Small Wars Journal

Tactical Advising is Not the Problem: How to Get Security Force Training Right

Thu, 09/12/2019 - 1:29pm

Tactical Advising is Not the Problem: How to Get Security Force Training Right

James King

Advising foreign forces is hard, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be doing it.  Since the inception of the Military Transition Team (MiTT) early in the Iraq war people who were disgruntled by the fact they had to serve on one or didn’t understand how they worked would rail against their existence.  This tradition continues in a recent article in West Point’s Modern War Institute. These naysayers believe that the Army’s latest version of MiTTs, Security Forces Assistance Brigades (SFAB), are a waste of time and those resources could be better used elsewhere.  The critics are part right, the Army does need to focus its attention on building partner nation capacity to teach their own soldiers but not at the expense of building and strengthening that partnership with those nations through training at the tactical level. 

Many of the detractors of tactical level advising will point to the Iraqi Army’s poor performance in the early stages of the war with ISIS as a failure of the US advising effort.  Units that had several years of training with MiTTs and/or Advise and Assist Brigades (AABs, the follow-on evolution of advising) dissolved or were effectively destroyed by a “rag tag” band of insurgents.  They point to the idea that the Iraqi Army was able to hold its own against the Iranians in the 1980’s during the Iran-Iraq War but yet the US advised version was embarrassed by ISIS. 

There are several things wrong with this argument.  While the Iraqi Army was successful early on at gaining territory during the Iran/Iraq War, they were quickly fought to a standstill by an Iranian army that was still in disarray from the recent revolution and was ultimately pushed back by the Iranians.  In a war that consisted mainly of artillery attacks neither side was effective in creating a decisive victory.  It lasted as long as it did more so because of Iranian interests in keeping the war going then the capability of the Iraqi army.  This army that supposedly did so well fighting the Iranians was just a few short years later destroyed in 100 hours during Desert Storm.  Just over ten years later it was destroyed again during the opening months of Operation Iraqi Freedom. 

Further, the army that fought the Iranians in the 1980s was not the same army that fought ISIS in the 2010s.  During that timeframe the new Iraqi army was in its infancy.  After being disbanded in 2003 it had been an army for roughly a decade and on its own for less than five years when ISIS took Mosul.  In that timeframe many of the soldiers that had been trained by the US had left, to include many senior leaders.  There was no incentive to stay and no repercussion for leaving.  It was by no means a professional army and not even to the standard of the 1980s version of itself.  The losses accrued by the Iraqi army against ISIS is not an indicator of a flaw in the focus of the advising as much as it is an indictment of the problems within the Iraqi Army itself.  Put differently, no matter how hard he coaches even Nick Saban can’t win a national championship with South Alabama University.

This isn’t to say there aren’t problems with the Army’s advising abilities.  The biggest of which is its struggle with manning the mission.  It takes a certain type of person to be an effective advisor.  They have to have a passion for training, a willingness to accept the culture of the partner nation, and have an ability to understand and leverage both the strengths and weaknesses of the partner force.  These are traits the Army has spent little time looking for when building advising elements.  In creating the MiTTs the Army would ask units to select Field Grade officers (Major-Colonel) to lead battalion teams or be members of brigade and higher teams.  Many units would ask for volunteers while others would take it as an opportunity to move an ineffective leader out of their formation.  Junior officers and enlisted soldiers were selected based on dwell time.  Some teams were given Second Lieutenants straight from their basic course.   Further, many of these MiTT members did not volunteer, nor did they want to be there.

The SFABs are having similar problems with manning.  In a recent speech the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction statedthe 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) that deployed in the spring of 2018 simply couldn't find enough experienced advisers to actually get the job done.”  According to the SIGAR “about 20 percent of the 1st SFAB had never previously deployed.” Some SFABs are resorting to having leaders call in favors from friends to try and fill their ranks. Further, many Army posts are making SFAB recruiting briefs mandatory for eligible soldiers in an attempt to fill ranks.

Why is this a problem?  Why can’t an SFAB just take anyone?  Unlike a conventional unit that can hide an incompetent leader by placing him in an unimportant role or have the rest of the team pick up the slack, a poor performer in an SFAB can be detrimental to the mission.  One person on a team within an SFAB can completely derail that team’s mission simply by being insensitive to the culture of the partner force.  Additionally, if the partner force determines that this poor performer doesn’t know what they are doing it can negatively impact how that unit receives the training from the rest of the team.  If the perceived transgression is bad enough it can lead to that team being ignored or worse asked to leave.

