Small Wars Journal

Analysis/Commentary: Pentagon Announces Army 1st SFAB Deployment to Counter Surge in Violent Extremism and Russian/Chinese Competition

Analysis/Commentary: Pentagon Announces Army 1st SFAB Deployment to Counter Surge in Violent Extremism and Russian/Chinese Competition

John S. Turner

Last Wednesday, the Pentagon announced the Army’s 1st SFAB (SFAB—Security Force Assistance Brigade) would deploy within the coming weeks to conduct train, advise, and assist missions in select African countries.[i]  This is a good move as it sustains U.S. military presence, and reinforces U.S. commitment to regional security partners as they work to beat back violent extremist and strategic competitor gains for influence.

Senator Jim Inhofe, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and ardent supporter of bolstering US military presence across Africa, praised the announcement, noting the growing security threats in Africa require additional capabilities that the current U.S. contingent of 6,100 soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, civilians, and contractors currently provide across the continent.[ii][iii]

The announcement also comes on the heels of General Stephen Townsend’s testimony before the Senate Armed Service Committee last month in which he warned of the emanating threats posed by violent extremist organizations and malign Chinese and Russian activities across the continent.

When describing the threat from al Qaeda- and ISIS- related groups the top U.S. military commander in Africa stated, “that threat is very serious and that threat is on the advance.”[iv]  General Townsend emphasized confronting groups like al-Shabaab who he described as “the largest and most violent of al-Qaeda’s branches” that threaten U.S. interests and the American homeland.[v]  The group claimed responsibility for an attack in Manda Bay, Kenya last month that killed one U.S. service member and two contractors.

General Townsend remarked that his command was consistently under-resourced and not equipped with the necessary ISR (ISR—Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) assets to provide presence and around-the-clock coverage to prosecute counter-terrorism targeted strikes to disrupt and degrade al-Shabaab leadership capacity.  General Townsend commented that his command had fulfilled only 25 percent of his validated ISR requirements.[vi]

The Pentagon’s announcement was also likely made to encourage European allies to contribute more troops, and resources to assist French counter-terrorism efforts in the Sahel region of West Africa.  The French are the lead international security partner in the Sahel region of West Africa, to include Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, with about 4,500 troops conducting daily operations to confront various VEOs (VEOs—Violent Extremist Organizations) operating across the region.[vii]

Last month, Townsend told the Senate Armed Services Committee “the Europeans need to step up and do more in the Sahel to help the French.”  Townsend indicated he was leading an effort to encourage European allies to provide more direct support to French efforts, specifically in providing the French with the airlift and air refueling capabilities that the United States were providing as French counter-terrorism efforts “are not having the desired effect they need.”[viii]  General Townsend stressed how dire the security situation was across the Sahel, with a 250% increase in VEO violence since 2018 in Burkina Faso, Mali, and western Niger.[ix]

This week, during a delegation visit to Africa, Senator Inhofe touted US military cooperation efforts in bolstering African partners’ capabilities to disrupt and defeat radical VEOs in West Africa.  Inhofe said “any reduction in U.S. military presence in West Africa would have real and lasting negative consequences for our African partners…downgrading our investment now would only increase our risk and make future competition or potential conflict more costly down the road.”[x]

The Army’s 1st SFAB deployment almost certainly was announced to better compete with China and Russia following General Townsend’s statement in which he described the dramatic increase in Russian activities across the continent over the past three years. Townsend highlighted that Russia’s goals were part of a three-pronged strategy focused on resource extraction, establishing a firm foothold across northern Africa, particularly in Libya on NATO’s southern flank, and to serve as a credible alternative to the United States.[xi]

Townsend also warned Russia and China military cooperation with African partners could be on the uptick as he described a South Africa naval exercise several months ago between Russia, China, and South Africa, noting it was “the first visible sign of cooperation” between the two countries.[xii]

Townsend elaborated on Chinese and Russian investments in space infrastructure on the African continent.  Townsend estimated the Chinese have roughly 13-16 space facilities across Africa while the Russians have five to six facilities.[xiii]

General Townsend’s frank, candid, and honest assessment of the complex and myriad threat environment across Africa complicates the Secretary of Defense’s priority effort to realign and reallocate military forces to the Department’s priority military theater, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.[xiv]   This deployment along with General Townsend’s testimony reinforces the need for the United States to step up and reinforce support to U.S. allies and African partners to protect vital U.S. national security interests.

The views expressed in this article solely reflect those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Military, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

End Notes


[i] "Statement on the Deployment of Army’s 1st Security Force Assistance Br." U.S. DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE. Last modified February 12, 2020. https://www.defense.gov/Newsroom/Releases/Release/Article/2082314/statement-on-the-deployment-of-armys-1st-security-force-assistance-brigade-to-a/

[iii] United States Commitee on Armed Services. Accessed February 16, 2020. https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/20-02_01-30-2020.pdf.

[iv] United States Commitee on Armed Services. Accessed February 16, 2020. https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/20-02_01-30-2020.pdf.

[v] United States Commitee on Armed Services. Accessed February 16, 2020. https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/20-02_01-30-2020.pdf.

[vi] United States Commitee on Armed Services. Accessed February 16, 2020. https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/20-02_01-30-2020.pdf.

[vii] United States Commitee on Armed Services. Accessed February 16, 2020. https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/20-02_01-30-2020.pdf.

[viii] United States Commitee on Armed Services. Accessed February 16, 2020. https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/20-02_01-30-2020.pdf.

[ix] United States Commitee on Armed Services. Accessed February 18, 2020. https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Townsend_01-30-20.pdf.

[x] "U.S. Senator for Oklahoma." Home. Last modified February 19, 2020. https://www.inhofe.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/inhofe-leads-delegation-to-africa.

[xi] United States Commitee on Armed Services. Accessed February 16, 2020. https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/20-02_01-30-2020.pdf.

[xii] United States Commitee on Armed Services. Accessed February 16, 2020. https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/20-02_01-30-2020.pdf.

[xiii] United States Commitee on Armed Services. Accessed February 16, 2020. https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/20-02_01-30-2020.pdf.

About the Author(s)

John S. Turner is a U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) national security professional with 10 years’ experience analyzing Latin America, Asia, and Middle East security trends, and developments.  John deployed to Afghanistan from June-December 2019 in support of Operation Freedom Sentinel and to Iraq in 2011 in support of Operation New Dawn.  From 2014-2017 John served in a staff position with the U.S. Defense Attache Office in Mexico City, Mexico.  He is currently assigned to the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii.  He holds a M.A. in International Relations with a focus in Security Studies from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas.