Small Wars Journal

What’s in a name? Clarifying the Divide between Military Assistance and Security Force Assistance

Mon, 11/09/2020 - 4:14pm

What’s in a name? Clarifying the Divide between Military Assistance and Security Force Assistance

Ivor Wiltenburg and Martijn Kitzen[1]



In contemporary military interventions, Training, Advising and Assistance-missions (TAA) have become a mainstay. In most Western states, this is defined as ‘Military Assistance’, a Special Operations Force (SOF) prerogative. Recent interventions have necessitated conventional forces to partake in TAA-type operations, as SOF forces became operationally stretched. To conventional forces, this has become known as ‘Security Force Assistance (SFA). However, by utilizing conventional forces for TAA-type operations, a doctrinal ambiguity between ‘Military Assistance’ and ‘Security Force Assistance’ has arisen. Combined with the standing up of conventional units dedicated to TAA-type operations in several countries, conventional forces have closed in on SOF tasks. As this article will point out, this includes not only MA, but also into other SOF tasks such as Special Reconnaissance and Direct Action.

This article argues that there is a need for doctrinal clarity, allowing both SOF and conventional forces to partake in TAA-operations without unnecessary overlap. To this end, this article makes a doctrinal comparison of Western MA and SFA, using the common denominator of NATO doctrine, in order to place SOF and conventional forces in the right niche of operations.




Over the last two decades, the mission of training, advising, and assisting (TAA) has increased in popularity. Such TAA-type military operations have focused on trying to make local partner security forces more militarily effective, despite the problems associated with a weak state and fragmented political institutions, as seen with the current American-led TAA-mission in Afghanistan. With the West perceiving weak states as a geopolitical danger, this has translated into building up and supporting host-nation military forces throughout the world.[2] The rationale underlying this approach is to enhance the capacities and capabilities of a partner military and/or militia for the sake of effectively preventing or mitigating a conflict. Thus, instead of taking ownership of the direct warfighting, TAA-operations enable outsourcing (much of) the actual application of force to local fighters. Already, such a limited warfare approach is becoming en vogue for Western military strategists that want to focus the bulk of their combat forces for competition with China and Russia.[3]


In the eyes of many Western politicians and policymakers, TAA is the modus operandi: A preferred option for foreign intervention due to reduced political risk. With less blood and treasure involved, the indirect approach allows a Western military to provide TAA to a willing partner that will undertake the risky part of combat operations.[4] The other rationale for TAA is that it brings local-level effectiveness. Working through local partners is better at countering insurgencies and for competing in limited conflicts than the direct application of Western forces.


The archetypical TAA-mission is known as Military Assistance (MA) and regarded a prerogative of Special Operation Forces (SOF).[5] As a consequence of the growing preference for such operations, this mission is increasingly assigned to conventional forces.[6] Consequently, a doctrinal sprint was necessary to substantiate this component of the conventional mission set, to accommodate the reality of actual deployments.[7] This led to the introduction of ‘Security Force Assistance’ (SFA) as a concept for the conduct of TAA-operations by conventional units. Since SOF continues to conduct such missions under the MA label, there are now two approaches towards TAA that are unaligned organizationally and doctrinally. 


This article addresses the misunderstanding within the TAA-mission set by providing clarity on the conceptual and operational differences between SFA and MA. Equally important, we argue that the proliferation of SFA missions conducted by conventional units has given rise to an ambiguity between special and conventional military operations. Moreover, this trend also spills over to other ‘traditional’ SOF tasks such as Direct Action (DA) and Special Reconnaissance (SR). We consider this blurring of the divide between SOF and conventional missions undesirable, and even potentially harmful, as it confronts the policy level problems concerning opaqueness about the mission and which units to deploy.[8] Our article proceeds in four parts. First, we explain MA and other core SOF tasks, followed by a second section that describes SFA. The third section discusses the implementation of both concepts, which function in an area of military operations lacking transparency. The article concludes with suggestions for clearing the foggy divide between MA and SFA.


Military Assistance in Special Operations Forces Doctrine

Doctrine, as the formal outlining of military thinking during a certain period of time, is indicative of the status of both MA and SFA and the role of conventional and special forces in such operations. Since we focus on Western interventions, NATO doctrine presents the closest common denominator for interpreting differences and similarities in this matter. For example, all alliance members with a SOF capability formally acknowledge MA as being part of the special operations realm. However, how is this precisely captured in doctrine?


