With 1st SFAB deployed, Army looks to build more adviser brigades
By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 1, 2018
WASHINGTON — Building on what was merely a concept at the beginning of 2017, the Army hopes to boast five brigades of conventional soldiers hand-selected and specially trained to advise indigenous partner forces by the end of next year. Army officials say the service is seeking to quickly build its Security Force Assistance Brigades, units designed to shoulder the bulk of the Pentagon’s train, advise and assist missions throughout the world. That is why the Army is seeking funding to build three SFABs — it has begun assembling two — in fiscal year 2019, according to the service’s budget request sent last month to Congress.
The Army’s goal is to build six SFABs, five in the active-duty Army and one in the National Guard. The service is considering building two division headquarters to manage the brigades, Army officials said. “My view right now is that with regard to irregular warfare, we’re going to be engaged in that indefinitely,” Army Secretary Mark Esper told Stars and Stripes in an interview last month. “There will always be a need to help build allied or partnered forces, so [the SFABs] can take on that mission. Which is far better than us doing it with our combat brigades’ soldiers.”
The Army for decades has worked to train partner forces to fight. In recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army has often pulled apart its traditional combat brigades to build small training-and-advising units for that mission. The problem, Esper said, is that has meant those brigades were not focused on their primary charge — training to fight.
With the new SFAB units focused on the Army’s train, advise and assist responsibilities, it should free the service’s 58 brigade combat teams to concentrate on preparing for potential full-spectrum combat operations — the kind of fighting they would face in a near-peer war against an adversary such as Russia, China, North Korea or Iran, Esper said.
The Army is still ironing out how the SFABs fit into the service’s model, including where it will station units.
SFABs are unlikely to focus simply on advising partner forces in combat, Esper said. Instead they are likely to be used to help train allies across the globe, perhaps in areas like South Korea, Eastern Europe, Africa and South America.
Much will be learned from the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade’s current deployment to Afghanistan, he said. The Fort Benning, Ga., unit arrived there early this month, charged with advising Afghan troops close to the front lines in the 16-year fight against the Taliban.
“Anytime you get to stand up a brand new organization is exciting,” said Army Col. Scott Jackson, the commander of 1st SFAB. “Anytime you get to stand up something built like this one is, is even more exciting. To say you’re breaking ground on something is phenomenal for everybody in this organization.”
The unit that began taking shape last summer has already started passing on lessons learned to the 2nd Security Force Assistance Brigade, which the Army began building at Fort Bragg in North Carolina in January.
The 1st SFAB will learn much more about the proper way to operate as it works in Afghanistan, Jackson said.
The security force assistance brigades are the brainchild of Gen. Mark Milley, the Army’s chief of staff, who has long contended privately that the Army would need teams of soldiers to train partner forces outside of the special operations community.
Milley, a Green Beret, has insisted that while similar to the traditional role of Special Forces, the SFAB concept does not infringe on their responsibilities.
“In today’s world, we think the mission profile of train, advise, assist exceeds the capacity of Special Forces — who are running at a very, very high op tempo,” Milley told lawmakers March 15. “So, Special Forces is primarily now — not exclusively, but primarily — training and advising host nation special operations.”
The SFABs, meanwhile, will focus on training partners’ conventional forces — those who conduct traditional ground operations.
Milley has ordered that those soldiers who want to join a security force assistance brigade are specially trained, in a manner comparable to how the Army prepares its special operators. SFAB soldiers are held to higher physical standards than their counterparts in regular Army brigades; they must have proven leadership skills and they are required to complete specialized advising training at the new Military Advisor Training Academy at Fort Benning. The schoolhouse provides soldiers advanced training on advising and medical skills, focusing on developing their critical thinking, according to the Army’s description.
The Army’s policy is to build the SFABs from volunteers. Unit leadership then selects soldiers best fit to serve in the unit after a strenuous vetting process, Jackson said.
“The right people are the most mature people,” he said.
Those chosen are also required to have served in the position they would take in the SFAB. Jackson, for example, has commanded a brigade and his six battalion commanders have each led other battalions.
“They’ve all done their job before,” Jackson said. “... How can you advise if you haven’t done the job before? And so, we are giving our foreign security force partners highly qualified and truly experienced folks who have operational experience doing the job they are trying to advise on.”
An opportunity to command a company again led Maj. Ryan Morgan to volunteer, he told Stars and Stripes.
Morgan was serving as a staff officer when he learned about the SFAB concept.
“I didn’t think I was ever going to get another command,” he said. “So this has been pretty awesome. And it’s absolutely the most talented group I’ve ever been able to work with.
“Everyone really wants to be here,” he said. “That’s what’s really great about this. We all believe in it. We don’t have to be here — it’s something we’re all excited to be a part of.”
Milley told lawmakers March 15 that he believes top-quality volunteers will ensure the units are all “high-quality products.”
“I think we’ll see over time for the indigenous conventional forces a much better adviser capability built out of these brigades,” the Army chief of staff said. “And, meanwhile, we’ll recoup the readiness value of bringing the regular [combat] brigades home to train for their regularly designed missions.”
Army Secretary Mark Esper testifies during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 7, 2017. During an interview in March 2018, Esper said there would "always be a need to help build allied or partnered forces," so the Army is seeking to quickly build its Security Force Assistance Brigades, which are designed to shoulder the bulk of the Pentagon’s train, advise and assist missions throughout the world.
CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES