Small Wars Journal

Security Force Assistance Brigades: It’s About Time

Sat, 09/16/2017 - 3:00pm

Security Force Assistance Brigades: It’s About Time

Morgan Smiley

A reduced U.S. military footprint around the world coupled with an increase in state and non-state threats, whether it’s Russia, North Korea, ISIS, or AQ, has forced us to reconsider our strategy and posture.  We can’t be everywhere, nor do we want to be.  But our interests are global so we need friends and allies around the world to assist us in shaping the environment (Phase 0 efforts) in an effort to mitigate regional instability and avoid wide-scale conflict.  We’re not going to maintain large formations overseas to do this so smaller elements working with local forces will have to do.

The U.S. Army will soon officially activate its first purpose-built conventional advisor unit, the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade (1st SFAB) at FT Benning, Georgia.  This brigade will be the first of six designed specifically for security force assistance, deploying elements ranging in size from 10 to 100 or more.  In addition to standing up the SFAB, the Army has stood up a Military Advisor Training Academy (MATA) to prepare officers and NCOs for their assignment as SFAB advisors.  With a division and corps level advisor headquarters potentially on the horizon as well, it seems that John Nagl’s 2007 recommendation for an “advisor corps” is finally taking shape.

At a recent forum here, a high-ranking officer stated that security assistance (SA) is taking on a more prominent role as our overall force structure (particularly the U.S. Army) shrinks, that the new SFABs will be the way the Army addresses certain concerns related to fewer forward-based forces, and that the United States Army Security Assistance Command (USASAC), now under Army Materiel Command (AMC), may eventually shift and be aligned under the same headquarters as the new SFABs and their higher headquarters.

Were this to take place, I’m curious as to what the results would look like.  While shifting USASAC away from AMC makes sense in terms of centralizing advisory and “building partner capacity” (BPC) efforts, it would need to maintain a close relationship with AMC in order to execute and manage its functions related to the foreign military sales (FMS) process through which we help our partners build capacity.  The SFABs, though focused primarily on security force assistance (SFA), a sub-set of security assistance, may have to add small FMS teams, or at least have personnel within their organizations that are familiar with the overall process. 

If it hasn’t already done so, the Army ought to incorporate the 3-353d BN, the advisor training battalion at FT Polk, and the Security Assistance Training Management Office (SATMO) out of FT Bragg, into the MATA in order to eliminate redundancy and streamline training efforts.  Given the differences in SFA and SA, the MATA may need to be broken into two areas, one for Title 10 “combat advisors”, and one for Title 22 “military advisors”.  Both training regimens would incorporate a heavy dose of language and cultural training but the Title 22 version would also include courses in FMS and basic acquisitions fundamentals (SATMO currently handles the preparation of Title 22 advisors in a 5-day course that does not prepare them for anything beyond how to avoid offending the HN counter-part).

As demonstrated during our time in Afghanistan and Iraq, many advisor teams ended up training/advising/ assisting police and other non-military security forces as they are essential to overall security efforts.  With this in mind, SFABs ought to be able to incorporate subject matter experts (SME) from other agencies and organizations to advise and assist non-military security elements.  If Army elements are to be used in this role, let’s hope they’re given the appropriate preparation and not left to use a white board to write down everything they can about every cop show they ever saw on TV to develop a training plan (we did this in Kandahar).

Though our interests are global, mandating that we remain fully engaged with a worldwide presence, doing so with huge formations that local nationals may view as “occupiers” or at least as thoroughly undesirable neighbors, are best avoided when possible.  The growing prominence of BPC efforts through SFABs, and other small, advisory elements, should serve as an effective method for maintaining regional engagement without being overbearing, assisting others in improving their security environment, and mitigating (as much as one can) the threat of wide-scale conflict.

About the Author(s)

Morgan Smiley is a DoD civil servant and a retired U.S. Army officer.


Edited and added to slightly from my initial offering:

Context, of course, would seem to be most important in these discussions.

If this indeed is the case, then might we consider the following from a recent (September 15, 2017 no less) "Congressional Research Service" report entitled: "A Shift in the International Security Environment: Potential Implications for Defense — Issues for Congress," by Ronald O'Rourke, Specialist in Naval Affairs?:


World events have led some observers, starting in late 2013, to conclude that the international security environment has undergone a shift from the familiar post- Cold War era of the past 20 to 25 years, also sometimes known as the unipolar moment (with the United States as the unipolar power), to a new and different situation that features, among other things, renewed great power competition with China and Russia and challenges by these two countries and others to elements of the U.S.-led international order that has operated since World War II. ...