Allied Joint Publication (AJP) 3.5 Special Operations describes special operations as being conducted by ‘specially designated, organized, selected, trained and equipped forces using specialized techniques and modes of deployment’ in order to deliver strategic or operational effects in circumstances where significant political risk might exist.[9] Together with DA and SR, MA forms a doctrinal triad of core SOF tasks that might be employed either individually or in any combination. Moreover, ‘these activities may be conducted across the full range of military operations, independently, or in conjunction with operations by non-SOF and may include combined and interagency operations by, with, or through indigenous or surrogate forces’.[10]


In order to understand the way in which special forces units are deployed, it requires an explanation of the fundamental underpinnings by outlining core SOF tasks. Doing so, after all, allows us to highlight a number of vital characteristics of special operations that, through the method of SFA-type operations, transcend into the realm of conventional forces; each in the pursuit of TAA-missions.


First, NATO doctrine AJP 3.5 Special Operations defines MA as ‘a broad category of measures and activities that support and influence critical friendly assets through organizing, training, advising, mentoring, or conducting combined operations’.[11] As such, the concept includes activities like capability building of local security forces, engagement with local, regional, and national leadership and civic actions supporting and influencing the local population. Additionally, these kinds of operations might also encompass all other actions designed to support local security forces. For SOF engaged in MA this is typically comprised of a combination of training, advising, equipping, and mentoring/partnering activities. Overall, NATO considers MA an activity undertaken by SOF and focused on ‘critical friendly assets[sic]’. This clearly demarcates the conceptual boundary as being limited to a selected part of the host-nation’s means (typically SOF units), which inherently also implies a limited set of objectives. In theory, the latter mainly pertains to the operational level, as supporting and influencing critical assets might potentially function to obtain wider strategic goals.


Second, NATO considers SR as ‘reconnaissance and surveillance activities conducted as a special operation in, but not limited to, hostile, denied, or diplomatically and/or politically sensitive environments to collect or verify information of strategic or operational significance, led by SOF using distinct techniques and modes of employment’.[12] Such operations are part of the intelligence gathering process, and as such, it aims to collect ‘specific, well-defined, and possibly time-sensitive information of strategic or operational significance’.[13] Equally important, it is also used to gain situational awareness before, during, and after operations. It even enables the procurement of an accurate intelligence picture when other sources are absent. Furthermore, it should be mentioned that SR is designed to persistently gain information, keeping ‘eyes on target’, either in a hostile, denied, or politically sensitive environment.[14]


Third, DA is a ‘short-duration strike or other small scale offensive action by SOF to seize, destroy, capture, recover, or inflict damage to achieve specific, well-defined and often time-sensitive results’.[15] Although this seems not too distant from conventional operations, the distinction lies in the level of risk, techniques employed, and the degree of precision utilized to create a specific effect.[16] As with other SOF missions, DA is focused on objectives of strategic and operational significance. Additionally, it might also be included to decide tactical operations by taking out specific targets. Like SR and MA, SOF may conduct DA independently, in conjunction with conventional units, or even in support of such forces. Examples of DA operations include raids, ambushes, assaults, terminal guidance operations (i.e. sighting ordnance on target by laser or visually guiding a pilot of an aircraft on the designated target), recovery operations, and precision destruction operations.[17]


Although not explicitly mentioned in NATO doctrine, SOF deployments typically do not necessitate public or parliamentary consent.[18] Indeed, many governments refuse to comment on the activities of special operations units. Therefore, such units are able to effectively execute missions in countries where covertness offers a distinct advantage to achieve success. This contrasts with conventional units that are mostly subjected to strict parliamentary (or Congressional) oversight. It is  near impossible to shroud such activities from the public for prolonged periods of time.


Security Force Assistance


Conventional forces use the SFA label instead of MA for referring to the TAA-mission. The NATO AJP 3.16 Security Force Assistance defines this concept as ‘all NATO activities that develop and improve, or directly support, the development of local forces and their associated institutions in crisis zones’.[19] Bolstering local security forces serves the purpose of enhancing a host nation’s ability to maintain both domestic and external security, thereby contributing to -in theory at least- sustainable stability. Producing effective combat units, however, requires far more than a technical approach of just teaching combat arms maneuver. For example, SFA is an overarching comprehensive approach that, through TAA-activities, addresses the root causes and issues of insecurity and instability experienced by the recipient state. In this regard, building and organizing a strong security sector as well as empowering affiliated institutions is a way to achieve this end.[20] The associated means inherently involve both conventional units and SOF, as well as, among others, diplomatic support and (socio-economic) development aid.[21] Considering the comprehensive effort to (re)build a security sector, the plethora of actors moving towards the same end-state partly explains the ambiguity of SFA-type operations. The TAA role is performed by multiple units, both SOF and conventional – and sometimes duplication of effort occurs.


