Security Force Assistance Brigades: The US Army Embraces Antifragility
Nathan A. Jennings
The United States Army has experienced a marked shift in focus since transitioning its large-scale counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan to priorities that span a larger spectrum of potential conflict. The ominous rise of peer competition in Eastern Europe and East Asia, despite continued obligations to conduct advisory and counter-terrorism operations across four continents, has created tension over balancing structure and training for combined arms maneuver and stability-oriented operations. As argued by the Trump Administration’s current National Security Advisor, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, “demands on all components of the US Army are likely to increase as threats overseas generate simultaneous threats to the homeland.”[i]
The disparate nature of the contemporary threat environment has consequently catalyzed a challenging dilemma: should the Army prepare to fight other modern militaries like those of Russia and China, or orient on stabilizing war-torn states like Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan? While the location and character of America’s next large-scale conflict commitment remains unclear, its primary landpower force could answer the arrayed challenges by embracing theorist Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s concept of “antifragility”—an adaptive quality that moves beyond resilience or robustness to collective improvement—as a method for ensuring responsiveness against future unknowns. As argued by in his 2012 work, Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder, this would require fostering an organizational doctrine, structure, and culture optimized to “thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors.”[ii]
Fortunately for the United States and its allies, the US Army is currently undergoing force structure modifications that will develop and institutionalize degrees of antifragility. One example is the emerging initiative to create an advisory training academy and up to six security force assistance brigades (SFAB) that specialize advising and assisting foreign armies.[iii] Reflective of Taleb’s “barbell” strategy that advocates “extreme risk aversion on one side and extreme risk loving on the other,” the addition compliments the Army’s traditional focus on high intensity combat—represented by its twenty-nine infantry, stryker, and armored brigade combat teams (BCT) equipped for high intensity combat—with SFABs designed for military advisory efforts that will likely remain an enduring fixture in American strategic partnerships.[iv]
This bifurcation between combined arms maneuver (CAM) and security force assistance (SFA) avoids, as argued by Taleb, “the corruption of the middle” where organizations attempt to mitigate risk by adopting more “moderate” or “medium” approaches intended to ward off all manner of challenges or allocate undue attention to prepare for improbable “black swan” events.[v] It eschews the temptation to dilute the expertise of high intensity combat forces with non-combat missions while allowing specialized formations to retain focus on doctrinal mission essential tasks. More importantly, the establishment of a division-equivalent of SFA elements—which will presumably adopt much of US advisory responsibilities in both the Middle East and South Asia—will reduce the cyclic skill degradation and resource inefficiencies that stemmed from constant assignment of maneuver BCTs to conduct temporary advisory and assistance missions.
This barbell strategy, which diversifies the Army’s tactical portfolio at the polar ends of the warfighting spectrum, will allow it to better negotiate unpredictability in future engagements. If properly resourced and protected, the concept will reduce “the risk of ruin” and allow better negotiation of chaotic environments. As a complimentary effort to expand special operations forces capacity and codify counterinsurgency lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan, the “bimodal” alignment of BCTs and SFA Brigades will increase the US military’s ability to react to unanticipated engagements. Improved contingency responses could include a sudden intervention another country due to massive ethnic cleansing, response to a massive terror attack on the homeland, or the outbreak of major combat operations in Eastern Europe or East Asia.
The creation of the new advisory units will offer further benefits that mitigate operational, and strategic, risks for the Army in case of a manpower intensive ground campaign. Should America become engaged in a long-term operation that requires rapid expansion of security capacity—as it did during Operation Iraqi Freedom when constant unit rotations strained the All-Volunteer Force model—the officer-heavy SFA Brigades could be rapidly expanded and equipped into full-sized maneuver units. As argued by General Mark Milley, the Army’s 39th Chief of Staff and champion of the initiative, the new stability-focused brigades can “be used for train, advise, and assist” during “phase-0 operations” or “in time of emergency” incorporate more soldiers to create “decent capability” for high-end combat.[vi] Regardless of wartime alteration, the advisory academy would preserve the Army’s institutional advisory knowledge in preparation for the inevitable return to globally distributed stability operations.
Looking towards the future, Milley has stated that “the level of uncertainty, the velocity of instability, and potential for significant inter-state conflict is higher than it is has been since the end of the Cold War in 1989-91.”[vii] By adopting an intentionally distributed “barbell” posture, in addition to other force modernization programs, the US Army can diversify as a more antifragile enterprise in the face of endemic unpredictability. The new enhancements likewise hold potential to, in part, allow the organization to gain an unprecedented degree of optimization and competency. Moving beyond false-choices over full-spectrum capability, these changes are creating a paradigm where the Army can more efficiently respond to unexpected crises—be they multi-corps campaigns or enduring advisory assignments—with a judicious distribution of risk mitigation.
[i] H.R. McMaster, “Continuity and Change: The Army Operating Concept and Clear Thinking About Future War,” Military Review (March-April 2015): 17.
[ii] Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder (Random House Trade Paperbacks: New York, 2014), 3.
[iii] Matthew Cox, “Army Stands Up 6 Brigades to Advise Foreign Militaries,” Military.com, 16 February 2017.
[iv] Taleb, Antifragile, 161.
[vi] Mark Milley quoted in Sydney Freedberg, “Army Mulls Train & Advise Brigades: Gen. Milley,” Breaking Defense, 14 December 2015.
[vii] Sydney Freedberg, “Gen. Milley to SASC: World Getting Worse, Army Getting Smaller,” Breaking Defense, July 21, 2015.