The U.S. Army recently announced it would be standing up six security force assistance brigades (SFABs), designed to provide the Army with units specifically trained to work as military advisors. As part of their training pipeline, these advisors will likely receive cultural and language training to facilitate working with their partner forces. They will have to become experts in small unit tactics and maneuver warfare, be comfortable living and eating with their host nation counterparts, and be willing to endure hardships in harsh environments across the world. This type of advisor might sound familiar, because they already exist. As the old cadence goes, “See that man in the green beret? Teaching’s how he earns his pay.” If Army leadership needs soldiers to serve as the, “day-to-day experts combatant commanders need to train, advise, and assist our partners overseas,” why aren’t they turning to Army Special Forces – a unit specifically designed to train, advise, and assist other military forces? Taking a broad look at Special Forces over the last 15 years provides some possible answers to this question.

There’s Already an Elite Advisory Force

To be clear, the Army should be commended, not criticized, for taking security force assistance seriously and developing a strategy to execute it responsibly. The new advisory brigades represent the Army acknowledging that trying to shift conventional combat units into advisory roles on demand is not ideal. According to the press release, these new brigades will consist of roughly 500 senior NCOs and officers, all of whom are to be trained at the new Military Advisor Training Academy at Fort Benning. Instead of having to deploy paratroopers to train and advise the Iraqi Army, the conventional Army can now turn to specialized advisory units, full of experienced soldiers who chose to be advisors, instead of junior soldiers who joined the Army to be infantrymen.

Yet this is the same type of design that has already been used with Special Forces. The basic building block of a Special Forces Group is Operational Detachment-Alpha, a team consisting of ten experienced NCOs, a captain, and a warrant officer. These teams are meant as force multipliers, capable of advising battalion-sized units. There is a rich history behind the concept.  During Vietnam, teams of Green Berets advised Montagnard irregulars and South Vietnamese Ranger units. In the 1980s, they worked side-by-side with troops in El Salvador to prevent an insurgency from toppling the government. For years, 7th Special Forces Group deployed teams to Colombia, training their army to counter illicit drug trade and rebels. Special Forces have historically been the premier advisory force when it comes to helping both conventional and irregular forces around the world. However, that perception has changed significantly over the last 15 years.

Sorry, We Only Work with Other Special Operations Forces

In October 2001, Special Forces teams from 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) served as the initial military response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Linking up with members from the Central Intelligence Agency and indigenous Afghan fighters from the Northern Alliance, the teams stormed across Afghanistan with their partner forces, calling in airstrikes against Taliban and al-Qaeda targets. It was a stunning campaign that resulted in the overthrow of the Taliban government, the disruption of al-Qaeda operations, and a revived interest in the concept of unconventional warfare.

The United States quickly realized it would have to build an Afghan state almost from scratch, to include a military and police force. Task Force Phoenix was created to accomplish this task, but the task force was formed around a conventional infantry unit – 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division. When Phoenix transitioned to Phoenix II, the mission was considered so low in priority that it went to the Army National Guard.

Similar events played out in Iraq in 2003. During the initial invasion, 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) and their Kurdish partners wreaked havoc in northern Iraq as conventional forces charged in from the south. However, when it came time to create and train a new Iraqi Army, the advisory role was assigned to both the regular Army and the U.S. Army Reserve. Newly created advisory teams were staffed by officers and NCOs from across the force. These teams eventually evolved into the Military Transition Teams, with many of their billets being filled by officers recently recalled to active duty from the Inactive Ready Reserve.

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