A typical mission will sometimes involve a range of different activities, requiring a deployed mix of units and other assets tailored to the needs of a specific host-nation.[22] Yet, in essence, SFA remains an approach that allows for interventions with a relatively light footprint. Supporting a weak state and contributing to its development in the long-term so that it transitions into a more capable polity, however, is an elongated process that might take decades, assuming it actually works (e.g. Colombia).[23] When SFA efforts do not work, this can sometimes be more the fault of the political system that the host-nation military has to work under, creating different types of SFA traps that undermine donor-advisor efforts.[24] In this context, the traditional and historical roles of both conventional and special forces overlap as there is a lack of clarity concerning their respective roles and tasks.


The opaqueness of SOF-operations within the SFA context

The definitions of both MA and SFA are largely similar. The only significant difference is that MA focuses on ‘critical assets’, whereas SFA is applicable to a broader spectrum of recipients by its definition. Furthermore, MA is part of the SOF mission set, which has two consequences; such TAA-activities should be aimed towards goals on the strategic and operational levels and executed by personnel that has been ‘specially designated, organized, selected, trained and equipped, using specialized techniques and modes of employment’.[25]


In contrast, SFA is applicable across the entire spectrum of operations and might be delivered by conventional units. From the perspective of these varying definitions, it is easy to discern a spill-over between both concepts as various NATO members have implemented (organizational) changes in operational frameworks and force structures that blur the SFA-MA divide. The UK, for example, has stood up a dedicated formation aimed at providing persistent training and assistance to partner states. This Specialised Infantry Group (Spec. Inf. Gp.) currently consists of five battalions and is increasingly deploying troops that have been purposefully selected and trained to engage in the training, mentoring, and advising of partner forces.[26] Moreover, the Spec. Inf. Gp. makes further inroads into the MA sphere by stating its ambitions to predominantly execute tasks on the operational and strategic levels.[27] In the US armed forces, six Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFABs) have been stood up to perform SFA-type operations in lieu of the US SOF.[28] This frees the latter for tasks such as competition in the era of great power competition. Just like their British brothers in arms, SFAB troops receive additional training and exercises to prepare for SFA-type deployments, specifically aimed at capability building.[29]


This encroachment into previously SOF-dominated terrain is also noticeable with regard to SR and DA activities. SR-missions, for instance, intend to infiltrate into ‘hostile, denied, diplomatically and/or politically sensitive environments to collect or verify information of strategic or operational significance’.[30] The persistent inclusion of personnel within a partner nation’s armed forces would certainly offer opportunities to collect or verify information of strategic or operational significance. Although this is far off the traditional SR-practice, both the intention and the execution are in line with what constitutes ‘special reconnaissance’. This, for example is illustrated by the Spec. Inf. Gps. ambition to establish strategic understanding by embedding personnel for longer periods of time in the coming years.[31]


Another similarity with SR presents itself as a consequence of the fact that in states where SFA is conducted, the monopoly of violence is frequently challenged. In countries like Niger, Nigeria, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, soldiers need to frequently move in and out of hostile or denied terrain for executing TAA-operations.[32] This contradicts political perceptions of a relatively low-risk operation. Soldiers who conduct TAA-type operations are regularly exposed to combat, however without the support conventional forces enjoy whilst operating amongst their peers. The tragic death of four US servicemembers in Niger form a case in point.[33]


Embedded forces might be utilized to facilitate DA by the recipient forces. For instance, the British have already expressed the ambition to conduct DA, albeit in a limited form, by using Spec. Inf. Gp.  advisors in a combat-assistance role to partner troops.[34] In this way, operational or strategic objectives by the partner state might be achieved at a greater success rate and precision than would be possible without any assistance. Although this ambition is not yet put into practice, it further blurs the distinction between SOF and conventional forces and their respective advisory tasks.


Standing up specialized units to conduct long-term partnering, thus, clearly takes units like the Spec. Inf. Gp. and the SFABs into erstwhile SOF-turf. Currently, the distinction between MA activities and SFA is so vague that the only clear differentiation lies in who exactly performs the TAA-mission. The only exception to this is Unconventional Warfare (UW), a subset of irregular warfare which puts extreme demands on the exposed personnel; not to be conducted by conventional forces. Although NATO does not define UW, it is generally agreed on as activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency and/or to influence a government or occupying power by operating through or with a surrogate force.[35] As this indirect approach is conducted in hostile or denied territory, SOF are the prime choice for conducting such operations. Additionally, contrary to special operation units, conventional forces are not optimized for training, advising, and assisting indigenous SOF or irregulars. The natural habitat of conventional units within the TAA-mission, therefore, is to build large, conventional armies, working from their own expertise and experience.[36]



Most TAA-operations nowadays are conducted by conventional units under the SFA moniker. In doing so, conventional forces not only have been usurping the MA task, they merge with other distinct SOF tasks. Despite this blurring, the role and function of special forces is not in doubt. SOF, after all, have a distinct niche in providing training and assistance to irregulars and indigenous special operations units. Moreover, SOF have the capability to operate covertly as they encounter less political oversight or public scrutiny in comparison to conventional forces. Furthermore, in recent years special forces have mostly been utilized in the DA and SR realm. Most SOF units are optimized for such kinetic operations. Indeed, it is recognized that DA and SR are distinctly different tasks, which require a different skillset to perform adequately.[37] MA, thus, is often regarded as a mission less important to more ‘stimulating’ kinetic activities.[38]


In sum, the main distinction between the similar MA and SFA missions is that they are performed by different types of forces. Conventional units are merging with the SOF realm as tasks and strategic functions align. The emergence of specialized units focused on partnered operations such as the SFABs in the American army, and the Spec. Inf. Gp. in Great Britain are a case in point. SOF, however, have a distinct niche in assisting militias or rebel groups in unconventional conflicts, to include partnering with other special operations units. Yet, considering the small niche and lack of discourse on MA within mostly kinetically oriented SOF-units, this article argues that the indirect approach through local agents warrants a renewed appraisal of the doctrinal foundations of TAA-missions. The dichotomous doctrinal distinction between SFA and MA is not apparent, as illustrated by specialized conventional units’ move towards persistent partnering and incorporating military activities formerly restricted to special forces. As the correct use of military means to attain foreign policy goals is already a difficult task, further complicating this by doctrinal ambiguity would be counterproductive and might lead to the misappropriation of military means. This article argues for a doctrinal division that allows SOF to focus on the UW/MA tasks, and conventional forces towards SFA-type operations. Still, the opaqueness of TAA-type operations are illustrated by the formation of the Specialised Infantry Group by the British, which moves into the grey zone of this SFA/MA division. This reiterates the necessity for a debate on how to incorporate TAA-type operations within different national armed forces, especially as many Western states do participate in these types of deployment, but have as of yet little doctrinal or organizational foundations.

[1] Ivor Wiltenburg MA is a major in the Royal Netherlands Army and a PhD candidate at The Netherlands Defence Academy, Dr. Martijn Kitzen is associate professor of War Studies at the Netherlands Defence Academy where he focuses on irregular warfare and special operations. Correspondence: This article combines preliminary results from Wiltenburg’s ongoing PhD research into the way Security Force Assistance is implemented in different countries with insights from fieldwork obtained by Wiltenburg and Kitzen.


The authors would like to thank Martijn van der Vorm (Netherlands Defence Academy) and Jahara Matisek, PhD (US Airforce Academy) for their valuable comments on earlier drafts of this article.


[2] Biddle, S., MacDonald, J, Baker, R, (2018). "Small footprint, small payoff: The military effectiveness of security force assistance."  41(1-2): 89-142.  

[3] Matisek, J. and Williamson, J., “Limited Wars in the Periphery: The Dilemma of American Military Assistance,” Expeditions with MCU Press, June 2020,

[4] Krieg, A. (2016). "Externalizing the burden of war: the Obama Doctrine and US foreign policy in the Middle East." International Affairs 92(1): 97-113; Rauta, V., et al. (2019). "A Symposium–debating ‘surrogate warfare’and the transformation of war." Defence Studies 19(4): 410-430.        

[5] The authors acknowlegde that military advising and assisting is not a new activity, and that it has been practised since ancient times. This articles focuses primarily on the post-Cold War period of military interventions. 

[6] Livingston, T.K. (2011). Building the capacity of partner states through Security Force Assistance, Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress.        

[7] Jenkins, D.C. (2008). "Distinguishing Between Security Force Assistance & Foreign Internal Defense: Determining A Doctrine Road-Ahead.", Small Wars Journal, p. 2; NATO Standardization Office (2016). Allied Joint Doctrine for Security Force Assistance (SFA). Brussels; US Department of Defense, (2018). ATP 3-96.1 Security Force Assistance Brigade. United States Army. Washington D.C.       

