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Army is making some bets with new advisory brigades

Last Thursday, the Army announced its intention to stand up six new Security Force Assistance Brigades to train and advise foreign militaries.

Traditionally, foreign internal defense ó FID in the jargon ó has been the responsibility of the Army's Special Forces. 

But the War on Terror has stressed SF capabilities to the limit, and the Army has had no choice in recent years but to commit conventional brigade combat teams to FID in default of sufficient Special Forces units to meet the enlarged demand.

 The new advisory brigades will be both small and leader-heavy, comprising only 500 senior officers and noncommissioned officers vice the 2000-4000 officer and enlisted personnel in a conventional BCT. They will be designed specifically to advise foreign security forces from the small unit level all the way up to the foreign equivalents of our Defense Department. 

To inculcate the necessary advisory skills, including rudimentary language and foreign culture awareness training, the Army plans to stand up a new Military Advisor Training Academy at Fort Benning, Georgia, the Army's Maneuver Center of Excellence, currently responsible for all infantry and armor training.

In addition to reducing the burden on existing BCTs, enabling them to recover conventional warfighting skills that are felt to have atrophied during the past fifteen years, the Army's leaders view the new units as potential cadres around which to form additional conventional BCTs if such reinforcements are required to meet a major conventional war commitment.

Last week's decision culminates years of arguments both within the Army and among civilian counterinsurgency gurus concerning the need for and wisdom of creating dedicated advisory formations outside the elite special warfare community, arguments reflecting both historical and resource concerns.

The historical concerns are in no small part a legacy of the Vietnam War, in which advisory roles came to be seen as - and in many cases in fact became - career dead-ends for the officers and NCOs assigned to them.

The resource concerns are more recent, reflecting an active Army end-strength radically reduced in the past few years to satisfy budgetary pressures, resulting in significant cuts in the number and readiness of the BCTs and supporting formations that comprise the core of the Army's conventional fighting strength.

The Army's decision to bite the bullet and stand up six of the new formations thus has prompted controversy among Army commentators. Some doubt the ability of the new formations to substitute for the Army's highly-selective and intensively trained Green Berets. Others worry about the cost of diverting so many leaders to the Army's conventional warfighting capability.

Notes one observer, "This is a well-meant but bad move for the ArmyÖThe Army is struggling with undermanned BCTs, already too few in numberÖ Dedicating 3000 senior officers/NCOs to advisory work will only worsen the problem."

As for the new units' presumed ability to shift at need from an advisory to a combat role, he adds, "The nature of such work is so different from conducting conventional military operations [that it] will be a very heavy liftÖ to shift to conventional warfare, mentally, and even heavier work to gain competence in such operations."

All in all, then, the wisdom of the decision to divert so many senior leaders to an dedicated advisory role is likely to turn on several assumptions that may or may not prove in the event to be correct:

  That the Army's leadership will be able to convince talented officers and NCOs that assignment to the new units won't penalize them in comparison with their peers in conventional units. That may take some doing, and certainly will take time;

  That the relatively compressed special training afforded personnel assigned to the SFABs will succeed in narrowing significantly the skill differential between the conventional BCTs heretofore assigned to advisory tasks and the Special Forces teams for which those tasks are their bread-and-butter;

  That the diversion of so many senior officers and NCOs won't significantly degrade the leader talent required by the Army's conventional combat and combat support formations; and

  That the SFABs will in fact be able as promised to transform at need into effective combat formations rapidly enough to satisfy a serious conventional reinforcement requirement.

There is one further question worth considering, perhaps the most important of all: whether the U.S. will continue to commit military forces to FID at the rate and on the scale of the past 15 years, or whether, instead, growing public exhaustion with those efforts will begin to affect political decisions.

On that score, the comments emerging from the new administration have been at very least equivocal, manifesting at one and the same time both a strident belligerence toward Islamist extremism, especially ISIS, and an aversion to the interventionism of the past two administrations. 

Which of these impulses will prevail in the end remains unclear. On that outcome more than anything else may depend the wisdom of last week's decision. 

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