor that recognizes and proposes opportunities for U.S. military equipping to partner nations, particularly when increasing the ability of the partner nation to operate with U.S. or NATO forces, i.e. "interoperability" is a goal of the effort to build the partner's capacity. At the point of delivery of this training and equipment, there is also person, tasked to represent the interests of the United States and to provide advice and counsel on the employment and implementation of newly gained capacity. In other words, advisors enable effective transfers of military training and equipment to foreign defense and security forces, thus enabling the increased revenue from U.S. Security Assistance programs.
Partner nations in the international community also need to know what the U.S. means when it asks them to provide advisors to support missions bi-lateral or multi-lateral defense missions. Of course, in these cases; the goals of the U.S. and the partner nation are aligned. Both desire the same increase in the host nation’s capacity and both are working to advance the goals of the coalition that executes the mission. Currently there is some inconsistency between what the U.S. expects of advisors and what is communicated by elements of our most substantial international organization, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Like the U.S., current NATO doctrine discusses “advising” but does not define the “advisor”. (Allied Joint Publication 3.16) At least in part, the U.S. may be propagation of the undefined term “advisor”. As the U.S. is often the lead troop or funds contributing nation to many multinational efforts, the U.S. has been and remains in a position of considerable influence in defining the terms figuratively and literally for the missions; thus again emphasizing the need to standardize our collective comprehension of the advisor and the advising mission.
According to U.S. military doctrine, advising is a part of “irregular warfare”. This categorization implies that advising is done only in environments of violent struggles for legitimacy and influence over populations. Although advising may fit into this category (even when there isn’t violent struggle; i.e. permissive environments), we should not consider advising as exclusively “irregular” or “special”. As the U.S. acts to provide greater national and global security, advising is not only a task executed by conventional forces, it is an essential task for all regionally aligned forces. In short, everyone needs to have some forma training in advising as a part of their professional military education. As a military mission, advising may be irregular, but it is certainly not uncommon. Of course, there still must be Special Forces advising, but that is often executed under substantially different authorities with different and specific goals. However, institutional capacity building is sufficiently essential and broad enough to warrant the generation of a sustained conventional capacity to conduct advising missions in support of each Global Combatant Command. Just as a competent advisor might recognize the need and opportunity for enhancement of a partner nation's force generating functions; we too can recognize the need to enhance our own capacity in regard to the advising mission.
“Do not muzzle the Ox while it treads the grain”, is a centuries old Christian moral that admonishes the wise person to not make it difficult for others to help them (New International Version, Deut 25:4). For us, it means that the U.S. Government, especially the DoD and DoS must establish programs and training for advising professionals, which will help in attracting qualified and committed personnel to the advising mission. People possessing the attributes and skills required of advising are all too rare an asset. They should be identified, cultivated, and enabled to serve with the talents that they have. A competent advisor should not be forced to choose between the mission and their careers. Instead, we should develop ways of identifying and developing people with the disposition and traits to serve as advisors, including identifying a clear and competitive career progression and professional education path for them. The recently established U.S. Army Military Advisor Training Academy (MATA) is a good start, but more is needed for total advisor development. Other branches have similar capacities; including the U.S. Air Force Advisor Academy at Joint Base McGuire-Dix Lakehurst and the Marine Corps Security Cooperation Group school at Fort Story, Virginia. As stated before, advisors must be subject matter experts in their respective fields, therefore it I do not recommend making advising a specific military occupational specialty. Instead, it should be viewed as both a special skill and a functional area that that is composed of personnel from all branches of the military, and with corresponding programs in the Department of State. If done well, this will generate sufficient personnel to comprise teams of advisors from across the U.S. interagency that can be employed whenever and wherever needed to build partner nation capacity and sustain U.S. strategic objectives.
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3. Serafino, Nina M, “Security Assistance and Cooperation: Shared Responsibility of the Departments of State and Defense”, Congressional Research Service, May 26, 2016. .
4. Smiley, Morgan, “Combat Advisor Unit for Afghanistan Transition”, Small Wars Journal, accessed November 2018
5. Defense Security Cooperation Agency, “Green Book, The Management of Security Cooperation” Chapter 2: Security Cooperation Legislation and Policy, May 2018,
6. Ross, Tommy, “Congressional Oversight on Security Assistance”, Center for Strategic & International Studies, September 26, 2017,
7. National Park Service (NPS), “General von Steuben”, accessed November 10th, 2018;
8. U.S. Department of State Fact Sheet: “United States Conventional Arms Transfer Policy”, Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, April 19, 2018.
9. U.S. Department of State Fact Sheet: “U.S. Arms Transfers Rise 13 Percent in 2018, Highlighting Administration's Success Strengthening Security Partners While Growing American Jobs”, Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, November 2, 2018.
10. Gerspacher, Nadia “Strategic Advising in Foreign Assistance: A Practical Guide”, Lynne Rienner, 2016.