[8] Interview with lt-col R.S. Dutch Armed Forces (1), 04/03/2019

[9] NATO Standardization Office, (2019) AJP-3.5 Allied Joint Doctrine for Special Operations, p.1

[10] Ibid. p. 1

[11] Ibid. p. 7

[12] Ibid. p. 8

[13] Ibid. p. 8

[14] Ibid. p. 9

[15] Ibid. p. 9

[16] Ibid. p. 9, 10  

[17] Ibid. p. 9, 10  

[18] Karlshoej-Pedersen, M. and Walpole, L., Time for External Oversight of Britain's Special Forces, Oxford Research Group, London, 2019; Dimitriu, G.R., Tuinman, G., Van der Vorm, M. Operationele ontwikkeling van de Nederlandse Special Operations Forces, 2005-2010, Militaire Spectator 181(3) 2012, p. 110; M.E. Mitchell, America’s Special Operators will be Adrift Without Better Civilian Oversight, War on the Rocks, 2020 accessed 14/05/2020

[19] NATO Standardization Office (2016). Allied Joint Doctrine for Security Force Assistance (SFA). Brussels.

[20] Knowles, E.  and Matisek, J. "Western Security Force Assistance in Weak States: Time for a Peacebuilding Approach," The RUSI Journal 164, no. 3 (2019): 10-21.

[21] Karlin, M. E. (2017). Building Militaries in Fragile States: Challenges for the United States, University of Pennsylvania Press.       

[22] Kitzen, M. ‘Military Operations in Irregular Warfare’, in The Handbook of Military Sciences, Anders Sookermany, ed. (Berlin: Springer, forthcoming)

[23] Rochlin, J. "Plan Colombia and the revolution in military affairs: the demise of the FARC." Review of International Studies (2011): 715-740.

[24] Matisek, J. and Reno, W., "Getting American Security Force Assistance Right: Political Context Matters," Joint Force Quarterly 92 (2019): 65-73.

[25] NATO Standardization Office, AJP-3.5 Allied Joint Doctrine for Special Operations, 2019, p.1 

[26] British Ministry of Defence, New Gurkha Battalion to be Established as Brigade Grows, 11/03/2019 accessed 03-04-2020

[27] The Spec. Inf. Gp. is a special operations capability that focuses on SR and MR, partnering on the operational level and on specialised capabilities. The Spec. Inf. Gp. and the SFABs are not equivalent units, but operate in a similar operational environment, focusing on the improvement of local forces.

[28] Kuster, R.E., Memorandum for NG J1 RRF, 54th Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB), 30/04/2018 accessed 02/05/2020

[29] Cox, M., National Guard's New SFAB Will Be Spread Across Six States, see: accessed 04/06/2020

[30] NATO Standardization Office, (2019) AJP-3.5 Allied Joint Doctrine for Special Operations. p. 9          

[31] Interview Commander Specialised Infantry Group, Aldershot U.K. 19/02/2020

[32] Cordesman, A. (2018). "America's Failed State Wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen: Still Less Than Half a Strategy." Center for Strategic and International Studies; Guido, L.T.C.J. (2019). "The American way of war in Africa: the case of Niger." Small wars & insurgencies 30(1): 176-199.

[33] Guido, L.T.C.J. (2019). "The American way of war in Africa: the case of Niger." Small wars & insurgencies 30(1): 176-199.         

[34] Roundtable Specialised Infantry Group, Aldershot U.K. 19/02/2020

[35] See for instance: Kitzen, M. ‘Military Operations in Irregular Warfare’, in The Handbook of Military Sciences, Anders Sookermany, ed. (Berlin: Springer, forthcoming) Larson, E. V., et al. (2009). Assessing irregular warfare: A framework for intelligence analysis, Rand Corporation. p. 7-17

[36] Hayes, J.E. (2017) A Green Beret's Ode to Big Army's New Security Force Assistance Brigades. accessed 05/06/2020

[37] Simons, A. (2019). "Firewalling - Direct vs Indirect Approach." Strategem. accessed 06/06/2020

[38] Zimmerman, S. Rebecca, Kimberly Jackson, Natasha Lander, Colin Roberts, Dan Madden, and Rebeca Orrie, Movement and Maneuver: Culture and the Competition for Influence Among the U.S. Military Services. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2019.

About the Author(s)

Dr. Martijn Kitzen is associate professor of War Studies at the Netherlands Defence Academy where he focuses on irregular warfare and special operations. Correspondence:

Ivor Wiltenburg MA is a major in the Royal Netherlands Army and a PhD candidate at The Netherlands Defence Academy.