The detractors of tactical advising, however, do make a good point, if the Army is serious about SFABs it needs to do a better job of attracting and keeping talent.  MiTT members were told that their time on these teams would be a career enhancer, it would be looked at favorably for promotion and other board selections, yet the only perceived benefit so far was the ability to pick their next duty station after the assignment was complete.   Short of creating a new career specialty, if the Army wants to make SFABs more attractive it needs to make it know across the force that SFAB assignments will be weighted higher than others.  That guidance needs to be made clear in the promotion/selection board guidance letter published by each board to the members.     

While tactical level training will go a long way towards building an effective partner force, to be truly effective more must be done.  Those arguing against tactical level training point to the cyclical nature of that type of training.  Teams have to train the same thing over and over because those they have trained in the past have moved on.   The Groundhog’s Day effect can be frustrating for all involved.  In order to alleviate this the building up of partner nation professional development is a must. 

There are two aspects of this professional development.  First, at the basic level is the partner nation schoolhouses.  The partner nation in question’s basic training and Military Occupation Specialty schools up through the equivalent of an Army Captain’s Career Course should have a comprehensive review done to determine where improvements can be recommended.  This aspect is in line with the “teach them to fish” idea.  If you can help them develop their own training for the basics then our advisors can move on to more complex skills. 

The second aspect is one not often considered when discussing advising foreign forces, leader exchanges at US Army Schools.  From the different Officer Basic Courses, through Command and General Staff College, to the different services War College students will find themselves side by side with foreign students.  Officers participating in these courses from foreign partners are hand selected as the best and brightest these country offer. Their time in these schools leaves a lasting impression on the individual who will bring what they learned back to their home army.  Often these leaders are tracked throughout their careers, many of whom end up in the most senior positions within their military and government.  A similar effort is the work being done at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) at Fort Benning, GA.  WHINSEC provides training to members of the armies and law enforcement agencies of the United States, Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean on topics that include leadership development, peace support, counterdrug operations, and disaster preparedness/relief planning.   Something that could easily be replicated in other regions.   

The elements described above have been a part of the Army structure in one form or another for a very long time.  The problem is each one works independently of the other with little to no coordination.  In order for the Army to become more effective in providing a truly comprehensive training and advising experience the efforts of these elements needs to be synchronized.  How powerful would it be if an SFAB was on the ground in country X conducting live fire training with tactical units while at the same time mid-grade and senior leaders were attending schools in the United States, returning to work with another team from the Army to make improvements on their own professional development system?  This comprehensive approach would go a long way towards permanently imbedding into that country’s military the lessons learned from the tactical to strategic level and build a sustained method of ensuring those lessons are perpetually a part of their profession of arms. 

This begs the question of who should do the synchronizing.  It can be answered in one of two ways.  The first option is to put the responsibility for coordinating and executing this holistic approach on the newly created Security Forces Assistance Command (SFAC).  Currently the SFAC’s role is to ensure the SFABs are trained, manned, and equipped to conduct their missions while deployed but as a general officer level headquarters it could be given the overarching responsibility of coordinating Security Force Assistance Experiences like the imagined scenario above.  Another option would be to create a headquarters above the SFAC who would be responsible for coordinating operations across all of the security force assistance lines of effort.  This option would allow the SFAC to maintain its current responsibilities while building a headquarters that could focus most of its attention on the development and coordination of a holistic approach to assisting priority countries.  Instead of the current haphazard model this new headquarters could work on 5-year, 10-year, and 20-year training plans designed to work the United States out of a job and build these countries into capable partners.

Until the Army creates a comprehensive approach to advising foreign forces we will continue to struggle with the mission and maintaining talented leaders in the advising ranks.  Advising foreign forces is hard, it’s even harder when the path to success is ill defined and littered with obstacles.  If our goal is to never fight a war alone then we can and must do better.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the US Government, DoD, or US Army.

About the Author(s)

Major James King is a US Army Intelligence Officer.  He has served as an advisor to both the United States and Iraqi Army while working on a MiTT in Iraq (’07-’08) and as an OC/T at the National Training Center. He has written several articles for Small Wars Journal including another one on advising in 2017 entitled ‘New Rules for Advisers: Lessons From a Year With the Iraqi Army’.  Major King holds a bachelor of arts in sociology from the University of Washington and a master’s degree in strategic intelligence from American Military University.