(As to this quoted item, see the "Summary.")

Some observers have stated that the world is entering a new Cold War (or Cold War II or 2.0). That term may have utility in referring specifically to U.S.-Russian relations, because the new international security environment that some observers have identified features competition and tension with Russia. Considered more broadly, however, the Cold War was a bipolar situation, while the new environment appears to be a situation that also includes China as a major competing power. ...

As noted above, some observers have used terms such as a new Cold War (or Cold War II or 2.0). Other observers have referred to the new situation as an era of renewed great power competition, a competitive world order, a multipolar era, and a disorderly world (or era). ...

(As to these last two quoted items, see Page 8.)


Two thoughts based on the above:

1. The need, the mission, the configuration, the deployment (etc., etc., etc.) of "Security Force Assistance Brigades" (or, for that matter, of the U.S./the Wests' special operations forces?) -- much like everything else today -- these to be understood now more in terms of the "international competition" security environment addressed in our Congressional Research Service report above?

2. COL Jones thoughts below, accordingly, now to be seen as being somewhat out of place; this, given that these such thoughts do not seem to take into account the above-described "international competition" security environment? (The goal of the competitors today -- much as in colonial and/or Old Cold War days -- is not "stability." Rather, then as now, the goal is power, influence and control?) In this regard, to consider the argument that:

a. If we do not act, in various locales, to "control the populations, create effective governments to serve our interest and develop security force capacity to suppress challenges to these governments,"

b. Then others (both great nations and small, and both state and non-state actors) -- in the "international competition" security environment described above and, therein, as per their own individual interests -- certainly will?

(Thus, my item 2 above to be understood more in terms of "while you may not be interested in war, war may be interested in you." Herein substituting, in the place of the word "war," the words "international competition?")

Bill M.

Sun, 09/24/2017 - 4:29pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

While I agree with many of your arguments, the army implementing this concept is hardly a strategic disaster for the U.S. The means can certainly contribute to creating a strategic disaster, but strategic disasters are generally due overly ambitious ends, and/or misaligned ends, ways, and means. The significant errors in our strategic framework reside in the ends and ways for the most part. Unfortunately, it is our own SOF community that creates confusion when they confuse “by, with, and through” as a strategic approach, or even worse as a strategy in itself. At best, it is “part” of the collective means we employ to execute to achieve strategic ends, and it should only be a means when it is appropriate.

I think we're at risk of over hyping the "it takes a global network to defeat globally networked threats." This has always been true, we fought both world wars globally, and we have been fighting terrorism globally since at least 1979. However, the operations that created effects ultimately resulting in achieving grander ends were conducted locally, and often independently from other operations being conducted around the world. Collectively global networks and "by, with, and through" are mantras that have become default courses of action without conducting the underlying analysis to actually focus on what needs to be done.

This doesn't mean we should dismiss these mantras, rather we should realize they're a miracle drug for solving all of our woes. Increased globalization facilitated by evolving information technology, and the rapid evolution in the mechanisms that integrate the global economy have increased the importance of networks, but just having a network means little in itself if we can't leverage it to achieve desired effects. Our cultural hubris leads us to assume our allies and partners share our security interests, when in fact they often don't. So when we determine our by and with approach with our often illusionary network doesn't work, what is our strategic course of action then? As you stated, have a conventional military that is ready to win our nation's wars is still paramount.

Nonetheless, we still need an enhanced advisory capability for advising partner conventional forces. I tend to think a better solution than giving this role to the Army is using contractors working for DoD or State. We can expand and contract this body of advisors as required, without impacting our war fighting capacity. However, I think uniformed personnel need to be involved in the effort, to include a boots on the ground presence leading the contractors.

Regardless of how we advise, to be successful, the effort must be informed by understanding. The strategic principle of understanding is absolutely critical to strategic success. Gaining understanding of the adversary’s order of battle or the make up a terrorist network is not strategic understanding. We need a holistic understanding of the political, social, and economic factors that influence the current situation and will influence the outcome. This should be our principle lesson observed from m Iraq and Afghanistan.

