Small Wars Journal

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

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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.


From our article above:

"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.  


If our missions, in effect, are to:

a.  Replace (with something resembling more our own models) the way of life, the way of governance, the values, etc., of other states and societies (to "modernize" them); this,

b.  So that these states and societies might better provide for the wants, needs and desires of the United States,

Then, in common circumstances such as these, "a willingness to accept the culture of the partner nation," this WOULD NOT seem to be what we needed. 


As an example, consider the following from the Trump NSS re: Africa (with the "heading" provided by me):

Our Goals for Africa Specifically -- and for the Less-Developed World Generally:

"Africa remains a continent of promise and enduring challenges. Africa contains many of the world’s fastest growing economies, which represent potential new markets for U.S. goods and services. Aspiring partners across the continent are eager to build market-based economies and enhance stability.  The demand for quality American exports is high and will likely grow as Africa’s population and prosperity increase. People across the continent are demanding government accountability and less corruption, and are opposing autocratic trends.  The number of stable African nations has grown since the independence era as numerous countries have emerged from devastating conflicts and undergone democratic transitions." (See Page 52.)

In this regard, and as Joseph Schumpeter (1919: Imperialism and Capitalism) told us 100 years ago, it is, in fact:

a.  The "cultural backwardness of region" (a culture not based on capitalism and free trade) that:

b.  Gets in the way of our achieving our objectives noted in the Trump NSS above.

"Where cultural backwardness of a region makes normal economic intercourse dependent on colonization, it does not matter, assuming free trade, which of the civilized nations undertakes the task of colonization.

(Today, of course, to achieve our "transformative" objectives, we do "nation-building," rather than "colonialism.")

Bottom Line Thought -- Based on the Above:

Given that "the wars that we are embarked upon" today -- and much as in Joseph Schumpeter's time -- are best understood in terms of:

a.  Eliminating the "cultural backwardness" of other states and societies (in "modernizing" them); this, so that these other states and societies might

b.  Better provide for the capitalism and free trade wants, needs and desires of the United States (see the Trump NSS item above),

Then, in this such light, might we say that (from the quoted item from this article that I provide at the top of my comment here):

a.  The "certain type of person to be an effective advisory" that we need today

b.  This IS NOT someone who "has a willingness to accept the culture of the partner nation?"

(This, given that the enemy that we will meet in the field, THIS, in fact, is the individual who "has a willingness to accept" -- and indeed to fight and die for -- "the culture of the partner nation?"

"Politically, in many cases today, the counter-insurgent represents revolutionary change, while the insurgent fights to preserve the status quo of ungoverned spaces, or to repel an occupier – a political relationship opposite to that envisaged in classical counter-insurgency. Pakistan's campaign in Waziristan since 2003 exemplifies this. The enemy includes al-Qaeda-linked extremists and Taliban, but also local tribesmen fighting to preserve their traditional culture against twenty-first-century encroachment. The problem of weaning these fighters away from extremist sponsors, while simultaneously supporting modernization, does somewhat resemble pacification in traditional counter-insurgency. But it also echoes colonial campaigns, and includes entirely new elements arising from the effects of globalization."

I would present the case to you that the Army isn't responsible for this.  It is a Force Provider to the GCCs who has responsibility to fulfill their approved Theater Campaign Plans, and subordinate plans to fulfill U.S. objectives outlined in higher level strategic documents such as the NMS, NDS, and the State Depts ICSs.

Bottom Line: Building a Foreign Security Force to the point where it can sustain and replicate a capability is inherently a Joint function working through the SCO/SDO/DATTs, and overseen by DSCA and USD(P) for SC. 

No Service has the task to build an FSF.  They have the task to provide trained forces to conduct SC, SFA, FID, etc. NDAA 2017 has sent shock waves through the SC COI in terms of congressional demands to see Return on Investment (RoI).  It shocks me that we would even have a conversation about tactical level advisors when trying to comply with the NDAA 2017, and subsequent NDAAs, and the policies such as Dodi 5132.14 AM&E that have been promulgated as a result.

DoD should stop and look at itself and how it sustains and replicates it's warfighting capabilities.  We, the United States, generate forces better than any military on the planet using some basic assumptions passed to us long ago, when we took on French and Prussian Advisors.

First, militaries are built on standards (i.e. the UJTL, UNNTL, MCTL) that provide capability statements guiding force development.  Then we have doctrine that provides guidance on how we employ those capabilities, and yes doctrine should come first, but sometimes it does not. Using the Joint Capabilities Integration Development System (JCIDS) we then chain and link standards based training from the Collective UJTL task and Joint doctrine, to service tasks and doctrine, to collective skills, and finally to individual skills.  Along that Force Generation Pathway, we have institutions executing Expeditionary Force Development Responsibilities (EFDS, USMC specific).  I am being brief here, but it speaks to unit capability including Manning, Training, Equipping.  This is all guided by the Planning, Programing, Budgeting, and Execution Process which produces the POM... The POM pays for all capability generation.

I know that I have been brief in my loose explanation of this, but the BLUF is that DoD has not examined how we build ourselves and applied that to building and FSF.  To the Author's point, building a tactical capability is useless without institutional capacity within the PN to sustain and replicate all of the functions and duties required from PPBE, and other Force Development processes.  This means law, authority, and money to execute Governance over PN forces (e.g. authority to execute missions, direction to conduct EFDS), Performance of the Executive Functions of a Military (e.g. concepts, guidance to the supporting establishments), Performance of the Generating Function (e.g. acquisitions, doctrine, and schools), and the Operational Functions (e.g. employment of generated capabilities). 

The Author is pointing out the obvious, we would never develop an SFAB tactical capability without recruiting, having supporting doctrine, an allocated budgetary process, establishment of schools, standards for students/soldiers, all based on an Army requirement for the unit capability to perform a function.

My recommendation would be for DoD to holistically look at the stovepipes and disconnectedness of the current PN capability and capacity building efforts.  The fact that any single service thinks it can go it alone is, in my opinion, the wrong approach.  This work is critical to matching our pacing threats and the systems we currently use are broken at best.  DoD should take a moment and consider what it takes to build a PN force, based on how we build ourselves. 


In response to MAJ King's recommendation..."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".  Why not consolidate all Army security assistance/ security force assistance efforts under US Army Security Assistance Command (USASAC)?  This would enable cross-fertilization between Title 10 & Title 22 security assistance efforts as well as (hopefully) exposing more Army officers & NCOs to the various aspects of Title 22 & how those lessons can be applied on the SFA side.