The US Army’s first permanent combat advisor unit is preparing for deployment to Afghanistan. The 1st Security Force Assist Brigade (SFAB) will be responsible for developing partner nation militaries, an area in which the United States has struggled in the past. The Army intends to create five such brigades, with a sixth in the National Guard, by 2024.
“This is going to be an organization like no other,” explained Sergeant Major of the Army Daniel Dailey. “The SFAB brings us strategic capability. We need purpose-built organizations that will advise and assist our partner organizations in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. It frees up brigade combat teams that are doing that mission now.”
Force development in Afghanistan has suffered due to frequent rotations of unprepared trainers. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) pointed to the “constant turnover of US and NATO trainers” and a lack of preparation. SIGAR Inspector General John Sopko recounted examples of helicopter pilots teaching policing, with nothing more than re-runs of TV shows like Cops and NCIS as a starting curriculum.
Despite a price tag of over $70 billion, the results have been lackluster. Afghan units struggle to go on the offensive without coalition advisors and combat enablers, while the Taliban remains a resilient insurgency.
In addition to subpar foreign force development, the advise and assist missions constrain conventional combat. As the United States prepares for possible conflict with near-peer adversaries, it will need to preserve appropriate combat power. The new SFABs will reduce the advise-assist burden on other Army units, allowing conventional brigade combat teams to focus on their intended purpose: winning the nation’s ground wars. As Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley put it bluntly: “I only have 31 brigades, and nine of them are wrapped up doing this.”
In the past, the Army formed training units on an ad hoc basis. For example, the Army created small Military Transition Teams (MiTTs) to train local forces in Iraq. “The Army has traditionally taken units and disaggregated them from being a combined arms maneuver brigade … We gave you decent training, but you sort of deployed as an individual. You snap linked in somewhere and you didn’t have a team to develop you,” said Brig. Gen. Brian Mennes, Director of Force Management for the Army.
The Atlantic Council’s Elisabeth Braw argued that dedicated teaching units will enhance America’s ability to develop foreign forces. Other countries, notably adversaries like Russia and Iran, have managed to do so in equally challenging conditions.
Bespoke training is a key component of the SFAB’s development. In January, the 1st SFAB arrived at the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) at Fort Polk, La., for the inaugural mission readiness exercise. SFAB training covered traditional brigade level tasks like maneuver techniques and casualty evacuation, as well as specialized topics including cultural awareness and advising. Members of the Afghan National Defense Security Forces supported a role playing exercise during the training.
The new Army unit has drawn criticism online from veterans of the Special Forces, who are traditionally responsible for training foreign forces. Gen. Milley responded to these concerns, saying that “There is no intent to replace Special Forces, or to compete with Special Forces.” The SFAB will train conventional troops, while Special Forces will continue its mission of training irregular forces.