Agreed, building partner security force capacity is not a magical cure for partners who governments are threatened by instability. It is often a means disconnected from our strategic ends, and we could identify this if we actually had strategic understanding of the situation. Bottom line, we can’t simply the same template everywhere and expect a good outcome.

You’re wrong about population control, governments must and do control populations with social norms and laws that security forces enforce. Absence of these laws and subsequent control is anarchy, exactly what our operations created in Iraq and Afghanistan because we were not prepared to implement appropriate control measures. Our adversaries exploit the condition of anarchy to undermine our efforts and achieve their ends. The strategic competition in this type of conflict is about who has control of the population. The methods colonial powers used to achieve this were flawed, and our efforts to rapidly create a government that appears to be a U.S. proxy is equally flawed, so that leaves a problem that has yet to be solved. We need to state the rules (situation appropriate) and then enforce them until we transition. Society will not be able to function otherwise, and competitors will certainly step in and use a combination of terror and propaganda to organize this chaos into indigenous mass for their own purposes.

There is the world we want, and the real world. In most cases, in the real world there is no legitimate leader that all people flock to, instead there are competitors seeking control, which is then normalized under the guise of legitimacy. Sadly for us idealists, one thing Mao got right, is most (he said all) political power flows from the barrel of the gun. This is certainly true in these contested situations. Mao, Lenin, Stalin, Ho, and others killed thousands of their own citizens to establish control. We certainly don’t want to and we won't do that, but this is how they ultimately won. We need to develop a way to address this gap in our doctrine.

Robert C. Jones

Thu, 09/21/2017 - 12:02pm

This might have been a good idea 120 years ago; but it is a strategic disaster for US interests in the current strategic environment.

What strategic lessons learned have served to validate this concept?? The broad conditions of stability in Iraq and Afghanistan?? At some point we are going to have to realize that goals that made sense for colonial powers 200 years ago (control the population; create effective governments to serve your interests; develop security force capacity to suppress challenges to those governments; etc.) are not the same goals we need to seek to secure and advance our interests in the current strategic environment.

At a time when the number one driver of instability everywhere is the challenge of governments to stay in step with rapidly evolving populations; helping governments to avoid change may help preserve some particular regime, but at a cost of enhancing the conditions of insurgency within its population, and increasing the likelihood of members of that population being willing to support efforts of state and non-state UW actors to bring violence against the United States and our citizens.

Now is the time to help facilitate change with which we can live, not to double down on attempting to preserve that with which we are comfortable. We do not help allies when we enable them to act with impunity, nor do we abandon allies when we help them to evolve and become more inclusive and respectful in their governance.

At a time when we already over-engage the world militarily, the Army should be focused on developing and training our own forces necessary to deter and wage warfare with major state competitors; not on developing forces dedicated to helping allies and partners to continue to ignore the reasonable voices within their own populations demanding reasonable evolutions of governance.

Not only is this the wrong mission, this is the wrong force as well. The conventional Army has a proven track record of being overly focused in these types of missions on making others a lesser version of themselves; rather than on helping others to be the best version of their own selves. I experienced this first hand after leaving the regular army to attend law school following my team time in the 5th Special Forces Group where I had spent 7 months embedded in the Egyptian Army for the first Gulf War, as well as a 3-month stint working with our own Border Patrol Tactical Unit. Two very different FID experiences in which I learned a great deal about this challenging mission. Shortly there after, as a Battalion S-3 and Brigade Assistant S-3 in a National Guard Enhanced Infantry Brigade(EIB), I soon found myself on the receiving end of Big Army FID. It was not a pleasant experience.

The entire atmosphere of these training units sent out to work with the national guard was incredibly toxic. Little effort was made to understand the culture or to tailor training approaches designed for active units to the realities of the reserve component. The arrogance and condescension of the majority of the trainers was palpable; and once the decision was made to include EIBs in CTC rotations the situation immediately became worse. A double standard was concocted (the treatment of all leader tasks in the training manual as essential tasks), and a shift from attempting to train Guard units to be as good as they could be, to one of attempting to prove that Guard units were not good enough to squander a CTC rotation so that an active unit could go instead. They say it is "better to be pissed off than pissed on," but in my experience it felt like a good bit of both.

As I have watched the folly of attempting to "build partner capacity" as a cure to the political instability that is plaguing so many governments who overly rely upon the power of a foreign protector for their sovereignty (rather than a writ from their own population), I see all of the sins I experienced in the Guard being magnified in the creation and training of these foreign forces. (with some notable exceptions)

This is a bad idea for too many reasons to list here; but this is a conversation I am happy to have with anybody interested in better ways to address the mission of securing and advancing US interests abroad.

Dave Maxwell

Sun, 09/17/2017 - 7:26pm

I would remind everyone of the Decade of War Report published by the Joint Staff J7 in 2012 in which the idea of resurrecting the MATA course was brought up. This is why Richard Hooker and Joseph Collins titled their seminal work on Iraq and Afghanistan for NDU and the CJCS "Lesson Encountered" since we rarely learn a lesson.…

It pains me to read that this will be done at Benning vice Bragg.

Decade of War, Volume I
Enduring Lessons from the
Past Decade of Operations

Excerpts from the Decade of War Report (pages 33-34). Note the Way Ahead:

Resourcing for FID and SFA was complicated by a number of different and partially overlapping
authorities and funding streams. In Iraq and Afghanistan, myriad elements of building partner
capacity were conducted by different organizations with distinct missions and little integration
of their efforts.

Though partnering between the US and host nations helped to promote US objectives, narrowly
defined missions limited the utility of US efforts and caused friction with the host nation. For
example, in Operation Enduring Freedom – Philippines (OEF-P), the mission was limited to
targeting terrorist organizations that were affiliated with Al Qaeda (e.g., Jemaah Islamiyah [JI]
and the Abu Sayyaf Group [ASG]). US support did not extend to Philippine efforts to address
the foremost threat to the Philippine government, the Communist Party of the Philippines New
People’s Army (CPP-NPA), because they were not affiliated with al Qaeda. This created friction
between host nation and US forces and also limited the ability of the US to promote the host
nation’s capacity to achieve long-term security. 28, 29 Similarly, in Plan Colombia, helicopters
supplied by the US were only authorized to be used against counter-narcotics targets. This
created frustration and confusion about their use, since many targets were tied to counternarcotics
objectives in some way. This limitation was evident in a high profile Revolutionary
Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) attack on Colombian police, where several police were killed
because they ran out of ammunition. US-supplied helicopters were nearby but not employed to protect the police because of US-imposed restrictions on their use. This incident surfaced the nature of the restrictive guidance, and procedures were put in place to allow more flexibility in their use.

Despite these challenges, SFA, FID, and building partner capacity improved the host nation’s
ability to provide security and advance US objectives. In Iraq and Afghanistan, these tasks were
essential both to provide near-term security in order to set the conditions for longer-term
stability and to develop host-nation security forces that could sustain security in the absence
of US and coalition forces. In other countries such as the Philippines, small investments of US
Special Forces served as enablers to enhance host-nation effectiveness through FID. In Colombia,
a combined US-Colombian investment in the form of Plan Colombia helped to turn the tide
of Colombia’s dire internal security situation. The US partnered with Colombia to develop their
security capacity to the point where Colombia is now a provider of training for others in the
region. US presence and partnering also helped to focus attention on target sets that were
US priorities while avoiding the requirement for US unilateral operations.

Way Ahead:

Continue theater security cooperation activities:

Strengthen existing relationships: Build on existing political, military, and economic relationships in order to strengthen relationships, sustain influence with key partners,and build capacity.

Develop new relationships: Identify key potential partners, initiate engagement, and routinely train with them.

Re-establish training for effective partnering and advising: Re-establish a Military Assistance
and Training Advisory (MATA) course to promote effective partnering and advising. This
course should capitalize on recent lessons and Special Forces expertise with regard to FID
and SFA operations.

Promote and enhance SFA and FID training and expertise: Develop a framework to improve
SFA and FID training effectiveness across the spectrum of host-nation requirements. This should
include considerations for developing the accountability and legitimacy of host-nation forces.

Plan for an SFA surge: Develop plans for an effective SFA surge capacity to support a large-scale
capacity-building mission, including needed resources and authorities.

Shape public opinion: Develop a communication strategy that emphasizes the positive aspects
of partnering, increasing support and legitimacy for the US and host nation.

Assess efforts: Employ a comprehensive framework for conducting assessments of relevant
US and host-nation variables to understand conditions, requirements, and progress necessary
to meet national security objectives and promote needs of the host nation.

Streamline authorities for FID and SFA: Consolidate and streamline the many authorities
and funding mechanisms to better support FID and SFA activities.